Forget Bernie Madoff. The Wall Street veteran who might be the real scapegoat for our country’s financial meltdown hasn’t closed a deal in more than two decades. Many presume he spent at least some of that time in jail.
But his influence has stood the test of time. The prospect of duplicating his lifestyle and aura may have drawn many young brokers to Wall Street — for better or worse. And now he’s coming back.
Sure, he’s fictional. But now that 20th Century Fox has confirmed that Oliver Stone will direct a sequel to 1987’s “Wall Street” and Michael Douglas will reprise his role as its most ruthless corporate raider, it’s worth considering Gekko’s impact.
The question: Is it possible that young brokers were motivated by the Gekko blueprint, set out to Wall Street to follow it, and in the process contributed to the breakdown of our financial sector?
After all, Stanley Weiser, co-writer of the original movie, offered this last October: “... 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.”
Indeed, Gekko has become a symbol of New York’s financial sector — one so enduring that Douglas himself told the New York Times in 2007 that he could do without “one more drunken Wall Street broker” approaching him and saying, “You’re the man!”
The original “Wall Street” has grown into a work akin to the “Godfather” movies. Men everywhere can still quote Gekko’s most memorable lines:
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
“If you’re not inside, you’re outside.”
“What else you got besides connections at the airport?”
Last fall, as Douglas participated in a United Nations panel on the nuclear test ban treaty, reporters questioned him about the unfolding financial crisis. He was asked to compare the threat of nuclear war with the “global Armageddon on Wall Street.” He tried, only to encounter this follow-up: “Are you saying, Gordon, that greed is not good?”
“I’m not saying that,” Douglas replied. “And my name is not Gordon. He’s a character I played 20 years ago.”
The exaltation comes despite the movie’s ending, with Gekko’s protege (played by Charlie Sheen), seeking leniency after being arrested, turning over to the feds a taped conversation in which Gekko seems to implicate himself in illegal maneuvering.
So is Gordon Gekko the muse behind the recklessness of some Wall Streeters?
Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University and online contributor at the New York Times, called the theory “entirely plausible,” citing the long history of people influenced by behavior they observe in works of fiction.
“It was reported that a number of young men committed suicide after reading Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther,’” he told me. “The undershirt industry suffered a serious blow when Clark Gable didn’t wear one in a popular movie. Things might have gotten a bit better after Brando did ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ wearing little else. Innumerable women tried to imitate the Audrey Hepburn look — little black dress — after seeing her in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ I’m sure that motorcycles and motorcycling rose in popularity after ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘The Wild One.’”
On the other side of the debate is Jim Rogers, the financial guru, co-founder (with George Soros) of the Quantum Fund, author and occasional professor at Columbia University. Rogers called the theory a “stretch,” arguing that real-life stock market speculator Ivan Boesky (whose misdeeds ignited an insider trading scandal and drew a $100 million penalty in the late 1980s) and the man who prosecuted him — then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani — probably made a more lasting impression on Wall Street than Gekko.
“Likewise,” Rogers explained, “I do not think people who go to Wall Street need to quote movies; they already have huge ambition to make money, or they would not have gone there in the first place.”
He should know. Not only did he make his fortune before he turned 40, but he made a bit contribution to Stone’s movie as well.
A critical scene — during which Sheen’s character plots against Gekko with a rival trader — was filmed in Rogers’ house. At another point in the original script, Sheen’s character predicted that he’d celebrate his success with ” ... perhaps something like he’d get a case of Dom,” Rogers told me.
Rogers, though, told Stone about his plans to ride a motorcycle across China. Hence Sheen’s revelation to his love interest: “I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m 30 and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China,” he says.
A clear case of art imitating life. Left unresolved, however, is whether life has imitated “Wall Street.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via the Web at http://www.mastalk.com.