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Stone, Oliver

STONE, Oliver

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1946. Education: Studied at Yale University, dropped out, 1965; studied filmmaking under Martin Scorsese, New York University, B.F.A., 1971. Military Service: Volunteered for 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army, 1967, awarded Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. Family: Married 1) Majwa Sarkis, 1971 (divorced 1977); 2) Elizabeth Burkit Cox, 1981. Career: Teacher at Free Pacific Institute, Cholon, Vietnam, 1965; joined U.S. Merchant Marine, 1966; taxi driver in New York City, 1971; directed first film, Seizure, 1974; co-producer of TV miniseries Wild Palms, 1993. Awards: Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation, and Writers Guild Award, for Midnight Express, 1979; Directors Guild of America Award, Oscar for Best Director, and Golden Globe Award for Best Director, for Platoon, 1987, and for Born on the Fourth of July, 1989. Agent: Marty Bauer, William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:




Mad Man of Martinique


The Hand


Salvador (+ pr, co-sc); Platoon


Wall Street (co-sc)


Talk Radio (co-sc)


Born on the Fourth of July (co-sc)


The Doors (co-sc, + uncredited role as film professor); JFK (+ pr)


Heaven and Earth (+ pr)


Natural Born Killers


Nixon (+ pr)


U Turn


Any Given Sunday (+ exec pr)

Other Films:


Sugar Cookies (Gershuny) (co-pr)


Midnight Express (Parker) (sc)


Conan the Barbarian (Milius) (co-sc)


Scarface (De Palma) (sc)


Year of the Dragon (Cimino) (sc)


8 Million Ways to Die (Ashby) (co-sc)


The Iron Maze (exec pr)


South Central (exec pr); Zebrahead (exec pr)


Dave (role as himself); The Last Party (role as himself); TheJoy Luck Club (exec pr); Wild Palms (for TV) (exec pr)


The New Age (exec pr)


Indictment: The McMartin Trial (for TV) (exec pr)


Freeway (exec pr); Killer: Journal of a Murder (exec pr); ThePeople vs. Larry Flint (pr)


The Last Days of Kennedy and King (exec pr); Savior (pr)


Chains (exec pr); The Corrupter (exec pr)


By STONE: books—

Platoon and Salvador: The Screenplays, with Richard Boyle, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1987.

Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, with Michael Singer, Boston, 1993.

JFK: The Book of the Film, with Zachary Sklar, New York, 1992.

A Child's Night Dream, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

By STONE: articles—

Interview with Nigel Floyd, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1987.

Interview with Pat McGilligan, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1987.

Interview with M. Burke, in Stills (London), 29 February 1987.

Interview with Louise Tanner, in Films in Review (New York), March 1987.

Interview with M. Sineux and Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), April 1987.

Interview with Alexander Cockburn, in American Film (Washington D.C.), December 1987.

Interview with Gary Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 16, no. 3, 1988.

Interview with M. Tessier and others, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), April 1989.

Interview with Mark Rowland, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1991.

Interview with David Breskin, in Rolling Stone (New York), 4 April 1991.

Interview in Time (New York), 23 December 1991.

Interview with David Ansen, in Newsweek (New York), 23 December 1991.

Interview with Jeff Yarbrough, in Advocate (New York), 7 April 1992.

Interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1994.

Interview with Gregg Kilday, in Entertainment Weekly (New York), 14 January 1994.

Interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview (New York), September 1994.

Interview with Nathan Gardels, in New Perspectives (Toronto), Spring 1995.

"The Dark Side: Nixon," an interview with Gavin Smith and José Arroyo, in Sight and Sound (London), March 1996.

Interview with Ric Gentry, in Post Script (Commerce), Summer 1996.

"Ten Years, Ten Films," an interview with Erik Bauer, in CreativeScreenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1996.

"Past Imperfect: History according to the Movies: History, Dramatic Licence, and Larger Historical Truths," an interview with Mark C. Carnes and Gary Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), March 1997.

"Desert Noir: How the Southwest was Redone," an interview with Andrew O. Thompson, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1997.

"The Sweet Hell of Success," an interview with P. Biskind, in Premiere (Boulder), October 1997.

On STONE: books—

Beaver, Frank, Oliver Stone: Wakeup Cinema, New York, 1994.

Riordan, James, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits ofa Radical Filmmaker, New York, 1994.

Salewicz, Chris, Oliver Stone, New York, 1998.

Toplin, Robert Brent (editor), Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History, andControversy, Lawrence, 2000.

On STONE: articles—

Chase, Chris, "Good Fortune Has Creator of Hand Nervous," in NewYork Times, 15 May 1981.

Sklar, Robert, and others, "Platoon on Inspection: A Critical Symposium," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 15, no. 4, 1987.

Peary, Gerald, "The Ballad of a Haunted Soldier," in Maclean's (Toronto), 30 March 1987.

Boozer, Jack, Jr., "Wall Street: The Commodification of Perception," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 17, no. 3, 1989.

Corliss, Richard, "Who Cares?," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 25, no. 1, 1989.

Jones, G., "Trash Talk: Oliver Stone's Talk Radio," in Enclitic (Los Angeles), vol. 11, no. 2, 1989.

Wrathall, J., "Greeks, Trojans and Cubans—Oliver Stone," in MonthlyFilm Bulletin (London), October 1989.

Denby, David, "Days of Rage," in New York, 18 December 1989.

Klawans, Stuart, "Born on the Fourth of July," in Nation (New York), 1 January 1990.

Kauffman, Stanley, "The Battle after the War," in New Republic (New York), 29 January 1990.

Simon, John, "Wild Life," in National Review (New York), 5 February 1990.

Hoberman, J., "Out of Order," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1991.

Horton, Robert, "Riders on the Storm," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1991.

Schiff, Stephen, "The Last Wild Man," in New Yorker, 8 August 1994.

Cieutat, Michel, and others, in Positif (Paris), April 1996.

Rosenbaum, R., "The Pissing Contest," in Esquire, December 1997.

Tobin, Yann, and Michael Henry, in Positif (Paris), January 1998.

Pizzello, Chris, "Smash-Mouth Football," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 2000.

On STONE: film—

Oliver Stone: Inside Out (for TV), 1992.

* * *

Anyone attempting with any degree of success, both artistic and commercial, to make overtly political movies that sustain a left-wing position within the Hollywood cinema of the 1980s and 1990s deserves at least our respectful attention. In fact, Oliver Stone's work dramatizes, in a particularly extreme and urgent form, the quandary of the American left-wing intellectual.

Platoon and Wall Street provide a useful starting point, as they share the same basic structure. A young man (Charlie Sheen, in both films) has to choose in terms of values between the Good Father (Willem Dafoe, Martin Sheen) and the Bad Father (Tom Berenger, Michael Douglas); he learns to choose the Good Father and destroy the Bad. The opposition is very similar in both cases: the Good Father is a liberal with a conscience, aware of the impossibility of changing or radically affecting the general situation but committed to the preservation of his personal integrity; the Bad Father has no conscience and no integrity to preserve, and this, combined with a total ruthlessness, is what equips him to survive (until the dénouement) and makes him an insidiously seductive figure. The Bad Father is completely adapted to a system that the Good Father can protest against but do nothing to change. The young man can exact a kind of individual justice by destroying the Bad Father, but the system remains intact.

Platoon and Wall Street do not represent Stone's work at its best: their targets are a bit too obvious, the characteristic rage comes too easily, tinged with self-righteousness, so that the alienating aspects of his manner—the heavy stylistic rhetoric, the emotional bludgeoning—are felt at their most obtrusive. But the two films encapsulate the quandary—one might say the blockage—that is treated more complexly elsewhere: what does one fight for within a system one perceives as totally corrupt but in which the only alternative to capitulation is impotence?

The fashionable buzz-phrase "structuring absence" becomes resonant when applied to Stone's films: in the most literal sense, his work so far is structured precisely on the absence of an available political alternative, which could only be a commitment to what is most deeply and hysterically taboo in American culture, a form of Marxist socialism. There is a curious paradox here which Americans seem reluctant to notice: Lincoln's famous formula, supposedly one of the foundations of American political ideology, "Government of the people, by the people and for the people," could only be realized in a system dubbed, above all else, "un-American" (American capitalism, as Stone sees very clearly, is government by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful). In both Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July the protagonist declares, at a key point in the development, "I am an American, I love America," and we must assume he is speaking for Stone. But we must ask, which America does he love, since the American actuality presented in both films is unambiguously and uniformly hateful? What is being appealed to here is clearly a myth of America, but the films seem, implicitly and with profound unease, to recognize that the myth cannot possibly be realized, that capitalism must take the forms it has historically taken. Hence the sense one takes from the films of a just but impotent rage: without the availability of the alternative there is no way out.

This is nowhere clearer than in Salvador, one of Stone's strongest, least flawed works and a gesture of great courage within its social-political context. While in American capitalist democracy it is still possible to make a film like Salvador (the equivalent in Stalinist Russia would have been unthinkable), it is not possible for the film to go further than it does, to take the necessary, logical step. Impotent rage is permissible, the promotion of a constructive alternative is not. Stone's films can be acceptable, even popular, even canonized by Academy Awards precisely because their ultimate effect, beyond the rage, is to suggest that things cannot be changed (as indeed they cannot, while one remains within the system). Salvador offers a lucid and cogent analysis of the political situation, a vivid dramatization of historical events (the death of Romero, the rape and murder of the visiting Nicaraguan nuns), and an outspoken denunciation of American intervention. Neither does it chicken out at the end: the final scene, where the protagonist at last gets his lover and her two children over the border into the "land of the free," to have them abruptly and brutally sent back by American security officers, is as chilling as anything that modern Hollywood cinema has to offer. But the film's attitude to the concept of a specifically socialist revolution (as opposed to a vague notion of people "fighting for their freedom") is thoroughly cagy and equivocal. Nothing is done to demystify the habitual American conflation of socialism and Marxism with Stalinism.

All the film can say is that the threat of a general "Communist" takeover is either imaginary or grossly exaggerated (if it were not, presumably the horrors we are shown would all be justified or at least pardonable), that the Salvadoreans, like good Americans, just want their liberty, and that America, in its own interests, has betrayed its founding principles by intervening on the wrong side.

Born on the Fourth of July recapitulates the earlier film's force, rage, and outspokenness, and also its impasse. It seems to be weakened, however, by its final construction of its protagonist as a redeemer-hero. Ron Kovic, by the end of the film, in realizing (with whatever irony) his mother's dream that he would one day speak before thousands of people saying wonderful things, at once regains his full personal integrity and sense of self-worth and offers an apparent political escape by revealing the "truth." But recent history has shown many times that the revelation of truth can be very readily mythified and absorbed into the system (the Oscar awards and nominations for Stone's movies represent an exact equivalent).

Talk Radio received no such accolades and seems generally regarded as a minor, marginal work. On the contrary, it is arguably Stone's most completely successful film to date and absolutely central to his work, to the point of being confessional. It has been taken as more an Eric Bogosian movie than a Stone movie. We can credit Stone with firmer personal integrity and higher ambitions than are evidenced by Barry Champlain (Bogosian's character), but, that allowance made, Stone has found here the perfect "objective correlative" for his own position, his own quandary. Champlain's rage, toppling over into hysteria, parallels the tone of much of Stone's work and identifies one of its sources, the frustration of grasping that no one really listens, no one understands, no one wants to understand; the sense of addressing a people kept in a state of mystification so complete, by a system so powerful and pervasive, that no formal brainwashing could improve on it (this "reading" of the American public is resumed in Born on the Fourth of July). The film is indeed revelatory, and very impressive in its honesty and nakedness.

In the 1990s, Stone's career entered a new phase as the director became even more commercially successful while raising the ante of political controversy. His earlier films, especially Platoon, had successfully exploited classic realist techniques—especially the device of a likeable main character—to arouse audience sympathy for a radical point of view: that the system deals in death, not life, and counts as enemies all who oppose it, including "good" Americans. Classic realism, however, leads the spectator toward emotional catharses that blunt the point of such political perceptions; furthermore, the narrative closure required in such texts suggests a victory for the protagonists of good will even as the political problems so tellingly enunciated are transcended. Of Stone's recent films, only Heaven and Earth, which completes his Vietnam trilogy, remains more or less within the regime of classic realism. Based on the autobiographical novels of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth also offers a main character—a young Vietnamese woman—who is both sympathetic and socially typical, who offers, in short, an ideal emotional and narrative vantage point for the representation—poignant if not objective or detailed—of Vietnamese history since 1953. Le Ly is abused and manipulated by the successive regimes in her village—French, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong—only to be "rescued" by a burned-out GI who takes her to an America concerned only with materialism and its own comfort. This ambitious film never individualizes, hardly humanizes its main character (who heroically resists Americanization by an entrepreneurship that allows her to live alone and return to Vietnam). With its startling visual stylization, artful use of disorienting editing, and expressionistic mise-en-scène, Heaven and Earth treats its subject with an operatic grandeur. The abandonment of realism (with itscarefully restrained stylization) for expressionism is also evident in The Doors, which takes as its subject yet another—for Stone—heroic rebel of the 1960s, musician/poet Jim Morrison. Here visual and aural stylizations are motivated by Stone's desire to pay homage to the psychodelism of the period, even as they "express" the artistic rebellion of Morrison's music. As in Heaven and Earth, the film is less about a character than a zeitgeist, but many reviewers and spectators were disappointed by Stone's lack of emphasis on narrative and complex character.

A further, though never complete rejection of realism is to be found in the three Stone films that have found the most commercial success, even as they have aroused the greatest political controversy (making Stone a frequent guest on TV talk shows to defend his latest work and simultaneously plug it). Natural Born Killers, though ostensibly set in the 1990s, actually constructs its own, nightmarish version of American reality. Following Brecht, Stone here revives an American myth—the outlaw couple à la Bonnie and Clyde—but empties the outrageously violent attack on family and society perpetrated by Mickey and Mallory of all emotional content through two defamiliarizing techniques: a fragmentary, Eisensteinian montage that prevents any scene from achieving a reality effect; and acting that avoids naturalism at all costs. If Platoon uses the violence of war for melodramatic effect, Natural Born Killers eschews emotion of any kind to make a political point: the murderous connection between the deep-seated pathology of American family life and the reprehensible tendency for the media to exploit the desire of the abused and battered to find some kind of identity and self-worth. The result is the most intellectually profound and cerebral contemplation of violence in American life since Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Stone, however, has not been satisfied to transcend the historical through mythopoeia and stylistic virtuosity (in the manner of, say, Jim Morrison). His conception of the film director's social role is the most enlarged since the time of D. W. Griffith, whose career his own has in part mirrored. What the Civil War was for Griffith's generation, the Kennedy assassination has been for Stone's: a defining historical event, seen rightly or wrongly as the source of subsequent developments. JFK is Stone's attempt to argue that case: not simply to advance yet another conspiracy theory, but to identify the death of Kennedy as the beginning of a deterioration in American life that has not yet come to an end. Like Griffith, Stone attempted a paradoxical recreation of history: a film that, he argues, is "true" to the facts and yet, making use of dramatic license, creates its own facts as an interpretation, a possible version of history. Like Griffith, Stone has been much attacked for so doing, even as his film has reopened interest in an event and its aftermath for a new generation. JFK uneasily joins two stylistic regimes: a classic realist narrative (the pursuit of the truth by a sympathetically presented main character, district attorney Jim Garrison) and a highly rhetorical, expressionistic recreation of the events under investigation. Of course, Garrison, like Stone's other heroes, fails to do more than the right thing: the vaguely evoked fascistic cabal of southern businessmen and loose cannon Cubans emerges unscathed after pinning the rap on hapless Lee Harvey Oswald. Like Heaven and Earth, JFK ultimately turns nostalgically toward a past as yet unspoiled by the fall into political violence.

Nixon, in contrast, is less oriented toward an event and an era than toward political biography. In the extensively annotated published screenplay, Stone answers his expected critics by pointing to the historical record as a source for the film's material. In that book, Stone insists that his story of Nixon is a classically tragic tale of the essentially good man who overreaches and thereby dooms himself to disgrace. The resulting film, however, is disappointingly simplistic. Nixon becomes a bumbling, foul-mouthed fool whose physical and political gaffes define his relations with others (their constant disapproval is evoked by numerous reaction shots). This interpretation is very much at odds with the substance of the political record and does nothing to explain the shifting tides of popular sentiment that swept Nixon into office and returned him for a second term. Choosing a subject for which he could feel little sympathy, Stone reveals in Nixon the limits of his political vision, which, like Griffith's, depends too much on the melodramatic binarism of heroes and villains.

—Robin Wood

As not in JFK, the opposition of a classic realist regime (the film's investigational structure, a la Citizen Kane, its most obvious model) to an expressionistically represented subjectivity (Nixon's flow of memories) produces little more than confusion for anyone not absolutely familiar with the detailed factual record of Nixon's presidency. Griffith's genius lay in his ability, if that is what it was, to tell a complicated story in simple but evocative images. In this he was followed by the other great cinema historian, Sergei Eisenstein. Stone's ponderous record of the American decline exemplified and contributed to by Nixon fails to tell a story to which anyone not a member of the chorus of the converted would likely attend or even be able to follow.

Stone's work in the closing years of the decade signals a further decline. U-Turn moves away from political filmmaking toward the exploding of a popular genre—the neo-noir erotic thriller—through the same ostentatious stylistic excesses that made some political sense in JFK and Nixon (since they were a calculated Brechtian rhetoric), but here seem so much empty, facetious posing. Sean Penn offers an excellent performance as a petty criminal trapped by bad luck and his own ineptitude in a nightmare landscape (reminiscent of the world Welles limns in Touch of Evil, the paranoid masterpiece that Stone consciously evokes). Yet the film is strangely uninvolving, full of oneiric imagery signifying nothing. Unlike many neo-noir films, U-Turn says nothing new about the discontents of gender or the existential frustrations of the American dream. We are hardly surprised that in the bloodbath finale of cross and double cross the hero thinks he has broken the hold of bad fortune only to realize that the femme fatale, now dead by his hand, has taken the keys to the car that offers his only chance of escape. The same subject matter is treated with more wit and narrative finesse in Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, and other neo-noir programmers.

Stone returned to the big subject in Any Given Sunday, where he attempts to anatomize professional football, which we are implicitly asked to accept as a quintessence of American values, discontents, and dreams. Despite a huge expenditure on what are intended to be graphic depictions of the on-field struggle, Any Given Sunday seems surprisingly ill-informed on the sport and often fails to represent it meaningfully or clearly (for example, the plot involves a young black quarterback who leads the team to temporary success by making up plays in the huddle, an "innovation" we are asked to understand as both plausible and impressive). The struggle in which Stone is more interested takes place in the corporate board room and in the players' luxurious homes. Here Stone proves incapable of capturing quickly and unforgettably the ambience of such a life on the edge and at the top (making Martin Scorsese's evocation of Las Vegas in Casino seem all that more impressive). The narrative, unsurprisingly, comes down to a big game that the teams wins for the aging, jaded coach whose job is in jeopardy (another sad-faced portrayal by Al Pacino of a "godfather" in decline). Overlong, self-indulgent, and unconvincing, Any Given Sunday fails to add anything to our understanding of professional sports, or of the athletes and businessmen who control them.

—updated by R. Barton Palmer

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Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone

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."

Right-Wing Upbringing

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.

Shaped By Vietnam Experience

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."

Filmmaking Became New Goal

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.

Oscar for Express Script

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 Bornon the Fourth of July, often meeting with last-minute frustration as financing would once again fall through.

Heightened Reality

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."

Hit Mainstream, Caused Outrage

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.

Outrageous Killers, Balanced Nixon

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.

Further Reading

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. □

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Stone, Oliver

Oliver Stone

Born: September 15, 1946
New York, New York

American director and writer

Oliver Stone is a writer-director of films with a flashy style that often deal with issues of the 1960s, such as America's involvement with the Vietnam War (195575; a war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam). He has won several Academy Awards as a writer and as a director.

Conservative background

Oliver William Stone was born on September 15, 1946, in New York City, the only child of Louis and Jacqueline Goddet Stone. His father was a successful stockbroker. Stone's childhood was marked by all the privileges of wealthprivate schooling, summer vacations in France, and most importantly, a sense of patriotism. Stone's father was strongly conservative (one who believes in maintaining social and political traditions and who opposes change). When Stone was a junior at the Hill School, a Pennsylvania college prep academy, his parents decided to divorce. He discovered that his father was actually deeply in debt, which led him to question the values he had been taught. Stone entered Yale University in 1965, but he quit after only one year.

Late in 1965 Stone took a job teaching English at a school in Saigon, South Vietnam. He arrived there at the same time as did the first major commitment of U.S. troops, which were sent to help fight in Vietnam's civil war. Stone left after six months and returned home. While on his way back, he began to work on a novel, which he continued to work on during a brief stay in Mexico and another failed attempt at college. He was unable to find a publisher for it, and he then decided to join the army. Stone continued to work on the novel, which grew to eleven hundred pages. A Child's Night Dream was finally released in 1997.

Shaped by Vietnam experience

Stone could have avoided the Vietnam War by staying in college, but he joined the service and insisted on combat duty in an attempt to prove to his father that he was a man. He soon discovered that real combat was much different than he expected. "Vietnam completely deadened me and sickened me," he told the Washington Post. Stone was involved in several deadly battles. He was shot once and wounded by shrapnel (bomb fragments) another time, and he often witnessed the brutal treatment of Vietnamese citizens by U.S. soldiers.

After Stone was discharged and returned to the United States, he enrolled at New York University, where he began to study filmmaking with director Martin Scorsese (1942). Stone decided he wanted to write screenplays and make movies. Stone graduated from the university in 1971 and within two years had sold his first project to a small Canadian film company. His first writing and directing effort was Seizure (1974), a horror story about a writer whose creations come to life.

Seizure did not make money or receive great reviews, and Stone entered a period marked by heavy drug and alcohol use. He finally pulled himself together in 1976 and decided to write a screenplay about his Vietnam experiences. Between 1976 and 1978 Stone wrote two stories on the war: Platoon, which was based on himself and other soldiers he had known in Vietnam; and Born on the Fourth of July, which was based on the autobiography (the written story of one's own life) of crippled war veteran Ron Kovic. No studio would touch either property; the scripts were considered too violent and too depressing. Stone's writing talents were recognized, however, and he was invited to work on other projects.

Oscars and controversy

In 1977 Stone was hired to write the screenplay for Midnight Express, a drama based on the true-life imprisonment of Bill Hayes in a Turkish jail. Many reviewers criticized the film's violence and accused it of racism (unequal treatment based on race) against the Turks. The controversy (open to dispute) helped the movie turn a profit, and it was also nominated (put forward for consideration) for five Academy Awards. Stone himself won an Oscar for his screenplay.

Stone then wrote and directed the horror movie The Hand (1981), and he wrote scripts for other movies, including Scarface. The film Scarface, which told the story of a ruthless cocaine dealer, offended some with its violence. For Stone, who had rid himself of a cocaine habit while writing the screenplay, it was a very important project. In an effort to exercise more control over his work, Stone then began making films independently. With the backing of Hemdale, a small British production company, he filmed Salvador (1986), based on the violence of the United States-supported Salvadoran army. Hemdale then gave Stone the money to make Platoon (1986). Stone used the script he had written in 1976 and the film won a number of Oscars, including best picture and best director.

Stone followed Platoon with Wall Street, his first big-budget project. Wall Street told the story of a young stockbroker and the ruthless older businessman who influences him. By this time Stone had found the money to film Born on the Fourth of July (1989). With Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise (1962) as the raging Ron Kovic, who endures not only the horror of battle but life in a wheelchair, Born on the Fourth of July brought Stone yet another Academy Award for best director.

Stone explored the 1960s with The Doors (1991) and his most controversial feature, JFK (1991). In JFK Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the Texas Attorney General who battled what the film views as a plot to cover up the real circumstances behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (19171963). The film's mixture of dreamlike scenes and historical details angered many, but even his critics admitted that Stone's methods were effective. Stone returned to the subject of Vietnam for Heaven and Earth (1993), showing the war from the point of view of a Vietnamese woman. His brutally violent Natural Born Killers (1994), the story of two disturbed young lovers who become famous for their killing spree, was attacked for its casual treatment of violence.

Major step forward

Stone's next film was the story of another American president, Richard Nixon (19131994), who resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal (in which it was revealed that Nixon had broken the law by using bugging devices to listen in on the conversations of his opponents). With British actor Anthony Hopkins (1937) in the title role, Nixon (1995) earned several Academy Award nominations. Many reviewers praised Stone's newly found ability to overlook his political beliefs and make a universally appealing film.

Stone's more recent film projects include directing U-Turn (1997), writing and directing Any Given Sunday (1999), and serving as executive producer of the TV movie The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001). In 2001 a Louisiana court threw out a lawsuit against Stone and Warner Brothers studios that claimed that viewing Natural Born Killers had led two people to shoot a store clerk, leaving her paralyzed. In 2002 Stone traveled to Cuba, where he spent seventy-two hours filming Cuban leader Fidel Castro (1927) for a documentary (a completely fact-based film) on the country.

For More Information

Riordan, James. Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Film-maker. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Salewicz, Chris. Oliver Stone. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998.

Silet, Charles L. P., ed. Oliver Stone: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

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Stone, Oliver

Oliver Stone, 1946–, American filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer, b. New York City, studied filmmaking with Martin Scorsese at New York Univ. (B.F.A., 1971). Stone enlisted (1967) in the army and saw combat in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He adapted the screenplay for Midnight Express (1978; Academy Award) and created other scripts before directing his first Hollywood film, The Hand (1981). Stone won critical plaudits for Salvador (1986), but it was not until he wrote and directed the grimly realistic Vietnam War drama Platoon (1986; Academy Award, best director) that he catapulted to popular success. In his exploration of various uniquely American themes, Stone has become a controversial figure, frequently criticized for mingling fact and fiction in some films (e.g., JFK, 1991) and for portraying extreme violence in others (e.g., Natural Born Killers, 1994). His many other movies include Wall Street (1987) and a sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), Born on the Fourth of July (1989; Academy Award, best director), The Doors (1991), Nixon (1995), World Trade Center (2006), and W. (2008, a dramatized portrait of George W. Bush). South of the Border (2010) is an extremely positive portrayal of South America's left-wing leaders, in particular Hugo Chávez; the contemporary marijuana wars in California and Mexico are the subject of Savages (2012). Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (2012) is a 10-part television documentary that generally excoriates the United States for various events from World War II to Barack Obama.

See his Platoon and Salvador: The Screenplays (1987) and his autobiographical novel A Child's Night Dream (written 1966, pub. 1997); N. Kagan, The Cinema of Oliver Stone (1995); D. Kunz, ed., The Films of Oliver Stone (1997); C. Salewicz, Oliver Stone, Close Up (1998).

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Stone, Oliver

Stone, Oliver (1946– ) US film director and screenwriter. Stone achieved commercial success with his film about the Vietnam War, Platoon (1987), for which he won an Academy Award for best director. Other films include Salvador (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995).

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