Wall Street pulled off the difficult trick of making a supposedly evil, vile, greedy Nero of finance a compelling and almost likeable character
I used to own a working draft script (bound with a green cover and old-fashioned brass pins) of the original Wall Street that belonged to co-writer Stanley Weiser. I bought it in LA back in the mid Nineties in some run down old second-hand script shop on a run down and tawdry corner of Hollywood Boulevard in North Hollywood.
The script had an inscription to Stanley from Oliver Stone and had working notes scrawled in the margins. When I left LA in 1999 after working there for nine years, it was one of the few things I brought back with me. The weekend before I returned to London, I held a garage sale at my house on Woodrow Wilson Drive and sold anything I could. The rest of my debris of nine years was dumped on a skip off the 101 Freeway.
I kept the script because to understand how good a film the 1987 original Wall Street was (despite it performing modestly at the box-office when it first opened) you needed to read the script. The script (co-written by Stone) was even better than the film's direction, and was the main reason that Douglas was able to produce such a chillingly inspired and charismatic performance as Gordon Gekko.
The script – which was dedicated to Stone's own father who was a stockbroker in New York – was a true morality tale which pulled off the difficult trick (especially in the middle of the Money fever go-go eras of the 1980s) of making a supposedly evil, vile, greedy Nero of finance a compelling and almost likeable character; or at least a character that a whole generation of would-be financiers wanted to be, or emulate.
As Stone himself has said many times, he has got exhausted over the years being corralled in fancy restaurants over the world where hedgie types or financiers send him champagne or confess to him that they 'took a career on Wall Street because of you' and because of the Gekko character Stone created. In the production notes to Money Never Sleeps, the new sequel to Wall Street that is released in the UK this week, Stone adds: 'Many of these people who came up to me are now in their forties and doing well on the Street – as honest traders I should add.'
This is the crux of the problem with the new sequel to Wall Street. In the original, everybody – given the chance – was happy enough trying to make a quick buck or billion on the inside, ignoring the 'Chinese Walls' at banks like Goldman Sachs that were meant to prevent star traders at brokerage firms or (in the 90s) hedge funds not make millions from privileged information that their close relationships with Goldman. As Gekko says to Fox: “If you are not on the inside, you are on the outside.”
The snag – and it is a real problem – is that nothing has really changed in the finance world in twenty odd years. The instinct to trade on the inside is just as bad as it ever was (the hedge fund fortunes of the nineties and gold-rush years of 2005-2008 were largely based on insider or 'privileged' information) and both the SEC and Serious Fraud Squad have been next to useless in doing anything about it. The insider trading has been semi-instutionalized, that's all.
So when I read that Stone now says that the time is now right to make a follow up film because everything has changed, and everything is now regulated, and that by '2008 no more Gordon Gekkos were possible' (as Stone says) because 'that character, that kind of buccaneer, was now gone, replaced by institutions that had once been formerly regulated' – I just have to laugh. What about the Louis Bacons of this world, the Steve Cohens, the Gregg Coffeys, the Jim Chanos's – are these guys (whom, I should, add are all 'honest' traders) not 'buccaneers' and financial entrepreneurs whose appetite for deals ('honest' deals, that is) certainly matched that of Gekko?
No – the truth is the film's premise just doesn't work because human nature has not changed a jot in the last twenty-five years and greed and the shortest route to making a quick buck will always be the reason that people are attracted to going into the City or Wall Street. Back in 1987, Stone subtly showed how money does bad things to good people, and Bud Fox – played by Charlie Sheen – did a wonderful job of being the Everyman character who shows us the dark underbelly of the American Dream – at the heart of which is the idea that the pursuit of money is a moral good in itself.
There's a great line just before Fox is led away from the trading floor in handcuffs after being arrested – in tears – and his white-haired 'mentor' figure Louis (named after Stone's own father) at the firm takes him aside and says wistfully: 'Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.' That's as good as Bernard Shaw.
Sadly, there is nothing like this in Money Never Sleeps. If I ever see a draft script on eBay, I certainly won't be even offering a buck for it.
The film is worth seeing but only as a half-interesting docu-drama about the crash of 2008, the brilliant way that New York is shot on location and another epic performance by Michael Douglas who struggles – despite a weak script and even more muddled message – to bring the old Gekko back to life. He succeeds, just, only through his own efforts and has little or no help from his 'mentor', a thrusting and unlikeable trader called Jake Moore (played disappointingly by Shia LaBouf) who seems to have almost no redeeming qualities and looks like a fortune hunter who is star-struck by the idea of having Gekko as a father-in-law (he is dating Gekko's daughter who won't speak to her dad).
Josh Brolin is also good as Bretton James, the big money investment banker with an ego 'the size of America' who is implicated in getting Gekko locked up for eight years. When he emerges from jail in the opening scene, nobody is there to collect him: divorced, and alone. We look forward to a tale of American re-invention but get just a moral mess.
There's a post-script to my Wall Street script story. In 2005, two or so years before the crash, a hedge fund friend of mine had a 'blow up' and had to close down his fund. At the time, he was devastated and I lent him my copy of my Wall Street working script to cheer him up: I thought he might find something in it – perhaps the 'look into the abyss' quote – to give him some solace. I never got it back.
Then his next hedge fund blew up as well, or had to be closed down. I have no idea if – like me – my friend had a garage sale of the company's chattels before he went out of business. But if anybody sees an old Stanley Weiser script signed by Stone and scrawled with notes on eBay, or at an auction house, I would like it back.