ARTS: FILM 1: Travels with my angst

Though 'Nixon' is up for four Oscars, its director has been accused of everything from inaccuracy to dying his hair. Sheila Johnston meets an unbowed Oliver Stone

OLIVER STONE looks at me through narrowed eyes. "Did you ever interview me?" he wants to know. "This English journalist interviewed me once. She said I dyed my hair black. In England they're vicious. Vicious - I don't dye my hair! Here, take a look." And he inclines his head forward for closer inspection. After which I can confirm that his hair appears to be firmly attached to his scalp. And if it's a dye job, it is a very professional one.

Paranoia might be said to be Stone's stock in trade. His movies stare into the abyss that is post-war America and delight in chronicling the obscure psychic and social darkness which consumes their heroes, whether they be brokers (in Wall Street) or GI's (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) or rock stars (The Doors); sociopaths (Natural Born Killers) or Presidents (JFK and, now, Nixon).

Or film directors. He courts controversy, and milks it expertly; whatever its critical reception, one may safely assume that a new Stone movie will be a major media event. He waited until his real-life protagonist's death before he made Nixon, and the published script contains a pre-emptive strike against all comers in the form of an epigraph (from Theodore Roosevelt): "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles ... The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."

It did not ward off a drubbing from Nixon-era survivors: the film has been damned by everyone from Henry Kissinger and the Nixon family to Stephen E Ambrose, the author of a three-volume life of the ex-President, and John Ehrlichman, Nixon's aide. Poor Oliver Stone, misunderstood visionary, the only man who dares tell the truth about the secret history of America. Despite the brickbats, he parades his persecution complex lightly, however, and was thoroughly cordial and professional throughout our meeting (even though he was probably convinced I was plotting a piece on his latest facelift).

In Nixon, the darkness has a name and it is called The Beast, a grand melodramatic concept which has also exposed Stone to some ridicule, but on which he is unstoppable. "To get into the nature of The Beast is a book. Eisenhower - a conservative general - first warned us about it when he said, 'Beware the military-industrial complex.' I quoted him in JFK. In the new movie, Nixon refers to it as: 'Those Wall Street bastards, the Mafia and the CIA.' It can ultimately be lumped under money. Money drives the arms industry, money drives Wall Street, money drives the world. If you don't worship money, if you don't worship the power of The Beast, you're out.

"It was a tumultuous decade, 1963 to 1974: Kennedy gets killed, King gets killed, Robert Kennedy is killed, Nixon is removed. I think these are not random events. Those four men all pushed the envelope, they went up against The Beast and they lost. And after they lost, it seems clear to me that the presidency means less if not nothing. There's not going to be a big change between Clinton and Dole. It's all scenery for the suckers."

Consequently Stone's Nixon is not simply the crook, and certainly not the demon that everyone had assumed he would be. In his youth the director had been an ardent Republican; in 1960, aged 14, he sported a Nixon button, and later, in 1968, he voted for the man he hoped would pull the country out of Vietnam. "Then he dragged it out for four years and by Watergate it was clear he was extremely corrupt. When he resigned I remember thinking Gerald Ford was the saviour of the nation." They never met, though once, while he was filming JFK, Nixon went past in a limo, waving over to the crew imperially as though he were running for office. No one waved back.

"I can't say I ever liked Richard Nixon, even after having made the movie," Stone says. "But I empathised with him." He depicts Nixon as a lonely, socially gauche man with a giant inferiority complex about his humble origins, a burning resentment of Jack Kennedy, the golden boy, and an unnerving Cheshire Cat grin that, as someone points out in the film, often seems not to be in the same place as its owner. He considered Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson for the role (neither was interested) and Warren Beatty was briefly in the frame until an early conversation made it clear that actor and director had very different conceptions of the character.

The final choice was Anthony Hopkins, whom Stone had been struck by in The Remains of the Day. "There's an incredible sadness and isolation about Tony and I felt that discontent in Nixon too, and repression, sitting on things, awkward with people. He referred to himself often in the third person. Nixon made the presidency about Richard Nixon. He was probably the most self-absorbed man ever to hold that office; he used the presidency to psychoanalyse himself. Everything was a reflection of him, his paranoia, his insecurities, his sense of betrayal, his sense of loss, of being wrong because he came from the wrong class. He lost sight of what the President does. The office is greater than the man. In this case the man became greater than the office and pulled the office down."

Is Oliver Stone using the cinema to psychoanalyse himself? He likes to throw out the odd personal tidbit: "Nixon reminded me of my father; he was of much that generation and had many of the same prejudices, the hard- headedness and the sense of repression of feelings. So in part this is an homage to my father." And certainly his films return again and again to the same fixations - with the Sixties, for instance, as that long, agonising moment when America's innocence ebbed away. "I'm healthy. I'm in the Nineties!" he insists when asked about it. "That was a seminal decade which set the scenario for what we are as a country. But I don't have to live there. I can go on."

The muted, intimate, elegiac focus makes Nixon an atypical Stone film - there are few of the visual pyrotechnics of JFK or Natural Born Killers. And it has not fared well at the US box-office despite a relatively gentle critical mauling and four Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay and a Best Actor nod for Hopkins. The idea of Tricky Dick as Shakespearian tragic hero (with "more lines than King Lear," according to Hopkins) evidently failed to appeal to punters, and the British distributor appears, slightly desperately, to be reinventing it as an all-action war movie: the American poster of a brooding Nixon with the copyline "The story of a man who knew everything about power except its price" has become a firestorm and a new slogan: "The President can bomb anybody he likes."

"I just don't think these presidential bios are very commercial because people have so many opinions. Nobody's looking at the movie, they're looking at their own psychic baggage on Nixon. I made one big political movie, JFK, which I honestly didn't think would do well. I took my shot with the power I had from Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and it made money. So in a sense I used that marker to do Nixon. A tough, tough subject, not as romantic a figure as Kennedy by any means. I made the movie I wanted. But commercially it's a tough road."

He has, therefore, no plans for another one - The Beast in Ronald Reagan, perhaps. "I'm glad I did Nixon; I used my marker well. But I don't think I have one left for another political film unless I have another hit that will buy me some more credit. Also, the political press in the States is really on my case. They criticise me on details. I'm gun-shy, is what I'm trying to say. They try to straightjacket me as this man who makes up things and invents facts. It's very unfair because I've always characterised myself as a historical dramatist."

I tell him I hadn't intended to quiz him on the film's alleged historical inaccuracies, since they have already been dissected to death in the American media, and will in any case be of less interest to British viewers. But Stone is determined to have his say. "I want you to know I will defend everything in that movie specifically," he thunders.

His own life has recently been aired in public, in a biography documenting womanising, drug abuse and temperamental excesses. How did he enjoy tasting his own medicine? "I'm OK with it. Three competing biographies were proposed and I thought if I gave some cooperation to one the others would go away. And they did. It was a way to move the cube. It's been fact-checked, so at least there are no mythologies. I'm in the public spotlight, people can take their shot - they already have. What could be worse than what's already been said?"

Stone, like other directors, makes the occasional guest appearance in the films of his colleagues. In Ivan Reitman's comedy Dave, an ordinary guy who happens to be the exact double of the President takes his place in the Oval office, fooling the entire nation - except for one man: a suspicious Oliver Stone, who is glimpsed on a chat show claiming a conspiracy in the White House. The moment gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie. Stone is sporting enough to send up his own obsessions. "But," he says, flashing what could almost be a Nixon grin, "I was right. Wasn't I?"

! 'Nixon' (15) opens at cinemas around the country on Friday.

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