There are, if you think about it, only two real models of American heroism: Spartacus and Gordon Gekko.
Each man needs little introduction. The first is the famous slave turned rebel leader in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, played by Kirk Douglas. The second is the demon of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—the 1987 corporate culture morality tale well worth rewatching today—played by Michael Douglas. One is an emblem of freedom; the other the herald of greed.
But they share the same DNA, and not only because they are portrayed by father and son: Better than most Hollywood characters, and better than nearly all Hollywood actors, Spartacus and Gekko and the men who played them perfectly embody the sort of mad lust for life that is the presiding spirit of American life.
It’s easy to see the rugged gladiator as a symbol of American individualism, a sort of more muscular, slightly less homoerotic Walt Whitman. But the corporate raider, too, fits in squarely with the tradition. History has done Gekko a disservice; ask most people what they remember of Douglas’ reptilian villain, and they’re likely to repeat his great catchphrase: “Greed is good.”
Gekko never said that. Here’s what he did say: “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. 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 not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.”
It’s a big difference. “Greed is good” is a simplistic and uninteresting statement; using “greed” as an admittedly inadequate word to describe the existential hunger that had driven Americans to do anything from inventing electricity to ambling on the moon is a call to arms, no less rousing than Tony Curtis, as the slave Antoninus, shouting, in his adorable Bronx twang, “I am Spartacus.” It’s the sort of sentiment for which even those of us not meticulously besuited and dizzyingly wealthy can cheer.
Which, perhaps, helps explain the charm and lasting appeal of the younger Douglas. His career is an entirely original answer to that ancient cinematic conundrum: namely, how actors, whose value is measured in likability, should portray fundamentally unlikable characters. Some, like Anthony Hopkins and his Hannibal Lecter, ham it up. Others take the opposite route and, like Anthony Perkins, create monsters so convincing that they’re never again believable as anything but. But Michael Douglas solved the problem by realizing that very frequently the only thing separating bad men from good ones is a slightly healthier appetite.
Gordon Gekko is a case in point: Deep down, he’s really just Spartacus in nicer shirts and with better opportunities. Which is to say, he’s Michael Douglas. Whereas his father was born Issur Danielovitch, worked as a janitor, and fought in World War II before becoming a movie star, Michael grew up rich and famous in Los Angeles, attended Choate, and used his family’s connections to make a splash. The Douglases, in other words, are a glorified, magnified version of the American Jewish story: The first generation works hard to fit in, the second capitalizes on its good fortune. Spartacus is the cleft-chinned poster boy for communal organization; together with Antoninus (played by Curtis, who was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx), he leads a small band of men dependent for survival on organization and a sense of community. Spartacus’ army is a well-toned Jewish Federation; Gekko, on the other hand, is of a different era, a time when communal structures—for Jews, for Hollywood, for Wall Street—are looser and a there is a new infatuation with individual opportunities. He is the ultimate young professional, that elusive figure Jewish organizations are so eager to attract but who, by definition, largely disdains the very idea of casting his lot with the group. This is why Kirk Douglas had to act noble even when he was playing a son of a bitch, and why Michael, comfortable in his heritage, could play a psychotic, unemployed gunman (in Falling Down) just as convincingly as the principled president of the United States (in The American President). Kirk’s job was to cast a giant shadow on screen; Michael’s was to fill it with natural, bright light.
The American Film Institute was mistaken for placing father and son’s roles on different sides of its list of Hollywood’s 100 greatest heroes and villains, Spartacus at number 22 of one and Gekko at 24 of the other. They’re both heroes; they just have different ways of showing it. It took a very small leap of the imagination to see Gekko, in last year’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, as a rehabilitated, ethical, and caring family man. He has always been that. The problem is that very few had noticed.
In recent visits to Zuccotti Park, stronghold of Wall Street’s occupiers, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of references to Gekko and greed. It’s a shame. It might do the occupiers good to watch the actual movie and realize that the kind of greed Gekko represents is more complex than the monolithically evil force currently attributed to America’s financial barons. It’s the kind of greed that isn’t afraid to take real risks, the sort that end in bankruptcy and prison time. While today’s real Wall Street barons—an increasingly risk-averse bunch—spent the past decade contemplating derivatives and building complex financial tools designed to minimize the possibilities of loss, Gekko, in last year’s sequel, put a considerable chunk of his money into fusion research. He is, of course, a fictional character, but anyone passionate about true financial reform should be interested not only in robust regulation and progressive taxation—two absolute necessities—but also in working to get the real Wall Street—conservative and terrified and inclined primarily toward sure shots—to look more like the fake Wall Street, where bastards still have vision and where celebrated investors are more likely to bet on innovative clean energy technologies that change the world in real ways and create real jobs than on complex mathematical formulae that generate hypothetical wealth while robbing real people of their homes and their jobs.
What Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street alike should pray for, then, is a new generation of Gekkos, greedy assholes who are willing to take major risks and generate new opportunities on their path to more wealth. Which, really, is just another way of saying we should pray for more men like Michael Douglas: Privileged, audacious, perfectly happy to do terrible things for money—remember One Night at McCool’s?—but also a humanitarian activist, host of the Nobel Peace Prize dinner, and nuclear disarmament advocate. He and his counterpart in Stone’s excellent film are proof that greed in itself may not be good, but neither are inhibition, repression, and fear. It’s a principle that helped make Hollywood great; it could serve Wall Street as well.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.