Gordon Gekko, Preaching the Gospel of Greed "Greed is good," preaches Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). The character brought home all that was wrong — and enticing — about American capitalism. NPR's In Character series examines his appeal.
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Gordon Gekko, Preaching the Gospel of Greed

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Gordon Gekko, Preaching the Gospel of Greed

Gordon Gekko, Preaching the Gospel of Greed

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The 1987 movie "Wall Street" tells story of an ambitious young stockbroker, played by Charlie Sheen, who's seduced into joining a big insider-trading operation. But the most memorable character by far is the high-powered corporate raider he goes to work for. A man named for a lizard: Gordon Gekko.

The part won Michael Douglas an Academy Award. In this week's installment of In Character, our series exploring the origins and impact of famous American fictional characters, we turned the spotlight on Gekko. As conceived by director Oliver Stone, Gekko is a slimy embodiment of all that was wrong with American capitalism. But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, the response to the character wasn't quite what Stone intended.

JIM ZARROLI: When we meet Gordon Gekko, he's pacing around his glitzy Manhattan office in front of a long row of computer screens, barking orders and juggling phone calls.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): (as Gordon Gekko) Looks as good as on paper we're in the kill zone, pal. Lock and load. Lunch? You got to be kidding. Lunch is for wimps.

ZARROLI: As he talks he takes his own blood pressure, a cigarette in his mouth. Meanwhile he's interviewing stockbroker who's come to pay homage. Gecko is a lion of the business world, an alpha male famous for his cunning and financial acumen. He's ten steps ahead of everyone.

There's a smirk on Gekko's face as if he's reading your thoughts and knows your worst impulses. The devil wears silk suits. As Fox discovers, he is also a major-league crook who trades in insider information and manipulates markets the way other people make conversation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (as Gordon Gekko) Tell (unintelligible). Did you buy any for yourself?

Mr. CHARLIE SHEEN (Actor): (as Bud Fox) No, sir. That wouldn't have been legal.

Mr. DOUGLAS: (as Gordon Gekko) Relax, pal. No one's gonna blow the whistle on you.

ZARROLI: Soon fox is lured into his operation, a junior partner in crime. He's got qualms about what he's doing but Gekko says if he really wants to make it, he's got to put them aside.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (as Gordon Gekko) Wake up, will you, pal? If you're not inside you are outside, okay? And I'm not talking about some $400,000 a year working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable, I'm talking about liquid. Rich enough to have your own jet, rich enough not to waste time, 50, 100 million dollars, buddy.

ZARROLI: As conceived by Stone and screenwriter Stan Weiser, Gekko is a larger-than-life composite of some of the fallen financiers from the insider trading scandals of the 1980s, like Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky.

The movie poses a question: why did men who were already rich beyond measure try to increase their fortune by cheating? For Gordon Gekko, who likes to quote from Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," business isn't just business, it's a battle, a Darwinian showdown and money is how you keep score.

Wall Street veteran Ken Lipper was a technical advisor on the film.

Mr. KEN LIPPER (Technical Advisor, "Wall Street"): The Gordon Gekko character is not a person who is satisfied by anything for very long. There's no permanent accomplishment. There's no peace until everyone else is a failure.

(Soundbite from movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (as Gordon Gekko) I don't like losses. Nothing ruins my day more than losses. Now, you do good, you get perks, lots and lots of perks.

ZARROLI: "Wall Street" was meant as a cautionary tale about business ethics but there's a paradox in the movie. As played by Michael Douglas, Gekko is one in a long line of lovable movie rogues, dashing and handsome in his suspenders and slicked back hair.

Mr. GEORGE DAVID SMITH (Business Historian, Teaches at NYU's Stern School): Gekko is glamorous in the way that many confidence men are glamorous.

ZARROLI: George David Smith is a business historian who teaches at NYU's Stern School.

Mr. SMITH: He's slick, he quick witted, like he can be charming. And he can also be ruthless. And the movie does a very good job, I think, in presenting the sort of the macho world of Wall Street as it was at the time.

ZARROLI: Screenwriter Stephen Schiff says, before Gekko came along, Hollywood usually depicted businessmen and fat, poorly aging ogres doing shadowy things.

Mr. STEPHEN SCHIFF (Screenwriter): The idea that Gekko was this shiny, beautifully dressed, magnetic, charismatic superstar suited a lot of people in the business world very nicely.

ZARROLI: Schiff says this is also the weakest thing about the movie, although Bud Fox ultimately turns against him and Gekko heads to jail, the character's charisma undercuts the film's moralizing.

Mr. SCHIFF: Who do you want to be coming out of the movie? Do you want to be Bud Fox, broken and downtrodden and never having quite made it, or do you want to be Gordon Gekko, who, yeah he's going to go to jail, but what a swashbuckler he was until the very last moment?

ZARROLI: Both Douglas and Stone have said that a lot of young people they meet even see Gekko as a role model, and it has a lot to do with the film's most famous scene. Gekko shows up at a shareholders meeting of a company he wants to takeover. He's not trying to destroy the company, he says, he's trying to liberate it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (as Gordon Gekko) Point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

ZARROLI: Of course Gekko doesn't want to save the company, he wants to strip its assets and sell them. But what gets remembered is his very persuasive and unapologetic defense of raw capitalism. But NYU's Smith says anyone who sees Gekko as some sort of capitalist hero is missing the point. Because what Gekko does violates free market principles.

Mr. SMITH: But what Gekko is doing is he's trying to monopolize information, trade on it, and in the process, even fabricate information in order to manipulate the market to his own ends.

ZARROLI: Smith also believes Gekko would have more trouble operating today because regulators pursue that kind of manipulation more aggressively. And in fact audiences may get a chance to see how Gekko would fare in today's economy, a sequel to "Wall Street" is in the works.

Oliver Stone isn't involved but Michael Douglas has agreed to star. The movie's title will be "Money Never Sleeps."

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

HANSEN: What great American characters inspire you? Nominate your favorites on our In Character blog. Go to NPR.org/incharacter. We may put your suggestion on the radio.

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