When Oliver Stone made Wall Street (1987), he was riding high from the commercial and critical success of Platoon (1986). His father, Lou Stone, had been a stockbroker on Wall Street in New York City and this film was a son’s way of paying tribute to his father. Almost twenty years later, it has become one of the quintessential snapshots of the financial scene in the United States and epitomizes the essence of capitalism, greed, and materialism that was so prevalent in the 1980s.
Right from the opening frame, Stone establishes the dominant presence of greed and money by using a gold filter over shots of the New York City skyline with Frank Sinatra (known by his cronies as Chairman of the Board, no less) singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” foreshadowing the dizzying heights that the film’s protagonist, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), will briefly ascend. He is an up-and-coming stockbroker in the cutthroat financial world. He is hungry and willing to do anything to get rich. He idolizes Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), one of the most ruthless Wall Street tycoons who buys and then takes apart companies for profit. Bud aggressively pursues Gekko in the hopes that he can work for the businessman and follow in his footsteps. Bud soon finds himself in a moral dilemma: does he sell his soul for the gold key to Gekko’s world, or remain true to the blue collar roots of his labor union father (Martin Sheen)?
After the success of Platoon, Stone started researching a film about quiz show scandals in the 1950s. However, at lunch with a film school friend and Los Angeles screenwriter Stanley Weiser, Stone heard an idea for a film that could be “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street. Two guys abusing each other on Wall Street,” as he remarked in an interview. The director had been thinking about this kind of a film as early as 1981. He knew a New York businessman who was making millions and working long days, putting together deals all over the world. This man started making mistakes that cost him everything. Stone remembers that the “story frames what happens in my movie, which is basically a Pilgrim’s Progress of a boy who is seduced and corrupted by the allure of easy money. And in the third act, he sets out to redeem himself.” Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Reportedly, Bud Fox is said to be a composite of Owen Morrisey, who was involved in a $20 million insider trading scandal in 1985, Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky, and others.
Stone met with Tom Cruise, who expressed an interest in playing Bud Fox, but the director had already committed to Charlie Sheen for the role. To research his role, the actor spent two days talking with David Brown, a Goldman Sachs trader who pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in 1986. Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds, and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Weiser wrote the first draft, initially called Greed, with Stone writing another draft. Originally, the lead character was a young Jewish broker named Freddie Goldsmith, but Stone changed it to Bud Fox to avoid the misconception that Wall Street was controlled by Jews. According to Weiser, Gekko’s style of speaking was inspired by Stone. “When I was writing some of the dialogue I would listen to Oliver on the phone and sometimes he talks very rapid-fire, the way Gordon Gekko does.”
Stone wanted to shoot the film in New York City and that required a budget of at least $15 million. The studio that backed Platoon felt that it was too risky a project to bankroll and passed. Stone and producer Edward Pressman took it to 20th Century Fox, who loved it, and filming began in May 1987. Stone switched from 12 to 14-hour days in the last few weeks of principal photography before an impending directors’ strike and finished five days ahead of schedule.
Stone brilliantly sets everything up in the opening minutes of the film. Bud is first shown as an insignificant cog in the city. He’s mixed in with all the other 9-to-5ers — packed in a subway and then in the elevator up to the company where he works. Bud looks uncomfortable and unhappy. He does not want to be in there with all of these other people. He wants to be on the other side with all the money and with Gekko, who rides alone in his spacious limousine. As soon as Bud gets into work, Stone shows a montage of a typical business day — the hectic, rapid-fire pace as people buy, sell, and trade shares.
Taking his cue from another Faustian New York City tale, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Stone prolongs the first appearance of the film’s most charismatic character. When Bud goes to visit Gekko, we do not see him; we only hear his voice from within his office. It is an enticing teaser that makes Bud and the audience curious to see this man that everyone regards with such awe and reverence. When we finally do meet Gekko, it is a whirlwind first appearance. The camera roves around him aggressively as he never stops talking, making deals, and truly embodying the phrase, “time is money.” According to Stone, he was “making a movie about sharks, about feeding frenzies. Bob [director of photography Robert Richardson] and I wanted the camera to become a predator. There is no letup until you get to the fixed world of Charlie’s father, where the stationary camera gives you a sense of immutable values.” This is such a fantastic way to introduce Gekko as it perfectly conveys what makes him so alluring to someone like Bud: he is always in control, he is smart, and he knows exactly how to get what he wants.
Michael Douglas owns the role of Gekko, and by extension, dominates the film with his larger than life character. He gets most of the film’s best dialogue and delivers it with such conviction. Douglas remembers when he first read the screenplay. “I thought it was a great part. It was a long script, and there were some incredibly long and intense monologues to open with. I’d never seen a screenplay where there were two or three pages of single-spaced type for a monologue. I thought, whoa! I mean, it was unbelievable.” There is a scene between Bud and Gekko in a limousine where he tells the younger man how the financial world works, how it operates and lays it all out, pushing Bud hard to go into business with him. It is one of the strongest scenes in the film because you really believe what Gekko is saying and how Bud could be seduced by his words.
Douglas had just come off heroic roles, like the one in Romancing the Stone (1984), and was looking for something darker and edgier. The studio wanted Warren Beatty to play Gekko, but he was not interested. Stone initially wanted Richard Gere, but the actor passed and the director went with Douglas despite having been advised by others in Hollywood not to cast him. Stone remembers, “I was warned by everyone in Hollywood that Michael couldn’t act, that he was a producer more than an actor and would spend all his time in his trailer on the phone.” But the director found out that “when he’s acting he gives it his all.” The culmination of Douglas’ performance is his much lauded, often quoted, “Greed is good” speech that his character gives to a shareholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. He concludes by saying, “Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed – you mark my words – will save not only Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” This is one of the best delivered monologues ever put to film, as Douglas goes from charming to downright threatening and back again, succinctly summing up the essence of ’80s capitalism and greed.
Stone was smart to cast Martin Sheen as Bud’s dad. He gets a lot of mileage out of the real father-son relationship between them. It makes their chemistry that much more genuine. It also lends itself to their heated conversations — especially the one in an elevator where Bud accuses his father of being jealous and ashamed that his son is more prosperous and successful. The shocked, wounded expression on the elder Sheen’s face says it all, and makes this scene that much more painful to watch. This scene also makes their tearful reconciliation at the hospital after the father suffers a heart attack all the more poignant. It is an intense, emotional moment as the tears start flowing and Bud begins along the gradual road to redemption.
However, Stone made the mistake of casting Daryl Hannah as Bud Fox’s materialistic girlfriend. She was having problems relating to her character and struggled with the role and personal problems. The director was aware early on that she was not right for the role, but arrogantly refused to admit the mistake. He remarked, “Daryl Hannah was not happy doing the role and I should have let her go. All my crew wanted to get rid of her after one day of shooting. My pride was such that I kept saying I was going to make it work.” Stone also had difficulties with Sean Young, who made her opinions known that Hannah should be fired and she should play her role instead. Young would show up to the set late and unprepared. She also did not get along with Charlie Sheen, which caused unnecessary friction on the set. In retrospect, Stone felt that Young was right and he should have swapped roles between her and Hannah.
Visually, Stone ends the film much as he began it, with Bud reduced to an insignificant cog in the city yet again, his future uncertain. Wall Street is a morality play about the seductive nature of greed, examining how far someone is willing to go and what they are prepared to do to become rich. The irony is that many people admired Gekko, and Stone has said on the supplementary material to the film’s DVD that people have approached him saying that they were inspired to get into the financial world because of this character. The 2000 film Boiler Room even features a group of young stockbrokers watching Wall Street on video and quoting along to some of Gekko’s more memorable dialogue. People who admire Douglas’ character don’t seem to realize that Stone is not idealizing him, but merely showing the seductive lure of someone like Gekko. He is not someone to admire, and the film leaves his fate somewhat ambiguous, while it is Bud who goes to jail. It is this stinging indictment that lingers long after the credits end — that rich, powerful men like Gekko never seem to get punished for their transgressions, while the common man, like Bud, suffer instead.