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The Long Inner War of Oliver Stone

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 11, 1987

NEW YORK -- Blunt features. Hard man in a soft sweater. Calls the operator "honey." Knock your block off and cry on your shoulder. Thirty years ago, Marlon Brando would have played him. The Oliver Stone Story.

"Sometimes you just have to lay back. You have to be chilly," says Oliver Stone.

In regarding this advice, consider the source. Who:

volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam;

accepted a Golden Globe Award (for writing "Midnight Express") with a tirade demanding changes in U.S. drug laws;

felt "refreshed" making his film "Salvador" because "I got the exact feeling of Saigon 1965 in Honduras."

And indeed, having just advised himself to be chilly, Stone tears into the magazine reviews that he has compiled on his coffee table.

"Did you see Corliss' piece?" he says, offering a copy of Time opened to a review of "Platoon," Stone's latest, a fictional Vietnam memoir that opens in Washington Friday.

The review is mostly laudatory. Critic Richard Corliss, though, includes what might appear, to the uninitiated, like mere quibbles.

"God, he's such a rat," says Stone.

"He's tough. He loved the movie. This guy loved the movie. I spoke to somebody at Time last night. And he says good things about it. But these guys, they're so tough.

"Denby's was great," he says, offering up New York magazine, opened to a page that reads, in 18-point letters as big as David Denby's byline, "it's the most powerful film of the year."

"Did you see this? You didn't see Denby's?| Made my day."

And it better make your day too.

Stone has followed the reviews like a hound. He has deftly promoted and positioned "Platoon" for an Oscar nomination, and it seems, at this point, anyway, a good bet. He has done everything he can to make sure that "Platoon," unlike "Salvador," isn't buried in the marketplace.

But the care Stone has devoted to "Platoon" stems from more than his usual obsessiveness, more than the fact that it took a decade's worth of persistence to get it made, more than the political commitment that, in Stone's eyes, makes the movie an antidote to "Top Gun."

By making "Platoon," Stone put some of his demons to rest.

When a screen writer begins in Hollywood, he needs a script that demonstrates some writing or storytelling ability.

In 1976, "Platoon" was Oliver Stone's calling card. It impressed the executives at Columbia sufficiently to assign him "Midnight Express," a low-budget picture at the tail-end of their annual slate.

Stone's script was vivid, well built and ruthless, and "Midnight Express" was a surprising success. Stone, a drifter who had been driving a cab the year before, won a Writer's Guild Award and an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

"It's like winning the lottery," Stone says. "I was a Golden Boy for a few weeks there, a few months. I was meeting all kinds of big actors, they wanted me to write screenplays for them."

What was the Golden Boy like in those days?

"Doped|" says director John Milius (who worked with him on "Conan the Barbarian") with some glee, adding, "Oliver had lots of drugs before he got his Oscar. After he got his Oscar, he had great-looking women."

"I was pretty wild in those days," Stone recalls. "I was doing a lot of drugs. I was drinking. I was a bachelor, so I was chasing everything that was walking, everything. Including bosses' wives. Which is a big mistake to do. Not playing the Hollywood game, which is basically like the butler in the old mysteries, just come and go quietly, just write.

"I didn't behave like a writer. I behaved ... like a madman."

Stone took the Oscar momentum and frittered it away, making an exercise in horror called "The Hand," starring Michael Caine, which harked back to the gruesome tales he used to spin as a child.

"I went from being very hot to being very cold," Stone recalls. "I value the experience, because you see who your friends are, if you have any. Who returns your phone calls. I got a crash education in Hollywood in about a year, put it that way. And it was something I never learned in film school."

Stone was still trying to get "Platoon" off the ground. "The Hand," for a time, ended that.

"I was unemployable as a director," Stone says.

So began Stone's odyssey as a writer-for-hire. "I left L.A.," he remembers. "I cut drugs out completely. I wanted to restructure my life, I wanted to leave L.A., I wanted to get out of that whole life style that I had been in.

"I knew that my scripts were not as good, they were starting to get flatter. I wasn't right in my own skin. So I got married and my wife and I both tried to sort of cut down. I researched 'Scarface' in Miami and South America, and I wrote it very sober in Paris. It's a good climate, Paris, where the emphasis, at least in 1981, was not on drugs. It was more on good food and wine. I wrote the script very straight, because it was sort of like my farewell to cocaine."

Director Sidney Lumet (who was later replaced by Brian DePalma) had the original idea: to adapt the 1932 "Scarface," Howard Hawks' tale of the rise and fall of an American gangster, to a contemporary setting. The mood was Hispanic, the trade cocaine.

"I sort of saw it in seriocomic 'Richard III' terms," Stone says. "I just thought the whole idea of someone being able to come into this country with two cents in their pocket and inside of a few months having $87 million -- it's insane| And I wanted to celebrate that insanity. And then I wanted to show the corresponding effect that more money has on the mind, that it deadens the mind."

"Scarface" went wildly over budget. And when it finally came out, the results weren't exactly as Stone had planned.

"I thought it was gonna be a comeback for me," says Stone. "I devoted more than a year and a half on it, really worked at it. And it was one of the most reviled films in Hollywood. The whole industry hated it, we had terrible screenings. The press really hated it, a lot of it -- not all the press, but a lot of the press did. And it was dismissed as an ugly, vulgar film, when in fact I thought there were a lot of things in it that were not even discussed. So naturally, I was very hurt."

After "Scarface," Stone went to Russia to do research for a love story for Universal. Like another script Stone wrote for Universal based on "Born on the Fourth of July," Ron Kovic's Vietnam memoir, it is still locked up.

"A lot of these studios are changing their policies," Stone says. "They don't want other places to make the films they don't make, partly because it's an embarrassment, I guess. A lot of the times they'd rather turn them into morgues, keep the morgue going. That's a strange business -- the dead script business."

And the coldest script in the morgue was "Platoon." Milius, producer Edward Pressman and others tried to shop it around. Stone himself shopped it around. But the answer was always the same: "Nobody's interested in Vietnam anymore." "Too depressing." "After 'Apocalypse Now' and 'The Deer Hunter,' what more can you say?"

Finally, Pressman, who had (through "Plenty") established a relationship with RKO Pictures, set up "Platoon" there, with a plan to shoot it cheaply in Mexico. But by then, Stone had other plans. He was tied up with Dino De Laurentiis.

De Laurentiis wanted to make "Platoon." Stone wanted to make "Platoon." Finally, they concocted a scheme: Stone would write "Year of the Dragon," from the Robert Daley book, for director Michael Cimino. In return, De Laurentiis would pony up the money for "Platoon."

"The script was better than the movie because there were things in the script that were really spectacular, but Dino cut them out," says Stone. He explains the original ending he had written, an elaborate scheme based on the villain's bigamy.

"And Dino ... I dunno, Dino," Stone says, shaking his head. "But ultimately, it wasn't my concern. I only wanted him to do 'Platoon.' Which he didn't do."

At the time, De Laurentiis did not have his own distribution company. "I shop around for all distribution, including Orion {the current distributor of 'Platoon'}," De Laurentiis says. "And Orion very strongly rejected 'Platoon.'

"I said to Oliver, 'What can I do? I love you, you are great filmmaker.' "

Says Stone: "I was heartbroken. I ultimately sued him to get my property back and get some money. We settled out of court."

"Is not true," says De Laurentiis. "We are very friendly. He is liar. We just have a meeting with the lawyers to decide how much money to give him.

"I like him," De Laurentiis says. "We spend one New Year's Eve together in '83, '84. French Riviera."

More writer's travails.

When it finally came out, "Year of the Dragon" was even more vilified than "Scarface," if such a thing is possible. The next year: "8 Million Ways to Die."

"That was a good script, I thought," Stone says. "New York City. Summer. Avenues A, B, C. The real summer feeling when the drugs were heavy in the city. Alcoholic ex-cop.

"They turned it into a ridiculous movie, $19 million picture. They switched the whole locale to L.A. and for some reason made my lower-class denizens into higher-class pimps, unbelievable people. The dialogue was all changed from New York dialogue to L.A. dialogue. Another guy rewrote it. Bob Towne rewrote him."

"It was cheaper to shoot in L.A. than in New York," says director Hal Ashby. "At one point, they said, 'Why don't you shoot in Chicago and make it look like New York City?' In retrospect, I should have put my foot down."

Says Stone: "I never saw the movie until it came out. I saw 20 minutes, I couldn't take it. I really shouldn't have my name on it. But my name was such trash anyway it doesn't matter."

Finally, Oliver Stone got fed up. He got fed up with the dead script business. He got fed up with trying to get "Platoon" made. He got fed up with being the Golden Boy and fed up with being the Ungolden Boy.

"This was it," he remembers. "I was gonna make my last stand. I wasn't gonna write anymore, I wasn't gonna work in these lousy deals I've gotten into with lousy producers, and I've worked with quite a few lousy producers. I just wanted my independence. And I had the good fortune of running into John Daly at that time."

John Daly is a former fight promoter whose father was once heavyweight champion of England, and who was once imprisoned in Zaire, after the Ali-Foreman fight, for purported "tax evasion." At the time he met Stone, his company, Hemdale, was most notable for "The Terminator," James Cameron's 1984 science fiction hit.

Having been attracted to Richard Boyle, a fringe journalist with a gift for blarney, and intrigued with the political situation in Latin America, Stone came to Daly with the script for "Salvador" and the kind of offer a producer can't refuse -- he'd direct it for no fee. Nothing. Literally.

"There was just something about Oliver, his commitment," Daly says.

"We were going to shoot it in Salvador," Stone remembers. "We had a whole scam worked out, we really were into it. We had insurance companies working for us, we had the Salvadoran military giving us huge amounts of weapons because we were showing them blowing away the guerrillas, y'know? And we had scenes with death squad guys but we said to the military guys, 'These guys are communists, and they're killing all these people.'

" 'Aaargh, good| Show that|'

"Only Boyle could get me wrapped up in believing that I could pull that off. He said, 'There's no laws in Salvador| All we need is a pass| We need that pass from the government, we go everywhere, we shoot what we want to shoot.' "

When it was finished, "Salvador" couldn't get a major distributor, so tiny Hemdale had to try to do the job itself. It didn't help that a third-string critic panned it in The New York Times, which holds considerable sway over foreign and independent films.

But the movie got a tremendous response from other critics. It's doing well now in videocassette. And it was a big hit on the private screening circuit in Hollywood.

Oliver Stone never got paid. "Boyle is a character, I'll tell ya," Stone says, laughing. "He sued me after the movie was over. He thinks I made such a fortune on this movie. If he was smart, he would have said, 'Let's make another movie.' But he decided he'd 'had enough of being ripped off by Hollywood.' He's always being 'ripped off.'

"I didn't make a dime from the movie," he says. "I ended up losing some $17,000 which I paid to Richard, and that was it."

Stone got something more out of "Salvador," though. At long last, he got the chance to make "Platoon."

Oliver Stone dropped out of Yale to join the infantry and fight in Vietnam.

His father was a stockbroker, an extremely conservative Republican who had served as a colonel with Eisenhower's staff in World War II. His mother was a French Roman Catholic. His father was Jewish, a New York provincial; his mother was a worldly, sophisticated woman who, later in life, would hang out with younger people and hold court in Studio 54. "She'd always get me to play hooky so I could accompany her to the movies," Stone remembers of his youth. "Double features at the RKO on 86th Street."

Stone was a troublesome teen-ager, but he didn't rebel against his father's politics. "I was very gung-ho," he recalls. "I supported Goldwater in '64. My dad was a very strong believer in Republican principles. He hated Roosevelt all his life. He really raised me with the hatred of Communists, so I very much saw the war in that context, that it was us against the Commies. And I was gonna join the Audie Murphys and the John Waynes and basically roll back the tide."

His father didn't approve of Oliver's decision -- he believed, Stone remembers, that it was okay for poor people to fight it, but not his own son. But others in the family remember being unsurprised.

"Anything he could do to be at the edge, and to experience more than other people had experienced, and to shock, he was likely to do," says his cousin James Stone, chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission under President Carter and now an insurance executive. "It was consistent for him to want to experience the most intense thing that was going on then in the world."

Stone got what he wanted, in spades. He was wounded twice, once with a bullet in the neck, later with shrapnel in the legs and buttocks. He learned to be a soldier and he learned to bully the Vietnamese. And he learned disillusionment.

"Vietnam completely deadened me and sickened me," Stone says. "But I don't think I came back in any sense a radical. I came back very mixed up, very paranoid and very alienated. Basically I was drifting around for a period of time, doing a lot of drugs, a lot of acid, and really kind of at a loss in my life. Not really going anywhere, not knowing what to do. I was really messed up.

Stone feels that he could have been "manipulated" then, had he fallen into the wrong hands. But instead of meeting an SDSer or Black Panther, he met director Martin Scorsese. "Another type of madman," he says.

Scorsese was teaching then at NYU, where Stone enrolled on the GI Bill. "I couldn't believe this guy was a teacher, he was unlike any other teacher I had ever had," Stone remembers. "He had long hair down to here, long beard, and he never slept. He looked like the Hobbit or something."

Scorsese remembers Stone as standing somewhat apart in the class. "He was a year back from Vietnam, and a little older than the others, and quiet. Seething, kind of seething."

It was not yet the heyday of the film school graduate, certainly not the NYU heyday. After graduating, Stone drove a cab, worked as a messenger, did Xeroxing. At night he wrote scripts. His first wife helped support him. His father, once in a while, helped support him.

But mostly, his father disapproved.

"In my uncle's mind, there was a culture and a counterculture," says James Stone. "The culture consisted of people who wore suits and made high incomes. The counterculture consisted of filmmakers and other such radicals."

Oliver puts it more succinctly. "He thought I was a bum.

"Somebody keeps saying it to you, you begin to think, 'Maybe I am, maybe I can't write, maybe this is worthless crap, and maybe I'm just deluding myself.' Severe doubts: 'What's my purpose in life? What's my meaning? What was I put on this planet for? I should have been killed in Vietnam.'

"Although Vietnam in a sort of paradoxical way did keep me optimistic. I did try to keep that faith, that I had made it out of there, and I had to try to do something with my life."

Eight years after Stone got out of Vietnam, he wrote "Platoon" to get Vietnam out of Stone. It would take another 10 years, and a whole host of new demons armed with expense accounts and drugs and specious promises, before those old demons could be put to rest.

The first cycle of Vietnam movies -- "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter," "Coming Home" -- were made for the people who stayed home. The second cycle -- "Uncommon Valor," "Rambo," "Missing in Action" -- were made for the people who stayed home, but wished they had gone. "Platoon" inaugurates a third cycle of Vietnam movies, including Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (due later this year) and "Hamburger Hill," written by another veteran, James Karabatsos.

But "Platoon" is the first Vietnam movie made by someone who actually fought there, and the result, in Stone's words, is to "put the viewer in the war, to make him a participant. To understand what the boys went through over there. And to say never again."

For film, "Platoon" stands as a beacon to those who, through the past five years of talent agency "packages," teen comedies and body builders flying jet airplanes, have continued to hope for a return to conviction in American films.

And, having gotten a taste of it with "Salvador" and "Platoon," Stone is committed to making his own films. "But I'll tell ya, the seduction process, it's so corrupting," says Stone. "And so subtle. The big stars are like sirens. I feel like Odysseus in the ocean there. When you hear their call. Oliver ... Oliver ... come work with me ... come work with me. Oh my God| Bob Redford| Dustin Hoffman| All those idols of your youth| Sure enough, you take your ship and you go right into the rocks."

But after "Platoon," when he makes his own films, our idea of an "Oliver Stone film" may have to change. He's working now on an insider trading, Wall Street story that's (gulp|) almost a comedy. He's talked about making a family picture.

"When it actually was finished," Stone says of "Platoon," "I said, 'Boys, that was the best day I've had since I returned from Vietnam.' That, maybe the day I got married, the day I had my child. But it certainly was one of the best days of my life, that morning in the Philippines. All-night shoot, fifty-fourth day, finished on schedule. And I remember driving back alone with a driver to Manila, two-hour drive. And I remember all the fields and the all the peasants coming out to work in the first light of dawn, and the water buffalo. I felt I'd done something, I'd achieved something.

"I closed a circle on myself, and I was complete."

© Copyright The Washington Post Company

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