In his promotion of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, director Oliver Stone has been re-characterizing the original Wall Street as less a film about business and more as a family drama. Joe Nocera in the New York Times writes:
The original “Wall Street,” Mr. Stone told me, sticking with his theme du jour, “was about a kid who sells out his father.” True enough. But the events that characterized Wall Street in the 1980s were a lot more than a backdrop. They were crucial to the plot. The movie was built around insider trading and the predations of the hostile takeover movement — two things central to our image of Wall Street in the ’80s.
While it is true that the original Wall Street involved the betrayal of a father by his son, that really wasn’t how the film was promoted at the time. I admit that I was only in high school when it came out, but I distinctly remember it being discussed mainly as a critique of that era’s business culture and Stone was one of the primary people making that critique. It wasn’t generally described as a film primarily about family dynamics, with business as a backdrop.
Why then for the change in tenor? One can’t help but think that the main reason is because of how the Gordon Gekko character, played by Michael Douglas, was received in popular culture. Gekko was more than just a memorable villain. His character became an icon that people wanted to emulate, a result that the creators of his character didn’t intend. The co-writer of Wall Street, Stanley Weiser, has stated: “As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But 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.” Stone himself has said “In the original I think Gekko was a one note villain, he was pure villain to me because he was an aggressive, shallow, money seeking person. I think people liked him, they found him exciting.”
I can definitely attest to that fact. As a young person in the late 80s and early 90s, I don’t know how many times I saw the original Wall Street with friends, and in most cases (particularly among my friends who went to business school), the Gekko character wasn’t seen as an example of an unethical culture, but as a role model to follow. One wonders how many times Stone or Michael Douglas have had investment bankers approach them to say how Wall Street inspired them to get into the finance business.
I suspect the rebranding of the old Wall Street film and the emphasis in the new one as being a story about family dynamics is just a response by the filmmakers to this widespread interpretation. By redefining the films in this manner (which is neither an indefensible nor intellectually dishonest interpretation of the films — it just wasn’t the main interpretation promoted in 1987), Stone is able to describe the films, particularly the original, in a manner that avoids an inconvenient truth – that Stone attempted to create a morality play in which a particular type of capitalist was vilified, but instead that character (and by extension, the business culture he represented) became a role model and a hero to many. That doesn’t take anything away from the artistic merit of the films or of Stone’s vision, but it does say something about the law of unintended consequences.