By Peter Howell
Taken aback by reception to familiar '80s movie, its makers figure the time is right for Gordon Gekko's return
CANNES, FRANCE-Normally when Hollywood comes to Cannes, it's not to preach the virtues of restraint or sober second thought.
This is the town where no one blinks at $1,500-per-night hotel rooms or $10 sips of espresso. There is also something incongruous about millionaire actors and directors pleading the cause of workers and common folk.
So there was a surreal quality about Friday's proletarian news conference following the Cannes Film Festival world debut of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone's belated follow-up to his 1987 drama of corporate greed.
A lot of things have happened in the past 23 years, including 9/11 and an economic crisis or three. The thinking of Stone and his leading man Michael Douglas has changed. Their world view has broadened considerably, and they're no longer snickering about the more venal aspects of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider, played to sneering perfection by Douglas, who became an immortal villain with his "greed is good" boasting and ruthless money deals.
Now the older and more thoughtful Douglas and Stone seem almost guilty about Gekko, and how he became an unwitting symbol of success for many impressionable viewers of the original Wall Street.
"Well, I think Oliver and I both were pretty stunned, after the first one, how they perceived Gekko," said Douglas, 65.
"He's an insider trader, a guy who destroyed companies - a very, very well-written villain, and people are attracted to villains. We just never anticipated that all these MBAs, all these people in business school, would be ranting and raving that this was the person they wanted to be.
"And yet, 23 years later, I imagine that a lot of these MBA students are heading up these investment banking companies because the greed has not stopped. It's become legal."
Stone, 63, whose father was a stock trader, said he was initially reluctant to revisit Gekko and his era, "because I didn't want to celebrate that culture of wealth ... it just seemed to be getting worse and worse. There was no reason to make a movie.
"After the (2008 economic) crash, of course, all bets were off because, really, it was a major heart attack. It was a triple bypass. I think they put a stent in, but I'm not sure if they've solved it.
"So this is serious, and it puts the whole world in a new perspective. It's time to come back and get Gordon Gekko."
Rather than make a movie about Gekko exploiting the 2008 money meltdown, which the film does address, Stone wanted his Wall Street sequel to address the toll that unchallenged capitalism takes on families.
Gekko has a daughter, played by Carey Mulligan, who is involved with up-and-coming trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who seems almost a contradiction in terms: he wants to get filthy rich by peddling clean green energy technology.
Gekko's motives aren't immediately clear in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but he's not the obvious villain of the piece. He's trying to get his life back together, and reunite with his estranged daughter, after spending eight years in prison on convictions for various financial crimes.
The real bad guy in the film is Josh Brolin's Bretton James, a billionaire investment banker who seems to be picking up where his old pal (and now enemy) Gekko left off.
Brolin sees his character as a cautionary example of someone blinded by greed.
"The theme of the first movie is 'greed is good' and the theme of this one is 'more,' " Brolin said.
"There's no end to the possibilities of accumulation. Having myself traded, on a very small level, I understand what it is to get caught up in that moment of greed where you go, 'I understand the kids are upstairs and they need to eat, but I need 15 more minutes because I may make that much more money. And then they'll be able to eat more' ...
"To tap into that greed and allow yourself to lose your identity and reconfigure your identity within that is, morally, completely bereft."
Many people accused Stone and Douglas of celebrating the cowboy capitalism of the 1980s with Wall Street. That may have been true then, but it's certainly not the case with the sequel, scheduled for wide release on Sept. 24. Stone in particular seems genuinely concerned about where the world is headed, and what it means to average workers.
"It seems we got drunk (on greed)," Stone said.
"In 1987, I thought (capitalism) was going to correct itself, I really did ... but it got worse ...
"Stock holders and CEOs made money, but working people did not. There's tremendous inequality and injustice in that and that has to be corrected."
In his personal life, as a happily married man with two young additions to his family, Douglas is anything but a Gordon Gekko. Outside of acting, he works closely with the United Nations as an official ambassador of peace, promoting nuclear disarmament. He's not happy with the current slow pace of change, in all aspects of global renewal.
"It's pretty disappointing," Douglas said.
"The area I work on, which is the elimination of nuclear weapons, there seems to be some great movement going ahead but as you do look at the greed, at the oil spills, the volcanic ash, the Earth seems to be speaking back."
Are people ready for a Gordon Gekko who wants to build rather than smash? We'll see.