Born September 15, 1946, in New York, NY; son of Louis (a stockbroker) and Jacqueline (Goddet) Stone; married Najwa (some sources cite Majwa) Sarkis (a political attache), May 22, 1971 (divorced, 1977); married Elizabeth Burkit Cox (a film production assistant), c. June 7, 1981 (divorced, 1993); companion of Chong Son Chong (an actress and model); children: (second marriage) Sean (an actor), Michael Jack; (with Chong) Tara Chong. Education: Attended Yale University, 1965; New York University, B.F.A., 1971. Religion: Buddhist
Home— Los Angeles, CA. Office— Ixtlan, Inc., 2425 Olympic Blvd., Suite 660, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Agent— David Styne, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212; Geyer Kosinski, Industry Entertainment, 955 South Carrillo Dr., Third Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Director, screenwriter and producer of motion pictures. Worked as teacher in Cholon, South Vietnam, 1965-66; wiper in Merchant Marines, 1966; taxi driver in New York, NY, 1971. Ixtlan Productions (film production company), founder, 1977. Director of films, including Platoon, Orion, 1986, Wall Street, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1987, Born on the Fourth of July, Universal, 1989, The Doors, TriStar, 1991, JFK, Warner Bros., 1991, Natural Born Killers, Warner Bros., 1994, Nixon, Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi, 1995, Any Given Sunday, Warner Bros., 1999, and Alexander, Warner Bros., 2004. Executive producer of films, including South Central, Warner Bros., 1992, The Joy Luck Club, Buena Vista, 1993, Freeway, August Entertainment, 1996, and The Corruptor, New Line Cinema, 1999. Producer of films, including Reversal of Fortune, Warner Bros., 1990, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Columbia, 1996, and S.W.A.T., Sony Pictures Classics, 2003. Cinematographer, Street Scenes (documentary), 1970; editor, Seizure, American International Pictures, 1974; and coeditor, The Hand, Orion, 1981. Has appeared in various motion pictures, including The Hand, 1981, Platoon, 1986, Wall Street, 1987, Born on the Fourth of July, 1989, The Doors, 1991, Dave, Warner Bros., 1993, The Last Party, Triton, 1991, and Any Given Sunday, 1999. Director of television movies and specials, including Comandante, HBO, 2003, and Persona Non Grata, HBO, 2003. Executive producer of television movies and specials, including Wild Palms (miniseries), ABC, 1993, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, HBO, 1995, The Last Days of Kennedy and King, TBS, 1998, and The Day Reagan Was Shot, Showtime, 2001. Has appeared in television movies and specials, including Welcome Home, HBO, 1987, The Story of Hollywood, TNT, 1988, Oliver Stone: Inside Out, Showtime, 1992, Investigative Reports, "Who Killed JFK? On the Trail of the Conspiracies," A & E, 1992, The First 100 Years: ACelebration of American Movies, HBO, 1995, AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies, CBS, 1998, Twentieth Century-Fox: The Blockbuster Years, American Movie Classics, 2000, and AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Heroes and Villains, CBS, 2003. Military service: U.S. Army, 1967-68; served in Vietnam; decorated Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, Screen Writers Guild.
Award for best dramatic adaptation, Writers Guild of America, 1978, Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from another medium, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1978, and Golden Globe Award for best screenplay, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1979, all for Midnight Express; DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe Award for best director of a motion picture, and Academy Awards for best director and for best picture, all 1987, all for Platoon; DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, Golden Globe Award for best director of a motion picture, and Academy Award for best director, all 1990, all for Born on the Fourth of July; Golden Globe Award for best director of a motion picture, 1992, for JFK; Emmy Award, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1995, for Indictment: The McMartin Trial
(And director) Seizure, Cinerama, 1973.
Midnight Express (adapted from the book by Billy Hayes), Columbia, 1978.
(And director) The Hand (adapted from the novel The Lizard's Tail by Marc Brandel), Orion, 1981.
(With John Milius) Conan, the Barbarian (adapted from tales by Robert E. Howard), Universal, 1982.
Scarface, Universal, 1983.
(With Michael Cimino) Year of the Dragon (adapted from a novel by Robert Daly), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1985.
(With David Lee Henry) Eight Million Ways to Die (adapted from novel of same title by Lawrence Block), TriStar, 1986.
(With Richard Boyle, and coproducer and director) Salvador, Hemdale, 1986.
(And director) Platoon, Orion, 1986.
(With Stanley Weiser, and director) Wall Street, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1987.
(With Eric Bogosian, and director) Talk Radio (adapted from the play by Bogosian), Universal, 1988.
(With Ron Kovic, and coproducer and director) Born on the Fourth of July (based on the autobiography by Kovic), Universal, 1989.
(With J. Randal Johnson, and director) The Doors, TriStar, 1990.
(With Zachary Sklar, and coproducer and director) JFK (based on On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, and Crossfire by Jim Marrs), Warner Bros., 1991.
(With Bruce Wagner, and executive producer) Wild Palms (television miniseries; based on the comic strip by Bruce Wagner and Julian Allen), ABC, 1993.
(And coproducer and director) Heaven and Earth (based on the autobiographies of Le Ly Hayslip), Warner Bros., 1994.
(And coproducer and director) Natural Born Killers (based on an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino), Warner Bros., 1994.
(With Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, and producer and codirector) Nixon, Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi, 1995.
(Uncredited) U Turn, TriStar, 1996.
(With Daniel Pyne and John Logan, and executive producer and director) Any Given Sunday, Warner Bros., 1999.
(And producer) Comandante (documentary), HBO, 2003.
(And producer) Looking for Fidel (documentary), HBO, 2004.
(And producer and director) Alexander, Warner Bros., 2004.
(With Richard Boyle) Oliver Stone's Platoon & Salvador (original screenplays), Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(With Zachary Sklar) JFK, the Book of the Film: A Documented Screenplay, Applause Books (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Michael Singer) Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth: The Making of an Epic Motion Picture, Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1993.
Nixon: An Oliver Stone Film, edited by Eric Hamburg, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.
A Child's Night Dream (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Oliver Stone: Interviews, University of Mississippi Press (Jackson, MS), 2001.
Also contributor to books, including introductions to JFK: The Last Dissenting Witness, by Jean Hill, Pelican Publishing, 1992; JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy, by Fletcher L. Prouty, Carol Publishing, 1992; Monkey Business: The Disturbing Case that Launched the American Animals Rights Movement, by Kathy S. Guillermo, National Press Books, 1993; and Shut Up, Fag!: Quotations from the Files of Congressman Bob Dornan, edited by Nathan Callahan, Mainstreet Media, 1994.
"There is enough incense burning here to make you cough way out in the hall. There are also a meditation cushion, a stationary bicycle, and a shelf filled with . . . journals; he writes in them, he says, for at least twenty minutes every day. . . . The apartment walls are a jumble of paintings: a Warhol 'Last Supper'; a Francesco Clemente self-portrait; a fine, small Bierstadt; some awkward pieces by the Native American activist Leonard Peltier; and some even more awkward ones by . . . Sergio Premoli. The incense sticks on the mantel are surrounded by photographs: John F. Kennedy, Jim Garrison . . . , Jim Morrison. It is a kind of altar to Stone's dead," described Stephen Schiff in the New Yorker.
These photographs, and other objects in the apartment, also serve as an altar to several of the films created by writer/director Oliver Stone. One of the most controversial filmmakers working, Stone makes movies that assault the viewer at every turn as they tackle such ambitious topics as the Vietnam War, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the life of Jim Morrison and his band The Doors, the machinations of Wall Street, and the glamorization of serial killers and mass murderers by the media. "Stone's work tends to be loud and angry and fast, full of jagged politics and big emotions," maintained David Breskin in Rolling Stone. "Screen his movies in succession and you're left feeling you've survived a cinematic bar fight—a bit dented about the head and heart by the velvet fist of his vision."
Stone's strong vision is most often derived from personal experiences and personal obsessions. Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth stem from Stone's experiences in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War; Wall Street explores morality in the high-finance world of Stone's stockbroker father; and The Doors and JFK delve deeply into the lives of two of the important icons from Stone's young adult life. Such ambitious subject matter, however, lends itself to a full range of critical and commercial reaction; both critics and moviegoers tend to either love or hate Stone's films. "These aren't wan little art films, enrobing noble themes in acute observation and good taste," pointed out Schiff in the New Yorker. "Stone's movies are pumped up, overbearing, action-packed, and loud—shot through with big emotion, big suffering, big stars. They court controversy, and not only in the ways that movies usually court controversy . . . but in the ways that political initiatives court controversy. Stone's movies grab your lapels and scream in your face: they bear messages; they raise issues; they make news."
Affluent Childhood Overshadowed by War
The only child of a stockbroker father and French mother, Stone's childhood and early teenage years were very far removed from the politics and issues that later found their way into his movies. His parents met in 1945 when his father was serving in the U.S. Army during World War II; they were married in December of that same year and sailed for the United States. A year later Stone was born into a privileged life, splitting his time between homes in Manhattan and Connecticut and spending his summers with his maternal grandparents in France. Describing himself as a somewhat impetuous child and young adult, Stone sees himself as a mixture of his reserved father and sociable mother. "My dad was very loving," he remembered in his interview with Breskin for Rolling Stone. "That's a partial description of him. He was sarcastic and distant at times, but he was very loving—he was so proud of me, he admired me, I was the only child. He just didn't want me to get spoiled by my mom. He wanted to enforce discipline; he wanted me to learn discipline very early." Stone's mother, on the other hand, "is more outward, external, physical, in the world—not as abstracted as my dad. She never made enemies, she made friends. . . . Mom was a charming woman: To me, she's a bit like a piece of Auntie Mame and a piece of Evita. Just larger than life."
Schooling was a serious part of Stone's early life; he attended an elite day school in Manhattan before beginning at Hill School, a college prep academy in Pennsylvania. It was during his junior year at Hill that Stone shockingly learned of the impending divorce of his parents. "I thought they were very contented and that I was rich and that we had it made," Stone told Breskin in Rolling Stone. "And basically my father said that they were unhappy and that they were betraying each other, that she was screwing around and he was screwing around, and that he was broke, in debt." The news was not even delivered in person; Stone's parents called the headmaster, who was then the one to convey the news. From that point on, Stone's world changed and the downward spiral that eventually led him to Vietnam was set in motion."I felt I was an outsider," Stone revealed to Breskin in his Rolling Stone interview. "The family was over. It just disintegrated....The triangle splits, and we're three people in different places, and I'm sixteen, and all of a sudden I'm on my own. . . . I think that set up, basically, a period for me, from sixteen on, until thirty—I was going through a sort of adolescent thing. Especially from sixteen to twenty-two, a sort of revolution in my life. Everything was thrown topsy-turvy." Going on to college during this period, Stone spent only a year at Yale before dropping out in 1965 to join a teaching program that landed him in Vietnam; he wanted to experience things so he could write like Hemingway and Conrad. Teaching, like school, though, lacked something. Stone next joined the Merchant Marine. "I was seeing a side of the world I'd never seen," he related in his interview with Schiff in the New Yorker. "I did live a bit of Conrad. I was thinking I was getting material for a really big book."
This material did eventually end up in a book, but only after Stone quit the Merchant Marine and moved to Mexico to write it. The result was a fourteen-hundred-page autobiographical novel that Stone finished back at Yale, dropping out again as soon as it was complete. "After the book was rejected by two or three publishers," Stone explained to Schiff in the New Yorker, "I took a blind drive up the East River Drive and I threw some of it in the East River, out the window. I felt like I was worthless. I had spent all this time looking inside and writing about myself, and I had just gone too far. I needed to get out of my head and back to reality, and Hemingway told me in his writings about going to war and being part of war. So I enlisted. I was ready to die."
Along with Hemingway, patriotism and a desire to crush communism propelled Stone to enlist in the U.S. Army and request combat duty in Vietnam. "I was ready to die, but I didn't want to pull my own trigger," Stone observed in his Rolling Stone interview with Breskin. "Many a time I stood in the bathroom and looked in the mirror and had the razor out. . . . I went through all the computations of death in my head. I don't know how close I came. I certainly thought about it, and I emotionally identified with it, but I stopped myself." Unable to take his own life, Stone left it up to Vietnam to decide his fate. "I was either going to commit suicide in Vietnam or get killed there," he told Schiff in the New Yorker, adding: "I felt I couldn't be an honest human being until I knew what war and killing were."
Stone knew the meaning of war and killing by the time he finished his tour of duty, having been wounded twice and receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for his courageous acts. Discharged from the Army in 1968, Stone returned home to a strained relationship with his father that only worsened when he was thrown in jail on a marijuana charge in San Diego; he stayed in jail for three weeks until his father could raise the bail. "Before that time," Stone told Schiff in the New Yorker, "I knew emotionally that Vietnam was rotten and corrupt, but politically I was not ready to question authority. I was a private—I was not an officer. I was not a leader. Seeing that prison—there were five thousand kids in it. Seeing that radicalized me."
Radicalized by Vietnam
The radical and rebellious streak that began in prison followed Stone as he moved back to New York City and eventually enrolled in film school at New York University (NYU). Stone continued his heavy drug use and his writing in a dumpy East Village apartment, while studying under Martin Scorsese, among others. "I had a broken window, with the snow drifting in the winter," Stone recalled in his interview with Breskin in Rolling Stone. "I'd wake up in the morning and there'd be a pile of snow in my room. I was writing, though. I wrote, it seems, for therapy: Between twenty-two and thirty, I wrote eleven screenplays. I never stopped writing. It was my only home. No matter how dissolute I got—and I took a lot of . . . drugs, booze, bad—I would get up each day, like my dad said: You do something every day you don't want to do. I felt an obligation to hold up my sanity, to write."
In the midst of all this writing activity, Stone married his first wife, Najwa Sarkis, a Lebanese woman who worked for the Moroccan Mission to the United Nations. She helped support him after he graduated from NYU in 1971 until he sold his first screenplay, Seizure, to a Canadian distribution company two years later. Seizure also marked Stone's directorial debut; this horror story of a fantasy writer whose fictions come to life went virtually unnoticed, however. Although discouraged and angry, Stone continued to write. And in the summer of 1976, he faced the demons that haunted him and hammered out the script that would be used ten years later to make Platoon. In the meantime, Stone made the move to Los Angeles, where he soon after acquired both a divorce and an agent. Using his script for Platoon as his calling card, Stone discovered that the nation was still too close to the conflict to face the grim truth about Vietnam. The script did open doors for him, though, and a few short months after moving to Los Angeles, Stone jumped at the chance to adapt Midnight Express, Billy Hayes's tale of his imprisonment and escape.
In Midnight Express, Stone, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay, interprets the memoirs of Hayes. An American college student vacationing in Turkey, Hayes was arrested for trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. First sentenced to four years in prison, Hayes was then resentenced to thirty years before escaping to Greece. The extraordinarily brutal prison system is exposed in the film, as are the atrocities committed against Hayes. Many critics question the graphic violence that dominates Midnight Express; Films in Review contributor Rob Edelman, however, wrote that the director, Alan Parker, and the screenwriter, Oliver Stone, "make you cry, make your stomach knot up, make you shiver at the needless brutality."
The controversy that surrounded Midnight Express served to make the film a commercial success and opened up even more doors for Stone. Still determined to relate a Vietnam story to audiences, and now a screenwriter in demand, Stone wrote Born on the Fourth of July, an adaptation of the memoir of the paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. When the financial side of this project fell apart, however, Stone contracted with Orion to direct and write another horror/suspense movie— The Hand. More successful than Seizure, this 1981 film focuses on Jon Lansdale, a cartoonist whose hand is severed in an accident. The hand comes to life, follows Jon around, and commits murders on his behalf. Vincent Canby, reviewing The Hand in the New York Times, maintained that the screenplay "is tightly written, precise and consistent in its methods," adding that the film suggested Stone to be "a director of very real talent."
The next few films Stone focused on, however, did not utilize these directorial skills. First came the screenplay for Conan, the Barbarian, an adventure fantasy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. Next was Scarface, the saga of the rise and fall of Cuban refugee Tony Montana, who finds his American dream in the world of cocaine smuggling. Just escaping an "X" rating because of excessive violence, Scarface, starring Al Pacino, became a commercial hit in large part because of the notoriety surrounding it. Although writing that Scarface "lacks the generational sweep and moral ambiguity" of The Godfather, Richard Corliss concluded in Time: "The only X this movie deserves is the one in explosive." Canby similarly stated in the New York Times that "the dominant mood of the film is anything but funny. It is bleak and futile: What goes up must always come down. When it comes down in Scarface, the crash is as terrifying as it is vivid and arresting."
Stone began working as an independent writer/director in the mid-1980s. The first project he under-took was based on the experiences of his friend Richard Boyle (a freelance photojournalist) during the Civil War in El Salvador. The script Stone wrote with Boyle follows the photojournalist, and his friend Doctor Rock (a DJ), as their excessive lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, and women slowly fades away and they become involved in the Civil War surrounding them. The political indictment of U.S. policy in El Salvador made the script a hard sell, though, and Stone eventually directed the film for free in order to obtain financial help from the British film corporation Hemdale.
Salvador, released in 1986, was partially shot with a hand-held camera on a very low budget in some of the rougher areas of Mexico. The audience, and the distribution, were limited; critics cited Stone with manipulating history to serve his purpose and with creating two unlikable, farcical main characters. "A sprawling blend of gripping action and simplistic characters, of skillful photography and awkward editing, Salvador frustrates," pointed out Patricia Hluchy in Maclean's, concluding: "It is the victim of an artistic war—between repugnant farce and historical tragedy." David Denby, on the other hand, related in New York, "In everything he does, Stone pushes things to the limits. He puts mounds of corpses on the screen, and children with missing limbs, and he provides so little information and political context that the atrocities feel like high-minded exploitation, a way of showing off how bloody tough he is. Yet he has talent, and has made a disturbing movie."
Wows Critics with Platoon
The most important thing Salvador did for Stone's career was to bring him the money needed for Platoon, the script he had been trying to make since the beginning of his career. Hemdale agreed to produce the film, and Stone began shooting in the Philippines immediately, finishing just fifty-four days later. The first in Stone's trilogy concerning the Vietnam War, Platoon attacks the subject from a soldier's point of view, from Stone's view as a member of the 25th Infantry Division. "Vietnam messed a lot of guys up because it put us out of step with our own generation," explained Stone in an interview with Chuck Pfeifer for Interview. "There was such a dogtired, don't-give-a-damn attitude over there, such anger and frustration and casual brutality. 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."
Authenticity, gleaned from these personal experiences, is what makes Platoon so gripping; numerous Vietnam veterans praised the film for its realistic portrayal of the conflict and all of its minute details. The young actors were even put through two weeks of boot camp by Stone and a former Marine drill instructor. The young hero of the film, Chris, is a college dropout who volunteers to go to Vietnam, much as Stone did. His thoughts and experiences are revealed through letters home that are read in voice-overs, a technique criticized by many reviewers. The war presents numerous moral decisions and ambiguities for Chris, who must in essence choose between two sergeants: Barnes, a ruthless killing machine, and Elias, an equally courageous fighter who maintains his values and morals at the same time.
"Platoon captures the crazy, adrenaline-rush chaos of battle better than any movie before," cited David Ansen and Peter McAlevey in Newsweek, adding: "Stone is ruthless in his deglamorization of war, but not at the expense of the men who fought there." Pat Aufderheide, writing in Cineaste, also praised the film's grasp on reality. "It's brutally honest, a grunt's-eye, mud-level view," she asserted. "Part of its honesty is its unabashed romanticism—its reverence for ancient war cliches and heroic war archetypes, its vision of Vietnam as a staging ground in the war for America's soul." Stone himself told Ansen and McAlevey how important the authenticity of Platoon is to him: "I was under an obligation to show it as it was. If I didn't, I'd be a fraud." Ansen and McAlevey concluded: "After nine years of waiting, Stone has made one of the rare Hollywood movies that matter."
Picking up where he left off with Platoon, Stone tackles the story of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet, in his 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July. Coauthored by Kovic, the film begins with his youth and the events leading up to his Vietnam experience; from the beginning, he is primed with patriotism, war, and God to be the all-American hero. The war scenes seem horror-filled until Kovic returns home to a V.A. hospital in the Bronx. The atrocities here and his injuries—which leave Kovic paralyzed from the chest down at the age of twenty-one—begin the vet's descent. He goes from believing he did his duty, to a period of despair filled with drinking, and finally emerges as a writer and respected activist for his work with Vietnam Veterans against the War.
"Stone has become as unrelenting as Kovic," stated Denby in his New York review. "From his earlier films, . . . we understood that he was enraged by the softness of American mythmaking—the lies, the evasions, the Reaganite media scam that turned greed into public virtue and the disaster of Vietnam into an illusion of noble endeavor undermined by weak-hearted liberals. But Platoon was almost consoling in comparison with Born on the Fourth of July." Although Stanley Kauffmann, writing in New Republic, found the screenplay "fuzzy" for failing to focus on the transformation of Kovic from patriotic volunteer to famed activist, he concluded that "the heat in the film is almost palpable as we sit before it. Stone, Kovic, . . . and all the others reached deep inside to make this picture, and it earns something more than respect." Nation contributor Stuart Klawans similarly described Born on the Fourth of July as a movie "which shoots off the screen like pressurized steam. Directed with furious, relentless energy by Oliver Stone, the film keeps hitting moments that feel like climaxes and then pushes them further."
The final film in the trilogy, Heaven and Earth, based on the memoirs of a Vietnamese woman, offers a different perspective. Released in 1994, this is Stone's first film to feature a female protagonist. Born in Central Vietnam in the early 1950s, Le Ly Hayslip leads a quiet life in her farming village until the war begins. She joins the Vietcong, only to be captured and tortured by the South Vietnamese. Upon returning home, she is greeted with hostility by the Vietcong and raped next to her own grave. It is while working as a bar girl in Saigon that Le Ly finally meets and marries Steve Butler, a U.S. Marine who takes her back to the States. This new country offers very little to Le Ly, who ends up with no identity, even when she returns home several years later. Received harshly by critics, Heaven and Earth was also less commercially successful than its predecessors. Pointing out that Stone attempts to use Le Ly to lessen the guilt of the U.S., Jonathan Romney concluded in New Statesman & Society: "It's too much, as if an overeager Stone had pledged to his subject to use all the resources at his disposal to tell her story. The result is neither heaven nor earth but the big, dumb banging of purgatory."
Revisits Hippie Youth with The Doors
In between his Vietnam films, Stone also focused on other important figures and events of the 1960s and 1970s; Jim Morrison's life and the story of his famous rock band are interpreted by Stone in his 1990 film The Doors. Beginning with Morrison's college experience, during which he studied film, the movie follows the young poet's epic rise to stardom and ends with his death of a drug overdose in 1971. The prominent drug abuse and other excesses in the film assault the viewer, as do Stone's interpretations of the myths surrounding the famous performer. "The Doors is an Oliver Stone movie all the way, big and brave and foolish," contended Robert Horton in Film Comment. "It's broad, juicy, cheerless, by turns exhilarating and embarrassing, always ready, indeed eager, to let passion eclipse good judgment," continued Horton, adding: "Morrison's story had bounced around Hollywood for years, and we are fortunate that it eventually rolled in Oliver Stone's direction. Both Stone and Morrison are/were unruly talents, not consistent or reliable or without their vulgar undersides, but good to have around. In some ways, Stone's The Doors may be the movie Morrison never lived long enough to make."
President John F. Kennedy, another icon whose life was cut short, and the events surrounding his death are the subject of Stone's JFK, released in 1991. The film is the director's most controversial; it offers a conspiracy theory that involves the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon in connection with the assassination. Based on books by Jim Marrs and Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney who believes the Warren Report to be a lie, JFK is attacked by many critics because of its interpretation of history, not because of its actual qualities as a film. Mixing fact, through the use of newsreels and photos, with fiction, through reenactments among other things, Stone makes the line between what really happened and what did not very fuzzy. Garrison, the main character of the film, attacks the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and sets out to prove his theory. The movie ends with the trial of Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman accused of conspiracy in connection with the murder. Garrison loses the case but is still convinced that powerful forces are keeping the truth hidden. JFK "is a cunning, often mesmerizing piece of filmcraft and—make no mistake—it is propaganda, shot through with all the perils and pitfalls of that most troublesome genre," described People contributor Mark Goodman. Maintaining that all of Stone's films, no matter what the subject matter is, have something factually wrong in them, Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone: "Even when his intentions are worthy and backed with skilled technique—as they are in JFK—Stone will fudge any fact, hype any situation, pull any stunt to make his case. JFK is the best and worst of Stone in one volatile package." Also referring to Stone's manipulation of the truth, Ansen pointed out in Newsweek: "He manages to pack in an astonishing amount of information while maintaining suspense and narrative clarity. Quasi documentary in style, JFK shifts between color and black and white, fact and speculation, newsreel and staged re-creation, so that you can't always tell what's real footage and what's not, never mind what's true and what's not." Kauffmann in New Republic viewed JFK as much more than a mixture of fact and fiction. "Very few Hollywood people today make films primarily out of conviction, particularly political conviction. Admittedly, its easy to overvalue JFK because it's a rarity that way, but it's also easy to undervalue it cinematically because of its political and historical garishness." Kauffmann went on to conclude: "First, JFK is a fine piece of filmmaking. Second, it is a passionate work in an art that is mostly treated as an industry."
Bringing his passion into the 1990s, Stone assaults the media and all its excesses through the characters of mass murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers. The couple begin their killing spree with Mallory's father, whose abusive behavior is satirically portrayed in the form of a 1950s sitcom, laugh track and all. The Knox couple suffer no remorse as they then proceed to travel across the country and kill fifty-two strangers for various, insignificant reasons. As the number of victims rise, so does the popularity of Mickey and Mallory, so much so that they are celebrities by the time they are captured. Once in jail, the media's exploitation of the couple reaches its high when Stone's most satirical character, Wayne Gale, sets up a live interview to be broadcast during halftime of the Super Bowl. The Australian host of the tabloid television show American Maniacs, Gale becomes a hostage when the Knox couple attempt to escape during the interview. The ensuing prison riot is broadcast live, as is Gale's death when the couple make it to freedom.
Stylistically, Natural Born Killers bursts with a barrage of almost every film technique available, including photos, grainy black and white film, slow motion and strobed motion, superquick close ups, slide projection, and heavy-metal animation. Remarking upon the lack of emotion evinced by the acts of Mickey and Mallory, Owen Gleiberman observed in Entertainment Weekly that "what makes their lurid odyssey so mesmerizing is Stone's revolutionary cinematic style, a visual language at once lyrical, hallucinatory, and as deliriously assaultive as Mickey and Mallory themselves." Ansen asserted in Newsweek that Stone tries to place the blame for society's fascination with violence on the media, concluding that "what Stone can't acknowledge in his fitfully astonishing, ultimately numbing movie is that he and Wayne Gale are two sides of the same coin. Had he done so, Natural Born Killers might have gotten under the skin of the issues it tantalizingly raises." Gleiberman, however, sees Stone as accomplishing his purpose in Natural Born Killers. "Stone takes his characters right over the top," he concluded, "rubbing our noses in our own lust for excess, and some viewers are bound to say that he's gone too far. Yet this may be one case where too far is just far enough—where a gifted filmmaker has transformed his own attraction to violence into an art of depraved catharsis."
Over the course of his career, Stone has continuously used violence and other excesses to relate his messages to viewers. "The world is spinning much faster than my camera and myself," he explained to Breskin in his Rolling Stone interview. "I think movies have to break through the three dimensions, close as you can get. I think you go for every . . . thing you can to make it live. We're into new technology. Use everything you can. Make it breathe, make it coil, make it live. " And Stone's movies are alive, with controversy, debate, and criticism; the writer/director, however, explained to Schiff in the New Yorker, "I would rather not seek out a controversy; I really would not. This is something that people don't understand. Controversy just categorizes you; it's boring. I've had so many categories in my life—fascist, bloody, conspiratorial, unsubtle, barbarian, ruffian. Sometimes I don't recognize myself." One thing Stone does recognize, though, is his contribution to the filmmaking industry. When asked by Breskin if he felt like a great artist, he responded with, "My true feelings? I never doubted it, from day one. When I was eighteen, I just felt like I had a call. Like I had a call. And living up to that call has been the hardest part. I've got a lot of work to do on myself, on what I'm doing, on my craft, but I never had a doubt."
Continues to Court Controversy
Stone returned to the political arena in 1995 with Nixon. The film, which traces the rise and fall of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, again placed Stone in the center of controversy, as critics argued over the factual accuracy of the film. Wall Street Journal reviewer Joe Morgenstern, remarked that Stone is "up to some dirty historical tricks once again," and he called Nixon a "bizarre, bloated and often fascinating psychobiography of our 37th president." In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann believed that Nixon lacked something that appeared in Stone's previous work. "What's missing is what Stone's best films have had: a subtext, a large theme evoked by the action on the screen," noted Kauffmann. He added, "This leaves the film not much more than the series of events presented—thus, in any deep sense, purposeless." Roger Ebert, however, deemed Nixon "one of the year's best films," in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert stated, " Nixon would be a great film even if there had been no Richard Nixon."
In 1996 Stone had a hand in writing the screenplay for the musical Evita, then served as coproducer for the critically acclaimed film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Stone's next directorial effort, 1997's U-Turn, depicts the story of a drifter who encounters a town's strange inhabitants in a plot that involves sex, murder, and betrayal. It was not well received.
Stone looks at the world of professional football in 1999's Any Given Sunday. In the film, Tony D'Amato, the embattled veteran coach of the Miami Sharks, faces problems both off-field and on, clashing with the team's scheming new owner while also attempting to rein in the Sharks's brash young quarterback. "The film's fictional football league . . . aspires to be a louder version of the NFL," observed Steve Rushin in Sports Illustrated. "From the grotesquerie of team uniforms to the depravity of team owners, no turn goes un-Stoned." Time critic Richard Schickel remarked that Stone presents the players as "innocent animals, the purity of their violent athletic endeavors under constant threat of corruption by people trying to make a buck off their pain." In the New Republic, Kauffmann questioned the relevance of Any Given Sunday, asking, "Do we really need a film to clarify the elements of warfare, gladiatorial combat, corporate competition, vicarious sadism and masochism that every game lays right in our laps?"
Several reviewers commented on the film's visual style. According to Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, "Any Given Sunday is a vast and pummeling paradox—a kaleidoscopic bone crusher. The movie is edited like that disarming scissor-cut tackle, the visuals coming at you from every angle, with an ultraviolent slice-and-dice suddenness." Gleiberman noted, however, that "the film's cumulative effect is as exhausting as it is exciting." Schickel also found fault with the director's style, "all handheld shots and short, jagged cuts" that ultimately prove distracting. Kauffmann, however, praised Stone's work, writing that Any Given Sunday is "dazzlingly made."
If you enjoy the works of Oliver Stone
If you enjoy the works of Oliver Stone, you might want to check out the following films:
Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, 1978.
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, 1979.
Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, 1984.
Five years would pass before Stone returned to writing and directing a major motion picture. Macedonian king Alexander the Great, regarded as one of the finest military leaders in history, is the subject of Stone's 2004 film, Alexander. The film was shot in a mere eighty-seven days in such far-flung locales as Morocco, Thailand, and London. According to Entertainment Weekly contributor Daniel Fierman, with "a $150 million-plus budget, and a 143-page script written by its director, Alexander promises to be one of the more fascinating historical dramas ever made."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Cook, David A., A History of Narrative Film, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, Continuum (New York, NY), 1995.
Kunz, Don, editor, The Films of Oliver Stone, Scarecrow Press (Lanham, MD), 1997.
Riordan, James, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.
Silet, Charles L. P., editor, Oliver Stone: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2001.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Toplin, Robert Brent, editor, Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History, Controversy, University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), 2000.
Advocate, April 7, 1992.
American Film, December, 1987; March, 1991.
American Spectator, April, 1992, pp. 28-31.
Atlantic Monthly, July, 1997, pp. 96-100.
Chicago Sun-Times, April 25, 1986; December 30, 1986; December 11, 1987; December 21, 1988; December 20, 1989; March 1, 1991; December 20, 1991; December 24, 1993; August 26, 1994; December 20, 1995.
Cineaste, Volume 15, number 4, Pat Aufderheide, "Oliver Stone as Pulp Artist," p. 5; Volume 16, number 3.
Commonweal, May 3, 1991, pp. 294-296.
Empire, May, 1998, Adam Smith, "Round The Bend," pp. 64-65.
Entertainment Weekly, January 14, 1994; September 2, 1994, Owen Gleiberman, "American Psychos," pp. 90-92; August 6, 1999, Josh Young, "Devil's Advocate," pp. 26-27; April 3, 1998, Mike D'Angelo, review of U-Turn, pp. 99-101; November 1, 1999, Daniel Fierman, "Oliver Stone: Director Extraordinaire, Provocateur Nonpareil"; January 7, 2000, Owen Gleiberman, "Crush Groove," p. 38; February 16, 2001, Scott Brown, "Casting The First Stone," p. 77; April 23, 2004, Daniel Fierman, "Great Expectations," p. 34.
Esquire, December, 1997, pp. 38-41; June, 2003, Tom Carson, "Bray of Pigs," pp. 58-60.
Film Comment, January-February, 1987; May-June, 1991, Robert Horton, "Riders on the Storm," pp. 57-61; January-February, 1994, p. 26.
Film Criticism, Volume 25, number 1, Richard Corliss, "Who Cares."
Film Quarterly, fall, 1990, pp. 44-47.
Films in Review, December, 1978, Rob Edelman, review of Midnight Express, p. 635; March, 1987.
Flicks, May, 1998, Claire Lloyd, "Rolling Stone," p. 35.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1987, pp. 458-464.
Interview, February, 1987, Chuck Pfeifer, "Oliver Stone," p. 576; September, 1994.
Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 17, number 3, Jack Boozer, Jr., " Wall Street: The Commodification of Perception."
London Review of Books, February 13, 1992, pp. 6-8.
Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1982.
Maclean's, July 21, 1986, Patricia Hluchy, "Rebels and Reprobates," p. 50; March 30, 1987, Gerald Peary, "The Ballad of a Haunted Soldier"; December 28, 1987, p. 46.
Monthly Film Bulletin, January, 1987; October, 1989, J. Wrathall, "Greeks, Trojans and Cubans—Oliver Stone."
Nation, January 1, 1990, Stuart Klawans, review of Born on the Fourth of July, pp. 28-30; March 25, 1991, pp. 388-391; May 24, 1993, pp. 713-715; April 12, 1999, Peter Biskind, Carl Bromley, and Jon Wiener, "On Movies, Money & Politics: Beatty, Baldwin, Glover, Robbins, Stone, and Lear," pg. 13-14, 16-18, 20.
National Review, January 22, 1988, pp. 65-66; March 24, 1989, pp. 46-49; February 5, 1990, pp. 58-59; September 26, 1994, p. 72.
New Perspectives, spring, 1995.
New Republic, January 4 & 11, 1988, pp. 24-25; February 13, 1989, p. 26; January 29, 1990, Stanley Kauffmann, "The Battle after the War," pp. 26-27; April 1, 1991, p. 28; January 27, 1992, Stanley Kauffmann, "Dallas," pp. 26, 28; September 7 & 14, 1992, pp. 72-73; February 7, 1994, p. 26; October 3, 1994, p. 26; January 22, 1996; October 27, 1997, Stanley Kauffmann, "Wait a While," pp. 26-27; July 12, 1999, Stanley Kauffmann, "Citizen Cain," p. 28; January 17, 2000, Stanley Kaufmanns, "Some Intricacies; A Farewell," p. 24.
New Statesman & Society, January 21, 1994, Jonathan Romney, "Promise Her Everything," pp. 34-35.
Newsweek, October 16, 1978, pp. 76, 81; December 23, 1991, p. 50; January 5, 1987, David Ansen and Peter McAlevey, "A Ferocious Vietnam Elegy," p. 57; December 23, 1992, David Ansen, "A Troublemaker for Our Times," p. 50; August 29, 1994, David Ansen, "The Overkilling Fields," pp. 54-55.
New York, March 24, 1986, David Denby, "In Another Country," pp. 86, 88-89; December 14, 1987, pp. 86-88; December 12, 1988, pp. 112, 114; December 18, 1989, David Denby, "Days of Rage," pp. 101-102; February 17, 1992, pp. 44-47; January 10, 1994, p. 44.
New Yorker, July 28, 1986, pp. 77-80; January 22, 1990, pp. 122-124; January 17, 1994, p. 87; August 8, 1994, Stephen Schiff, "The Last Wild Man," pp. 40, 42-48, 50-53, 55.
New York Review of Books, February 17, 1994, pp. 22-24.
New York Times, May 15, 1981, Chris Chase, "Good Fortune Has Creator of Hand Nervous"; April 24, 1981, Vincent Canby, "The Hand, Clever Horror Tale," p. C8; May 15, 1981; May 15, 1982; December 9, 1983, Vincent Canby, "Al Pacino Stars in Scarface, " p. C18; January 2, 1990, pp. C13, C20.
People, January 13, 1992, Mark Goodman, review of JFK, pp. 15-16; January 22, 1996, pp. 105-108; October 13, 1997, review of U-Turn, p. 19.
Premiere, January, 1996, Peter Biskind, pp. 62-65; January, 2000, Peter Manso, "Stone's Throw," pp. 78-81, 97.
Psychology Today, September-October, 1993, pp. 44-45, 64, 66-69.
Rolling Stone, April 4, 1991, David Breskin, "The Rolling Stone Interview: Oliver Stone," pp. 37-40, 42-3, 62; January 23, 1992, Peter Travers, "Oh, What a Tangled Web," pp. 48-49.
Sight and Sound, spring, 1991, J. Hoberman, "Out of Order," p. 7; August, 1993, pp. 60-61; Volume 6, number 3, 1996, pp. 6-9.
Sports Illustrated, December 27, 1999, Steve Rushin, "Apocalypse Sunday," p. 28.
Stills, February 29, 1987.
Time, October 16, 1978; December 5, 1983, Richard Corliss, "Say Good Night to the Bad Guy," pp. 96-97; December 23, 1991; October 6, 1997, p. 109; November 9, 1998, p. 94; December 27, 1999, Richard Schickel, review of Any Given Sunday, p. 168; April 19, 2004, Jeffrey Resner, "Ten Questions for Oliver Stone," p. 8.
TV Guide, April 11, 2004, Michele Willens, "Insider Q & A: Oliver Stone," p. 16.
Variety, June 2, 2003, Ronnie Scheib, review of Persona Non Grata, p. 51.
Wall Street Journal, December 21, 1995, Joe Morgenstern, review of Nixon, p. A10.
Washington Post, May 14, 1982.
Wilson Library Bulletin, March, 1992, pp. 51-53.
Conversations with History Web site,http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/conversations/ (June 30, 2004), "History and the Movies: Conversation with Oliver Stone."
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
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)
Any Given Sunday (+ exec pr)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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. □
American Vietnam War veteran; film director
Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone is one of America's best-known film directors. Over the course of his career, he has written and directed films on many different subjects, from the world of high finance (1987's Wall Street) to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1991's JFK). But he first became famous for two Vietnam War films that received tremendous critical acclaim. These movies—Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989)—provided movie audiences with powerful portraits of American soldiers' experiences in Vietnam.
Raised in a world of comfort and wealth
Oliver Stone was born September 15, 1946, in New York, New York. His parents were Louis Stone, a prominent stockbroker, and Jacqueline (Goddet) Stone. As a youngster, Stone attended elite schools in New York City and Connecticut and spent his summers living in France with his maternal grandparents. When he was sixteen, however, he was shocked to learn that his parents were divorcing and that his seemingly wealthy father was actually deeply in debt. "I thought they were very contented and that I was rich and that we had it made," Stone recalled in Rolling Stone. The break-up of Stone's family left the teenager feeling deeply disillusioned and rebellious.
In 1964 Stone graduated from high school and enrolled at Yale University, where he began to consider a writing career. But he dropped out of school after one year to join a teaching program. After undergoing training, he was assigned to teach English at a school in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. He arrived in the city in late 1965, just as the United States was beginning to commit American troops to the Vietnam War.
This conflict, which pitted the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong guerrilla allies, had actually begun in the mid-1950s. At that time, Communist forces began working to take over South Vietnam and unite it with the North under one Communist government. But the United States strongly opposed their activities because of fears that a takeover might trigger Communist aggression in other parts of the world.
As a result, the United States provided military and financial aid to South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the South continued to struggle, American political and military leaders decided to introduce U.S. troops in hopes of wiping out the Communist threat. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the joint Viet Cong-North Vietnamese forces. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and caused bitter internal divisions across America.
Stone in Vietnam
Stone spent six months in Saigon before returning to the United States. After returning home, however, he developed a deep desire to participate directly in the war as a soldier. This desire was due in part to his belief that wartime experiences might help him mature as a writer. But he also attributed his feelings to romantic visions of war, manhood, and adventure.
Stone volunteered for infantry duty in Vietnam, and in September 1967 he joined a platoon that was charged with patrolling a dangerous region near the Cambodian border. As soon as he arrived, Stone recalled in Time magazine, "I realized ... that I'd made a terrible mistake. It was on-the-job training: Here's your machete, kid; you cut point [lead the platoon through the jungle]. You learn if you can, and if not you're dead. Nobody was motivated, except to get out. Survival was the key. It wasn't very romantic."
During Stone's year-long tour of duty in Vietnam, he fought in several deadly battles, was wounded twice, and witnessed the war's cruelty and violence on countless occasions. By the time he returned home in late 1968, Stone was convinced that American involvement in Vietnam was a terrible and tragic mistake.
Begins career in films
After returning to the United States, Stone studied film making at New York University with director Martin Scorsese and other instructors. He graduated in 1971 and spent the next few years trying to establish himself as a director and screen-writer. In the meantime, however, Stone's memories of Vietnam continued to haunt him, and he began abusing drugs and alcohol.
In 1976 Stone managed to gain control over his destructive drinking and drug use. Around this same time, he drew on the memories of his tour in Vietnam to write the script for Platoon. But film studios rejected the script because they did not believe that the American public would be interested in seeing a movie treatment of the controversial and unpopular war.
Stone's inability to gain financing for Platoon frustrated him, but he continued to build his reputation in the film industry. In 1977 he earned an Academy Award for his screenplay for Midnight Express, a dark and controversial film about a young American's imprisonment in Turkey for drug smuggling. He also wrote the screenplay for Scarface, a violent but popular film that was released in 1983. And in 1986 he wrote and directed Salvador, a critically acclaimed movie that the story of a photojournalist who reports on the civil war that engulfed the Central American country of El Salvador during the early 1980s.
Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July
In the mid-1980s Stone finally was able to gather enough money to begin filming Platoon. The story concerns a young American college dropout who volunteers to serve in Vietnam. Once he arrives, however, he is stunned by the violence, brutality, and confusing nature of the war. As the weeks go by, the young soldier works to maintain his morality and decency within a platoon that struggles to survive enemy attacks and internal disagreements.
Stone shot the film in the Philippines in less than two months and released it in 1986. Platoon was immediately popular across America when it appeared. A great commercial success, the movie also drew widespread praise. Reviewers and Vietnam veterans alike hailed the film for its realism and its powerful emotional impact. "For a long time after I saw Platoon the first time and then again after I saw it a second time, I wondered why I found the movie so powerful, so genuinely authentic," wrote the famous Vietnam War correspondent David Halberstam (see entry) in the New York Times. "Part of it is the acting and directing. One scene after another seems stunningly real. But the movie transcends all the individual scenes, no matter how good they are. Then finally I realized what it was. What Mr. Stone has captured and put together is the special reality of Vietnam, the loneliness of these men, how isolated they are and how on this terrain they are always foreigners." Stone's film ultimately won numerous prestigious awards, including Academy Awards for best picture and best director.
Stone followed up Platoon with Wall Street, a 1987 film that harshly attacked the greed and corruption of America's business world. He then turned his attention to another Vietnam film called Born on the Fourth of July. This movie is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic (see entry), a young man who was crippled in combat in Vietnam. Stone's film begins by showing how Kovic's deep sense of patriotism convinced him to volunteer for military duty in Vietnam. It then details his horrifying experiences during the war and the firefight that left him a paraplegic (paralyzed from the chest down). The movie then tracks Kovic's experiences after he returns to the United States as he struggles to cope with his injuries and a deep sense that he has been betrayed by his country. But he eventually emerges from a haze of alcohol and self-pity to became a respected writer and antiwar activist.
Born on the Fourth of July proved to be another critical and commercial success for Stone. Reviewers praised actor Tom Cruise for his performance as Kovic. They also applauded the director for creating another gripping examination of the Vietnam War and its effect on the American men who fought in it. In 1990 Stone received his second best director Academy Award for his work on the film.
Becomes known for making controversial movies
Since Born on the Fourth of July appeared in 1989, Stone has become one of America's most controversial movie directors. In 1991 he released JFK, a film about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy (see entry). Stone was condemned by many reviewers and scholars who saw the film who charged that he altered basic historical facts surrounding Kennedy's death in order to support his own conspiracy theories about the assassination.
In 1994 Stone released Natural Born Killers, an extremely violent movie about a murderous young couple who become celebrities after a long killing spree. Some people viewed the film as an insightful commentary on American popular culture. But many reviewers, politicians, and ordinary Americans strongly criticized the movie for its twisted characters and bloody storyline.
Stone's next film examined the life of President Richard Nixon (see entry), who served from 1969 to 1974 before resigning as a result of the Watergate scandal. Nixon drew praise from many critics for its intelligent and sensitive portrait of the disgraced president, but the 1995 film performed poorly at the box office.
Examines the war from Vietnamese perspective
Stone made his third film about the Vietnam War in the mid-1990s. This work, called Heaven and Earth, is based on the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip (see entry), a Vietnamese woman who came of age as war raged across her country. Released in 1994, Heaven and Earth failed to generate much excitement among American moviegoers. It also received poor marks from reviewers, although they gave the director credit for examining the war from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman.
Ansen, David, with Peter McAlevey. "A Ferocious Vietnam Elegy." Newsweek, January 5, 1987.
Appy, Christian. "Vietnam According to Oliver Stone." Commonweal, March 23, 1990.
Breskin, David. "The Rolling Stone Interview: Oliver Stone." Rolling Stone, April 4, 1991.
Corliss, Richard. "Platoon: Viet Nam, the Way It Really Was, on Film." Time, January 26, 1987.
Halberstam, David, and Bernard E. Trainor. "Two Who Were There View 'Platoon.'" New York Times, March 8, 1987.
Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone. New York: Continuum, 1995.
Riordan, James. Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a RadicalFilmmaker. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Stone, Oliver. "One from the Heart." American Film, January-February 1987.
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 (1955–75; 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.
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 wealth—private 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 (1917–1963). 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 (1913–1994), 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.
STONE, OLIVER (1946– ), U.S. film director. Born in New York, Stone spent two years in Vietnam (1967–68) as a U.S. Infantry Specialist 4th class and received both the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster honors. Stone began his feature film career at the highest level, writing the screenplay of Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978), for which he received an Oscar. Stone then wrote the script for Scarface (1983) and then directed his first feature, Salvador (1986), which he also co-scripted and co-produced. Stone's next writing and directorial effort was the hugely successful Platoon (1986), which received the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year and an Oscar for Stone for Best Director. Stone then directed Wall Street (1987) and Talk Radio (1988), both of which he also co-scripted. His next film, Born on the Fourth of July (1989), won him his second Academy Award for Best Director. Stone then directed The Doors (1990); the highly controversial J.F.K. (Oscar nominations for Stone as writer, director, and producer, 1991); Heaven & Earth (1993); the even more controversial Natural Born Killers (1994); Nixon (Oscar nomination, 1995); U Turn (1997); Any Given Sunday (1999); Comandante (2003); Persona Non Grata (2003); the tv movie Looking for Fidel (2004); and Alexander (2004). In addition to writing the screenplays for many of his films that he directed, Stone also wrote the screenplay for Conan the Barbarian (1982); Year of the Dragon (1985); 8 Million Ways to Die (1986); and Evita (1996).
Stone's published works include A Child's Night Dream (1997) and Oliver Stone's U.S.A. (2000).
F. Beaver, Oliver Stone: Wakeup Cinema (1994); J. Riordan, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker (1996); C. Salewicz, Oliver Stone: Close Up (1998); N. Kagan, The Cinema of Oliver Stone (2000); C. Silet (ed), Oliver Stone: Interviews (2001); E. Hamburg, JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me (2002).
[Jonathan Licht /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]