Originally created 02/29/04

Legendary films capture aspects of business world



Who says Hollywood's all about sex and violence? Throughout the years, plenty of notable films have centered on the business of America: business. So in observance of tonight's Academy Awards presentation, The Augusta Chronicle's business staff takes a look back at famous, and not-so-famous, movies with business themes.

THE ICONS

MODERN TIMES (1936): This Charlie Chaplin classic portrays the common worker struggling to keep up with the frantic pace of the industrial revolution. Perfect timing for a country that was rapidly growing into a manufacturing superpower.

CITIZEN KANE (1941): Orson Welles is Charles Foster Kane, the megalomaniacal media mogul inspired by real-life newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst. This landmark business film tells the story of an empire-builder and the price he paid for it.

THE GODFATHER (1972): Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the CEO of a business - a family business. This was the film that introduced middle America to the Mafia and provided the blueprint for a mob boss whom real-life thugs are still trying to emulate.

WALL STREET (1987): A reflection of 1980s excess, this Oliver Stone film took us into the world of insider trading, leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers. It also gave us one of the most memorable business movie characters: Gordon "Greed is good" Gekko, convincingly played by Michael Douglas.

LADDER CLIMBERS

SECRET OF MY SUCCESS (1987): In this quintessential movie about fighting for the corner office, Brantley Foster (Michael J. Fox) scams his way from the mailroom to the board room of his uncle's multimillion dollar corporation.

RISKY BUSINESS (1983): Paul Brickman's smart and stylized teen comedy examines the yuppie pursuit of going to a good school, getting a good job and getting rich. But most people remember this comedy about a one-night-only brothel as the movie in which Tom Cruise dances in his underwear.

WORKING GIRL (1988): Corporate back-stabbing with romance on the side. Melanie Griffith plays secretary Tess McGill, whose attempt to make it big is thwarted when her boss steals her idea. She gets even by impersonating the boss, who is out with a broken leg. Tess even wins the heart of a hunky investment banker. You go, girl!

AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000): Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a Wall Streeter obsessed with personal appearance, interoffice politics and his business cards. He's also a psychopathic killer. Though the film centers on Bateman's murderous exploits, the "anything to get ahead" ethic permeates throughout.

SLEAZY SALESMEN USED CARS (1980): Turn back the odometer, get out the touch-up paint and spray on the "new-car smell." In this comedy, shady used-car salesman Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is trying to run for the Senate but ends up fighting the evil car-dealer brother of his deceased boss for supremacy of the boulevard.

TIN MEN (1987): Aluminum siding salesmen (Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss) go to war with each other after their Cadillacs collide. This comedy, set in 1964 Baltimore, recalls the days when salesmen went door-to-door and devised elaborate scams to win customers.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992): There's no room for losers at the John Williamson real estate office after a sales ace (Alec Baldwin) is brought in to give a pep talk to the agents. His sales contest goes like this: First place, a Cadillac; second place, a set of steak knives; third place, a pink slip.

BOILER ROOM (2000): A young college dropout (Giovanni Ribisi) thinks he'll please his demanding father by taking a job in a small New York brokerage house where trainees make high-pressure cold calls to the affluent. The pay's so good, it must be criminal. It is.

SEEING THE LIGHT

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946): Frustrated businessman George Bailey (James Stewart), in despair over a misplaced $8,000 loan and the machinations of the evil millionaire Potter, is saved from suicide by an angel who shows him what life would had been like if he had never existed.

ARTHUR (1981): A money-can't-buy-happiness tale of drunken dilettante Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore), who snubs his nose at a vast inheritance by falling in love with Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli) instead of marrying the woman his old-money family has chosen. As a bonus, he gets the family fortune anyway.

BABY BOOM (1987): Go-go New York businesswoman J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is excited about an inheritance until she discovers that it's not money but a baby girl. She loses her job and her boyfriend but finds luck (or was it fate?) in Vermont by creating a popular applesauce while falling in love with a local veterinarian.

PRETTY WOMAN (1990): The subplot of this hooker-meets-tycoon love story involves Edward Lewis' (Richard Gere) penchant for buying struggling companies and selling off the pieces. By the end of the film - his heart obviously softened by Vivian (Julia Roberts) - he's pumping money into a failing family-owned shipbuilding company.

DIRTY BUSINESS

NORMA RAE (1979): Harsh working conditions at the textile mill in her small Southern town (where workers are not allowed to sit down and sometimes go deaf from the loud machines) leads the title character (Sally Field) into a difficult and dangerous campaign to unionize the plant.

TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988): Preston Tucker designed a revolutionary car with advanced features that most people could afford. No wonder Detroit launched an anti-Tucker campaign that put him out of business after only 50 Tuckers rolled off the line. A David-and-Goliath tale based on a true story.

THE INSIDER (1999): Tobacco industry biologist Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) goes on the record with CBS' 60 Minutes over deceptive industry practices. But CBS parent Westinghouse, fearing a lawsuit, never airs the interview. For his part, Wigand receives death threats, gets divorced and loses his friends.

ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000): Based on the true story of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s dumping of carcinogenic chromium in rural California, which led to one of the largest class-action lawsuits in American history. Julia Roberts plays the single mom who uncovers it all.

FUN AT THE OFFICE

9 TO 5 (1980): What would it be like if administrative assistants took over a company? In this turn-the-tables comedy, productivity soars when bad-guy boss Frank Hart (Dabney Coleman) is imprisoned in his home by his employees (Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) after their get-even scheme spins wildly out of control.

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994): When the founder of Hudsucker Industries commits suicide, its board of directors installs a naive business graduate Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) as CEO to drive down share prices and initiate a takeover. Things backfire when a reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) starts snooping and Barnes ends up inventing the hula hoop.

CLOCKWATCHERS (1997): It's a temp-estuous world at Global Credit Association when a permanent hire enters the scene, spelling trouble for Iris (Toni Collette) and her three temp friends, Margaret (Parker Posey), Paula (Lisa Kudrow) and Jane (Alanna Ubach). A case study of water-cooler conspiracies and workers without a cause.

OFFICE SPACE (1999): You may have missed this cult classic of cubicle culture, but people in your office are quoting from it right now. Software company employee Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) drops out of the corporate world, but not before he and his downsized buddies get even with a money-embezzling computer virus.

CRIMINAL MINDED

HOT STUFF (1979): "You can't turn this mob over to the cops," this movie's tag line says. "They are the cops." Entrepreneurial police officers (Dom DeLuise, Suzanne Pleshette and Jerry Reed) set up their own fencing "business" and later nab everyone who sold them stolen goods. Inspired by a true story.

SCARFACE (1983): "First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman," says Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in this cocaine-dusted tale of a Cuban emigre who builds a drug empire in 1980s Miami only to see it brought down by his own greed and paranoia. The flip side of the American Dream.

THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987): This fictionalized account of federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his fight to bring gangster Al Capone to justice in Prohibition-era Chicago is filled with gun battles. But what finally brings Capone down? Tax-evasion charges.

CASINO (1995): Before Las Vegas became a giant theme park run by major corporations, it was ruled by wise guys such as "Ace" Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), who bought politicians, shook down card cheats and skimmed money for Midwestern mob bosses. Why do you think they called it Sin City?

DAY IN THE LIFE

NETWORK (1976): The conflict between church (journalism) and state (corporate profits) is exposed in this story of aging newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and his fight against fictional broadcast giant UBS. "The only truth you know is what you get over this tub," he tells viewers during a rant. Nearly 30 years later, the film still seems relevant.

CLERKS (1994): Spend a day with New Jersey convenience store clerk Dante (Brian O'Halloran) as he puts up eccentric customers, parking-lot drug dealers, Randal (the video-store clerk next door) and shocking revelations by an ex-girlfriend. All this on a day he was supposed to be off.

BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997): Everybody has that one special thing. For Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) that special thing makes him adult movie star Dirk Diggler. Set in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the adult film industry actually used film, the movie chronicles a dysfunctional "family" struggling to keep pace with changing times.

STARTUP.COM (2001): Thousands of dot-com companies folded during the Internet bust. One of them, govWorks.com, was turned into a documentary. Watch twentysomething friends Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman in this documentary as they burn through venture capital trying to build a Web site for people to conduct business with municipal governments.

CHRONICLE'S FAVORITES

Damon Cline's Picks

ROGER & ME (1989): In the 1980s, words such as downsizing and outsourcing weren't part of the lexicon. Roger Moore's revealing look at the corporate practices of General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Mich., ensured that they would be in the 1990s and beyond.

This tongue-in-cheek documentary, which chronicles the closure of several GM plants and the elimination of more than 30,000 jobs, virtually set the stage for the independent film movement that followed.

All Mr. Moore wanted was an interview with company head Roger Smith. Instead he got the brush. When he pointing the camera at the residents of Flint, he captured the sorrow of the Rust Belt better than anyone before or since.

TRAFFIC (2000): Illegal drugs are big business, but most movies on the drug trade tend to be one-dimensional, focusing either on the street hustler or the cartel kingpin. Steven Soderbergh's critically acclaimed film gets everyone in between.

Intertwining vignettes of the newly appointed U.S. drug czar (Michael Douglas), a veteran DEA agent (Don Cheadle) and a duplicitous Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) highlight the complexity, and futility, of America's "war on drugs."

The film's accurate portrayal of U.S. policies and politics won kudos from law enforcement officials, who said it is one of the most realistic movies on the topic ever made.

CRITICAL CARE (1997): The tag line of this dark comedy: "At Memorial Hospital no one ever dies. ... until their insurance runs out." Though many films have taken shots at health care, this dark comedy aims squarely at the insurance-driven medical profession.

Young doctor Werner Ernst (James Spader) gets in the middle of a family fight over the care of a comatose loved one who has no hope of recovery. All Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks), the senior physician, cares about is the bottom line, making the decision to keep the patient alive because the insurance company continues to pay.

The experience leaves Dr. Ernst re-evaluating his ethics, which have been tainted by the money and immorality.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

Matthew Mogul's Picks

BIG (1988): While not a classic finance flick, the main character, 12-year-old Josh Baskin, shows us that business is all about the basics when he mysteriously gets transformed into an adult (Tom Hanks) and helps revive a struggling toy company.

As a corporate executive at MacMillan Toys he scraps the spreadsheets, market projections and demographic surveys for a simple litmus test: Would I like to play with this?

Too many corporate board rooms get mired in a morass of figures and Madison Avenue gobbledygook and lose sight of what matters most. The business moral: Lose the adult trappings and think like a kid.

BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1985): A minor-league baseball pitcher (Richard Pryor) stands to inherit $300 million if he can pass a perverted test created in the estate of his crotchety, filthy-rich uncle - blow $30 million in 30 days.

Wasting that much dough turns out to be a lot harder than ever imagined and underscores the truism that money makes more money (even if your aim is to fritter it away).

Did The Donald's (Trump, that is) bankruptcy derail him? No, because he always had the capital and assets to parlay into his next money-maker. As they say, making your first $1 billion is easy after you make that first $1 million.

TRADING PLACES (1983): A vagrant Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) gets an improbable shot at wheeling and dealing on Wall Street after two conniving big-shot brothers make a bet on whether a bum off the street could make it as commodity trader.

One brother bets that Billy Ray doesn't stand a chance because he lacks the right breeding, while the other is wagering he just lacks the opportunity - the old nature versus nurture argument.

Nurture wins hands down here. Turns out that street-survival skills serve Mr. Valentine well in the cutthroat trading pits of the commodity exchange. And in the end he dupes the brothers out of their fortune.

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com.

James Gallagher's Picks

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994): When the president of Hudsucker Industries commits suicide, leaving his shares for public sale, the board of directors concocts a plan to install an idiot (Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes) as president to push the company's stock price down.

In the vein of corporate scandals such as Enron, MCI and Adelphia, Hudsucker's board of directors tried using Norville's image to manipulate the company's stock so they could buy the president's shares cheap and take over the company. Only Norville proved smarter than he looked.

The wet-behind-the-ears Iowan who was promoted from the mailroom foils their plan with the creation of the hula hoop - "You know, for the kids" - that ignites the company's stock price and image.

THE KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY (1996): A young scientist (Kevin McDonald) finds fame and fortune as the inventor of a new anti-depressant, Gleemonex. With celebrity endorsements and extensive marketing hype, the drug becomes the latest fad, especially after it goes over-the-counter.

But in its rush to get the drug to market, the company neglected to consider the side effects, and pretty soon, the drug's users are falling into comas.

The film lampoons modern pharmaceutical marketing, in which celebrities from Bob Dole to Mike Ditka shill the latest drug to people who are told to ask their doctors for pills they may not need.

GUNG HO (1986): A labor representative (Michael Keaton) persuades a Japanese auto manufacturer to reopen a Pennsylvania car plant, thereby saving the industrial town. The catch is, the Japanese expect the Americans to work like the Japanese, with morning exercises and a pledge of allegiance to the company.

Gung Ho highlighted the economic fear of the 1980s: that Japan was buying the American economy. Nearly 20 years after its release, the Japanese economy is struggling, but Asia still looms as a threat to the American manufacturer as thousands of jobs move to China each day.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.