Director Oliver Stone brings iconic 'Wall Street' character back

Stone resisted making a "Wall Street" sequel for years.
Stone resisted making a "Wall Street" sequel for years.
Posted: September 15, 2010

OLIVER STONE had little interest in resurrecting Gordon Gekko, but the "Wall Street" character refused to stay in the crypt of the '80s.

"Greed-is-Good" Gekko found vampire life as a perverse icon on Wall Street, and periodically financial rags would buttonhole Stone, asking Gekko's counterculture creator to explain his enduring appeal to the pinstripe class.

Three years ago, Stone had this to say to Fortune magazine: "Gordon Gekko couldn't manipulate markets like he did back then. It's so big, so huge, that to be a major player, you'd need to be a major bank."

Let's stop to examine the many staggering levels of irony at work in that statement.

This was 2007, when huge banks (too huge to fail, as it turns out) were pooling rotten loans into bonds, rubber-stamping them AAA for chump buyers (your pension fund, perhaps), insuring them through AIG and other suckers, and then betting against them, finding six ways to profit from a security worth nothing.

And inside these banks? Hundred of guys who grew up idolizing Gekko, a character intended by Stone as a warning against Wall Street excess, then adopted by Wall Streeters as a model of how to behave.

So there you have it.

The bubble, the meltdown - it's Stone's fault.

Well, not quite. But it's a strange sort of posterity for Gekko, and for Stone, who's tried to lionize leftist heroes like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and instead has carved into capitalist Mount Rushmore the slicked-back head of Gordon Gekko.

"You never know what's going to stand the test of time, and I'll take what I can get," Stone said, laughing, on the phone to talk about the "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps," the movie he resisted making for years, then relented when the timing (and the script) became irresistibly ripe.

I ask him if he's ambivalent about Gekko's elevated place in the Stone gallery of Hollywood characters.

"I don't know if he's my most popular character. A lot of people love Tony Montana ['Scarface']. And to me, memorable characters are not the end result. They're a means to an end, the result of a concept or an idea that becomes story. But if they transcend time, so be it."

Stone grew up the son of a Wall Street trader, and from his father absorbed the lesson that private capital, properly deployed, is a public good (a view represented by avuncular Hal Holbrook in the first "Wall Street").

The '87 "Wall Street" ultimately endorsed that view, telling the story of a broker (Charlie Sheen) who comes to see that real investment has more value (if less swag) than manipulation or speculation.

"To me, a critique of capitalism, that was never the subject anyway. I'm a dramatist. My movie was about fathers, sons, temptation, corruption, redemption."

So the Darth Vader of the piece, if you will, was Gekko. It became an Oscar-winning role for Michael Douglas, and Stone reminds us what an unconventional choice he was back then.

"No one saw Michael in that way, at that time. He'd made that movie, 'Screwing The Stone,' or something. But I knew Michael as a producer, as a man of global perspective, sophistication. He had the right slickness."

The result was kind of movie magic that happens when you put the right actor in the right role at the right time, and give him the right lines.

"I'm glad the movie has been remembered," he said. "That's allowed us to make this movie, which is a bookend more than a sequel. We had no interest in a franchise."

Given what Stone and Douglas have meant to each other, creatively and commercially, there's a poignance to Douglas' newly announced battle with cancer at the onset of the "Money" launch.

"This was a sad day," said Stone, speaking from New York, where Douglas showed up to talk with the media. "It's courageous for Michael to come here, despite everything, to talk about his situation, and the film. It means a lot."

The director gave Douglas/Gekko expansive screen time in "Money Never Sleeps," wherein Gekko uses his persona to manipulate the idealistic young man (Shia LaBeouf) who's engaged to his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan).

"It's like the 1987 movie in that it's about relationships, not money. I had no interest in making a jeremiad about recent Wall Street excess, and anyway, it would have bogged the movie down," he said.

Stone jettisoned a passage about a company modeled after AIG. And he saw merit in the objections of a studio guy who complained the details of the meltdown were too technical.

"The studio was scared of too much arcane information. I had this Fox executive screaming at me . . . 'Who the f-- knows what leverage is? And take out that stuff about the discount window.' "

And he did, though there are distinct echoes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and the high-level government bailout. In one scene, a Henry Paulson-ish treasury secretary says the bailout marks the nation's capitulation to a force he'd battled his whole life: socialism.

Stone, on the other hand, has no such prejudice. He's been given much grief for his sympathetic documentary portraits of left-wing dictators Castro and Chavez, and seemed eager to talk about the controversy.

More so than me. I said I could not get past the obvious contradiction that an activist-artist like Stone, working in Cuba or Venezuela, would be in jail or deported or worse.

"I understand why you can't get past it, but I can," he said, laughing.

How?

Stone said that if Castro, for example, were to tolerate free expression, anti-Castro dissent would be lavishly underwritten by the CIA, and blown out of all proportion.

OK, but would that make the dissenters' critiques any less legitimate?

"You have to look at it from Castro's perspective, from the prospective of a guy whom the CIA has tried to kill 25 times," he said.

Maybe Stone, an on-set dictator and survivor himself, has an affinity for guys who simply won't go away.

Gekko, Stone, Castro - maybe it's ego that never sleeps.

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