Character Sketch: Michael Douglas


IN HIS LATEST turn as a TV spokesman for an FBI initiative against insider trading, actor Michael Douglas is doing penance for playing his best-known film role all too well. In the 1987 drama “Wall Street,’’ the corporate raider Gordon Gekko famously intones that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.’’ And if Gekko’s reptilian surname didn’t make it clear that he wasn’t a figure to be emulated, the criminal case facing him at the end of the film surely should have.

Yet Douglas has made an art of portraying besieged, defiant, audacious alpha males, and his iconic performance in “Wall Street’’ didn’t just win him a Best Actor Oscar; it also helped inspire a generation of aspiring investment bankers. For years afterward, economics courses at big-name colleges abounded with swaggering young men for whom “greed is good’’ was, if not a creed, then at least a clever inside joke. But all the thank yous and high-fives Douglas received from financial workers came as a frustration to him, recent news stories suggest. “I’m a criminal in the movie,’’ an FBI official quoted him as saying. “Don’t they realize that?’’

The bureau’s new ad, which was released last week and is intended for financial news networks, aims to clarify things. Douglas looks into the camera and explains that while “Wall Street’’ was fiction, insider trading is a crime.


A lawyer interviewed by the Washington Post quickly noted that it may be better to report offenses to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is more likely than the FBI to pay big rewards to whistle-blowers. But maybe the FBI ad isn’t aimed at Wall Streeters’ wallets, but at the culture, exemplified by Gekko, of big egos clawing for advantage by any means.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Far more striking than the script of the ad is the change in Douglas’s physical bearing. In a 2010 sequel, Gordon Gekko was out of prison but past his prime. In the ad, Douglas, who is now 67 and has fought throat cancer, looks older and less vibrant still. There’s an implicit warning here: Alpha status never lasts forever, not even for Gordon Gekko.

- DANTE RAMOS Twitter @danteramos