Oliver Stone’s Shakespearean Ambitions

In his review of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” A.O. Scott writes this perceptive paragraph about Oliver Stone:

If the film were a college course it would be Economics for Poets.  Money is not really Mr. Stone’s theme. In itself it is too abstract, too cold and impersonal for his romantic, Hollywood-Shakespearean sensibility.  His best movies, the first “Wall Street” among them, are preoccupied with the more primal matter of power and its corollaries — honor, loyalty, hubris and disgrace.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a better encapsulation of Stone’s strengths as a moviemaker.  Stone is too often dismissed as a lefty wingnut, or, more damningly, as a second-rate mind—for the Manichean strains in some of his movies.  His Best Picture-winning “Platoon” has given rise to the notion that Stone can only write and direct good and evil, and that the in-between stuff—the grayness, uncertainty, and contingency that are the marks of true artistry—is for whatever reason beyond him.  I haven’t seen all of Stone’s movies—JFK and Nixon, for instance—but I’ve seen enough of them to know that this gloss of Stone is unfair.  “Platoon” does have a good sergeant and an evil one, and suffers for it; the deification of Willem Defoe and his Christ-like death were parodied to great effect in “Tropic Thunder.” But “Wall Street,” “Any Given Sunday,” and the misunderstood “W.” are all deep, fascinating movies in their own ways.  And the former two along with Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”—which Stone wrote—exemplify a modern Shakespearean vision transcribed to the movie screen.  Scott is right on when he says that Stone’s preoccupations are the big, eternal ones: “power,” as well as “honor, loyalty, hubris and disgrace.”  These movies are also defined by other characteristics reminiscent of Shakespeare—the scope of the drama, the range of feeling, and, most interestingly, to borrow an interpretative notion from the critic Harold Bloom, an enduring and creative way with character.

Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is the reference point here.  I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough about it—in James Wood’s criticism, for instance—to use it, with reservations.  The controversial idea driving Bloom’s book is that Shakespeare created our conception of personality; that, in Hamlet and Falstaff, we can locate the modern view of the complexity and perhaps essential mystery of individual personality.  It’s an idea worth pondering in summary form, and it’s a fun point of departure for thinking about Stone’s writing, because, insofar as it’s possible to separate the two, Oliver Stone the writer is more talented and intriguing than Oliver Stone the director.

It goes without saying that “Wall Street” was and remains a touchstone for an entire generation of young people who went into finance; its impact is not dissimilar from and probably far more pervasive than the way “Entourage” made becoming an agent the thing to do.  Investment bankers and traders and private equity types until recently could reprise Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech without a hint of irony.  Many probably still buy into that idea, and not because they aren’t alert to the irony—they’re smart, and they are—but because it reinforced their worldview (the Friedman/Greenspan worldview, espoused by just about everyone connected to finance), which is reducible to the idea that “greed works.”  Not only is “Wall Street” an example of Shakespearean themes and character—Gekko comes from a humble background, which is perhaps a primary cause of his hard-boiled worldview; Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox is good-hearted, naïve, negligent, ambitious, and criminal, sometimes all at once; Daryl Hannah’s untrustworthy, calculating Darien Taylor is nevertheless sincerely torn between Gekko and Fox; and Fox’s father is, for all his small-town goodness, a hidebound and at times sanctimonious man–but it bequeathed to us a lasting personality: Gordon Gekko, titan of finance.  Is it going too far to say that much of the explosive hatred of the financial world in 2010 is a result of the idea of the trader or investment banker as a fundamentally predatory character, and that this personality in its modern form (there is a long history of distrust of Wall Street) was created, in part, by Oliver Stone’s movie?

Just think of how frequently Gekko and “greed is good” are invoked in serious discussions of the economy.  New York Times business writer Joe Nocera even lamented “Wall Street 2’s” failure to fully represent the financial crisis of the last few years.  Stone gets quoted in the article, saying in effect that he’s making a film, not history.  He’s right, of course, but it is revealing that a business writer expects a faithful representation out of Stone; after all, that’s what Nocera feels he got in “Wall Street.”  Nocera attributes the veracity of the first movie to the fact that Stone based so much of the plot on real life events.  Well, “Hamlet” was based on real events, too.  What makes “Wall Street” the force it still is today is Stone’s creation of the enduring, original, and at times unfathomable Gordon Gekko.

The same can be said about “Scarface” and “Any Given Sunday.”  The former has an obsessive following among rappers, for whom Tony Montana is a hero—a poor man of color, who will do anything, legal or not, to get rich.  “Scarface” is a gangster film, and while it’s true that “The Godfather” is also in the hip-hop pantheon, “Scarface” is far and away more important.  Why?  I doubt 50 Cent would cite the complexity of its characters, or the Shakespearean emotions they display (on an unrelated note, I’m reminded here of a funny Tony Stewart commercial, in which he avers during a polygraph test that he likes a hamburger more than Shakespeare).  What he would say is that Tony Montana represents the hip-hop mindset, one 50 himself has put his own spin on: Get Rich or Die Tryin’.  He would say that it was Tony Montana against the world, and that his goals were money, women, and opulence.  He wanted to take over the world; “The World is Yours” is Montana’s motto.  But Montana is so over-the-top he verges on caricature.  So how can he be taken seriously by rappers, in the same way Wall Streets see Gekko as a originator of sorts.  It’s not clear; both characters are unique, and ultimately unknowable.  “Scarface” appeared in 1983 and antedates hip-hop in it’s current form.  It is not about hip-hop.  Yet Oliver Stone, through the martyred Tony Montana, is a primal figure in the history of hip-hop.

“Any Given Sunday” represents Stone’s most obvious attempt at making a movie out of Shakespeare in a modern setting: it’s panoramic yet intimate, garrulous yet brooding, and over-the-top yet true to the emotions of football.  It somehow dramatizes the entire world of professional sports.  It’s entirely in gray—no one is a simple villain, no one is a hero.  But the grayness runs deeper than that: the characters never seem like–they never feel like–they are on solid ground.  They are all Hamlet.  And as in “Wall Street,” a grand speech is the centerpiece: Al Pacino’s (playing himself, not his character Tony D’Amato) halftime exhortations explicitly recall the “band of brothers” speech in “Henry V.” (The clip is from “Henry V” (1989).)  Though “Any Given Sunday” has not had the creative cultural reach of “Wall Street” or “Scarface,” there is one moment, in light of the sad recent events in Lawrence Taylor’s life, that resonates, and shows once more the power of Stone’s writing.  Willie Beamon, the recalcitrant, sulky star quarterback, encounters Taylor’s character—a thinly veiled version of the LT himself—in a sauna.  Taylor tries to inculcate a veteran’s wisdom in Beamon, and what he says, when considered alongside the allegations of statutory rape that now hang over his head, is profoundly moving.  Taylor was a troubled man long before “Any Given Sunday,” and he is, as the individual who posted the clip on Youtube keenly remarks, really talking to himself, or, more precisely, to a younger version of himself.  But that is Stone’s talent as a writer: aside from his many obvious (and relatively successful) Shakespearean ambitions, he is attuned to the mystery of a man who can understand and speak about the failures of his own life yet continue to make terrible mistakes, time and time again.

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