The Latest Exorcism of Oliver Stone : With Ron Kovic's "Born on the Fourth of July,' the film maker returns to Vietnam to cast out more of the war's demons

Though he hates to admit it in public, director Oliver Stone says there's a large piece of him in Barry Champlain, the acerbic talk-show host at the core of his 1988 "Talk Radio," a man he describes as "aggressive, obsessive, selfish, filthy, lost, and ultimately, totally insane." In the film's climax, Champlain's six-minute on-air confession cleans out his poisons. In Stone's world, that task falls to his films.

"I'm puzzled by life, horrified by the daily newspaper," says the 43-year-old director who in the wake of the Academy award-winning "Platoon" (1986) and the critically acclaimed "Wall Street" (1987) is arguably the most successful practitioner of point-of-view film making today. "The only sane response is re-creation, drama . . . an ordered series of events that arouse pity and terror, to paraphrase Aristotle. Making movies is my way of exorcising demons, of creating an ethos, a philosophy of life. I'd go crazy without fantasy."

"Born on the Fourth of July," based on veteran Ron Kovic's 1976 book of the same name, is Stone's latest venture into that realm. Though the director regards the film as a sequel to "Platoon," Part II of what is to be his Vietnam trilogy, it is more human drama than war film. It is the brutally honest saga of an All-American boy/man (played by Tom Cruise) who, paralyzed from the chest down by a war wound, is forced to contemplate and redefine the nature of patriotism, heroism and manhood. Visually striking, full of dramatic punch, the picture is already being labeled a strong best-picture contender.

Opening on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago, the movie is as much Stone's tale as Kovic's. Both were the product of a conservative upbringing that instilled unquestioned acceptance of the flag. Both volunteered for action and received Bronze stars for bravery. Both returned home injured and alienated, overwhelmed by the confusion and amorality of combat.

"My story and that of other vets is subsumed in Ron's," says Stone, taking a break in his new Venice offices--a Soho-like space in a former gas company, decorated with oversized modern art. "We experienced one war over there then came home and slammed our heads into another war of indifference. I felt like I was in the 'Twilight Zone.' I didn't get involved in anti-war protests until later on. I didn't like either side too much. I would have been a revolutionary if the right leader came along."

Instead, the writer-director, who punctuates his speech with grand sweeping gestures and frequent obscenities, did his acting out in his movies, finding parallels with the unlikeliest of characters. Take "Conan the Barbarian," for which he wrote the screenplay. Cartoonish, perhaps, but also "a romantic hero, a Tarzan," not unlike the larger-than-life, Hemingwayesque persona Stone has scripted for himself off-screen. "'Conan" was part-brute, a total rebel and outsider who didn't obey the rules. In my original script, he was a bum who turned into a king. I totally identified."

Or "Scarface": "I was doing a lot of coke at that time. I understood the meglomania, the delight, the paranoia of cocaine. I was near the top of the film business and nearly blew it away. 'Scarface' was my farewell to coke. 'Salvador' was my comeback (from the abyss)."

Or "Midnight Express," his first screenplay, which hit equally close to home. "Ten days after I got home from the war, I was jailed for marijuana possession. I got real close to that kid: The miscarriage of justice. The need to go deeper in yourself to save yourself. Nothing left but brute will. There was a lot of my father in my movie. In my case, he successfully paid off the prosecutor."

Stone's bond with his stockbroker-father was also at the core of "Wall Street." On one level, the film was an examination of the greed ethic of the Reagan years; On another, the story of a father and son ironing out their ideological and emotional wrinkles.

"Oliver's father was, of all things, a Jewish Republican," says producer Martin Bregman ("Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon"), an old family friend. "Oliver was a young firebrand and, in his youth, anyone on Wall Street was a problem."

Says Stone: "The relationship was a complicated one. Wall Street was my father's world. I respected it in that it raised capital for research and production. But somehow, it was all perverted in the '80s and I attacked that in the person of Gordon Gekko. I'd like to do more films on my interaction with my father, maybe having Marty Landau play my Dad."

And mom? "Evita," Stone says, with a laugh so explosive he's thrown backwards out of his chair. "She was pretty strong. Both of my parents were . . . and the two of them often clashed. 'Evita' is the ideal picture. I was going to do it with Meryl Streep but it became too expensive and I got cold feet. It was too difficult to pull off. It could come back, though. I'm working up to it."

With such films as "Platoon" and "Salvador" to his credit, Stone--a self-described "anarchist"--is one of the more political directors around. Be prepared for a diatribe if the subject of George Bush or the U.S. government is raised.

"The vandals are at the gate," he says. "We have a fascist security state running this country . . . Orwell did happen. But it's so subtle that no one noticed. If I were George Bush, I'd shoot myself. Existentially, there's no hope. His soul is dead."

Yet, in his work, Stone says, it's people-- not principle-that motivate him. "A person fuels me, gets me going. I'd never do a social issue if it wasn't personalized. I'd never put my finger on a map and say, 'Ah, South Africa, I must go there next.' I'd never work outside myself. I have to find a way in.

"The ability to connect emotionally with the material excites Oliver," says Tom Pollock, Stone's lawyer in the early days and president of Universal Pictures, which is distributing "Born on the Fourth of July." "You won't find him tackling movies in which he doesn't identify. He gets his best work when he's driven, and he is driven as a film maker. It's a handful, but good things come from that."

Tom Cruise experienced that firsthand during the "Born on the Fourth" shoot. "I call Oliver 'The Van Gogh film maker,' " he says, downing a pitcher of iced tea in a Westwood Marquis Hotel suite. "His films are intense, vibrant, explosive, unrelenting . . . just like he is." Ron Kovic agrees: "Watching him in action is like seeing Bruce Springsteen live for the first time."

Stone's diary is another source of release, The World According to Oliver, in which he scribbles daily. How does he find time in his already jammed schedule? The director flashes a gap-toothed smile. "Winston Churchill ran the country by day and dictated history at night," he says, delighting in the analogy.

Writing proved to be Kovic's salvation as well, purging him of his own emotional baggage and helping to extract meaning from his truncated life. Pecking with two fingers on his $40 Sears Roebuck manual typewriter, pounding so hard the periods left holes in the paper, Kovic says "the words poured out like a scream."

One month, three weeks and two days later, it subsided and, to his surprise, the world began to listen. When Kovic gave a prime-time speech during the 1976 Democratic Convention and, a month later, ended up on the front page of the New York Times book review section, Hollywood--in the form of Martin Bregman moved in.

"I wanted to undo those romantic images presented in films like 'Guadalcanal Diary' and 'Sands of Iwo Jima,' the John Wayne mentality that led me to war," says the 43-year-old Kovic, speaking with evangelical fervor during an interview in 72 Market Street, a Venice restaurant where he often hangs out. "For years, I felt there was nothing worthwhile about the tragedy that had befallen me. Making a movie would enable me to give something back to others instead of merely being a victim. Life isn't about avoiding conflict and pain, but shaping it into something beneficial."

Bregman realized from the outset, however, that it was "almost an impossible film to make." For one thing, he says, it dealt with decidedly non-commercial themes: Vietnam and a paraplegic. For another, he found out, Kovic had served as a consultant on another film on the same subject for which Jon Voight had won an Oscar. The release of "Coming Home" in 1978, Bregman is convinced, proved to be the death knell for his project. When Universal Pictures pulled out, "Born on the Fourth," as he puts it, began to sour. "We couldn't get a studio," he says. "We couldn't get a director, and I approached everyone in town. It was just me and a young unknown writer named Oliver Stone."

Bregman's Artists Entertainment Complex picked up the project in turnaround, financing all the pre-production with money to be provided by a group of German investors. Things were looking good. Dan Petrie would direct. Al Pacino would play Kovic. Orion Pictures would distribute. A few weeks before rehearsals were to begin, however, the foreign financing fell through. Bregman was left with an empty checkbook and the rights reverted to Universal.

Stone, a fledgling screenwriter denied his big break, went into a total depression. "Al (Pacino) got cold feet and went on to do ' . . . And Justice For All,' says Stone. "Ron became crazed. Marty was in for $1 million of his own. I just gave up at the thought that a studio wouldn't make a $6 million film--not a lot for one starring Al Pacino--because they considered it too tough, too realistic. It was a heartbreaker for everyone involved."

Promising Kovic that he'd return for him and the project one day, Stone parlayed his success with "Midnight Express" (his screenplay earned him an Oscar at the age of 32) into his first directing job. The film was a sensationalist psychological horror picture called "The Hand," which Stone now considers an ill-advised personal concession to Hollywood commercialism--a response to the disappointments of "Born on the Fourth" and "Conan" "but part of the learning curve."

His next picture, Stone says, was his "first complete ballgame," one in which the outcome was his to control. "Salvador," a hit with many critics when released in 1986, was based on the experiences of free-lance journalist Richard Boyle in strife-torn El Salvador. Like the director, he was down-and-out, treading water, looking for salvation. Boyle found it in Central America. Stone in making this film.

With "Platoon," his acutely personal vision of Vietnam combat, he got his hands on a tiger with which the whole nation was wrestling. The $6 million film, which starred Charlie Sheen as Stone's alter ego, became a shocking commercial success when it was released at Christmas, 1986. The movie grossed more than $137 million in the U.S. and Canada, did about as well abroad, and won four of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated--including those given for best picture and best director. Stone was suddenly one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood.

While Stone moved on to write and develop the script for "Wall Street," Tom Pollock was getting used to his new job as president of Universal Pictures and decided to take another look at the "Born on the Fourth of July" script. "I realized that it was one of the great unmade screenplays of the past 15 years," Pollock says. "I told Stone we'd be interested if he could do it real cheap."

"Cheap" to Universal meant $14 million, if the film was cast with a major star. Stone considered Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage--all of whom he believes the studio would have accepted. But in the end, he opted for Cruise.

Superficially, there were some similarities between Kovic and the actor: the Catholicism, the working-class ethic, the drive to be No. 1. As a child of divorce who attended nine grade schools, three high schools and struggled with dyslexia, Cruise identified as an outsider, someone with things to overcome. "I grew up hearing the 'no's and 'can'ts,' " he says, "but I pushed myself forward, always looking ahead so I wouldn't get stuck. I tried to grow, to learn about life and not be swallowed up by circumstance."

It was Cruise's image as America's Golden Boy, however, that locked it up for Stone.

"I saw this kid who has everything," the director explains, rubbing his hands together like the witch sizing up Hansel and Gretel. "And I wondered what would happen if tragedy strikes, if fortune denies him. In the film, one thing after another begins to unravel in a man's life. He kills one of his own men and atones by wandering through nine circles of hell. I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?" Stone pauses and cackles at the thought, then continues. "I had a hunch about Tom, just as I did with Michael Douglas. People said he was too lightweight to carry 'Wall Street,' but I knew he had a good financial head, and he had to have some of old Kirk's genes in there somewhere."

Bregman, doubtful that Cruise could equal the power of Al Pacino's readings, is convinced that box office was the overriding factor. "Tom Cruise was an interesting choice, but not a brave one," he says. "Given his popularity with the youth audience, Cruise could do Tom Pollock's Bar Mitzvah picture and it would do well commercially." Not so, says the studio head. "There's a risk in using an international motion-picture star. Will the public accept their hero, Tom Cruise, doing something so radically different?"

Kovic initially shared Bregman's skepticism. His fears dissipated, however, the first time they met. When Stone and Cruise drove up to his childhood home in Massapequa, Long Island, the actor rushed out of the car and gave Kovic a hug. "I felt an instant rapport with him that I never experienced with Pacino. They descended upon my house, going through my books, playing old home movies on the VCR.

"We talked for hours in the kitchen and I began to cry," Kovic continues, his eyes misting over. "Oliver asked if I was OK. 'Tom understands, he really understands,' I told him. I felt like a burden was lifted, that I was passing all this on to Tom. I knew he was about to go to Vietnam, to the dark side, in his own way. Though he didn't realize it, he was embarking on quite a journey."

Cruise admits he couldn't have handled the role five years ago. But, after working with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman on "The Color of Money" and Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on the Academy award-winning "Rain Man," the actor says he'd "have to be an idiot not to walk away with something. Charlie, my character in 'Rain Man,' was spiritually autistic so I didn't play the emotion. Ron holds nothing back, so I had to put everything out. It was my most challenging role ever. I made it work one day at a time. If I looked at the mountain, it was just too high."

Stone was worried at first. "Tom was cocky, sure he could handle everything. But I wasn't so sure. I saw he'd bitten off a lot--more than he'd thought. He was shaky at first, but we shot in continuity as much as possible to show how, step by step, he began to understand. A part of Tom has passed from youth to middle age. Just as 'Platoon' sucked something out of Sheen, it will be hard for Tom to go back to being innocent again. He'll always carry around Kovic. No matter what Laurence Olivier led us to believe, he won't be able to put it in a closet like an old costume."

Cruise takes his acting very seriously. (So seriously, in fact, that on the last day of the shoot, Stone told him to step back and start enjoying life.) In preparation for the role, Cruise spent days in veterans' hospitals and wheeled around Westwood with Kovic until the chair became an extension of his body. Pouring through books on the war and Kovic's diary became a political awakening of sorts since the 27-year-old actor was a child during the heart of the conflict.

"I remember seeing a Life magazine cover of a girl hit by napalm running in the streets," Cruise says. "I remember a girl who wore a copper bracelet for her Green Beret brother who was missing in action. I remember bits and pieces on the news, but for a 7-year-old, Walter Cronkite was just the lead-in to 'Batman.' They never taught us about the war in school, but reading up, I realized that there had been a pervasive feeling that the U.S. could do anything, that you didn't question the government because it just wants what's best for the country. Looking back, it seems naive, but that's the way it was. Everyone was sold on 'freedom.' If I was drafted, I probably would have gone."

The 65-day shoot was a tough one, the toughest Stone can recall. The script spanned 20 years, requiring time-consuming makeup changes, 15,000 extras and 160 speaking roles. Filming was divided between Dallas and the Philippines, the location for the Vietnamese and Mexican scenes. "We shot 10 to 12 hours a day in 100-degree heat," Stone says, "and there was no shade on the beach. Tom got sinusitis. He lost it. He was exhausted. There was a lot of fainting. Half the actors were down on certain days. But Dallas was really the killer. There was a strange bug all over the place. I was sick for days."

It was tough emotionally, as well. Kovic, who came to the set daily, found one scene particularly painful: the one in which he comes home drunk and, stripped of his psychological defenses, informs his flag-waving, religious mother that "There is no God. There is no country, just me in this . . . wheelchair for the rest of my life." In rehearsals, Stone asked Kovic to read his own part while Cruise took the role of the mother. Three or four readings proved to be so draining, says Kovic, that he headed back to Dallas, intending to hop a plane back home to Redondo Beach.

"A jeep pulled up beside me and it was Cruise," he says. "I rolled down the window and he yelled, 'Why does your life have to be so difficult, so challenging? This is very depressing for me.' We cursed and shouted and laughed back and forth and all the frustration came out. I began to realize that I wasn't alone, that Tom was paying a price for this film too. That night, I slept well. The film has helped me let go of the anger, the regret and the pain and begin to search for the better person inside myself."

One of Cruise's more difficult assignments: a scene in which a sexually impotent Kovic sampled the wares of a local Mexican prostitute. As in the rest of the film, Cruise, an actor strong on athleticism and grace, had to convey emotion solely through facial expression. Lying in bed--a naked woman astride him--he knew he wasn't getting it.

"It was a hard few days," Stone says. "Tom is very shy, but the girl was excellent, free with her body in a Latin way that made it easier for an uptight Anglo. We just kept shooting, working up to the place where Tom cries, thinking about everything he'll miss--certainly not from the joy of sex. On one take, something happened inside him. Those tears come from someplace in Tom."

Kovic remembers the moment he--and everyone else--realized that Cruise was going to pull off the role. "We were watching the dailies," he says, "and the place was packed. A crew member leaned over to me and whispered 'He's doing it, he's doing it.' We all knew something special was happening, and that Tom Cruise was right in the middle of it . . . He is the great surprise of this film. Tom gave the performance of his life, going to the ragged edge, at great risk to himself."

Stone believes the risk was more personal than professional. "Tom is a racer, a gambler, a ballsy character, I'll admit. He certainly went 'out there.' But he could always do 'Top Gun II' and they'd come out in droves. If he confined himself to those roles, though, his soul risked dying. This film gave him an enormous amount of self-respect."

If Cruise came through, Stone deserves a measure of the credit. His role, as he sees it, was peripheral, but crucial. "I served as the cheerleader," he says, "like the wife in a marriage rooting for her husband to win the ballgame. Directors aren't tyrants. We listen and set up an environment that's warm and supportive for the actor."

Though the chemistry between the two of them was good, says Stone, there were occasional friction points. "Tom is macho, aggressive, male and he wants the best. Perfection is his goal and if he doesn't achieve it, his frustration is high. He was polite and patient under very trying circumstances but he's not a saint. He has a temper, but anyone who's healthy does."

Stone also admits to some rough spots with Universal. Battles over money, he says, siphoned off creative energy and forced him and Cruise to forgo their usual salaries, gambling instead on a percentage of the profits. If the film does well, they do well. If not, they walk away with memories.

"Tom (Pollock) is the only executive I know who would have made the film," the director says, "and he deserves all the credit for that. But when it came to numbers, it was like pulling teeth. He was concerned about the commerciality of the piece and maybe he was right. The verdict's not in. But this was a huge movie, hard to pull off at $14 million, even in Texas."

The film was shot in wide screen format to free the viewers, as Stone explains it, "to get them out of the chair." The effect--the opposite of "Talk Radio," which was intentionally claustrophobic--added to the cost. "We ended up coming in at $17.8 million," says the director. "It was ridiculous to fight World War I over $3.8 million. Tom did loosen up when he saw the assembled film, though, and gave us more support. He also let me go 10 minutes over the two-hour and 15-minute mark delineated in my contract. He didn't have to do that."

Having worked with a number of auteur film makers in the past few years (Martin Scorsese in the controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ," Spike Lee in "Do the Right Thing," and now the mercurial Stone, Pollock is a veteran of the Hollywood wars. "You have to reconcile what you think is good with what you think is profitable," he says. "That's what we do all day. In the end, we sprung for changes and let Oliver reshoot some scenes. We got an epic film at a very reasonable cost. There's no one else who could have made it with the emotional impact Oliver did. I'd work with him again in a minute."

While "Platoon" may be viewed as Stone's "Iliad" (his retelling of the war) and "Born on the Fourth" his "Odyssey," (the saga of the homecoming), the director is tight-lipped about the thrust of Part III. "Another true-life story, though not my own," is all he will say, " . . . about two or three years down the road." First on the agenda: a movie about the late rock singer Jim Morrison, who died of heart failure in 1971. Financed by Carolco Pictures, it's due to begin shooting in March.

"Morrison was my hero, like Marilyn or Elvis was to others," says Stone. "He was God, Dionysius come to Earth. I saw him as the Jimmy Dean of his era, a guy who defeated death every day. The film is a goodby to my youth, the last hurrah of my 20s. I want to do it while I'm still young enough."

Stone, suicidal at 18 and still in torment 15 years later, reluctantly admits to a minor sense of inner peace these days. Married for the second time and the father of a 4-year-old son, he claims to seek refuge in "music, laughter, gaity, hedonism and doing the occasional good thing for people" instead of self-destructive acts.

Is the director afraid that his cinematic therapy might take away his edge and undermine his creativity? "No," he says, without missing a beat. "One day I might do some 'gentler' films, the kind turned out by Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir and Woody Allen. But, I'm convinced that the more you know, the more powerful you get. It's in your genes or it's not."

Stone leans forward to finish the point: "You're either born crazy or you're born boring."

* Film Maker's Victory: New life for a documentary. Page 40

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