This is part II of the series I began with this post. In this review, we'll look at the drivers of the character of Gordon Gekko. While I am not in complete agreement with Daniel from crookedtimber.org regarding Gekko being a sympathetic character, he does point out several things about Gekko which clearly played a role in his development. He does have some admirable and sympathetic qualities, which I think will become clearer as you read this (if you disagree initially). All I ask is that you keep an open mind.
There seems to be a bit of controversy around Oliver Stone creating films in which the protagonist is torn between different "fathers". He mentions this in the director's commentary in the 20th anniversary edition DVD. In "Wall Street", those fathers are Bud's biological father Carl (played by Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen's biological father) and Gordon Gekko, who takes young Fox under his wing. However, this father theme extends even further into the film, and is critical to understanding Gordon Gekko as a person.
In the scene "Business Philosophy" (20th anniversary edition DVD), Gekko says the following to Bud while they ride in the back of Gekko's limo:
"My father, he worked like an elephant pushing electrical supplies til he dropped dead at 49 with a heart attack and tax bills."
Now, why is this important? Well, we don't know how old Gekko was when this happened, but presumably it was when he was quite young, possibly less than 10 years old.
As it so happens, there was a profile of Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner, in the Telegraph UK in August 2008. In that profile, Dyson mentions the impact of his father dying when he was young. He also notes that 75% of British Prime Ministers lost their fathers before age 10. This loss, Dyson reckons, instills within the sons a feeling of individualism, of being alone in the world, and thus being forced to succeed because they know there is no one else out there to help them. (Never mind other family such as siblings or a surviving mother.)
Now, if we compare the descriptions of these men whose fathers died before their 10th birthdays, we see a lot of traits that map back to Gordon Gekko. Individualism, even arrogantly so. A selfishness and self-centered orientation personality, derived from the feeling (whether accurate or inaccurate) that Gekko was left alone to figure out the world after his father's death. Focus and determinism. This is evidenced by his rise within the financial world even as a "City College boy".
The other thing you'll notice, if you look past the coarse tone of voice he uses while saying it, is Gekko's disappointment at his father's death from overwork. He clearly believes that his father worked hard and never truly benefited from his labor, so he sees no need to do hard work if another (easier) avenue to his goal exists.
The other major sympathetic moment we have with Gekko, and one I think was majorly overlooked by most, occurs in the scene "A Safe Distance". This is the scene where Bud is at Gekko's beach house signing power of attorney forms to distance himself from Gekko. Now, this whole process inherently violates the notion of Gekko being victimized by Bud. The whole explanation of the process by is clearly saying that you (Bud) will be performing actions which expose Gekko to legal risks he does not want to assume. Thus, this is another point of disagreement for me with crookedtimber.org's analysis; why would Gekko go through this legal maneuvering if he didn't at least believe there was a risk exposure? Gekko, like all great investors, has to understand the idea of risk management. Legally distancing himself from Bud is such a tactic.
Getting back to my original point, the key to this scene is when Gekko's son Rudy is brought poolside by his nanny (au pair?). As soon as Gekko sees his son, he turns into a typical blubbering parent, runs to meet his son, and picks him up. While holding him, he has his son say "hello" to Bud in french. Gekko then takes his seat back at the table, while still holding his son and gloating about how Rudy had "the highest score on his I.Q. test". Looking through the absurdity (an I.Q. test for a 3 year old) and arrogance in that statement, Gekko can be seen as a loving father boasting about his son's achievements. Later, after handing Rudy a raspberry which he immediately pelts across the table, Gekko licks Rudy's fingers clean.
Adding all of this up, we are presented with the picture of Gekko as a doting father who is able and more than willing to give his son all the things his father was unable to give him (Gekko) due to his untimely death.
Returning to the father theme, and the humanity of Gordon Gekko for a last time, we see it on display in the next to last scene on the 20th anniversary edition DVD. In "The Abyss", Bud faces Gordon in Central Park while wearing a wire, unbeknown to Gekko. After using Bud as a punching bag while reciting another great soliloquy, Gekko says these words to the bleeding Fox: "You could have been one of the great ones, Buddy. I look at you, and I see myself. Why?" Gordon, for all of his exploitation of Bud, has developed a true affinity for the younger man and here it is on fully display. After the 2 part, and Bud begins walking toward Tavern on the Green, we're left to linger on Gordon as he walks in the opposite direction. If you watch closely, you'll see in Gordon's eyes the hurt that he feels at the betrayal by someone he allowed to get closer than any other. He carries a somewhat dazed look, as well as the hint of wanting to cry. While his anger is real, Gordon's anger is also a mask (as anger usually is), a cover for the feeling of hurt, loss and disappointment. Anyone who has ever truly and deeply felt those feelings has had a look on their face much like Gordon's at some point, even if they didn't know it.
Personally, I believe these largely overlooked aspects of Michael Douglas' performance were the biggest contributors to his winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1988. It is easy to overlook the softer side of the character. Oliver Stone intentionally wants us to dislike Gordon for his role in Bud's downfall, and generally how he uses people. However, Gordon is not without emotions. He's human, even if he doesn't want to appear to be.
Should Gordon Gekko be idolized? That is debatable. However, I do think he has as many "good" qualities as "bad" ones, and that needs to be recognized and accepted. We don't have to like the person to see them as they truly are, not as their ego thinks they are or wants them to be. You don't have to like the person, or the person's actions, to transcend your own personal biases and realize that, at our cores, we are all, in some way, just hurt, afraid, scared and vulnerable 8 year olds who have never EVER truly grown up. Even Gordon Gekko.