Friday, September 25, 2015

Birthday Take: Michael Douglas in "Wall Street" (1987)

Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Michael Douglas
Born: September 25, 1944 (71 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (won) for Wall Street as Gordon Gecko

The Take

Is there anything more tragic than the dated performance? I'm not talking specifically about a dated movie. Those tend to have logical reasons that can at least help you enjoy the film at hand. What I'm saying is if there's a performance that may have been revolutionary at the time, but inevitably comes across as slow and uninspired nowadays. Think about it for a moment. Throughout cinema, there have been a ton of iconic roles, a lot from acting styles that aren't even used anymore. Yet to find that one performance that is so dated that you don't understand its appeal is probably one of time's greatest jokes. For me, and I presume a lot of people born to the 90's culture, will not at all get the appeal of director Oliver Stone's Wall Street, or how villainous Michael Douglas was as the film's villain: Gordon Gecko.

To be direct: Wall Street is a boring movie. It's slow and tries to make some compelling points about the corrupt nature of the real life Wall Street. It makes sense coming from Stone, who has made a career out of pushing buttons. However, when you compare it to his other films like Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, you'll notice that something is missing. It is about a concept that may seem true to the point of a Wall Street sequel in 2010, but it doesn't really make for compelling cinema. It may be problematic that I am not someone who cares about Capitalism in the slightest. Yes, the stories can be enjoyable through stories like American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street, but those also benefited from existing in a stylized world. Stone's drama has nothing.

In general, I understand that corporate greed is a bad thing. I understand what makes Gecko a villainous character. He is given plenty of buzzwords to make himself sound more important and his trickster ways allow for him to profit off of the innocent. I am not sure if it's just that it wasn't as obvious back then, but the shock that is supposed to be in Gecko's almost religious beliefs don't feel like anything all that bizarre. It almost feels like making a movie about a trip to the local branch of your bank and chronicling a very banal transaction. There's more to the story, but it does have a lot of pacing issues and it is made or broken based on how much you are willing to buy into Gecko's persona. I don't know that anyone my age really can.

This is especially a strange thing to encounter because I am able to appreciate performances of all natures. I can appreciate nuance with the best of them, often citing it as far more compelling than eccentric types. Yet Wall Street is nothing really exciting or lasting when I look back on the many Stone movies that I really like. Even to give him a pass is to feel dishonest towards this film. I know that it was a big deal at the time, but I don't entirely know what enjoyment level was supposed to be gotten from it. Maybe it's because my Wall Street personas are more Patrick Bateman and Jordan Belfort - types that are inherently evil by action as well as credos. I don't want to discredit Douglas' performance, as he did create something iconic, but I don't really turn to it when I find myself thinking of the great performances. 

I don't know if people who have lived during that time appreciate Wall Street more, but it does seem so based on general consensus. I do think that the film definitely suffers from a lot of 80's culture tropes - something that I don't care for. It also doesn't really have much in the way of a compelling plot that is more than dry, corporate revenge. Sometimes I even forget that Wall Street was a Stone movie just because it doesn't feel like one on an enjoyment level. I have disagreed with him a handful of times, but usually I am able to be persuaded by his technique: a mix of visceral and narration. I don't know if Platoon in an office would have been more intriguing, but I'm sure it would have dated itself a lot better. So please, if you're old enough, explain why Wall Street is good beyond the obvious "corporate greed" concept. I think Gecko's iconic, but I don't remember his demeanor all that well either.

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