These Classic Movies (Unknowingly?) Promote The Fiduciary Standard

These Classic Movies (Unknowingly?) Promote The Fiduciary Standard

February 21, 2024

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These Classic Movies (Unknowingly?) Promote The Fiduciary Standard
by Christopher Carosa February 21, 2024

If you look at the Oxford Dictionary, you’ll find the word “fiduciary” comes from the Latin fiducia, which translates to “trust.” Many operational definitions pertaining to what it means to act as a fiduciary center on trust. But there’s more to it than that. There is a standard. A fiduciary standard.

In legal terms, the standard requires the fiduciary to “avoid ‘self-dealing’ or ‘conflicts of interests’ in which the potential benefit to the fiduciary conflicts with what is best for the person who trusts him.”

More practically, within the realm of giving investment advice, there remains quite a debate on precisely what it means to be a fiduciary. The SEC and the DOL have their own (ever-changing) definitions. The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard has remained consistent with its “Six Key Fiduciary Duties.”

Suffice it to say, all these definitions speak to putting your own priorities behind the best interest of the person or persons you’re watching over.

It turns out, this is a familiar Hollywood trope. Could it be classic movies have consistently promoted the fiduciary standard without knowing it? Let’s look at some of the memorable movies through the decades to spot examples of behavior the exemplifies acting in a manner that best displays a fiduciary duty.

Let’s start with the grandaddy of them all, Citizen Kane (1941). You might immediately think of Charles Foster Kane’s trustee Walter Parks Thatcher since, in fact, he was the character with the fiduciary role. Indeed, it was Thatcher’s prudent handling of the pre-adult Kane’s businesses and investments that allowed Kane to become the richest man in the world at a young age.

Still, it is Kane’s best friend, Jedediah Leland, who best exemplifies the fiduciary duty. The too-honest Leland remained forever loyal to Kane and always kept Kane’s best interests in mind, even if that meant crossing Kane.

And while Leland’s integrity eventually ended a once beautiful relationship, Casablanca (1942) showed up how acting as a fiduciary can launch the beginning of a beautiful relationship. When Rick puts the best interests of the world (and Victor) ahead of his own by letting Ilsa go, and Captain Renault tells his men to “round up the usual suspects” despite witnessing with his own eyes Rick kill the evil Major Strasser, you see fiduciary clicking on all cylinders.

These are two wonderful movies that top the list of “the greatest movies ever.” Another classic, however, wouldn’t become universally popular until decades after its release. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was so disregarded that its copyright was allowed to expire in the 1970s. This permitted PBS (and other) TV stations free rights to show it. And they did. Every Christmas. It became a standard unto itself.

“In the classic film directed by Frank Capra,” says Cliff Ambrose, founder & financial advisor in Danvers, Massachusetts, “George Bailey, portrayed by James Stewart, demonstrates fiduciary duty in his role as the head of the Bailey Building and Loan Association. Despite facing numerous financial challenges and personal sacrifices, George remains committed to serving the residents of Bedford Falls by providing affordable housing loans and preventing the town from falling under the control of the greedy banker, Mr. Potter. George’s fiduciary duty extends beyond mere financial transactions; he genuinely cares about the well-being of the community and prioritizes their interests over his own financial gain. Throughout the film, George’s unwavering dedication to his clients and community exemplifies the principles of fiduciary responsibility, emphasizing the importance of selflessness and integrity in serving others.”

George Bailey shows what loyalty and acting in the best interests of others mean.

“[He] sacrifices his dreams and aspirations for the betterment of this family and community,” says Dave Fortin, of FutureMoney in Boston, Massachusetts. “Instead of opting for what would make him wealthiest, or best serve his individual interests, he again and again chooses to put the best interest of others ahead of his own – whether his brother, his uncle, his family business, or the town of Bedford Falls and its citizens.”

It seems like each decade produces a major box office hit that exudes fiduciary. In 1957, Old Yeller displayed how both a dog and a boy could behave like a fiduciary, (see, “How Walt Disney Showed Us What the Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty Means to Investors,” FiduciaryNews.com, September 11, 2012).

Link: https://fiduciarynews.com/2012/09/how-walt-disney-showed-us-what-the-fiduciary-duty-of-loyalty-means-to-investors/

In 1965, The Sound of Music featured Julie Andrews saving a family in a practically perfect way. (OK, she did the same thing a year earlier in Mary Poppins, but we already mentioned a Disney film.)

Ten years later, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy take on the role of savior for the patients in his ward. You can’t get better at acting like a fiduciary than by acting like Christ.

Rain Man (1988) brought things down to earth with a compelling portrayal of two brothers, Charlie (Tom Cruise) and Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). While Charlie was a slick huckster who initially only wanted the idiot savant Raymond for his money, a cross country trip teaches Charlie that Raymond is much more than a paycheck. In the end, Charlie acts in Raymond’s best interests even though that’s not what he wants.

The following year, James Cameron released his first underwater movie The Abyss (1989). At the end, Ed Harris’ character dives to disarm a nuclear bomb in order to save his wife, friends and the world,” says Jack Wang, wealth advisor and college financial aid advisor at Innovative Advisory Group in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Though he knew it was a one-way trip as he couldn’t make it back to safety, he volunteered to go anyway.”

This whole “best interest” thing seems to have caught on in Tinseltown. “A good example of fiduciary duty in a Hollywood movie is portrayed in the film Jerry Maguire (1996),” says Avis Berg, the chief investment officer at Berg Capital & Co in Houston, Texas. “Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry, is a sports agent who ultimately decides to put his client’s best interests, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., ahead of his own career and financial gain. This selfless act symbolizes the core principle of fiduciary duty—prioritizing the client’s well-being.”

More recent movies have added a good dose of the “honesty” part of fiduciary. Hitch (2005) is just one movie that does that. “Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchens acts as a one-man dating service where he seeks to enhance his clients’ lives by setting them up to find true love,” says Jake Falcon, CEO at Falcon Wealth Advisors in Mission Hills, Kansas.” From the audience’s perspective, he maintains a fiduciary relationship with his clients since he tells them what they need to hear versus what they want to hear. He takes on a particular challenge when he agrees to work with Albert Brennaman (a nerdy accountant) who is interested in striking up a relationship with Allegra Cole (a well-to-do socialite). It’s a great movie and highlights what it means to act in one’s best interest.”

Finally, what’s a discussion of celluloid fiduciaries without mentioning a superhero?

“The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is an action film from the Batman franchise,” says Richard Bavetz, investment advisor at Carington Financial in Westlake Village, California. “The subplot involves Bruce Wayne’s significant wealth and touches on themes of trust, loyalty, and the importance of acting in the best interests of those one is entrusted to serve, all of which are central to the concept of fiduciary duty. Bruce Wayne (aka Batman), played by Christian Bale, entrusts his business empire, Wayne Enterprises, to Miranda Tate and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Wayne believes that Tate and Fox will act in the best interests of his company and its philanthropic goals, especially in his absence and while he is focused on protecting Gotham City. While Tate eventually betrays Wayne, Lucius, in contrast, is portrayed as a loyal and ethical steward of Wayne’s business interests and inventions, embodying the principles of fiduciary duty through his actions. He manages Wayne Enterprises and its resources with care, keeping Wayne’s advanced technology secure and using the company’s assets in ways that align with his moral and ethical standards. This includes Fox’s hesitance and ethical considerations when dealing with powerful energy sources and advanced weaponry that could be misused if they fell into the wrong hands. To that end, he takes care of Wayne Enterprises as if he were Wayne himself.”

Oddly, what’s missing from this list are all the movies about the finance industry. For the most part, these films provide set pieces that demonstrate how not to be a fiduciary.

We have enough of that in the real world to force ourselves to watch it in the world of make-believe.

Christopher Carosa is an award-winning online news producer and journalist. A dynamic speaker, he’s the author of 401(k) Fiduciary Solutions, Hey! What’s My Number? How to Improve the Odds You Will Retire in Comfort, From Cradle to Retirement: The Child IRA, and several other books.