Law professor Larry E. Ribstein discusses how capitalism is portrayed in Hollywood films.
Photo courtesy of the College of Law
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Michael Douglas is back as one of Hollywood's most notorious villains not named Hannibal Lecter in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." The sequel to the 1987 film that won Douglas an Oscar for his portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko takes place two decades after the original, in the wake of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
But just how accurate will the sequel's depiction of business and capitalism be? In an interview with News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora, law professor Larry E. Ribstein discusses how capitalism is portrayed in Hollywood films.
Business in pop culture gets a bad rap. Why?
It's not strictly business or big business that gets a bad rap, because you do see some businesses looked upon favorably in movies. It's more of what I'd call the capitalist or financiers in big business who earn filmmakers' wrath, one-note characters who are meant to be looked down upon by the audience as money-hungry Philistines. In other words, the money guys who demand a high return on their investments and don't care - at least, according to the filmmakers - about artistic or human values.
The main reason this stock character is so prevalent is that movies are made by real-life filmmakers who are struggling against the strictures of money-oriented producers and studio executives. The suits are an easy mark because they want the film to come in on time and on budget; the artists view the suits as compromising their creative vision.
The creative type versus the moneyman is a familiar theme, from "The Merchant of Venice" to "Entourage" and "Mad Men." What makes that narrative arc so enduring?
It's always been there. You can see elements of it going back some time, but it's really been amplified and exacerbated by movies. With other types of art, particularly novels and paintings, artists only need money to survive, not to create. But with filmmakers, it takes millions to make, market and release a single Hollywood movie, and they usually have to get that money from somewhere else. That dependence on the money guys is what brings filmmakers' resentment of them and business, in general, to a boil.
In "Entourage," interestingly enough, the quest for financing is what drives the show's drama in certain episodes. The character of Ari Gold epitomizes the money-hungry instincts of a Hollywood super-agent.
I actually like "Entourage," and the nice thing about it is that it's an insider view of the business of show business. A lot of times we don't get to see what's going on inside a business. I think part of the show's appeal is that we get to see how deals get put together, and the drama that surrounds any potential deal.
A lot of the best stuff about business has been on television lately. I feel the same way about "Mad Men." You still see the disparagement of money versus the elevation of art, particularly since the show is set in an ad agency, but the saving grace is that it really tries to understand what's going on inside a business.
Note that these shows don't dramatize producing widgets. Both are all about the war between money and creativity.
What is, in effect, "Wall Street 2," arrives in theaters Friday. What did you think of the original?
The original "Wall Street" was an extremely well-made film in many ways, but more than any single movie that I can think of, it epitomizes this anti-capitalist streak that's so prevalent in Hollywood cinema.
So I have a lot of respect for the filmmaking itself, but I also have a lot of criticisms of its portrayal of business and its anti-capitalist bias.
Generally, how accurate is Hollywood in its portrayal of business and capitalism?
I can't think of any movie that attempts to accurately depict what goes on in a real business. But a movie that's sympathetic to business types would be Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three," which was released in 1961 and starred James Cagney. It's about the West Berlin office of Coca-Cola, and Wilder contrasts what's going on inside the office with what's going on over on the Communist side in East Berlin.
Wilder himself was very familiar with Communism and Nazism, and what happens when free markets are suppressed. He portrays the defects of both systems, but it's clear that he prefers whatever badness is going on in the free markets to the other system. Wilder wasn't sympathetic to business in all of his films, but you can see some sympathy with what capitalists and businesses were trying to do in "One, Two, Three."
Public opinion of Wall Street is pretty low right now. Do you think we'll see a slew of movies that reflects that sentiment?
Yes. Movies react to whatever's going on in the culture. After Vietnam, there were a lot of movies about Vietnam; after Watergate, there were a lot of movies about Watergate. Any major cultural event becomes a really hot topic for Hollywood scripts, because Hollywood is looking for subjects that resonate with audiences across the country.
Filmmakers usually portray capitalism in the worst possible light, and the financial crisis will allow them to do that. So we'll probably see more movies than the public actually wishes to see about the financial crisis.
How would you like to see capitalists portrayed on screen?
The movie I want to see is the hedge-fund operator who sees the future, bets on it, is viewed antagonistically by the powers that be, but wins in the end. Anybody who takes risk in the business world is facing threats. You could easily craft a story about a hedge fund manager who bets against the market and is a hero for bucking the odds and winning in the end.
It would be a little bit like Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker," or Michael Lewis' book "The Big Short." But filmmakers resist that kind of approach because of their anti-capitalist bias.