What A Mostly Forgotten 1991 Movie Can Teach Us About The Labor Stoppage
And If You Don’t Think It Does, You Should Still See it Anyway
As the strikes in Hollywood have gone on for months on end I have had cause to reflect whether there is an appropriate movie that might adequately sum up the quagmire we seem to be stuck in. Late last night the movie in question finally dawned on me. It’s understandable it took such a long time to reach it: while this movie is a very good one it was never highly regarded at the time and was quickly forgotten.
That’s hard to imagine considering that Other People’s Money was based on a successful play, is directed by one of the most famous directors in Hollywood and features a super cast including one of the greatest actors in history in what was his last major role. Yet the movie’s reviews were mostly indifferent, it did poorly at the box office and is listed at Wikipedia as ‘a minor film.’ Indeed the only critic who seemed to appreciate was Roger Ebert, who gave a rave review and actually did a piece in which he celebrated it (though he thought the ending was a cop out.)
Other People’s Money was based on a popular Broadway play by Jerry Sterner in 1989. The man chosen to helm it was Norman Jewison, one of the greatest and most underappreciated directors in history. In his long career Jewison directed five films that were nominated for Best Picture: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming a 1966 Cold War satire, In the Heat of The Night (1967) Fiddler on the Roof (1971) A Soldier’s Story (1984) and Moonstruck (1987). He was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Director three times but never won an award in competition. Indeed, he has the dubious distinction to be on the list of those directors to have one of his films win Best Picture (In the Heat of the Night) but not get a corresponding Best Director award. (He might feel better to know that he is part of a club that includes Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Cecil B De Mille.) Part of the reason he might not have gotten the appreciation he deserved was so many of his best works are adaptations of plays. To this point he’d also directed Jesus Christ Superstar and Agnes of God. He was in many ways the perfect man for this job: his direction is as unobtrusive and subtle as it usually is.
Jewison also had a reputation for directing films that have a social message underneath. Such had been the case with In The Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story and he covered similar ground in his last masterpiece The Hurricane. Perhaps people went to see this film expecting a similar story and while Other People’s Money has the material for this film, the message is different.
At the center of the film is the New England Wire and Cable Company. Its President is Andrew ‘Jorgy’ Jorgensen, who is described as a legend in the industry. It may tell you all you need to know that Jorgy is played by Gregory Peck in what would be his last major movie role. Jorgy has run the business for forty years and he is a proud New England patriarch. That said, he may also be the kind of man who has been in business so long he is unaware of how the economy is changing. His closest friends in the business are Bea (Piper Laurie) who has been his lover for ages and his trusted second in command for longer. His CEO is Bill Coles (Dean Jones).
Both Laurie and Jones were some of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood, though there’s a good chance you know who they are. Laurie was nominated for three Oscars in her long career, most famously as the mother in the original Carrie. Jones spent much of his career between Disney and Broadway rarely getting a chance to be used to his full potential. Bill is one of the roles that should have given him that.
As the movie begins the company is being bought up by Larry ‘the Liquidator’ Garfield. We first meet Larry when he comes to the company and makes it very clear what he intends to do. He tells Jorgy that the company is undervalued and has been losing money for a very long time. He does so by writing on a blackboard flamboyantly. He then tells the old hands that at this point their company is more valuable if he buys it up, strips it for parts, and sells it at a profit. Jorgy listens as long as he can and then tells him politely to get lost. Larry makes it very clear he is not going away.
Danny DeVito, who is wonderful as Larry, has been one of the greatest actors in Hollywood for so long that its interesting to consider the one real flaw in his long career. DeVito is so gifted at stealing any scene with just a few lines or even gestures that he rarely got the opportunity to lead a picture in his own right. Of course, there’s also the fact that DeVito is also magnificent when it comes to playing characters who do not have a redeeming bone in their bodies and in the 1980s (as well as today) there are very few leading roles for this in movies. Other People’s Money is one of the few movies in DeVito’s long career when he is the lead figure and he absolutely shines every minute he’s on the screen. He is in a sense as sleazy as he is in nearly every other film he appears in, but there’s also something loveable about how utterly repentant he is. He’s also given the chance to do something he almost never gets to do in anything he’s featured in — have a complicated love story.
To try and save the company Bea asks them to call it her daughter. Kate is a New York corporate lawyer and as we eventually learn, Jorgy is her father. Their relationship is awkward as she is continuously frustrated by him. (I’ll get to why in a minute.) Kate is played by one of the more undervalued actresses on the 1990s Penelope Ann Miller. Miller was both beautiful and superbly talented but was rarely used to her full potential for much of her career. I’d argue that in her prime the greatest use of her abilities were in this film and Carlito’s Way. After that she spent much of her career being used in failed franchises such as The Shadow and The Relic, somehow got cast in the title role in a TV movie on Mary Kay Letourneau and then spent much of the next decade doing horrible TV movies. Only in recent years on Peak TV has she occasionally gotten roles worthy of her, including parts in the critically acclaimed Men of A Certain Age and American Crime. Her work as Bea makes us realize just how much Hollywood lost as love interests in mediocre action movies.
Kate knows Larry’s reputation and knows what the company up against. That the two of them are attracted to each other despite all this may be a surprise but in neither case does either forget what side they’re on. In one scene when Larry keeps making demands, Bea tells him: “I won’t love you any more” and a look of surprise appears on his face.
I imagine that part of the reason Other People’s Money failed at the box office and had a bad critical reception was the marketing. The movie was advertised as basically DeVito being a clown, following Miller around and saying lines like: “I rob from the rich and give to the middle class.” Maybe others thought this was going to be illustrated as a film of good versus evil — after all, the main leads were Louis De Palma and Atticus Finch. But that’s not what they get — and it’s also the reason I think this movie has resonance today and in a weird way, with the strike.
Because Jorgy was played by Gregory Peck, it is possible that they fought this would be a version of It’s a Wonderful Life for the 1990s. The problem is that, in this scenario, George Bailey still thinks that the world is one big Bedford Falls and that he can win by simply being honest and good-hearted. Its been clear for a while that the company has been struggling financially because the market for wire and cable has been starting to bottom out. Jorgy’s good hearted optimism seems to be that this is all because of the recession and things will eventually get better. As a result, he either doesn’t regard Larry seriously or refuses to fight on terms that would help him win. That is in part why Kate becomes increasingly frustrated as the movie continues: she keeps laying out options that could make the company toxic for Larry to mount his takeover but Jorgy doesn’t want to win this way.
It’s also clear halfway through the movie that while Jorgy is blind to the situation, his colleagues are not. Bill says at one point he is starting to worry about his future. Jorgy tells him he’s going to retire in two years and then the company’s his. When Bill tries as subtly as he can to point out the company might not be there in two years, Jorgy dismisses him: “We don’t have the funeral while the body’s still warm.” It is because Bill finally realizes that Jorgy is willing to go down with the ship that he decides to betray him but you can’t exactly blame him in this scene.
Bea makes a similar offer to Larry near the end of the movie when she basically promises him her life savings if he will stop his takeover. She also knows Larry will probably win and she knows this will kill Jorgy. As gently as he can (while still being Larry) he points out that in a way she is being selfish both to the stockholders and to Jorgy.
The climax of the film comes down to a stockholders meeting. The shareholders will vote on the fate of the company. Both Jorgy and Larry will state their case, and the majority will decide whether the company lives or dies.
Jorgy gives the kind of powerhouse speech that would be fitting in a Frank Capra film or indeed so many other films of this era. He makes the argument about the company’s success. He argues that the stockholders and the workers are neighbors and ‘you wouldn’t destroy your neighbor.” He argues for patience and using a line that would no doubt have come in another kind of film: “A company is worth more than the price of its stock.” It is a powerful speech delivered by Peck, and as you’d expect it gets cheers and applause. It’s the kind of speech that would be the climax of another movie where Larry would just walk away with his tale between his legs.
Then Larry gets up and starts saying Amen. “Where I come from, you always say ‘Amen after you hear a prayer. Because that’s what you just heard. A prayer. Where I come from, that particular prayer is called the ‘Prayer for the Dead’. This company is dead. I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me. It was dead when I got here. It’s too late for prayers.”
Larry then very quietly and simply begins, as Roger Ebert eloquently put it, a defense of greed. He tells the stockholders that their company is obsolete. “We’re dead. We’re just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.” Jorgy used much of his speech to point out where the companies ranks as opposed to forty years ago. Larry throws it back in his face.
“At one time, there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company?”
When I think of that part of that speech (there’s more that I’ll get too) I can’t help but think of the argument that the striking unions keep saying: the companies are rich so that they must have money to give us. This flies in the face that networks and cable companies are producing fewer shows, that their have been corporate mergers and that fewer and fewer people are buying their product. The companies are not obsolete but they do have increasing shares of a shrinking market.
Later in that speech Larry says that we can’t destroy the company because ‘we have a responsibility to our employees. I got two words for that: “Who cares?…They didn’t care about you…Did this community ever say: ‘We know times are tough?”
Not entirely fitting I know, but I am reminded of how the Guild members have reacted to Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher, who are taking responsibility for their employees and our currently being excoriated.
I won’t give you the rest of the speech because it doesn’t entirely apply (and believe me you deserve to hear DeVito deliver it yourself). What I will say is that unlike most movies where the small business and the good hearted townspeople triumph against the evil corporations, DeVito and Jewison make as compelling an argument for capitalism as I’ve ever heard in a Hollywood movie. At one point he reminds people that you became stockholders to make money. As you know very well the writers and actors are making money right now but they think they deserve more and as a result of their actions other people in their community — ‘their neighbors’ as Jorgy put it are suffering.
In the case of the strike in Hollywood, I’m sure all the writers think that they are Jorgy and not Larry. The thing is, they are the worst part of Jorge, so focused on the future of their business that they can’t see the people that they are hurting in the present. No doubt they see the studios and the companies as versions of Larry trying to destroy their work.
That’s both true and false. Larry is aware of how bad things are for the company and has to think of the future. But they also have a responsibility to other people. At one point his speech Larry reminds these people that they are in this because “You want to make money!” The writers and actors agree on that as well, but they want to make more money even if that means other people make none. And it’s not like the workers below them have the option of liquidating their stock.
Even if you don’t agree with the rationale in any part of this argument, I still think you should track down Other People’s Money anyway. (You can currently find it streaming on Amazon.) The ending of the film is something of a cop out, and it’s worth noting that Jewison allowed the ending of the original play to be rewritten. It is far darker than the ending here. Perhaps Jewison, for whom this material is far darker than the type he usually did, decided that it was more important that good being given a minor victory at the end. But it’s still well worth seeing because of the power of its performances and the mix of its genres.
In Wall Street Gordon Gekko famously said that ‘Greed is Good.” Oliver Stone later said that the world basically misinterpreted everything he was trying to say about men like Gekko in his film. Four years later, Larry Garfield essentially makes this same argument to a different audience and not only does the movie take it seriously, but when its finished, you might be willing to see it the same way.