A Real-Life Wall Street Scandal Changed The Fate Of Working Girl

Screenwriter Kevin Wade and producer Douglas Wick struggled to get the 1988 rom-com "Working Girl" off the ground. The two previously worked together on a project intended to be a thriller, but it never got made, and for a time it appeared their new project about a young New York secretary (Melanie Griffith) who pretends to be her two-timing boss (Sigourney Weaver) to negotiate a major deal with an investment broker (Harrison Ford) would suffer the same fate. Wade came up with the idea for the film while bike riding through Manhattan. In an oral history of the film on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Wade told The Hollywood Reporter:

"I would see the Staten Island Ferry coming over and those women in sneakers getting off and then stopping to change into [dress] shoes. That's how I discovered this story — a modern-day immigrant story of a person who comes here not really speaking the language, not with the right clothes, not knowing the customs, but with smarts. It's the Horatio Alger story. I knew right away it was about a young woman."

Wade and Nichols developed and shopped the story together, but it was passed over several times. According to Wick, a lot of directors thought the idea was better suited as a TV movie. Even Wade's agent told him the idea was "fantasyland" and that the project would never get made. The project was eventually bought by 20th Century Fox, and then James Bridges, who directed "The China Syndrome," and "Urban Cowboy" signed on as director. Just when things were starting to move forward, a real-life Wall Street scandal would present another roadblock.

The Ivan Boesky story

While Wade and Wick were working on the project that would eventually become "Working Girl," Ivan Boesky, a Wall Street speculator, was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Boesky, who had made a fortune betting on corporate takeovers, was accused of insider trading in one of biggest stock trading scandals in history. It was revealed that investment bankers had been illegally feeding Boesky information that guided his decision-making, and in 1987 he was fined $100 million and sentenced to three years in prison.

Boesky served as inspiration for the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 drama "Wall Street." Directed by Oliver Stone, the film follows Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a junior stockbroker who gets tangled up with Gekko (Michael Douglass), a shady, prominent Wall Street investor and corporate raider. The film is an ambitious, yet simple exhibit of human consumption, greed and the corporate crimes that happen on Wall Street. 

Douglas' portrayal of Gekko received critical acclaim. He won the Oscar for Best Actor at the 19988 Academy Awards, and Gekko is perhaps one of the greatest human villains in movie history. The American film institute ranks the character no. 24 on its top 50 movie villains of all-time list, and his "greed, for lack of a better word, is good," line remains infamous. Oliver Stone, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Staley Weiser, took a real-life scandal and developed a masterpiece. The fallout of the Ivan Boesky case would have a not so positive impact on "Working Girl."

James Bridges drops out of Working Girl

"Working Girl" producer Douglas Wick told The Hollywood Reporter that after the Ivan Boesky case, James Bridges, who had signed on to direct the film, dropped out. "Jim called and said he just felt that he wanted to do a movie that was more kind of cutting-edge, more aggressively political, and so he dropped out," Wick said. "It was really devastating. We'd been working on it for a few years, and it completely went back to square one."

Bridges instead directed the 1988 drama "Bright Lights, Big City," in what would be his last film before he died in 1993. Though it is set in New York and touches on work culture etiquette, the film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Jay McInerney, is a dark turn from the rom-com that is "Working Girl," as it follows a young magazine fact-checker (Michael J. Fox) whose life spirals out of control as he struggles with a cocaine addiction. Perhaps Bridges found exploring cocaine addiction in the '80s more "cutting-edge."

For Wade and Wick, they finally found their director in Mike Nichols, who had previously directed "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Graduate." "Working Girl" went on to be more successful than "Big Lights, Big City," both commercially and critically. The film also has a more timeless feel. While cocaine addiction remains an issue in America, it has since taken a back seat to the opioid epidemic, whereas in the era of #MeToo and the Time's Up movement, women's unique workplace struggles remain as relevant as ever. 

On a lighter note, Nichols supported Melanie Griffith, whom the studio didn't want, so who knows who would've gone on to play what would become a star-making role for Griffith.