Oliver Stone's harrowing movies about life in an era bereft of morals have earned both lofty praise and stern condemnation. Stone (born 1946) is a pioneer writer-director of films that show the direct human consequences of national policy, whether it is set in the halls of government or in the board rooms of corporate financiers.
Taking their cues from front-page headlines," wrote Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times, "Stone's moody, tumultuous films walk the thin line between outrage and outrageousness."
New York Times critic Janet Maslin observed that Stone "isn't one to regard moviegoing as a passive experience. Part of his method is to make audiences squirm." In works such as Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July—all of which he wrote as well as directed—Stone has dared to confront the consequences of faulty values as the patriotism, greed, or naivete of his characters lead them into peril. During the 90s Stone's work became bolder, beginning with the controversial JFK and proceeding to the surrealistic horror of Natural Born Killers and the tragic history of Nixon. The filmmaker's increasingly wild visual style and loose interpretations of historical events—not to mention his occasionally blood-spattered scenarios—have made him a target. Republican Presidential hopeful Bob Dole lambasted him for his violence, while others have never forgiven his speculations about President Kennedy's assassination in JFK. "It's sad," Stone said of such acrimony in Premiere, "because you try to reach out and show people that you are rational and open to discourse."
Stone was born and raised in New York City, the son of a successful stockbroker. His childhood years were marked by all the privileges of wealth—private schooling, summer vacations in France, and most importantly, a sense of patriotism born of comfortable circumstances. "My father was right-wing; he hated [President Franklin] Roosevelt all his life," Stone told Film Comment. "I grew up in that Cold War context that we all did, from the Fifties on, learning to fear Russians and hate Communism like cancer." Stone was in his junior year at the Hill School, a Pennsylvania college prep academy, when his parents announced their decision to divorce. In the subsequent family skirmish, Stone discovered that his father was in fact deeply in debt and that the values on which he had founded his life were quite thin. Stone entered Yale University in 1965, but after only one year he decided to quit college in order to find more meaningful experiences.
Late in 1965 Stone took a job teaching English at the Free Pacific Institute in Saigon, South Vietnam. His arrival in that war-torn country coincided with the first major commitment of American troops to the conflict. Stone told Time magazine that Saigon at the time had a "Dodge City" atmosphere. "There were guys walking around with pistols, no curfews, shoot-outs in the streets," he said. Stone left his post after six months and shipped out on a merchant tanker bound for the United States. While crossing the Pacific he began to work on a novel, and he continued to write it during a brief stay in Mexico and another futile attempt at college. The finished manuscript, entitled A Child's Night Dream, was more than four hundred pages in length. Stone was unable to find a publisher for it, and this rejection— combined with his father's condescending paternal attitude—pushed him to enlist in the Army. However, Stone continued to work on the novel, eventually expanding it to 1,100 pages. It was finally published by St. Martin's Press and released in 1997.
A number of interviewers have questioned Stone about his decision to fight in Vietnam. He could have missed the war entirely by staying in college, but instead he not only joined the service but insisted on infantry duty in the war zone. "I thought war was it; it was the most difficult thing a young man could go through," Stone told Interview magazine. "It was a rite of passage. And I knew it would be the only war of my generation, so I said, 'I've gotta get over there fast, because it's going to be over.' There was also a heavy streak of rebelliousness in the face of my father, and I think I was trying to prove to him that I was a man, not a boy." Stone was not long in discovering that the realities of combat were a far cry from his romantic notions about action, manhood, and adventure. "Vietnam completely deadened me and sickened me," he told the Washington Post. Assigned to a unit patrolling the Cambodian border, Stone was involved in several deadly skirmishes. He was wounded twice, once by gunshot and once by shrapnel, and he often witnessed the brutalization of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers. "There was such a dog-tired, don't-give-a-damn attitude over there, such anger and frustration and casual brutality," he said in Interview. "I remember being so tired that I wished the North Vietnamese Army would come up and shoot me, just to get this thing over with."
Stone was discharged after one tour and returned to America "very mixed up, very paranoid and very alienated," he told the Washington Post. He has since said that he might have succumbed to despair had he not felt a spark of optimism—perhaps he had survived Vietnam in order to "do something" with his life. Using his G.I. Bill benefits, he enrolled at New York University, where he began to study filmmaking with Martin Scorsese. Suddenly Stone had definable career goals: he wanted to write screenplays and make movies. Stone graduated from New York University in 1971 and within two years had sold his first project to a small Canadian film company. His writing and directorial debut was Seizure, a horror story about a writer whose fantastic creations come to life.
Seizure received lukewarm reviews and very little play at the box office, and its author-director entered a stagnant period marked by heavy drug and alcohol use. Stone finally pulled himself together during the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and decided to write a screenplay about his experiences in Vietnam. Between 1976 and 1978 Stone scripted two monumental stories on the war, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, based on the autobiography of crippled war veteran Ron Kovic. No studio would touch either property; the screenplays were deemed too violent and too negative. Stone's writing talents were recognized, however, and he was invited to work on other, less controversial themes.
In 1977 Stone was hired to write the screenplay for Midnight Express, a drama based on the true-life imprisonment of Bill Hayes. The film offers a sensational depiction of Hayes's capture and incarceration in a Turkish jail, where only the most brutal and powerful could survive the tortures inflicted by the guards and other inmates. Midnight Express created a critical firestorm when it was released in 1978. Many reviewers decried its gratuitous violence and its racist implications against the Turks. The controversy helped to create an audience for the movie; it turned a neat profit and garnered five Academy Award nominations. Stone himself won his first Oscar for best screenplay adaptation, and Hollywood's doors began to open to him.
Still Stone could not find backing for Platoon. Instead he wrote and directed a low-budget horror movie called The Hand, starring Michael Caine as a writer whose severed limb takes on a life of its own and begins to kill people. Although critics praised the stylishness of the work, it did little box office business, and Stone was reduced to the role of mere screenwriter again. In 1982 he wrote a script for John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, but the finished film bore little resemblance to his original idea. He then worked on the sensational Scarface, the story of a ruthless cocaine dealer. The violent and profane film also provoked controversy, but for Stone it was a very important project. Having suffered from the effects of drug abuse himself, he used his work on Scarface as his own farewell to drugs. In between these projects he continued to try to sell Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, often meeting with last-minute frustration as financing would once again fall through.
Two more Stone projects, Year of the Dragon and Eight Million Ways To Die, were filmed in 1986. Both suffered at the hands of Hollywood "committees," and Stone became determined to exercise more control over his work. He became an independent filmmaker, and with the backing of a small British production company, finally saw his pet projects come to fruition. First he filmed the low-budget drama Salvador, based on the violent tactics of the American-supported Salvadoran army. The film did not receive wide distribution, but it was praised by critics, especially those with left-wing sensibilities. Hemdale, the British firm that produced Salvador, then gave Stone the money to do Platoon.
The script Stone used was essentially the one he had written in 1976, based on himself and composites of other soldiers he had known. The movie, Stone told People, is "heightened reality." He added: "I pushed beyond the factual truth to the spiritual … no, to a greater truth. This is the spirit of what I saw happening." An ensemble cast performance, Platoon follows a young grunt (Charlie Sheen) into the brutal arena that was Vietnam. Its violence and pessimism notwithstanding, the film won a number of important Oscars, including best picture and best director. "Platoon," wrote Pat McGilligan in Film Comment, "takes the futility of the war and the rape of Vietnam for granted, and instead focuses on the searing intimacy of fear and hate; on the psychology of the battlefield; on the civil war-within-thewar, the left-wing versus the right-wing (as it were) of the soldiery and the command…. Platoon is an ugly, painful, doom-laden film, with much that is honest and beautiful and, yes, good. Apart from its intrinsic historical value as the first feature film directed by a former vet, I believe Stone when he says his goals in making it were in part modest and private. Rather than affecting a grand, universal statement about men in war, he is content to exorcise his own ghost from Vietnam."
Stone followed Platoon with his first big-budget project, Wall Street. Another critical and commercial success, Wall Street explores the seduction of a young stockbroker by an older and completely ruthless business tycoon. Following Wall Street Stone was finally able to find the money to film Born on the Fourth of July. When he tried to have the movie made in the 1970s he planned to use Al Pacino in the lead; in the late 1980s he turned to another Hollywood superstar, Tom Cruise. Cruise gives an affecting performance as the raging Ron Kovic, who endures not only the horror of battle but the humiliation of helpless paraplegia. "Although Mr. Kovic's personal ordeal and Tom Cruise's fiery performance occupy center stage in the movie, and although the film addresses every intimate aspect of Mr. Kovic's struggle," wrote Maslin, it isn't this private story that makes the film such an emotional power-house. It is Mr. Stone's ability to surround his central figure with huge, vivid tableaux that wrenchingly depict the progress of a nation; his chilling vision of the forces that shape American notions of manhood, and the consequences they may bring; and his way of grafting sights, sounds and sensations together so breathlessly, making the whole film hurtle forward at such a breakneck pace."
Born on the Fourth of July brought Stone yet another Academy Award for best director. The early 1990s find him hitting his stride as one of the most important writer-directors in Hollywood. He next explored 1960s counterculture with his psychedelic rock opus The Doors. This film was something of a preamble to his most controversial feature, JFK, in which Kevin Costner portrayed Jim Garrison, the Texas Attorney General who battled what the film views as a conspiracy to cover up the real circumstances behind the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The film's mixture of hallucinatory sequences and historical details infuriated many, but even his detractors had trouble denying the power of Stone's cinematic vision; as a result, many reviews ended up calling JFK brilliant claptrap.
After JFK, Stone's alleged paranoia and fondness for conspiracy theories was the source of a million show-business jokes; the cable comedy network Comedy Central even offered "Oliver Stone's Paranoia Web Site." The filmmaker demonstrated he had a sense of humor about the matter when he played a conspiracy nut in the political comedy Dave.
Stone returned to the Vietnam nightmare for 1993's Heaven and Earth, this time dealing with the war's impact and aftermath from the point of view of a Vietnamese woman. Though a good-faith effort on Stone's part to trascend the male-centered, American perspective he'd previously emphasized with regard to Vietnam, the film was pounded by reviewers.
Stone came raging back, however, with 1994's wildly experimental and brutally violent Natural Born Killers. Loosely based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, the film chronicles the murderous odyssey of two disturbed young lovers, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, and the twisted opera of celebrity that grows around them. Cinematographer Robert Richardson told Time, "the making of the film resembled throwing paint at the canvas—you don't know if you're making art. The only rule was that you could change your mind." The film was a sensation, and inspired condemnation from Dole and others about its brash treatment of violence, which was portrayed as a sickness spreading through popular culture—thus serving as a handy tool in an election season.
Stone's next film assayed the story of another American President. Though many expected his biopic of Richard Nixon—who resigned in disgrace after being implicated in the controversy known as Watergate—to be a hatchet job on an easy Republican target. After all, many reasoned, Nixon prolonged the war in Vietnam; it would be easy enough to lay the pain of the filmmaker's whole generation at the late leader's feet. But Stone preferred to tell a more complex tale. As he told Entertainment Weekly, "the character [of Nixon] is so fascinating. He's this contradiction of idealism and corruption. He saw greatness and understood the meaning of it. But the weapons that allowed him to rise to the top were also the weapons that destroyed him." Casting British actor Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Stone earned near-unanimous praise for his emotionally deep and even-handed portrait of Nixon. The film earned numerous Academy Award nominations, and—perhaps more satisfyingly for Stone—the recognition that he could transcend his political agendas to make universally appealing cinema. "You have to make films as an idealist," he told Film Comment some years earlier. "You've got to make them to the greater glory of mankind. Then, even if you fail, even if the film doesn't work, you do not have to be ashamed, because you tried." Stone added: "I've grown with each of my films…. None of them has been a waste of time for me. That's important. I've educated myself. I've gotten better. I've learned more about my craft. I'm just at the beginning of a road. I'm learning how to make movies."
Stone's next film, 1997's U-Turn, depicts the story of a drifter (Sean Penn) who encounters a town's strange inhabitants in a plot that involves sex, murder, and betrayal. Filmed in Superior, Arizona, the cast also includes Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Jennifer Lopez. The director opted for a small budget for this project, making the film in six weeks. Although it is based strictly on fiction, U-Turn, like many of Stone's films, contains very controversial material.
American Film, December, 1987.
Entertainment Weekly, January 12, 1996.
Film Comment, February, 1987.
Interview, February, 1987.
Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1989; July 30, 1996.
Newsday, December 14, 1986. Newsweek, January 9, 1989.
New York Times, May 15, 1981; April 13, 1987; December 31, 1989.
People, June 1, 1981; March 2, 1987; January 11, 1988.
Premiere, January 1996.
Rolling Stone, January 29, 1987.
Time, December 5, 1983; January 26, 1987; August 29, 1994.
USA Today, August 7, 1996.
Village Voice, December 26, 1989.
Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1996.
Washington Post, January 11, 1987; July 19, 1996. □