Cowboys Die Hard: Real Men and Businessmen in the Reagan-Era Blockbuster

By Cohen, Paul | Film & History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Cowboys Die Hard: Real Men and Businessmen in the Reagan-Era Blockbuster


Cohen, Paul, Film & History


When did we last see a Hollywood film with a heroic male entrepreneur at its center - a self-made captain (or even lieutenant) of industry, an Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, who begins with little or nothing and achieves success by virtue of his own diligence and ingenuity? In a 2005 paper titled "Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business," Larry Ribstein, a scholar of business law, surveyed Hollywood films from the 1930s to the present and found that with rare exceptions - the Tom Hanks nice-guy businessmen, for example, in You've Got Mail (1998) and Cast Away (2000) - American films have portrayed business negatively. Indeed, several archetypal Hollywood entrepreneurs whom Ribstein counts as exceptions seem more to uphold his point than to refute it: Charles Foster Kane, who ends tragically corrupt and self-deluded, business empire notwithstanding, and Oskar Schindler, who redeems himself and his Jews only by renouncing both wealth and enterprise.1 Remarking on the very same Hollywood rule of thumb, New York Times entertainment writer Michael Cieply offers several more unexceptional exceptions: Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), the electric car visionary of Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), who ultimately falls prey to big business; and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the amoral arms dealer of Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008), who literally reinvents himself as a prosthetically enhanced superhero.2

Much more often, Ribstein and Cieply concur, Hollywood businessmen have played the heavy. "The big bad businessman," writes Cieply, citing the 1917 film Greed, "has been a film archetype since before talkies." Both writers list such classic examples as Mr. Potter, the villainous banker of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and the equally malevolent Gordon Gecko of Wa// Street (1987), Oliver Stone's damning portrait of Reagan-era capitalism. Cieply also includes Daniel Plainview, "the oil maddened entrepreneur" of Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar winning There Will Be Blood (2007).3 Then there are the numerous films, from William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) through the likes of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich (2000), in which evil is embodied by faceless - and heartless - corporations. Arguably, Ribstein suggests, Hollywood's most iconic, if not heroic, entrepreneurs are the father-and-son patriarchs of the criminal Corleone family, who represent "parodies of ruthless businessmen, using literal rather than merely figurative 'cut-throat' tactics."4 Ribstein entertains several possible explanations for Hollywood's apparent anti-business bias: that it is a famously left-wing town dominated by crypto-Marxists, that it caters to the American audience's popular prejudice in favor of "the little guy," even that its sour portrait of business "might actually be right." But none of these addresses what he views - and one must surely agree - as the ultimate irony: "that movies, themselves, are big business." Why, he asks, "would film companies attack themselves?" Ribstein's own suggestion is that this seeming paradox reflects the internal tension between filmmakers, who view themselves as artist-mavericks, and the capitalists who fund their art. The former resent their dependence on the latter, and their films express that resentment in the form of "an anti-capital message." Movie companies, meanwhile, do not interfere "as long as the message does not interfere with selling tickets."5

Perhaps so. But I would argue that Ribstein's solution merely pushes the question one step further back: why would an anti-business message sell tickets in the first place, especially to American audiences? Has not the myth of the self-made entrepreneur come virtually to define the American Dream? Have not the American "apostles of the self-made man," in John Cawelti's phrase, such as Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horatio Alger, celebrated economic success and the virtues - industry, perseverance, enterprise - that yield it? …

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