REPEAT AFTER ME: GREED IS NOT GOOD
Two WEEKS ago, Michael Douglas fielded questions at a United Nations panel discussion on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. During the course of the conversation, the actor/activist was asked to compare nuclear Armageddon to the “financial Armageddon on Wall Street.” After he answered, he was asked by another reporter, “Are you saying, Gordon, that greed is not good?”
“I’m not saying that,” Douglas shot back. “And my name is not Gordon. He’s a character I played 20 years ago.”
Actually, it was 21 years. And thinking back upon writing the screenplay of “Wall Street,” I never could have imagined that this persona and his battle cry would become part of the public consciousness, and that the core message of “Wall Street” -- remember, he goes to jail in the end -- would be so misunderstood by so many.
After the film came out, many people who worked in the financial world felt that they knew someone like this character; others claimed he was unrealistic and gave Wall Street a bad name. But if director Oliver Stone and I had a nickel for every time someone uttered the words “greed is good,” we could have bought up the remains of Lehman Brothers.
As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.
The conceit for the movie was an afterthought on Stone’s part. He wanted me to research and write a screenplay on the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s. During a story conference at a Mexican restaurant on a Friday night in Los Angeles, he interrupted me, “Why don’t we do a movie about Wall Street instead?”
Long pause. “That’s a great idea,” I replied naturally. “Two investment partners get involved in shady financial dealings, they’re using each other and eventually are tailed by a drab prosecutor, like the character in ‘Crime and Punishment.’ ”
“Ed,” Oliver continued, turning to producer Ed Pressman, “We’re going to do ‘Crime and Punishment’ on Wall Street. Make a deal and fly Stanley to New York to start doing research.” When in the presence of Oliver Stone, you get used to breathing the air of a different planet. “You ready to get to work?” he asked me. Nonplused, I nodded, “Of course.” “Good. Read ‘Crime and Punishment’ over the weekend and we’ll talk Monday.”
At that, he bolted his drink and got up to leave.
Not having taken an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class, I went to UCLA and purchased the Cliffs Notes to “Crime and Punishment.” On Monday, I explained to Oliver that the paradigm for that masterwork would not mesh well with the story we wanted to tell. But Oliver was in a hurry to make this movie. “OK, read ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight, and see if we can mine something out of it.”
The next day I rented a videocassette of the 1974 adaptation, and drew a blank. It didn’t provide the right springboard.
Having no prior understanding or knowledge about how the financial markets worked, I immersed myself in books, articles, research. And Oliver and I spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses, interviewing investors and getting a feel for the Weltanschauung of Wall Street.
If any writer or director were to pitch a dramatic movie about hostile takeovers to a Hollywood studio executive today, he would be shown the door. As a matter of fact, he would have been shown the door in 1987. The reason 20th Century Fox made “Wall Street” was that Oliver was red-hot off his best picture Academy Award for “Platoon,” made the year before.
In developing the character of Gordon Gekko, I formed an amalgam of disgraced arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, corporate raider Carl Icahn, and his lesser-known art-collecting compatriot Asher Edelman. Add a dash of Michael Ovitz and a heaping portion of, yes, my good friend and esteemed colleague Stone (who came up with the character’s name) -- and there you have the rough draft of ‘Gekko the Great.’
Gekko’s dialogue actually was inspired by Stone’s own rants. Listening to Oliver’s early morning cajoling and sarcastic phone calls (I write at night) exhorting me to work: “Where the hell are you? Out having a gourmet breakfast, playing with the kids in the park?” Or: “The one thing you don’t do is everything I tell you to do; next time write a note and pin it on your . . . forehead.” Other unpublishable barbs proved to be the precise varnish with which I needed to coat Gekko.
That the movie was a modest hit was a welcome surprise.
Prior to its release, “Wall Street” was not tracking well due to low interest outside of the big cities. “Too much reality,” was another studio worry, as the film was released on the heels of the ’87 market crash. The fear was that moviegoers wouldn’t want to revisit high-finance skulduggery right after their own portfolios were wiped out. (Oddly enough, Oliver and I now find ourselves in a similar situation with the impending release of “W.,” our look at the formative events in the life of President George W. Bush, who is not exactly the most popular man on the planet right now.)
Gekko’s character was written to create an engaging, charming, but deceitful and brutal being. I have nevertheless run into quite a number of younger people, who upon discovering that I co-wrote the film, wax rhapsodic about it . . . but often for the wrong reasons.
A typical example would be a business executive or a younger studio development person spouting something that goes like this: “The movie changed my life. Once I saw it I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.”
The flattery is disarming and ego-stoking, but then neurons fire and alarm bells go off. “You have succeeded with this movie, but you’ve also failed. You gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be.”
Now that is certainly not the case with everyone, but if you want to become a master of the universe, bodies and souls must be trampled upon. As rival raider Larry Wildman tells Gekko after he has been duped by him: “Not only would you sell your own mother to make a deal, you’d ship her C.O.D.”
After so many encounters with Gekko admirers or wannabes, I wish I could go back and rewrite the greed line to this: “Greed is Good. But I’ve never seen a Brinks truck pull up to a cemetery.”
Today on Wall Street
The economy teeters more every day. Yes, the system is responsible, as are the lack of government regulations. But what about the culprits who devised and sold all the dubious, newfangled collateralized debt to the public? The difficulty in distinguishing the delusional and the venal from the dishonest and fraudulent is why prosecutors would be hard-pressed to indict half the investment bankers on Wall Street.
And what would Gordon Gekko make of all this? He would be shocked. “Utterly shocked.” No, of course not. He’d remind everyone how he warned us of this very lack of corporate accountability years ago; how it came home to roost. And if the bailout is pushed through, I can picture him shaking his head in disgust: “We won the Cold War. And now we lost the Cold War. America has become a ‘corporate socialist nation.’ ”
Then Gekko would slither forward, sucking the victuals in his path dry like a raw egg. How exactly would he do this? Well, I am only a screenwriter, I can’t tell you the specifics. But under the circumstances, what he’d undoubtedly do would be buying and selling. Selling and buying. Even if he was barred from trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he would find a way around it. Even if he fled the country, and the economy was going down the tubes the way it is, he’d find a way around it. Selling and buying. After all -- what else could he do?
Several months ago, I was at Stone’s office and I saw him autograph a “Wall Street” poster. Above his name, he wrote, “Greed is a bummer.”
Ain’t that the truth?
Weiser’s screenwriting credits include “Wall Street,” “Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story,” “Freedom Song,” “Murder in Mississippi” and “W.,” which opens in theaters Oct. 17.