Oliver Stone: Life after 'Wall Street'
Fortune sits down with the Academy Award-winning director and discusses the lasting legacy of his classic film and its famous lead character.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- With buyout kings swimming in wealth, markets in turmoil, and Ray-Bans back in fashion, it might seem like Wall Street has stood still since 1987. But to Oliver Stone, the creator of Gordon Gekko and director of the epoch-defining "Wall Street," times have certainly changed.
"Gordon Gekko couldn't manipulate the markets like he did back then," he says. "It's so big, so huge, that to be a minor player, you need to be a major bank."
Since its release in December, 1987, "Wall Street" has been required viewing for anyone working in finance and a standard way of framing the go-go '80s of junk bonds and power ties - an era that some say has returned during the recent private equity-led mergers and acquisitions boom.
With a twentieth-anniversary DVD released on September 18 and a sequel currently in development, "Wall Street" is again a topic of conversation.
The film is best-known for its lasting character, Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who netted an Academy Award for Best Actor for the role. And its most famous line -"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," typically shortened to just "Greed is good" - is a favorite of headline writers and Wall Streeters alike.
But Stone - who won the Academy Award for best director for Vietnam-themed films "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" and was nominated for "JFK" - worries that people frequently forget the film's ending, when Gekko is charged by the SEC with insider trading.
"I'd just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point," he says. "The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think 'he's such a great guy,' they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?"
The meat of the film, as Stone sees it, centers on Bud Fox, a young stock trader played by Charlie Sheen, who gets swept into Gekko's favor with a few questionable stock tips, but eventually turns on him when Gekko attempts to takeover Bluestar Airlines, where Fox's father is a union leader.
"Really the main motivation was my father," says Stone, 61, who was raised in New York. His father worked as a broker during the Great Depression at Hayden Stone (no relation), a firm that became part of Shearson American Express in the 1970s. "He took me to the movies, and he would bemoan the lack of a good business movie. Businessmen were generally lampooned."
Inspired by the Robert Wise's 1954 film "Executive Suite," which Stone calls the best business movie ever made, he decided to tell a story that would resonate with his father, who died in 1985.
Stone and co-writer Stanley Weiser met with business tycoons like Ace Greenberg, Ken Lipper, and others to consult on the script. Real-life charcters like Carl Icahn, J. Tomlinson Hill (then at Morgan Stanley, now at Blackstone), and Ivan Boesky collectively inspired the Gekko character.
Gekko's aesthetic - the fine suits, the penthouse office - was most directly inspired by Asher Edelman, a corporate raider and avid art collector.
"When I grew up, men didn't talk about how much money they made," says Stone, "and take great pride, and swell like peacocks. I find this personally tasteless and disgusting."
The characters played by Hal Holbrooke (a broker who attempts to mentor young Bud Fox) and Martin Sheen (Fox's union-leader father) represent "the positive forces in the market," says Stone. "Especially the old stockbroker. He keeps trying to teach Bud Fox the ethics of the business. Hal Holbrooke represents my father, who always said Wall Street can do a lot of good. It is not simply a function of making money."
Although "Wall Street" was released to tepid reviews and earned just $40 million at the box office (about a third as much as that year's top hit, "Three Men and a Baby"), it enjoyed a renaissance in 1990 when the cover of Newsweek magazine asked "Is Greed Dead?" after '80s icons like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky ran afoul of insider trading laws.
Today's financial crimes, however, don't interest Stone. "The biggest dramatic story is Enron," he says. "It was a corporation that existed to do nothing. But frankly I read the books, and I still can't understand what they did. It's very hard to do a financial movie, to make stocks and bonds sexy and interesting."
Stone was approached to work on a "Wall Street" sequel for 20th Century Fox, being produced by the original film's producer Ed Pressman and written by Stephen Schiff of The New Yorker . But he backed off to pursue other projects. Stone spoke to Fortune from Bangkok, where he's researching a movie called "Pinkville" about the 1968 My Lai massacre.
"I'm on to something else," he says. "Because of the nature of the modern business world, I found it very difficult to bring this character back as a significant figure. That's not to say it can't be done, as a good writer is working on it."
Even with names like Steve Schwarzman buzzing around the street, and with players like Carl Icahn still around, Stone thinks big corporations have replaced the flamboyant tycoon as the true players.