Pinstripes and Black Hats — Businessmen are Hollywood’s Favorite Bad Guys

By Michael Fumento

National Review, June 22, 1992
Copyright 1992 National Review Inc.

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"Greed — for lack of a better word — is good," proclaimed corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. This is Hollywood’s vision of the businessman. And whether it’s on the big screen or on the boob tube, businessmen applying Gekko’s vision of the world regularly shoot, slash, poison, blackmail, extort, and smear their way to the top.

And businessmen, Hollywood style, aren’t getting any better. In the second Aliens movie, Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, accuses the representative of the otherwise unnamed entity "The Company" of sending 157 colonists to a horrible death of being cocooned and ripped apart by vicious alien creatures. The representative simply replies that, "It was a bad call."

Later he tries to block the attempt of other people in his party to avoid hand-to-hand combat with the aliens by going into orbit and blasting the planet, explaining that along with the aliens they would be destroying a facility with a "significant dollar value." Finally he attempts to have Ripley and a little girl impregnated with the horrible alien embryos in order to slip the alien creatures past quarantine and be rewarded by The Company.

Back here in the twentieth century, the Washington-based Media Institute has found that by the age of 18, the average TV viewer has seen businessmen attempt more than ten thousand murders and countless lesser offenses, all in the name of greed.

According to a comprehensive survey of some 620 television shows between 1955 and 1986 by Stanley and Linda Lichter of the Center for Media & Public Affairs, and Stanley Rothman, director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at Massachusetts’s Smith College, businessmen are more than three times as likely to be criminals than are members of any other occupation.

Nobody argues that all businessmen are squeaky-clean. But the crimes businessmen typically, in reality, commit — embezzlement, tax evasion, hiding product defects, anti-trust violations, insider trading — are rarely the ones they are depicted as committing.

Rothman and the Lichters, writing in their recent book Watching America, found businessmen’s TV crimes "tended to be violent or sleazy. They committed 40 per cent of the murders and 44 per cent of the vice crimes like drug trafficking and pimping."

In recent years, the developer in movies has been portrayed as a greater threat to society than the serial killer. Robocop, Batteries Not Included, Gremlins II, and Dark Man all featured developers who ranged from being downright evil to, at the very least, being cold, callous, and greedy.

Even when movies or TV shows a businessman in a favorable light, it is often to highlight the evil of another businessman. For example, in the recent film Other People’s Money, it is Gregory Peck’s hard-nosed defense of his workers’ jobs that makes his company vulnerable to a takeover by badguy businessman Danny DeVito.

Why, particularly given that Hollywood is itself financially driven, are businessmen always the heavies?

One reason may be that it’s getting tougher and tougher to find bad guys who don’t have lobbying organizations. "Blacks, women, Italians, Hispanics, everyone writes letters complaining about how they’re portrayed on television," Rosie O’Neill executive producer Barney Rozenzweig told the New York Times. "That’s why I love businessman — they don’t write me letters."

It’s also possible that Hollywood is attempting to reflect a populist aversion to authority. But the Lichter-Rothman data indicate that big businessman actually fare better on screen and television than do small ones.

One screenwriter, who asked — begged — not to be identified, said he believed producers have a long-term goal of indoctrinating or "educating" the public with Hollywood’s brand of creeping socialism. "It’s impossible" for a screenwriter who doesn’t profess to believe in these things to become very successful, he told me.

This, in turn, could be used to help determine what chemicals cause cancer.

Michael Medved

But best-selling author Michael Medved, a film critic and co-host of TV’s Sneak Previews, says, "I don’t think there’s a conspiracy in Hollywood to blast the American people. I think there’s enough people out there in Hollywood convinced that this is how you do business."

In Hollywood’s Favorite Heavy, a 1987 documentary made for PBS on Hollywood’s portrayal of businessmen, screenwriter and Simon & Simon creator Philip De Guere said he suddenly realized he had been making villains of businessmen, but that he was "going to do more of it." He explained, "It’s something that everybody can identify with and is consequently probably pretty close to the truth."

In the quarterly Television & Families, Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC and current president of GTG Entertainment, explained "Television exaggerates everything.... If all it did was give pictures of life as it’s lived, it would be pretty dull." Steven Bochco, executive producer of L.A. Law, told Television & Families that TV businessmen are, "pure fiction . . . wealthy, wheeler-dealer characters who don’t have anything to do with the real world of day-to-day business. . . . I don’t think the audience believes they’re realistic . . ."

Others feel that is understating the industry’s impact. Actor Charlton Heston told Policy Review: "The moving image is the most powerful tool or weapon to change and shape the way people feel about the world and themselves." In fact, "The printed word is almost primitive — like hammer and stone — measured against film and television. Its influence doesn’t compare. It can tell you things, if you can read, but film can show you."

Indeed, as Medved points out, "If you scratch the surface a little, people will be candid that there should be anti-business messages."

Tinker, in the above interview in which he invoked Hollywood’s "dramatic license," asserted, "Businessmen deserve what they get.... Dammit, there is a lot of villainy in business." He added, "Businessmen have been that way since Dickens was writing about them. They may not be the murderers we often see on police shows and the like, but perhaps murder is a metaphor."

Michael Pack, who directed Hollywood’s Favorite Heavy, does not believe that making villains of businessmen is simply good, clean fun. "I believe the primary loser in this stereotyping of businessmen is the audience," he said. "Kids don’t understand why it’s important to be a good businessman. They are told that to make it in business you have to be corrupt."

Adds Medved, "There is a general sense that the way certain groups are portrayed is important, and I think it is. For most Americans, it’s movies that convey to us our standards of what is normal and what is real. It is profoundly dangerous for society when the message that the public receives always seems to say that things are terrible, corrupt, and only getting worse."

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if the creatures in Aliens 4 show up wearing Brooks Brothers suits, carrying briefcases, and plotting the hostile takeover of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the media.