Greed is good again in ‘Wall Street’ sequel

Michael Douglas revisits villainous Gekko role in classic film's update


BEVERLY HILLS, California — After having announced a week earlier that he had beaten cancer, Michael Douglas took the stage at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, California, on Jan. 16 and was greeted with a warm round of applause.

“There’s just got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation,” he told his peers.

The event was the 66-year-old actor’s first public appearance since making the announcement. He was there as a best supporting actor nominee for his performance in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” the sequel to 1987’s award-winning “Wall Street.” Douglas won a best actor Oscar for his turn in the role of Gordon Gekko in that film.

The sequel finds Gordon released from prison disgraced, but seemingly ready to do good. He allies with Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to his estranged daughter, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan).

“Gekko is a rascal, but he’s ready to be redeemed,” Douglas tells The Japan Times. He even thinks the character, who became a villainous symbol of Wall Street’s greed in the 1980s, could end up giving audiences hope this time around.

“People have grown very suspicious, and rightly so, of extremely high- salaried, high-rolling men in high financial places,” he says. “Gekko did deserve to go to jail. But since he’s presumably learned his lesson and since he’s willing to help stop another reptilian financial maneuverer who’s at least as ruthless as he used to be, he deserves a second chance.”

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” hasn’t had a fraction of its predecessor’s impact in terms of shock value. Since the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, the media has often carried stories detailing some of Wall Street’s shadier characters. This could be a reason why the film did not perform as well as hoped in the United States. It cost $70 million to make and grossed $52 million. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” has, however, done much better internationally, taking in more than $80 million worldwide so far.

“It may be that in the U.S., people are tired of anything financially oriented; specifically of Wall Street — the institution, not the film,” Douglas says. “I think non-Americans are more curious about how Wall Street works, about the villains who are real rather than supernatural monsters. I think for many foreigners, all that has a fascination, a glamour, even if it’s in a negative way. I think Japanese audiences will be drawn to the characters, but maybe even more so to the subject of Wall Street, because it and the Japanese economy are major forces in the global economy, and New York and Tokyo are so interdependent.”

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” was released in the U.S. in September 2010, 23 years after the original came out. Director Oliver Stone, who was at the helm of both films, acknowledges the gap but resisted the pressure to do a sequel at the time.

“Most any hit film is proposed for a sequel,” he says. “I didn’t want to do a sequel for the sake of it. Then came the time when Wall Street was the focus of the world, and the subjects of our movie were front-page news. That seemed to be the time — as things were going downhill economically, with so many real-life Gekkos behind the scenes, or up-front — to do the sequel.”

Stone says he wouldn’t have gone ahead with the film if Douglas wasn’t a part of it, and he wanted to make sure he had the time to create a good script. Then there was the matter of finding an “appropriate costar” for Douglas, one fresh enough to attract younger moviegoers. LaBeouf had already racked up a teenage fan base from his role in the “Transformers” movie series.

“I was bowled over by ‘Wall Street’ when I saw it,” says 24-year-old LaBeouf. “I thought it was real entertainment . . . seat-of-your-pants stuff. But I could tell it was also an important movie, in the issues it raised. I never thought I’d be in the sequel. I’m glad they waited so I was old enough to be in it!”

Part of the reason for the delay came down to Douglas’ busy schedule, usually as an actor, on occasion as a producer.

It’s sometimes forgotten that Douglas has won two Academy Awards, including as a producer for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He’s thus one of a few people to win Oscars for best actor and best picture. However, with success comes a loss of privacy and Douglas’ famous family have often seen their misfortunes played out in the tabloid press. Douglas is the son of former superstar Kirk Douglas, from Kirk’s first marriage. Kirk’s two wives each had two sons with him, but youngest son, Eric, died from a drug overdose in 2004. This prompted Michael to admit he was saddened, but not surprised. He too has had, and been treated for, substance- abuse problems. Years ago he also confessed to being a sex addict.

Douglas’ 32-year-old son Cameron, from his first marriage, is currently in jail on drug charges. Douglas has two sons from his second wife, Oscar-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, named Dylan and Carys (a boy and girl). In 2009, Douglas had knee replacement surgery, and in 2010 he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Doctors discovered a walnut-size tumor at the base of his tongue.

Douglas is now cancer free and, after spending some time away from the media’s glare, is promoting both the “Wall Street” sequel and his role in the film “Solitary Man,” which some fans feel should have got him an Oscar nomination. Douglas’ role in the movie hits somewhat close to home as he plays a promiscuous man whose marriage is over and who has health problems. The picture costars Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito.

Douglas’ image on screen has primarily been that of a tough, aggressive character, but now he’s trying to change that.

“I like comedy and I like music,” he says. “I like versatility . . . I don’t think of myself as being intimidating. I think I’m a fairly normal, rather nice guy.”

Douglas is currently preparing to play flamboyant pianist Liberace in a film set for release in 2012. He’s even gone so far as to take voice and piano lessons for the picture.

“It’s a challenge,” he declares with dry humor. “You can dismiss Liberace as glittery or trivial, but two things: He was a very accomplished pianist and he was a really major entertainment figure and showman for several decades — without being an actor. I mean, he made a few film appearances, but he held the public’s interest for a very long time. That to me is rather mysterious and very impressive.”

As for the “Wall Street” sequel, Michael points out that many finance- themed pictures in the past have not met box-office expectations, but that didn’t cause him to hesitate to do this film.

“I think a film can both entertain and inform,” he says. “Most movies don’t, and I don’t look for scripts with a message. But when there is a message, and so long as the film holds your interest, based on a good script and good performances, I go for it.”

To illustrate his example, Douglas mentions “The China Syndrome,” a film he coproduced and costarred in with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon that warned of the dangers of nuclear power. He then cites another of Fonda’s films, “Rollover,” about the oil industry.

“(Fonda) did a movie in the early ’80s called ‘Rollover,’ which is a financial term. The male protagonist (Kris Kristofferson) was an international banker, and the film was really ahead of its time . . . which also means it fared poorly at the box office. It was about international finance, about oil, about Mideast influence in the money and petroleum markets, plus it had a love story involving Jane as a wealthy widow. If you watch it today, it’s riveting and it’s informative.

“But, similarly with our sequel, by the time ‘Rollover’ came along, people didn’t want to pay to see anything about the Mideast, petroleum and the financial gloom and doom predicted for the future. It really is true — movies about money rarely make money. Still, I thought — and Oliver thought — it was kind of important to make ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.’ “

Douglas’ recent battle with cancer has definitely put his life into perspective. He says he has spent a lot of time with his wife and kids, and also took some inspiration from his father during the fight. Kirk Douglas suffered a severe stroke that had, for decades, meant the end of a thriving career in Hollywood.

“My father refused to be defeated by it,” Douglas recalls. “He fought the stroke, he fought it very hard, and then he embraced it. He even titled one of his books ‘My Stroke of Luck.’ Through it all, he kept making plans. He did the best he could, he continued to enjoy life as much as he could.”

With cancer behind him and a busy schedule ahead, it seems Douglas has learned more from his father than just acting. “I once read that no matter what is taken away from you in this life, you still have so much and you still have a lot to appreciate, to enjoy and be grateful for.”

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” opens Feb. 4 and is reviewed by Giovanni Fazio on today’s Re:Film page.