Image via Wikipedia Did Stone go too far with Gekko?
Commentary: Stone wanted Gekko to ask himself tough questions
By David Weidner, MarketWatch
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — For a generation of Wall Street bankers, the symbol of the perfect investment banker wasn’t any flesh-and-blood individual in the industry, it was Michael Douglas.
Douglas reprised his role as Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which opened last weekend and was the top box-office draw, grossing more than $19 million. The movie, like the industry in which it’s set, seems to have prospered from a lack of meaningful competition.
Reviews have been mixed. But there’s one thing the critics liked almost universally: Douglas’s Gekko.
Gekko, in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” became the financial industry’s archetype not only in through his belief system — greed is good — but through his style of dress: contrast collars, slicked-back hair and suspenders.
Ellen Mirojnick, the original movie’s costume designer has said she tried to fashion a look that was a part Clark Gable and part Duke of Windsor. She said the director, Oliver Stone, complained to her that no one on Wall Street looked like Gekko. Soon enough, just about everyone did.
Rising above the role
It may not have been intentional, but many of those who found success aspired to be like Gekko — whether they admit it or not. James B. “Jimmy” Lee, the rainmaking investment banker at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM 38.90, -0.05, -0.13%) , looks the part and — to some of his detractors — lives it, too.
Lee, who propagated the leveraged loan, is often compared to Michael Milken, the junk-bond king at Drexel Burnham Lambert, who director Stone, in large part, based Gekko’s character on.
Gekko’s sweeping influence extends beyond appearances. Wall Street was an industry full of Machiavellian types when the original came out. The ranks of get-rich-at-any-cost bankers has only swelled in the 23 years since.
With “Wall Street,” Stone may have created a monster.
Stone doesn’t see it that way, of course. When I asked him if it bothers him that so many young bankers in the 1990s were influenced by Gekko, he said that my premise was “a bit exaggerated.” But he also acknowledged that Gekko, like another of his characters, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface” were “attractive.”
“Villains sometimes tend to rise above their role in life,” Stone said. “They become heroes or anti-heroes. We lost our bearings in America, we’re living way beyond our means and people began to worship the idea of excess.”
The end of ‘excess’
But Stone did say he wanted to give new meaning to Gekko’s character in “Money Never Sleeps.”
“Gekko’s on the other side of the fence,” Stone said. “He’s lost it. So he’s on the other side looking in and wanting to be a player again. He’s got the old greed in him, but at the end of the movie...he comes to a place where he asks himself ‘What is it about? Is it enough? What is all the money in the world and materialism getting me? What is the relationship to family, to people to life, where is the trust?’”
Stone told me that there’s a bigger message at work than simply one tiger changing a stripe or two. His inclusion of a plot involving cold fusion was meant to demonstrate Wall Street at its best. Something that the first movie didn’t really explore.
“The concept of helping society, of helping the economy got lost,” Stone said. “It became about greed for the self, making money for yourself, proprietary trading and the banks started doing it more. Everybody began to drink the same Kool-Aid.”
So, will the new Gekko catch on? Let’s not kid ourselves. The seduction of easy millions from bonuses and the temptation to cut corners is seven deadly sins stuff. Family, relationships and investing with a social benefit don’t offer the same kinds of highs.
Plus, Stone made a good point when I asked him about Gekko’s legacy. Greed has been institutionalized. That’s a much tougher nut to crack.
“What Gekko did, leveraging that kind of money back then and cannibalizing companies is a form of what banks started to do in the 2000s,” Stone said. “This is the end, I hope, of that excess, that era of greed.”
Like most Hollywood endings, you can’t help feel Stone’s stretches the bounds of reality.