Why Other People’s Money is The Best Hollywood Film About Business
posted by Lawrence Cunningham
Go down the list of Hollywood films about business and you will find one biting portrayal of capitalism after the next. As the late Larry Ribstein documented and explained, all of the following movies and most other artistic renderings have this biased flaw: Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, The Constant Gardner, Blood Diamond, Michael Clayton, Pretty Woman, Wall Street (or take older examples such as Dinner at Eight or The Hudsucker Proxy or those once listed by Forbes as epitomizing this genre, such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, It’s A Wonderful Life, Glengarry Glen Ross).
That’s why I find Other People’s Money (1991) refreshing, and probably the best Hollywood film about business (contrary to dominant, contending, opinion). The movie is among the few nuanced artistic portrayals of corporate life. The play, and the movie it became, presents two sides of the story when conflicts arise between economic imperatives and socially pleasant outcomes. That’s why I often assign the film as part of my course in Corporations (hello students!).
OPM pits against each other two men seeking to control the destiny of an ailing New England family company in the dying industry of manufacturing wire and cable: a greedy and creepy takeover artist called Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield (in the film played by Danny DeVito) and the patrician lord of the target company named Jorgenson (Gregory Peck, making for perfect casing of both roles).
Garfield opens with a monologue celebrating money, along with dogs and doughnuts, and denigrating love and basic human kindness. In his first encounter with Jorgenson, Garfield announces that the New England company is worth “more dead than alive.”
Jorgenson sniffs at such short-termism, stressing moral aspects of business life, and refuses either to pay Garfield to go away or borrow money to navigate through the difficult times. Garfield counters with assertions about free enterprise, Darwinian markets and the imperatives of business change.
The drama pursues this contrast between “doing right” and “doing well” through a proxy fight for corporate control. It climaxes with an exchange of speeches at a special meeting of shareholders.
Jorgenson acknowledges the financial losses currently facing the company, stressing that they are due to the rise of fiber optics that impaired demand for wire and cable. But he makes the pitch for tradition, loyalty, and sticking with the company and its employees through tough economic patches. Admitting that the company’s niche business may have become anachronistic, he argues that it will be able to re-purpose itself and prosper over the long term, if only everyone would be patient.
Jorgenson lambasts Garfield as a mere money-man who gets rich by using other people’s money yet “creates nothing, builds nothing, runs nothing.” He gets a standing ovation when thundering against
murder in the name of maximizing shareholder value, substituting dollar bills where a conscience should be. . . . A company is more than money. Here we build, we care about people.
Garfield follows by saying “Amen,” and calling Jorgenson’s plea to save the company a mere prayer, one that fails to appreciate earthly economic reality, essentially referencing Schumpeter’s famous principle of “creative destruction.” Fiber optics rendered wire and cable obsolete and the best thing to do is recognize that fact, sell off the company’s remaining assets, and move on. He explains:
This company is dead. I didn’t kill it; it was dead when I got here This business is dead, let’s have the decency to sign the death certificate and invest in the future. Who cares [about the employees]? They didn’t care about you. . . . Employee wages went up way more than stock. Who cares? Me. I’m your only friend. I’m making you money; that’s the only reason you became shareholders. You want to make money, invest somewhere else, create new jobs. . . At my funeral you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a few bucks in your pocket – that’s a funeral worth having.
Who wins? The shareholders vote with Garfield, siding with a capitalist over Jorgenson’s impassioned plea for broader concerns. That is somewhat unusual in Hollywood films about business, where the capitalist’s argument rarely carries the day.
Here the referendum accepts that what may be the downside of capitalism, short-term effect on employees and communities, can be outweighed by its salutary long-term effects of moving forward on a clean slate towards ultimately brighter futures all the way around. It turns Jorgenson’s view of the long-term around on itself.
On the other hand, the Hollywood film version of the art adds a scene that did not appear in the stage version: Garfield falls in love with Jorgenson’s daughter and the two hatch a plan to sell the dying firm to its employees who will then repurpose it along the lines Jorgenson envisioned. A happy ending is snatched from the jaws of creative destruction after all. As Larry Ribstein wrote in his assessment of this twist, which thus ultimately does not stray too far from Hollywood’s favored pathways: “Capitalism is acceptable only if it has a heart.”