Wall Street is a 1987 American drama film, directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, which stars Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, and Daryl Hannah. The film tells the story of Bud Fox (Sheen), a young stockbroker who becomes involved with Gordon Gekko (Douglas), a wealthy, unscrupulous corporate raider.
Stone made the film as a tribute to his father, Lou Stone, a stockbroker during the Great Depression. The character of Gekko is said to be a composite of several people, including Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Asher Edelman, Michael Milken, and Stone himself. The character of Sir Lawrence Wildman, meanwhile, was modeled on the prominent British financier and corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith. Originally, the studio wanted Warren Beatty to play Gekko, but he was not interested; Stone, meanwhile, wanted Richard Gere, but Gere passed on the role.
The film was well received among major film critics. Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film has come to be seen as the archetypal portrayal of 1980s success, with Douglas’ character declaring that “greed is good.” It has also proven influential in inspiring people to work on Wall Street, with Sheen, Douglas, and Stone commenting over the years how people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because of their respective characters in the film.
Stone and Douglas reunited for a sequel titled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which was released theatrically on September 24, 2010.
In 1985, Bud Fox is a junior stockbroker at Jackson Steinem & Co. in New York City. He wants to work with his hero, Gordon Gekko, a legendary Wall Street player. After calling Gekko’s office 59 days in a row trying to land an appointment, Bud visits Gekko on his birthday with a box of Gekko’s favorite, contraband Cuban cigars. Impressed at his boldness, Gekko grants Bud an interview. Bud pitches him stocks, but Gekko is unimpressed. Desperate, Bud provides him some inside information about Bluestar Airlines, which he has learned in a casual conversation with his father, Carl, leader of the company’s maintenance workers union. Intrigued, Gekko tells Bud he will think about it. A dejected Bud returns to his office. However, Gekko places an order for Bluestar stock and becomes one of Bud’s clients. Gekko gives Bud some capital to manage, but the other stocks Bud selects lose money.
Gekko offers Bud another chance, and tells him to spy on British CEO Sir Lawrence Wildman and discern Wildman’s next move. Bud learns that Wildman is making a bid for a steel company. Through Bud’s spying, Gekko makes money, and Wildman is forced to buy Gekko’s shares to complete his takeover.
Bud becomes wealthy, enjoying Gekko’s promised perks, including a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a girlfriend, interior decorator Darien. Bud is promoted as a result of the large commission fees he is bringing in and is given a corner office with a view. He continues to maximize inside information and use friends as straw buyers to provide more income for him and Gekko. Unknown to Bud, several of his trades attract the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Bud pitches a new idea to Gekko: buy Bluestar Airlines and expand the company, with Bud as president, using savings achieved by union concessions and the overfunded pension. Even though Bud is unable to persuade his father to support him and Gekko, he is able to get the unions to push for the deal. Soon afterward, Bud learns that Gekko plans to dissolve the company and sell off Bluestar’s assets in order to access cash in the company’s pension plan, leaving Carl and the entire Bluestar staff unemployed. Although this would leave Bud a very rich man, he is angered by Gekko’s deceit and racked with the guilt of being an accessory to Bluestar’s impending destruction, especially after his father suffers a heart attack. Bud resolves to disrupt Gekko’s plans, and breaks up with Darien when she refuses to go against Gekko, her former lover.
Bud devises a plan to drive up Bluestar’s stock before manipulating it back down. He and the other union presidents then secretly meet with Wildman and arrange for him to buy controlling interest in Bluestar at a significant discount. Gekko, realizing that his stock is plummeting, dumps his remaining interest in the company on Bud’s advice. However, when Gekko learns on the evening news that Wildman is buying Bluestar, he realizes that Bud has engineered the entire scheme. Bud triumphantly goes back to work at Jackson Steinem the following day, only to be arrested for insider trading.
Sometime later, Bud confronts Gekko in Central Park. Gekko punches him in the face a couple of times. Mr. Gekko berates him for his role with Bluestar and accuses him of ingratitude for several of their illicit trades. Following the confrontation, it is revealed that Bud was wearing a wire to record his encounter with Gekko. He turns the tapes over to the authorities, who suggest that he may get a lighter sentence in exchange for helping them make a case against Gekko. Later, Bud’s parents drive him down FDR Drive towards the New York County Courthouse to answer for his crimes.
- Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko
- Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox
- Daryl Hannah as Darien Taylor
- Martin Sheen as Carl Fox
- John C. McGinley as Marvin
- Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman
- James Karen as Harry Lynch
- Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim
- Sean Young as Kate Gekko
- James Spader as Roger Barnes
After the success of Platoon (1986), Stone wanted film school friend and Los Angeles screenwriter Stanley Weiser to research and write a screenplay about quiz show scandals in the 1950s. During a story conference, Stone suggested making a film about Wall Street instead. The director pitched the premise of two investment partners getting involved in questionable financial dealings, using each other, and they are tailed by a prosecutor as in Crime and Punishment. The director had been thinking about this kind of a movie as early as 1981 and was inspired by his father, Lou Stone, a broker during the Great Depression at Hayden Stone.
The filmmaker 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 asked Weiser to read Crime and Punishment, but Weiser found that its story did not mix well with their own. Stone then asked Weiser to read The Great Gatsby for material that they could use, but it was not the right fit either. Weiser had no prior knowledge of the financial world and immersed himself in researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds, and corporate takeovers. He and Stone spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses and interviewing investors.
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 stereotype that Wall Street was controlled by Jews. Reportedly, Gordon Gekko is said to be a composite of several people: Wall Street broker Owen Morrisey, an old friend of Stone’s who was involved in a $20 million insider trading scandal in 1985, Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky, corporate raider Carl Icahn, art collector Asher Edelman, agent Michael Ovitz, and Stone himself. For example, the “Greed is good” line was based on a speech by Boesky where he said, “Greed is right”.
According to Edward R. Pressman, producer of the film, “Originally, there was no one individual who Gekko was modeled on”, he adds, “But Gekko was partly Milken”. Also, Pressman has said that the character of Sir Larry Wildman was modeled on James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French billionaire and corporate-raider.
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 cites as influences on his approach to business, the novels of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and Victor Hugo, and the films of Paddy Chayefsky because they were able to make a complicated subject clear to the audience. Stone set the film in 1985 because insider trading scandals culminated in 1985 and 1986. This led to anachronisms in the script, including a reference to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which had not yet occurred.
Stone met with Tom Cruise about playing Bud Fox, but the director had already committed to Charlie Sheen for the role. Stone liked the “stiffness” of Sheen’s acting style and used it to convey Bud’s naivete. Michael Douglas had just come off heroic roles like the one in Romancing the Stone and was looking for something dark and edgy. The studio wanted Warren Beatty to play Gekko, but he was not interested. Stone initially wanted Richard Gere but the actor passed, so Stone went with Douglas despite having been advised by others in Hollywood not to cast him.
“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”. Nevertheless, Stone found out that “when he’s acting he gives it his all”. Stone said that he saw “that villain quality” in Douglas and always thought he was a smart businessman.
Douglas remembers that 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”. For research, he read profiles of corporate raiders T. Boone Pickens and Carl Icahn.
Stone gave Charlie Sheen the choice of Jack Lemmon or Martin Sheen to play his father in the film, and Sheen picked his father. The elder Sheen related to the moral sense of his character. Stone cast Daryl Hannah as Bud Fox’s materialistic girlfriend Darien Taylor, but felt that she was never happy with the role and did not know why she accepted it. He tried to explain the character to Hannah repeatedly, and thought that the materialism of the character conflicted with Hannah’s idealism. Stone said later that he was aware early on that she was not right for the part. “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 that she should play that role instead. Young would show up to the set late and unprepared. She did not get along with Charlie Sheen, which caused further friction on the set. In retrospect, Stone felt that Young was right and he should have swapped Hannah’s role with hers. Stone admits that he had “some problems” with Young, but was not willing to confirm or deny rumors that she walked off with all of her costumes when she completed filming.
The film has come to be seen as the archetypal portrayal of 1980s excess, with Douglas advocating “greed, for lack of a better word, is good”. Wall Street defines itself through a number of morality conflicts putting wealth and power against simplicity and honesty, and an attack on the value system of extreme competitiveness where ethics and the law are simply irrelevant parts of the show.
Carl (Martin Sheen’s character) represents the working class in the film: he is the union leader for the maintenance workers at Bluestar. He constantly attacks big business, money, mandatory drug screening, greedy manufacturers, and anything that he sees as a threat to his union. The conflict between Gekko’s relentless pursuit of wealth and Carl Fox’s leftward leanings form the basis of the film’s subtext. This subtext could be described as the concept of the two fathers battling for control over the morals of the son, a concept Stone had also used in Platoon. In Wall Street the hard-working Carl Fox and the cutthroat businessman Gordon Gekko represent the fathers. The producers of the film use Carl as their voice in the film, a voice of reason amid the creative destruction brought about by Gekko’s unrestrained personal philosophy.
A significant scene in the film is a speech by Gekko to a shareholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. Stone uses this scene to give Gekko, and by extension, the Wall Street raiders he personifies, the chance to justify their actions, portraying himself as a liberator of the company value from the ineffective and excessively compensated executives. The inspiration for the “Greed is good” speech seems to have come from two sources. The first part, where Gekko complains that the company’s management owns less than three percent of its stock, and that it has too many vice presidents, is taken from similar speeches and comments made by Carl Icahn about companies he was trying to take over. The defense of greed is a paraphrase of the May 18, 1986, commencement address at the UC Berkeley’s School of Business Administration, delivered by arbitrageur Ivan Boesky (who himself was later convicted of insider trading charges), in which he said, “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
Wall Street is not a wholesale criticism of capitalism, but of the cynical, quick-buck culture of the 1980s. The “good” characters in the film are themselves capitalists, but in a more steady, hardworking sense. In one scene, Gekko scoffs at Bud Fox’s question as to the moral value of hard work, quoting the example of his (Gekko’s) father, who worked hard his entire life only to die in debt. Lou Mannheim, the film’s archetypal mentor, says early in the film, that “good things sometimes take time”, referring to IBM and Hilton—in contrast, Gekko’s “Greed is Good” credo typifies the short-term view prevalent in the 1980s.
Wall Street was released on December 11, 1987, in 730 theaters and grossed $4.1 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $43.8 million in North America.