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SXSW Q&A: Penny Lane, Director, Our Nixon

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OurNixon.com

Throughout Richard Nixon’s presidency, aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin filmed their experiences on Super 8 cameras. That footage was seized during the Watergate investigation and was forgotten for almost 40 years. Now, in the documentary Our Nixon—which played at the SXSW Film Festival this week—audiences will get a chance to see that footage for the first time. We sat down with director Penny Lane to chat about finding the tapes, using an all-archival format, and why this footage turns preconceived notions about the people behind Watergate on their head.

m_f: How did you find out about the footage, and once you found out about it, how did you actually get a hold of it?
Penny Lane: Brian Frye—we produced it together, and I directed it—heard about the home movie collection 12 years ago, and it was because he just had a friend who knew about it. He’s always been, and I have always been, interested in found footage, particularly amateur films or orphan films that weren’t made by professionals or have a funny story behind them.

So this was right up our alley. Brian didn’t know what he wanted to do with them but he knew that these [Super 8] home movies were there; no one had really seen them, because the National Archives had never made them accessible—they had never been put on video.

When we met in 2008, Brian mentioned it to me. But it was one of those things where it was clear that he’d been mentioning it to a lot of people, and I was like, “Are you really going to do anything with it? Because if you’re not going to do anything, I think I might. Maybe we should collaborate, so I don’t just steal your ideas.” So we started it together. The initial investment was scary in a way, because we’d never seen [what was on the film]. And we had to pay a lot of money to make the first video transfers.

m_f: There were approximately 30 hours of footage. Did you actually watch all of it?
PL: Oh yeah, many times. That’s the fun part. But we both didn’t know what to expect. I think we assumed that the footage would be more about Nixon, but it was very clear, almost right away, that it was really about the people holding the cameras. If there was a good shot of Nixon, we used it in the film. I mean, he’s there all the time, but he’s always on the other side of the press corps, facing an audience, but you’re behind him. Or he’s through a door, around a corner.

m_f: You used only archival material for the film. Why did that feel like the right creative choice?
PL: The only thing we added was some original score, some music and text. I think [we used only archival material] for a couple reasons. First, it’s an interesting challenge. But for this film specifically, I think the all-archival idea was really important, because I think that the film ended up being almost about the historical record, about what things get recorded and why, and what point of view different pieces of the historical record have.

We didn’t want the film to be about me and Brian saying, “Here’s what happened and what it means.” I definitely have a lot of ideas about what all of these things mean. But we wanted to present factually, as much as we could, what happened, and leave it up to people to see that there’s contestation of meaning there. Was Watergate a tragedy because a very, very bad group of people gained power in really icky, bad ways, and then abused it and traumatized American people? Or was Watergate a tragedy because Nixon was a great president who was taken down by a left-wing press that blew this whole thing out of proportion? People have totally different ideas about what the tragedy is. Or why it’s a tragedy. So we just thought that that was really interesting. The all-archival format lets you, instead of you imposing your ideas with hindsight onto history, experience it as it was experienced.

m_f: How much research did you have to do, then, into the events that happened in order to craft a cohesive through line, and to make sure people understood the context?
PL: A lot. But the good news was that I didn’t know much about the Nixon presidency. I don’t know much more than your average person, I think, of my age, so it wasn’t that hard to figure out what the entry point information had to be. It was good to start off being dumb.

But then, obviously, as with any documentary, a year later we’re way lost in the minutiae, and I’m like, “Oh we have to talk about that, because, you know, later in life, Ehrlichman…”

The amount of information that actually goes into a film is so small. It’s way less than a New Yorker article’s worth of information that actually makes it into a film, usually. So you start getting like all lofty and ambitious about all this crazy deep information you’re going to get in there, but 85 minutes does not hold that much. So it’s very cursory—you actually don’t have to know anything about Nixon or his presidency to kind of be able to literally sit in the movie and you should to be able to get, generally speaking, what’s going on.
Things like [Nixon’s trip to] China—the world-altering significance of the China trip—I didn’t know that. So we wanted to make sure that for things like that, people knew it was a really big deal.

m_f: You were dealing with a huge amount of material. What kind of stuff did you want to include but couldn’t?
PL: It can be really frustrating, because we also made other kinds of artistic decisions—like, we were going to stick to their real voices. [If] Haldeman wrote a memoir, I couldn’t just have an actor read the damn memoir. We were trying so much to avoid any kind of editorializing, even to the extent of like having to choose an actor to read or perform as Haldeman.

They were famous people, and they were interviewed a lot, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, when they were alive—but only ever about Watergate. Pretty much no one ever talked to them about anything else. We were trying to step just to the left of Watergate—acknowledge it but also try to say anything else about Nixon or his presidency. And we almost couldn’t, in a sense, because we were constrained by the historical record. If some journalist in 1988 didn’t ask a question of Ehrlichman that I wish he’d asked, oh well!
And that becomes another level of the film. You’re seeing the way that different people are shaping narratives, over a 40-year history. From the people holding the Super 8 cameras to the news secretary at the time, to the reporters of the time to the reporters later, everyone is shaping and trying to win a battle about, ultimately, the meaning of Nixon’s presidency, what’s his legacy, and what should we think about when we think about that time. And they’re literally fighting. In the film, and to this day, it’s still going on.

m_f: Was there anything, while you were going through the footage, that you found that really surprised you?
PL: What surprised me was how young the staff looked. I’m in my early thirties, and a lot of them just looked like babies. And that is just not what I pictured, when I pictured a White House staff. But I actually think that’s normal, I think probably a lot of White House staffs are very young people. And that blew my mind. You think to yourself, “People who have that much power, they are different. They’re somehow smarter, and more sophisticated, and more knowledgeable about the world.” But then you’re like, no, they’re 22, and this is their first job.

I think probably in any White House—I’m just guessing—that it’s a very kind of militaristic layout. It’s very ordered and it’s very precise, and you report to this person who reports to that person, the chain of command is very clear and it’s very important, and you can’t go outside that. So I think a lot of them … I think especially Chapin, because he was really young—they spoke about this in various interviews in their lives, that they feel that they were taking orders. So you get into that whole area of responsibility in morality. This is a bad thing to do, but if the President of the United States asks you to do it, do you do it? And I think that that’s an interesting moral zone. It’s not the subject of the film, but it is part of it. What’s the mindset, how do you end up doing the things they did? We always wanted to know the answer to that.

m_f: I was surprised by how much I felt for them. I didn’t know the names of the people who were involved, but I came at it with this vague idea of what happened, and the takeaway is that the people who did this were bad people.
PL: I was surprised how much I sympathized with them as well; at the beginning, I didn’t know that I would identify so much with Republicans working for Nixon in the ‘70s. So many things are different between me and Haldeman, but ultimately I really came to care about them. I think everybody who makes documentaries, in a sense, ends up kind of falling in love with their characters. And you have to actually fight that, because I kept catching myself sort of just falling way too far into believing everything Ehrlichman says, or really wanting to defend them. And that’s not my goal.

I’m sure certain people will think that the film still does it. But we really did everything we could to sort of present points of view without comment, and if you choose to read this Haldeman moment as someone who is stonewalling because they’re a criminal and lying, or you choose to read it as someone who’s pissed off at Mike Wallace because Mike Wallace is being a jerk, that’s up to you. I can totally see that, either way, and there are a lot of moments in the film like that.

m_f: There’s a scene in the film of Nixon calling Neil Armstrong on the Moon, shot by one of the aides, and it’s just incredible. It’s this very inspiring moment of American history that we’re all aware of, but to see it from that angle is mindblowing. And it’s also sad, because we don’t really do things like that anymore. What was it like to find that footage?
PL: What a moment, right? It’s one of my favorite scenes. I had never thought about [Nixon’s] relationship to the moon landing. You never think about Nixon. You think about JFK; you forget that, duh, he was dead, we all know that. But I never thought, “oh yeah, Nixon was president.” We loved that scene for a lot of reasons, but we especially loved it because it was one of those moments where you’re like, “God, I’m dumb…Nixon was president, dummy.”

[When I found it,] I was just like, “oh my God.” I was watching the footage, and it’s so fun because it’s all silent and the tapes aren’t labeled, they’re not in order; you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you don’t know where you are. It’s very disorienting. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s the Apollo moon landing. As experienced at the White House.” I was really excited.

m_f: If the tapes aren’t labeled, they don’t have dates on them, so how did you figure out what was going on?
PL: That was a huge project. It became this nerdy challenge for me; I loved it. I got really good at it. There are certain things we never will know; there are a lot of shots of Nixon arriving at airports, and shaking hands with people, or giving speeches, and you’re like, “it’s silent, guys!” What’s he talking about? No one knows!

So I would say, “It looks like Nixon is greeting a foreign head of state. I don’t know what that flag is. And I don’t know who that person is.” So I would literally freeze frame the flag, and Google “flag, orange, star, blue background.” And I’d find the flag—and then, of course, a lot of countries change their flags, but okay—and then it was like, this is not called that country anymore—so we’d find the flag and I’d be like, “Okay, who was the head of state, it looks like, based on the clips before it and after it it’s 1971, who was the head of state in that country in 1971,” and I’d be like, “wow! That’s Mobutu!” And then you’d look it up, and you’re like, “He’s a crazy murderous dictator!” I learned so much stuff that I had no reason to know, and now I’m an expert on so many weird things. Like who was the head of state in various countries around the world from 1969 to 1973.

They were really good at documenting a lot of stuff, so there was a lot of cross-referencing that we could do. So Haldeman kept a diary, which you hear a little bit about in the film. It was incredibly detailed—every single day: where they were, who they talked to. So you could figure out things. You could say, “Oh, okay, they went to Hawaii, and it’s July of 1969, and oh, it’s a Vietnam Peace Summit, and that’s the guy from South Vietnam.”

And I’m like, oh okay, now I know where I am. But they’re really just filming booby birds and stuff. They always film the important thing, and then a whole bunch of other stuff that’s not important at all. It’s charming. Like, the poop on the ground.

m_f: If you couldn’t place a clip from the home movies in context, did you use it?
PL: Oh, no, God, no.

m_f: So was it a relief to be able to say, “This is something I can put aside now because I don’t have any context for it so I can’t use it”?
PL: No. I think you could have made a very different film that was just travels with Nixon. To me, that was the most heartbreaking loss—they went to all these places, so there’s this incredible footage of Russia, of being a tourist in Moscow in 1970 and what that looked like. Or Iran, or Thailand. It’s just interesting to see their tourist footage. But it didn’t really add up to that much, and so we only use a tiny bit of it.

A lot of [the footage we couldn’t use] ended up in the closing credits, or the opening credits, because it was just [so cool]. Like the motorcycle-riding bear. That’s from the Moscow circus. There was an hour of footage, and we used two seconds of a bear riding a motorcycle just because we needed to show it.

I think we could use [a lot of the footage as] a DVD extra; there’s infinite potential. We have a lot of cool footage of things like Nixon playing the piano for Harry Truman’s birthday, and it’s really great footage but there was just no reason to use it in the film. And you can kind of do a people compilation, like all of the shots of LBJ are interesting, just because it’s LBJ and he’s always interesting.

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15 Festive Facts About Jingle All the Way
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's film oeuvre, Jingle All the Way might just be the one that most exhibits the ugliness of humanity. Set on a fevered Christmas Eve brimming with desperate last-minute shoppers, Schwarzenegger's Howard Langston and Sinbad's postal worker character Myron Larabee find themselves battling one another to make themselves look good to their sons by getting their hands on the elusive Turbo Man action figure. The comedic genius Phil Hartman; Rita Wilson; future young Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd; Laraine Newman; Harvey Korman; Martin Mull; Curtis Armstrong; and Chris Parnell were the other willing participants in this cult comedy, directed by Brian Levant. Here are some things you might not have known about the contemporary holiday classic.

1. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS ABLE TO PLAY THE LEAD BECAUSE OF A DELAY ON A PLANET OF THE APES REMAKE.

Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up to star in the Apes remake in March of 1994, but 20th Century Fox rejected multiple scripts for the movie, including one co-written by Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies). Columbus left the project in late 1995, and Schwarzenegger followed him soon after, freeing him to sign up for Jingle All the Way, produced by Columbus, in February 1996. Fox's Planet of the Apes reboot found its way into theaters in 2001, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton.

2. SINBAD THOUGHT HE SCREWED UP THE AUDITION.

Sinbad in 'Jingle All the Way' (1996)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Filming was delayed so that Sinbad could follow through on his commitment to travel to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. Even though Columbus agreed to wait for him, the comedian still thought he "messed up" his audition and told his manager-brother he was going to quit show business.

3. OFFICER HUMMELL WAS INITIALLY WRITTEN AS A WOMAN.

Though the role of Officer Hummell was written for a woman, the part went to Robert Conrad. Conrad's explanation was that the producers "wanted someone who could pull up next to Arnold and tell him to pull over and he pulls over."

4. IT WAS CHRIS PARNELL'S FIRST MOVIE.

The future SNL star played the toy store clerk. "Well, it was my first movie role, and I didn't know how they typically shot scenes," Parnell admitted in a Reddit AMA. "So I had to laugh a lot, and I sort of spent all of my laughing energy in the wider takes, so by the time we got to the close-up shots, it was a real struggle to keep that going."

5. MARTIN MULL STAYED ON SET FOR OVER TWO WEEKS LONGER THAN HE WAS SUPPOSED TO.

Mull (KQRS D.J. a.k.a. Mr. Ponytail Man) was told it would just be a one- to two-day shoot for him. Unfortunately, his part had to be shot on a rainy day, and it didn't rain in Minneapolis for two and a half weeks.

6. PHIL HARTMAN MADE UP A BACKSTORY FOR HIS CHARACTER.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hartman (Ted Maltin) was probably joking for the film's official production notes, but you never know. "Ted is a guy who sued his employer for headaches caused by toner fumes and now hangs around the neighborhood and helps all the housewives," Hartman said. He also offered a take on how he was kind of being pigeonholed in Hollywood when he added, "Ted's another weasel to add my list of weasels."

7. HARTMAN ENTERTAINED HIS BORED YOUNG CO-STARS.

To keep young E.J. De la Pena (Johnny Maltin) and Jake Lloyd (Jamie Langston) from getting bored shooting a car scene all day, Hartman improvised songs designed to bring kids to hysterics. One tune contained the lyrics “You make my butt shine, the more you kiss it, the more it shines! The clock is ticking, so keep on licking, oh how you make my buttocks shine!”

"When you’re an 8 year old hearing that kind of potty humor, it was hilarious!" De la Pena remembered. "And we had a lot of fun."

8. JAMES BELUSHI HAD EXPERIENCE PLAYING SANTA BEFORE.

Belushi sort of trained to portray the Mall of America Santa in the movie by playing Kris Kringle for four years in "about 20" different homes, according to his estimation.

9. SHOOTING BEGAN IN MID-APRIL.

The Minneapolis/St.Paul areas were chosen because the producers figured they had the longest winter. But they also filmed in Los Angeles' Universal Studios for the big parade over a three week span, where it was typical hot California weather on the verge of summer. Sinbad remembered it was 100 degrees on the days when he wore the Dementor costume, and the water in his helmet had started to boil.

10. THE REAL TURBO MAN DIDN'T SWEAT.

Daniel Riordan's Turbo Man suit ensured he wouldn't have trouble with the scorching heat. He was wearing a vest underneath used by race car drivers. "They're very thin membrane vests that are filled with small, plastic tubing that's tightly coiled, back and forth, and they run cold water through it," Riordan explained. "So when they run it, it's like this cold water right up against your body and it was amazing. The sensation was fantastic."

11. TURBO MAN FIGURES WERE SOLD AT WAL-MART.

200,000 were originally produced and sold at 2,300 Wal-Mart shops for $25. They would have made more but, as Fox’s president of licensing and merchandising explained to Entertainment Weekly, there were only six and a half months to produce and promote Turbo Man toys, and it usually takes "well over a year."

12. THEY ALMOST SOLD DEMENTOR DOLLS TOO.

Sinbad recalled that the studio didn't sell Dementor action figures even though they tested high during research. "I had a prototype of the doll but they said 'give it back, we'll get you the real one when it comes out,'" Sinbad said." ...And dude, it NEVER came out!" Sinbad told Redditers his theory: "I think that they didn't want the competition between Turbo Man and my doll."

13. SOME PARENTS HAD ALCOHOL-RELATED COMPLAINTS AFTER TEST SCREENINGS.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Schwarzenegger and Sinbad talking at a bar over some alcohol, and the fact that reindeer also imbibed in beer, were among some of the problems mothers and other early viewers took issue with.

14. THE FILMMAKERS WERE SUED FOR PLAGIARISM, AND LOST.

Randy Kornfield penned the official script, but high school teacher Brian Alan Webster alleged his Could This Be Christmas? script was very similar. The publishing firm that had the rights to Webster's script won a $19 million lawsuit from 20th Century Fox, but the ruling was overturned in 2004. Webster's screenplay was about “the quest of a Caucasian mother attempting to obtain a hard-to-get action figure toy as a Christmas gift for her son. In the course of this pursuit, she competes with an African-American woman, similarly seeking to give the action figure doll as a Christmas gift.”

15. THERE WAS A SEQUEL STARRING LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

None of the original cast members nor characters returned in the straight-to-DVD Jingle All the Way 2 (2014). It was produced by 20th Century Fox and WWE Studios and featured wrestler Santino Marella. Sinbad expressed incredulity when a Redditer inquired if he was asked to return for it. "What they are doing a new version without me! Ain't gonna work!"

Additional Sources:

Schaefer, Stephen: "Sinbad leaps at the chance to go postal in Jingle All the Way," December 6, 1996; Des Moines Register

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10 Rich Facts About Wall Street
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

It’s often said that the love of money is the root of all evil. Wall Street could have easily turned this sentiment into a tagline. A gripping financial thriller, the Oliver Stone classic is a cautionary tale whose message is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was released 30 years ago today.

1. OLIVER STONE WOULD DELIBERATELY TICK OFF MICHAEL DOUGLAS BETWEEN TAKES.

“As a director, he really tests you,” Douglas said of Stone. Around two weeks after shooting had started, Stone showed up at the actor’s trailer and asked “Are you on drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.” Mortified, Douglas took a look at some footage they’d already shot. Yet, after diligently reviewing it, he could find nothing wrong with his performance. “I came back to Oliver and said … ‘I think it’s okay,” Douglas remembers. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Stone replied.

Eventually, Douglas wised up to his boss’s overly critical act. “Basically, what he wanted was to ratchet up that much more nastiness in Gordon Gekko,” Douglas explained. “And he was willing … for me to hate him for the rest of that movie just to bring it up a little more.” 

2. WALL STREET WON BOTH AN OSCAR AND A RAZZIE.


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Douglas’s cold portrayal of the unscrupulous Gekko netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1988. On the other hand, critics were thoroughly unimpressed by leading lady Daryl Hannah, who took home a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie.

3. GORDON GEKKO’S FAMOUS PHONE WEIGHED TWO POUNDS.

In one pivotal scene, Gekko rings Bud with a state-of-the-art mobile communication device. Specifically, it’s a Motorola DynaTac 8000X. Released in 1983, this brick-shaped cell phone was 13 inches long, weighed two pounds, and cost the equivalent of $8,806 in modern dollars. During the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the anachronistic gadget returned for a quick sight gag.

4. CHARLIE SHEEN CHOSE TO HAVE HIS REAL FATHER PORTRAY HIS FICTIONAL ONE.

“It was interesting having my dad play my dad,” Sheen said on the DVD's “making of” documentary. Wall Street’s most dramatic arc revolves around Bud and Carl Fox, who were played by Charlie and Martin Sheen, respectively. Stone had built a strong working relationship with the former on the set of 1986’s Platoon. So when the time came to cast Carl, he had the younger Sheen make the call, asking “Do you want Jack Lemmon or do you want your father?” “Oh, Jack Lemmon’s a genius,” the actor said, “but my dad’s my dad and he’s kind of a genius, too.”

5. SCREENWRITER STANLEY WEISER COULDN'T FIND INSPIRATION IN EITHER CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OR THE GREAT GATSBY.

Before the writer could get started, Stone gave him a little homework. Originally, the film was conceived as “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street.” When Weiser was brought aboard one fateful Friday, Stone told him to read Dostoyevsky’s novel over the weekend. “Not having taken an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class, I went to UCLA and purchased the Cliffs Notes,” Weiser wrote in 2008.

But the literary exercise proved futile. “On Monday, I explained to Oliver that the paradigm for that masterwork would not mesh well with the story we wanted to tell.” In a flash, Stone hit him with another assignment. “Okay,” he ordered, “read The Great Gatsby tonight, and see if we can mine something out of it.” This time, Weiser simply rented the 1974 movie adaptation. Once again, though, inspiration eluded him.

Wall Street as we know it didn’t really start to take shape until after a change in tactic: When Gatsby led him nowhere, Weiser read everything about finance that he could track down and, along with Stone, “spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses, interviewing investors and getting a feel for the Weltanschauung of Wall Street.”

6. PARTS OF THE MOVIE WERE SHOT AT THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE DURING WORKING HOURS.


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Permission was secured with the help of Kenneth Lipper, a longtime Wall Street insider who also served as New York City's deputy mayor from 1982 to 1985. For the film, Stone brought him on board as the chief technical advisor.

7. TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM’S RELEASE, THERE WAS A MAJOR WALL STREET CRASH IN REAL LIFE.

Historians now call it “Black Monday.” On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by a staggering 22.6 percent. It was the largest single-day stock market decline of all time, with $500 billion suddenly going up in smoke. Wall Street would hit theaters on December 11, leading conspiracy theorists to wonder if Stone had seen the crisis coming and made his movie to exploit it. 

“I did not foresee the crash, as some people say, because if I had, I would have made a lot of money,” Stone quipped.

8. GEKKO WAS BASED ON THREE BIG-NAME FINANCIERS. 


Getty Images

“If you need a friend, get a dog,” Gekko advises his young protégé. This quote was adapted from a remark that corporate raider Carl Icahn once made (which he had cribbed from Harry Truman). In 1985, Icahn became a notorious figure by taking over TWA airlines under the pretense of making it more profitable only to sell off its assets for his own gain. Gekko, no doubt, would’ve approved.

Wall Street’s charismatic antagonist also took cues from Asher Edelman, a financier and major league art enthusiast. Another source of inspiration was arbiter Ivan Boesky, who confessed to illegal insider trading in 1986 and ended up in jail in 1988 (more about him later).

9. STONE’S FATHER WAS A STOCKBROKER.

A survivor of the Great Depression, Louis Stone had a huge influence on his cinematically-inclined son. “The main motivation to make Wall Street was my father,” the director admitted. “He always said there were no good business movies, because the businessman was always the villain.” In the end, Wall Street was dedicated to the elder Stone, who passed away two years before its release. 

10. GEKKO’S BIG LINE IS NUMBER 57 ON THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE’S TOP 100 MOVIE QUOTES LIST.

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” finished just ahead of “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” from The Godfather: Part II. Gekko might as well have been quoting Boesky: At a 1985 commencement address given at UC Berkeley, the trader said “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Newsweek later reported on the speech—and made a telling observation. “The strangest thing, when we come to look back,” the magazine argued, “will not just be that Ivan Boesky could say that at a business school graduation, but that it was greeted with laughter and applause.”

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