10 Most Brilliant Businessmen in Movie History

10 Most Brilliant Businessmen in Movie History
10 Most Brilliant Businessmen in Movie History
It all seems so simple in the movies: You have an idea, you implement the idea, you ruthlessly eliminate the competition, you get rich. From comedies to crime dramas, there’s a pretty established route to success in movies, something so basic it seems they should teach it at college. Of course, the real world’s just a bit more complicated, and not all the moguls mentioned below were able to stay successful indefinitely. (Organized crime, as you’d expect, is a risky operation.) Still, for all their flaws, these are the ten most brilliant businessmen in movie history, and if you pay close attention, you just might learn something.
Gordon Gekko: You knew Gordon Gekko would make the list. There’s no better physical representation of the corruptive nature of greed and the way it turned the soul-searchers of the Me Decade into the corporate sharks of Reagan’s America. The powerful central figure of Oliver Stone’s 1987 drama Wall Street, Gekko (Michael Douglas) gets filthy rich and stays that way by cutting legal corners and doing some insider trading in his career as a corporate raider. Gekko’s successful but damning methods wind up corrupting the naive young Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) and getting them both in serious trouble. Douglas’ performance is so good that he won the Oscar for best actor, and the movie — and especially his role — has become in retrospect a symbol of the financial excess of the 1980s. The speech in which he says that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good," has become a classic. The character and story were so indelible that Stone resurrected them for a sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, due out in fall 2010.

Sam "Ace" Rothstein: Martin Scorsese loves a good mob story. Whether it’s Goodfellas, Casino, or The Departed, he’s a master at getting inside the world of organized crime. His 1995 drama Casino, a three-hour epic about the history of the Mafia in Las Vegas, is fantastic, and it’s anchored by Robert De Niro as Sam "Ace" Rothstein. Ace starts out as a sports handicapper back home before moving out to Las Vegas to manage the Tangiers casino. His rise to power and prominence in the city is executed almost flawlessly, thanks to his cunning business skills and his knowledge of how to spot everyone from a sucker to a con man a mile away. Just don’t get caught cheating.

Michael Corleone: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are some of the best American films ever made. (There’s apparently a third film in the series, but let’s just ignore that one.) At the center is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who begins the films as the only member of the Corleone family not involved in organized crime but winds up taking the reins of the family after the death of his father. His ascent from citizen to vengeful son to cold-blooded architect of a criminal empire is stunning, and Michael proves to be a formidable and brilliant businessman as he dodges the law, eliminates his enemies, and destroys his own family to protect his power.

Charles Foster Kane: Writer-director Orson Welles was in his mid-20s when he made his first feature film, Citizen Kane, co-authored in large part by Herman Manciewicz. The 1941 drama is considered to be one of the best films ever made, thanks in large part to its inventive techniques, including deep focus shots and multiple narrators. The story of Charles Foster Kane is based on that of William Randolph Hearst, with Kane rising from a childhood of poverty to a career in newspapers built on sensationalistic journalism. His business brilliance comes from his unwillingness to compromise: He spends a fortune to hire the best writers, and he manipulates public perception of the Spanish-American war before running for public office. His power is undone later in life by scandal and hardship, but he remains a titan of industry in movies.

Ricky Roma: David Mamet’s 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross was turned into a film in 1992 with an all-star cast: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. And though it’s tempting to give this spot on the list to Baldwin’s character — a special creation for the film who delivered a now-classic monologue — the honor has to go to Pacino’s Ricky Roma. Instead of just a speech, we get to see Roma work as he sells real estate by invoking everything from metaphysics to great sex, and the mark played by Pryce never stands a chance once Roma gets his hooks in. His salesmanship is unsurpassed by anyone else in his office, which is why he’s so far ahead of them when it comes to hitting his quota. He’s an absolutely deadly businessman, and that’s why he makes the list.

Brantley Foster: Finally, a comedy! Michael J. Fox stars in this prime slice of 1980s cheese (released the same year as Wall Street, coincidentally) as Brantley Foster, an impossibly idealistic college grad who moves from the midwest to New York City in an attempt to make his fortune. He gets his foot in the door by working in the mailroom for a company directed by his uncle, but he starts to find success when he moves into an empty office and sets himself up as a new exec named "Carlton Whitfield." There’s the predictable level of hijinks involving quick wardrobe changes and mistaken identities, but through it all, Brantley proves his mettle by thinking outside the box and coming up with the innovative measures needed to save the company and ensure his career as a businessman. Plus he dates Helen Slater. What more could you want?

Howard Hughes: Another Martin Scorsese flick, The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest people in the world in his lifetime and a pioneer in aviation, engineering, and filmmaking. Scorsese’s biopic traces Hughes’ rise and eventual fall. He starts out as a filmmaker and producer, finding success because of his willingness to take risks (re-shooting Hell’s Angels to add sound cost almost $2 million) and his ability to know what would be popular with the public. When he moved into aviation and engineering, he took that love of style and flair and wound up with the Spruce Goose. Despite the OCD and paranoia that would eventually bring him down, he enjoyed a brief period as one of the most brilliant business minds in the world, as the film makes sadly clear.

Frank Lucas: Frank Lucas was a real man, and a terrifying one: In the 1970s, he created a heroin empire in New York City by buying it pure and having it shipped back to the U.S. smuggled inside the coffins of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. His plan was brilliant, allowing him to become one of the most powerful drug lords of his time, but it was equally gruesome and ruthless. He eventually was caught and gave up names to authorities in exchange for lightened sentences.

Chris Gardner: Will Smith played Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, based on the incredible true story of a man struggling to care for his young son while living on the streets and learning to become a stock broker. Gardner’s perseverance and business savvy eventually paid off, winning him the career and wealth for which he’d worked for years.

Preston Tucker: Preston Tucker tried to do something in the 1940s that people said was impossible: create and market a new car to compete with the Big Three auto companies. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 Tucker: The Man and His Dream follows Tucker (Jeff Bridges) as he sets his sights on success, only to see his business skills and inventive designs shut out amid allegations of scandal and pressure from other manufacturers. One can only imagine what would have happened if his ideas had been allowed to flourish.

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