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Oliver Stone's Mother Lode

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 11, 1997

Oliver Stone/Reuter
Oliver Stone in Berlin in 1996. (Reuter)
SANTA MONICA, Calif. Oliver Stone is reliving his adolescence. More likely, he has never stopped living it.

"My mom kind of went off and did her thing with this guy in Europe, a young and handsome man, because, frankly, she was very much in love with him. And my father was very tough and stoic, business as usual. 'Your mother has busted me and I got no money, I'm $100,000 in debt, blah blah blah.' It was all a shock.
. . . And nobody talked in those days. Nobody said what was really going on."

A gap-toothed smile nervously creases his tired, frat-boy face. His almond eyes ("like a Mongol nomad's," he claims) move evasively to the conference-room wall. He slouches in his chair, his bearish girth contained in a sweat-stained sport shirt and a rumpled Armani suit. It's nighttime in Santa Monica, where Stone has commandeered the Todd-AO post-production facility to mix the soundtrack of his soon-to-be-released movie, a disturbingly violent black comedy titled "U-Turn," starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Lopez, among others, about a hapless drifter whose car breaks down in a tumbleweed town.

"My therapist was, of course, very helpful -- helping me go back and talk to Mom and deal with this," Stone continues, doubling back on the theme of his mother's disappearance. "It's interesting because she really does get it on one level. And on another level she thinks I'm totally nuts. She doesn't see anything wrong. I mean, the past is a country in which she may have made a mistake or two, but she can't see that she just didn't provide me with what she thinks she provided me."

Although he's striding into his fifties a Hollywood legend -- a world-famous auteur whose prodigious body of work has inspired millions of moviegoers, scores of awards and a cottage industry of film-school analysis -- Stone seems like nothing so much as a distraught teenager. He has put not a millimeter of distance between his celebrated self -- that larger-than-life director of those over-the-top movies -- and his damaged personal history.

So, in art as in life, he pokes and digs at his psychic soft spots: the raw wounds of parental betrayal, the narcotic thrill of sex and violence, the primal urge of murder and suicide, and the sinister proliferation of secrets and lies. According to Stone's close friend, the actor James Woods: "He shines his light in the dirty corners of the American psyche, where people don't really want to look."

Such are the preoccupations of Stone's increasingly idiosyncratic films, and they are especially the concerns of his just-published first novel, "A Child's Night Dream." The novel's protagonist is a miserable, alienated, self-involved creature named . . . Oliver Stone.

"I am Oliver Stone, I can't hide from that," the author says, stating the obvious. "But the Oliver Stone that's been defined in the movie world -- and often misleadingly, by the way -- that's not me." The Oliver Stone of the novel -- which draws heavily on real-life incidents -- is suicidal, sadistic, wounded, fragile and sexually obsessed with his mother.

But on the subject of his novel, Stone is positively mellow. "It's a beautiful book," he says, basking in his own enthusiasm.

He originally wrote it 31 years ago in an inspired trance, while holed up in a hotel room in Guadalajara, Mexico. At 19, he had dropped out of Yale University to be an English teacher in Saigon and then steamed home aboard a cargo ship. When several publishers rejected the opus -- a self-indulgent, florid but often riveting screed of some 1,400 loose pages covered with typescript and crabbed handwriting -- he set fire to some of it, hurled some more of it into the East River, and contemplated suicide. Instead of killing himself, he enlisted in the Army and returned to Vietnam with the U.S. infantry, hoping that combat might do the job.

But Stone survived -- earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for destroying an enemy gun position with a grenade -- and so did his novel. In a shoe box stashed in his father's closet he had kept the unburned, undrowned portion: "A Book of Madness," as he called it then -- physical evidence of his despair.

Two years ago, as he was bracing for his 50th birthday and weathering the aftershocks of a painful divorce from his second wife, Elizabeth -- with whom he has two boys -- Stone returned to divide and conquer his failed novel, hacking the wild tangle of words down to 237 pages. He finished in time for it to be officially published on Sept. 15, his 51st birthday.

It's decidedly the work of a troubled young man.

"Let me read this to you," the author says, donning black-rimmed spectacles and shuffling the unbound galleys. He declaims in a headlong rush, waving and whipping his right hand as though conducting a Mahler symphony:

Oliver saying: "Mom, I love you."

His mother hugging him to her, "Oh Oliver, Oliver, I've always always loved you so much! You are ze only one I have!"

Yes I know. But why couldn't you show it more? . . . And then you'll leave me behind for the summer with your parents in the countryside, distracted woman, heading off to Saint-Tropez to have Fun! Fun! Fun! And I will wait, forever, like a faithful dog for the month week day and hour that you return, laughing with your friends, always laughing Mother.

Stone stops his reading. "The point is that he doesn't connect really," the author interprets. "He wants to connect. She comes to him in Mexico, of course, in [the last chapter called 'Final Things']. She comes in the eternal shape of a female. I mean, it's just amazing, the stuff that goes on here. He [has intercourse with] his own mother."

The author chortles. "Don't tell anybody."

As Oliver Stone, the Controversialist, knows better than anyone, that will hardly be necessary. This fall -- with the release of his perverse movie and his peculiar book -- will likely be open season on Oliver Stone, the occasion for yet another public debate on his influence over American culture and morality. That will certainly be a topic in Washington tonight, when Stone gives a speech at American University. Not least because his novel's most nightmarish vision -- the child's night dream of the title -- is the one in which we find our hero committing incest with his mother.

And it was my mother's face staring down at me, as she was doing this to me and me to her, both of us entwined like snakes of desire. . . . O how thrilling! How exciting! Against all rules! All flags!

"That's pretty heavy," Stone comments. "Mom was heavy, but she'll be shocked when she reads this book. I don't know that she'll really understand it. Mom's not a big reader type. She may not get to the last chapter."

Stone, grinning madly, lets out a yelping laugh.

A Little Bit of Craziness
"My God . . . my God . . . my God . . . " murmurs Jacqueline Goddet Stone, the director's 71-year-old French mother. She's on the phone from St. Tropez, reacting to several pertinent passages from "A Child's Night Dream." Her voice is low and husky, her accent tres francaise. "It's a bit sick, no? There is such anger there. Don't you think he wants to hurt me?"

Speaking with what seems, under the circumstances, an eerie serenity, Madame Stone recalls: "Oliver was very serious about his novel. He was young and full of ambition, so he thought it was marvelous, of course. And when it was refused" -- by, among others, family friend Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster -- "it was a great disappointment for him. I never read the original. He never let me. He said I would be offended."

William Oliver Stone was born into a well-connected world of privilege and polish, in New York City, on Sept. 15, 1946. He was the lonely only child of Louis Stone -- a Jewish stockbroker who changed his name from Silverstein and reinvented himself at Yale -- and Jacqueline Goddet, a baker's daughter who met Lou Stone in postwar Paris. Sixteen years her senior, he was a 35-year-old colonel on Gen. Eisenhower's staff.

The novel, which is faithful to the facts of young Oliver's life, even to the point of using real names, re-creates the traumas of his childhood: shipped off to a nursery camp by his narcissistic parents -- a charming, neglectful mother and a buttoned-down, cynical father -- and learning the shattering news of their divorce, at age 15, from his boarding school headmaster.

In the book, Lou Stone is an emotionally detached man who relies on scotch and call girls, and when it comes to women he instructs his son: "Find 'em, [expletive] 'em and forget 'em." Jacqueline, meanwhile, is an Auntie Mame-like character both magnetic and elusive -- "always disappearing in a cloud of perfume and jewelry," as Stone writes in the prologue.

"I think he's close to me," Madame Stone continues. "He loves me very much. But he's punishing me a lot. I raised him very freely. Maybe he thinks I was not a very good mother.

"There was a certain jealousy for Oliver about my living the way I was living. I think he loved me more than the normal love. I had that feeling, he didn't just love me, he was in love."

As close as we could ever get, in the summers in France, naked in the shower, Mommy would ask me sometimes, "Oliverre, bring me ze soap, darling." "Yes, Mommy," in my nerve-wracking charcoal gray suit and neatly combed black hair, the pith of tiny gentlehood, I would pass the soap, gazing upon her corpus nudus, the sensation as exciting as an airplane first dipping into a lacuna, swooping off with my genitals.

Madame Stone continues: "I remember I'd feel sorry for him sometimes. He's a very proper boy, but there's a little bit of craziness in him."

She sounds genuinely perplexed. "So why does he write that book? . . . And he mentions his name, my name, his father's name, too? Is it too late to change it? Oooh, you scare me!"

She punctuates her comment with a flirtatious giggle.

The Genius Filmmaker
If Stone is a compelling storyteller -- whose movies are "like what writers aspired to when they hoped to write the great American novel," as Garry Wills argued in an Atlantic Monthly essay titled "Dostoyevsky Behind a Camera" -- his most compelling story is himself.

Since he burst upon Hollywood, in 1978, as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Midnight Express," he's achieved mythic status as the swashbuckling war hero-turned-oracle who lives for sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and, most important, his art.

Stone secured his place as a mega-star moviemaker with such films as "Platoon," based on his combat experiences in Vietnam, which received the 1986 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director; "Wall Street," another commercial triumph; "Born on the Fourth of July," which won him his second Best Director Oscar; and "JFK," which made him America's preeminent apostle of conspiracy. He's been rich fodder for the media, increasingly portrayed as an outrageous provocateur who likes nothing better than to shock the middle class.

"He got caught in the Hollywood God Machine," says Stone's confidant, screenwriter Richard Rutowski. "He became a god, he became a 'genius filmmaker.' You take that chair, and the next step is, they have to take you down, they have to kill you."

"It's hurt him," says actor Woody Harrelson of Stone's reaction to all the criticism he weathered for such films as "Natural Born Killers," in which Harrelson played a violent thug who is glamorized by the media. "People think of Oliver as being insensitive to any kind of insult, as being an arrogant SOB -- a guy who wouldn't permit himself to be hurt. The fact of the matter is that Oliver's a real softie."

Rutowski, and occasionally Stone, have argued that the director's in-your-face image is an accident -- that he's apt to be naive about public relations and doesn't always understand how he will be perceived. But, says James Woods, "anybody who thinks that is on acid."

"He likes to be the Peck's Bad Boy," says Arnold Kopelson, the producer of "Platoon." "He is larger than life. But I only know him as a brilliant director, not as the guy who gets lost for three or four days and then later you hear some rumor that he was in an opium den in China -- with hookers!"

In a new book, "Killer Instinct," an insider's account of the making of "Natural Born Killers," producer Jane Hamsher describes a Ken Kesey-like location-scouting expedition during which Stone was allegedly high on mushrooms and romping with willing young women.

Stone himself does nothing to contradict such impressions.

"Opium, there's a long tradition of it -- I love it," he says during a discussion of his drug use. "I think it's a great stimulus to relaxation and to salvation. But 'moderation in all things' is the Buddhist philosophy."

On the subject of marital monogamy, Stone is equally provocative: "I don't think it's a natural state for most men. But the veneer of civilization allows men to practice it. The civilized impulse represses the sexual drive. Marriage is a Christian cultural defect. . . . When I'm with a woman, I'm with the woman. And if I'm fun to be with, and I'm bold and adventurous and exciting and humorous, and I get the same things back from her, that is a relationship that is working." Stone adds, almost unnecessarily: "There's no question that I'm out there on the edge of my own envelope."

At one point during our interviews, Stone invited me into the men's room to urinate with him. "Male bonding," he said with a laugh.

"That's Oliver," says independent producer Janet Yang, who was the longtime chief of Stone's production company. "His mind is always at work but his heart is also at work. One does not suppress the other. He could be having the most enlightened conversation one minute and the next minute his head is whipping around so he can comment on some woman's breasts."

But for all his excesses, Stone has a reputation for being a "responsible filmmaker" who finishes his projects on time and on budget, while maintaining artistic integrity. Although Stone clearly wants commercial success -- and has been talking with Tom Cruise about directing "Mission Impossible II" -- he's not chiefly motivated by commerce.

"Name another major bankable star box-office guru director who would make a film about Richard Nixon for $40 million," Woods challenges. "If Oliver Stone has to pick up a 16-millimeter camera and make a movie about the Sandinistas to pursue his artistic vision, that's what he'll do. He doesn't need a fancy house. Oliver is comfortable in a pup tent."

Actors who've worked with Stone, meanwhile, describe someone altogether different from the hard-partying wild man of legend.

"I was a little trepidatious about working with him -- he had a reputation of not dealing well with actresses in female parts," says Joan Allen, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Pat Nixon in "Nixon." "But Oliver helped me tremendously. I found him to be very smart and sensitive."

Anthony Hopkins, Stone's Richard Nixon, had a contrasting experience, suggesting Stone's versatility. "Working with him was electrifying, exhilarating and exhausting," Hopkins says. "There were days when I was hanging by a thread. He pushes you to the nth degree. . . . He does it with very black humor. He needles you. 'Tony, why don't you have a couple of beers and relax.' " Hopkins, a teetotaler, is a recovering alcoholic.

"Oliver focuses on every single aspect of every character and has a very clear-cut vision," says Jennifer Lopez, who plays the treacherous, sex-maddened anti-heroine of "U-Turn."

But while Stone on a movie set is the master of all he surveys, he's a vulnerable novice on the literary scene.

"He's very scared of the critics," says his friend George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review. "I'm afraid they will hop on him, particularly if Oliver hangs his heart on his sleeve in a novel that's full of excesses."

Stone, who remembers every pellet of criticism ever aimed in his direction, is clearly bracing for an onslaught.

"What do you think? Are you a human being?" he demands, launching into a rant. "Would you like it to be said that you lie to people, that you make up things, that you're brainwashing the young, that you hate America? Saying that I'm a lunatic who throws knives in the wall to scare people or that I'm a Vietnam veteran who's still traumatized? That I tortured my actors in the Philippines in order to make 'Platoon?'

"I'm very sensitive," he admits. "But I can tell you this: Writers, novelists and Pulitzer Prize-winning historians are much more thin-skinned than I am."

The Crying of a Child
I once made love to an angel.

She descended in the midst of the Peter Pan night, and alighted on my jeesus-cold floor. . . . She lifted the bedsheets. . . . She paused and whispered in French, "Tu n'etais jamais adore par une femme comme je t'adore. . . . " "You have never been loved by a woman the way I love you."

Elizabeth Stone, Oliver's ex-wife, says it's no surprise that he would be angry at his mother, or that he would publish a novel that vents his rage. "The crying of a child who was never comforted," is how she interprets her ex-husband's autobiographical novel.

"Oliver as a boy was very isolated and very, very lonely," she says. "Very early in my marriage, I remember having a long conversation with his mom. She'd led a decadent life as a child of the '60s, very tolerant, and she was extremely blunt about her multiple sex partners. . . . She was sophisticated in the European way."

And here Elizabeth offers up a disturbing revelation of Stone's sexual initiation -- as a teenager -- by his mother.

"Jacqueline told me" -- Elizabeth mimics a husky-voiced French woman -- " 'He couldn't relax and I had to show him.' I was shocked that she loosed her wiles on a child -- a little, sad, lonely, pitiful figure. So she robbed him of any chance to take possession of his own sexuality."

It's not clear -- from detailed interviews with Elizabeth, Oliver and his mother Jacqueline -- what actually occurred. Elizabeth claims that Jacqueline Stone touched her teenage son's genitals and masturbated him. Jacqueline heatedly denies it. And Oliver offers this account: "I'm not embarrassed by anything in the incident. I was very naive, about 15, and my mother just basically, on a trip to France, asked me: 'Have you ever tried masturbation?' And she told me how to do it. I don't remember that she touched my person. She acted it out. She made gestures in the air."

In any event, Elizabeth theorizes that his mother's raw sexual power over him -- along with his father's hiring a prostitute for him when he was 16 -- seriously damaged his psyche.

"That little boy didn't stand a chance of any sort of normal life," says Elizabeth, who was married to Stone from 1981 until she kicked him out of their Santa Monica house -- over his numerous extramarital flings -- in 1994.

She has since discussed these incidents with him at joint therapy sessions. At one, she recounts, "the therapist's jaw just dropped" when she complained that Jacqueline touched her then 5-year-old grandson's penis in the bath, prompting Oliver to bring up his own strange experience with his mother. "The therapist said, 'In this country, people go to prison for that.' Oliver stormed out of the session shouting, 'You're all screwed up!' " (Oliver contends: "I was very calm.")

Twice, Elizabeth says, he has pleaded with her to resume the marriage, saying, "I want to grow old with you. . . . Just let me have my women." She declined. She says their contentious 1995 divorce settlement -- giving her responsibility for Mikey, 5, and Sean, 12, as well as the houses in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and Santa Monica, while Oliver got the 1,000-acre ranch in Colorado -- ran to 500 pages.

"The irony is that he wants to be approved of and adored," she says. "Everybody cares very much about him because he's such a wonderful person inside. Those of us who know him well see that he's a genuinely beautiful soul. . . . He's just really confused."

A Long Haul
Wearing his Sunday best -- white shorts and yellow canvas shoes, sockless, in the manner of a weekend yachtsman -- Stone opens the front door of his Spanish-tiled house behind some hedges in Santa Monica.

It's a cheery, sun-dappled, patioed place, complete with a small gym, a smoke-scented Buddhist shrine -- where Stone meditates daily -- and Stone's trendy art collection. There are several of Julian Schnabel's smashed-crockery paintings and Jean-Michel Basquiat's colorful installations amid a few examples of a Chinese painting style that Stone, proudly pointing them out, calls "cynical realism."

The house, which is also filled with framed photographs of Elizabeth ("What am I supposed to do? Wipe out my past?"), is only a couple of miles away from his ex-wife's. It's presided over today by Chong Son Chong, the late-thirtyish Korean-born mother of Stone's 20-month-old daughter, Tara.

"Isn't she adorable?" Stone coos at the bright-eyed toddler, sitting on the kitchen counter and giggling. "She looks good enough to eat." Daddy can't resist adding: "To put in the microwave."

Tara's black-haired, olive-skinned mom -- who noiselessly bustles about the kitchen preparing a lunch of tuna salad -- doesn't actually live here, but at another house that he bought nearby. Other than revealing that she grew up poor on a South Korean apple farm and that they met "in a bar in Singapore," Stone is uncharacteristically tight-lipped about their situation.

"I can't give that out," he says when asked if they're married. "I can't imperil my -- I would be sued in four countries. You wouldn't want that for me. I'd lose girlfriends. Put it this way: It's best that my life in certain places" -- he smiles -- "remain mysterious."

Chong ignores Stone's repeated invitations to join us at the kitchen table, and instead dresses to go to church with Tara. Stone gives her a hug and a noisy, wet kiss as she leaves.

Over lunch, Sean, a sharply intelligent lad with a jaded expression -- "I can talk to him about anything," Stone boasts -- discusses his Little League successes, and reports that he really liked "Men in Black," the movie he saw with Dad the previous night. (Sean was less enthralled by "U-Turn," when his father screened a rough cut for him, as he does with all his films. According to Sean's mother, he advised the director: "Way too much butt-[expletive], Dad.")

"You should join the infantry," Stone tells him cheerfully, engaging in what seems a cherished ritual of father-son needling. "That'll make you strong."

Sean -- who has obviously been here before -- rolls his eyes. "Why do fathers always want their sons to suffer through the same things they did?" he asks, leaving Stone momentarily groping for an answer.

"I don't want you to suffer," Stone finally replies, between mouthfuls of tuna.

Unusually busy for a Sunday, Stone is frantic to finish mixing his movie and correct the final galleys of his novel before flying off to China and Burma the following week for a three-week vacation with Rutowski, a frequent traveling companion. ("This trip is about getting lost," Rutowski says. "It's about changing. It's about seeing new faces, new places. It's exploration." Leaving much to the imagination.)

Stone is due back soon at Todd-AO, but he quickly ushers me into his first-floor writing studio, where he spent eight months of last year toiling over an electric typewriter with his 30-year-old novel. He pulls out the original from a cardboard box -- some of it on foolscap, some of it on typing paper, none of it in order -- and tenderly pages through it.

"Look, here's page 93. There's no rhyme or reason to this thing," he says, and starts to read aloud from the margin notes scribbled by Robert Weil, his editor at St. Martin's Press. " 'Breathtaking language,' " Stone reads from Weil's notes, holding a loose page to his nose. " 'Can you contextualize? Otherwise, sounds like a drug high -- though maybe this is the point.' "

The author laughs.

"I love to see it finished," he says, sounding like a giddy adolescent. "I'd like to see my novel in hardcover form with the book jacket. It's been a long haul. Do you understand my joy?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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