Masters of the Universe: Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’

[26 September 2010]

By Terrence Butcher

He'll Take Manhattan

Oliver Stone’s 1987 drama, Wall Street, offers up a ruthlessly predatory corporate raider at play in the capitalists’ cotillion of mid-‘80s New York, a period in which pushy New Money strivers elbowed their way into the city’s financial elite, while New York magazine lamented that “soon no one would be able to afford an apartment in Manhattan”, as the fabled bohemian dynamism of districts like Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side began to dissolve under a monetary tsunami. Stone’s film displays an all-consuming obsession with the accumulation of cash, and touches on the lives ruptured by that severe ethos.

The protagonist of the piece, 20-something Bud Fox, is an eager, fresh-faced innocent longing to sit at the queen’s table. Fox is played by ‘80s heartthrob and decadent party animal Charlie Sheen,  a middling actor whom Stone used in a similar context the previous year in his landmark Platoon. Sheen’s Bud Fox is a well-fed Manhattan stockbroker two years out of NYU, seduced by the white-hot chase for upward economic mobility and the spoils that accompany it.

When we first meet Bud, he’s enveloped in the chaos of the trading room floor at his firm, Jackson Steinem, a cacophony of shouting and cajoling which sometimes resemble a Third World street bazaar, its traders hungry merchants draped in Armani suits.

Bud’s ambition to become a mover-and-shaker leads him to pursue the “elephant” of New York’s Forbes List titans, Gordon Gekko, played with menacing charm by Michael Douglas. Gekko is presented as an unreachable baron, atop a leather throne in his cavernous office, insulated by a phalanx of underlings. Douglas’ Gekko is simultaneously brusque and seductive, a man who runs birthday cards through a shredder, a man of prodigious wants, though notably, few pretensions.

As a self-made billionaire, Gekko is clearly a symbol of the hungry, grasping nouveau riche, delighted to crash the gilt-edged party of gentrified East Coast Society, and elated that he is too wealthy to be ignored by this crowd. Indeed, class tensions seem to be a driving force behind his zeal to win. Armed only with a city college diploma, he’s understandably resentful of blueblooded WASPs that “hate people” and Harvard MBAs that “don’t add up to dogshit”. In a steam room chat at his private club, his voice simmers with rage as he brags about “Ivy League shmucks” kissing his ass”

Gordon Gekko makes a marvelously postmodern villain. His billions have made him an urban grandmaster, pulling the strings of those around him as he sits above the fray, scheming and plotting. For Gordon, too much is never enough, as he informs Bud in a key scene. In his desire to trump his upper crust ‘superiors’, Gekko’s personal ethic could even be read as a perverted, ultimately hypocritical form of populist revolt.

When Bud is finally granted an audience with his idol, he doesn’t realize that he’s little more than a cocky fly entering the spider’s web. His worship of the Mephistophelian Gekko blinds him to his new master’s treachery.

If Gordon Gekko is a Darth Vaderesque figure caught in the Dark Side of the Force, then Bud’s father Carl represents the old-fashioned modernist ideal, struggling to keep his wayward lamb on the straight and narrow. As portrayed by Sheen’s real-life dad, Martin, Carl Fox is an irascible working-class ‘hero’, an airline maintenance supervisor with decidedly socialist impulses. His political beliefs stem from rational Enlightenment thought, a counterpoint to Gekko’s take-no-prisoners selfishness, which seems both a throwback to the era of monarchy and ravenous New Money taken to its logical extreme.

Carl cannot fathom why his single, childless son earns $50k a year, yet still borrows money from the folks back in scruffy, blue-collar Queens. “Where does it all go?!”, he barks at Bud over lunch in a greasy tavern near Kennedy Airport. Carl implores Bud to return home and conserve his spending, which Bud refuses, insistent that a young go-getter needs a Manhattan address to be a player. Is it possible that their disagreements echo real-life differences of opinion between Daddy and son Sheen?

It’s no secret that Martin is known for his high-minded political ideals and spurning of glittery celebrity life, while Charlie is notorious as a coke-addled chaser of prostitutes, to the tune of $50,000, the amount he reportedly spent on Heidi’s girls. I don’t know if Charlie’s skirt-chasing reputation had yet been cemented, but if not, Stone was nonetheless quite prescient in his casting.

Along with Carl Fox, Hal Holbrook’s Lou Manheim, a senior colleague of Bud’s, serves as a moral compass in the film. Manheim is 60-ish, moderately successful, but no hotshot, perhaps because he plays by outmoded rules. Indeed, Lou represents the ‘old school’; principled, honest – very much a modernist thinker. One can almost imagine him intoning, “The investment firm of Smith Barney. They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it!”, to quote John Houseman in that much-satirized TV ad. Lou pops up intermittently throughout the film, speaking to Bud as a wizened old sage, counseling him against moral malfeasance, but there’s little room for him in the new world order of global capitalism, and his rhetoric seems Capraesque corn in a maelstrom of overachiever testosterone.

Meanwhile, Gekko struts through the Upper East Side like an arrogant rooster, sifting through myriad deals, molding the impressionable Bud. He gives his protégé a taste of la dolce vita, first dispatching a classy prostitute to seduce him, then engineering a romance between Bud and another striver, the statuesque, blond Darien, an interior decorator whose name evokes the leafy elegance of the eponymous Connecticut village. Eventually, Gordon compels Bud to step outside the law, obtaining insider information and spying on a despised business rival.

As Bud sinks deeper into the mire, he undergoes a transformation, his ego growing alongside his income. He wrenches Darien away from her slick Eurotrash suitor, alienates his best mate at work, then purchases a ritzy co-op in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. With his stock shenanigans enriching Jackson Steinem, he becomes the office golden boy, winning the fickle affections of his boss, the aptly named Mr. Lynch, a hypocrite who always covers his own ass when trouble appears and doesn’t hesitate to jettison an elderly employee who isn’t meeting monthly quota.

When Master Gekko double-crosses young Fox in a deal involving Carl’s employer, Bud’s life begins to unravel. He and Darien split, Carl suffers a heart attack, and Bud is forced to short-sell his treasured pied-a-terre in the sky. This is the price he pays for terminating his association with Gordon. However, Bud turns out to be wilier and more independent than Gordon ever bargained for. Bud turns the tables on the ‘Master of The Universe’ by using all the chicanery Gekko encouraged in him, thus wounding Rich Dad for destroying his faith and violating the rules of fair play.

Wall Street also features a sequence in which Gekko delivers a lengthy soliloquy on America’s economy. He reminds Bud that we don’t live in a democracy, but rather, the “free market”… ”somebody wins, somebody loses”… ”It’s all about bucks, kid, the rest is conversation”. In his petit bourgeois mind, unfettered capitalism is akin to the Bible, and to hell with whatever social problems arise from that. This mantra is echoed in a monologue he delivers at a stockholders’ meeting, proclaiming “Greed is good”, cribbed from a real-life speech given by disgraced corporate carnivore Ivan Boesky.

Wall Street seems a persuasive companion piece to Tom Wolfe’s seminal dissection of ‘80s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One can easily picture Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy lounging in Bud’s private office at Jackson Steinem, conjuring up deals to help pay the note on his aristocratic Park Avenue digs. Or Sherman’s dismissal of his Old Guard pater John Campbell McCoy – a variation, perhaps, of Lou Manheim, in his refusal to acknowledge the eclipse of his generation’s influence, with a smidgen of Carl Fox’s populism, in his insistence on riding the subway to work, while Sherman – or Gordon’s – cronies insulate themselves from the masses. Is perfection-obsessed Judy McCoy that far removed from Mrs. Gekko, who grouses, “It’s so hard to get into a good nursery school”, ridiculously fixated on the welfare of her indulged, overfed toddler. Can it be coincidence that The Bonfire of the Vanities” and Wall Street were released just months apart?

Wall Street, like much of Stone’s oeuvre, depicts a world of social breakdown and single-minded Me-ism. Not surprisingly, the film ultimately repudiates Gekko’s unquenchable appetite, with Bud choosing the right side in the climax and trying to bring down Gordon. However, Stone steps back from promoting governmental or societal intervention to repair the situation – or mess, as we find ourselves in now, easily the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Neither does Stone suggest any drastic alterations that could be made to our socio-economic class structure.

Indeed, Gekko’s corporate devastations foreshadow the whirl of mergers and liquidations also hinted at in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and common in today’s viciously competitive business climate. If the actual Wall Street is little more than a dog-eat-dog ecosystem which brutalized Stone’s stockbroker father, it’s merely a microcosm of America’s contemporary business jungle, where consumers’ freedom of choice is whittled down to a Wal-Mart, one-size-fits-all ‘socialism’, pampered boardroom bigwigs reap fat dividends for axing workers, or driving respected firms into the toilet, and synergistic media cabals tussle for control of hearts and minds across the globe.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/123374-masters-of-the-universe-oliver-stones-wall-street/