'Greed is good': Oliver Stone explains origin and relevance of classic 'Wall Street' line 30 years later

Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street'
Michael Douglas in ‘Wall Street’ (20th Century Fox)

Michael Douglas never actually says the line “greed is good” in Wall Street, the seminal stockbroking drama that Oliver Stone deposited in theaters 30 years ago this December. It’s one of those infamous, constantly misquoted movie lines, up there with “Play it again, Sam” (it’s “Play it, Sam”) and “If you build it, they will come” (“If you build it, he will come”).

Here’s what Douglas’s slick finance shark, Gordon Gekko, really says as he delivers a speech to a panel of suits: “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed is — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Nevertheless, as a mantra, the simplified “greed is good” worked perfectly in summarizing the essence of Stone’s film, the first to document the excess and ethical quandaries that began consuming the industry in the 1980s.

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in advance of Wall Street‘s return to theaters next week to commemorate its 30th anniversary, Stone explained the origin of the iconic line from the script he co-wrote with Stanley Weiser.

“It was part of a speech that was given by a guy named Ivan Boesky, who was an inside trader,” Stone revealed. “He was quite well-known, and he went to jail…. But in one of his speeches, he said, ‘Greed is right,’ so we based it on that line.”

It was during a 1986 commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley, when Boesky (who was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiring to file false stock trading records a week after Wall Street opened in theaters) uttered that phrase. “Greed is all right, by the way,” he told the graduating class. “I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Wall Street was a deeply personal endeavor for Stone, the 71-year-old native New Yorker behind such other cinematic touchstones as Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and JFK (1991). His father, Louis Stone, “was the definition of a Wall Street stock broker” and an economist who authored a widely circulated, international monthly investment newsletter. Louis, who influenced Hal Holbrook’s old-school, morally sound banker, Lou Mannheim, died while the film was in production, and Oliver dedicated Wall Street to his dad’s memory.

“A new kind of attitude emerged in the 1980s, it was much more selfish,” Stone said. “My father would not have recognized it. People like Gekko and so forth, they were the outlaws, they were bandits… We were trying to get across that this business was changing.”

Wall Street, though, had some unintended consequences. It apparently motivated legions of money-hungry entrepreneurial types to aspire to be the next Gordon Gekko or Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the upstart trader taken under Gekko’s wing.

“A lot of people who are now in their middle ages have said to me, ‘I got into this business partly because I saw your movie and it made me want to go to Wall Street,'” Stone confessed. “They’d say, ‘I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer anymore. I wanted to make some money.’ I’d say, ‘Didn’t you get the point? That Gekko was not a good guy.’ And they’d [respond], ‘Yeah but, it’s still exciting… I figure I don’t have to be a Gekko to do it, I can figure out a way to make money honestly.'”

There’s no confusion where Stone sits on the film’s famous refrain. “Greed is not good,” he said bluntly. It’s part of the reason why when he revisited Gekko in the 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the line was remixed. “I once said, ‘Greed is good,’ Douglas says in the film. “Now it seems it’s legal. Because everyone is drinking the same Kool-Aid.”

Both Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps proved profitable investments for their distributor, Fox, but Stone doesn’t see the series becoming a trilogy. “He’d have to be a grandfather,” the filmmaker laughed of Gekko’s character. “I think he was old enough. I think the audiences to some degree wanted to have him young again or as badass. But the whole point of that second movie was that he had been changed by his experiences.”

In other words, Stone isn’t about to get greedy.

Wall Street returns to theaters nationwide for special screenings on Sept. 24. and Sept. 27. Watch the trailer:

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