Oliver Stone: Natural born renegade
The director's film about 9/11 is set to hurl him from scrapheap to spotlight, and win him unlikely friends
Sunday 30 July 2006
Left/right/left/right/left. While the military marching order may be appropriate for Oliver Stone's history as a former soldier in the US Army, it also conveys the confusion with which many regard his political stance. Reviled as a Leftie by conservative Americans for years, following such radical anti-war movies as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, plus his recent documentaries on his "friend", Fidel Castro - Comandante and Looking for Fidel - Stone has finally won the approbation of the US Right with his film, World Trade Center.
In the conservative National Review magazine website, ultra-Right commentator Clifford May wrote: "World Trade Center may be the most powerful work I have ever seen on the screen. It should be required viewing for every American."
Similar sentiments have been expressed by the neo-Cons and by the ancien régime, about the film, which opens in the US next month.
For Stone, who only recently was ready to be consigned to the scrapheap of Hollywood after the critical drubbing of Alexander - which provoked middle America to stay away in droves over its depiction of historical homosexuality - this is like getting a second chance. But it also presents him with a problem.
In spite of the provocative nature of many of his movies - the labyrinthine conspiracy theories of JFK, the anti-war sentiments of his Vietnam trilogy and the apparent romanticisation of sociopathic criminals in Natural Born Killers, Stone has always claimed to be above, or perhaps, beneath politics. Like the old school maverick filmmakers Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller, Stone is more of a frontier non-conformist, a vociferous renegade whose films and pronouncements are apt to enrage Right and Left in equal measure. To have greatness thrust upon him by the hardcore Right might prove unsettling.
Political hues notwithstanding, World Trade Center will achieve what Alexander failed to do - to make Stone hot once more in Hollywood. His handling of the delicate subject matter ensures that the film will be a massive box office success.
Starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, the film tells the true story of two Port Authority officers trapped under the World Trade Center rubble in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Comparisons will be drawn with United 93, Paul Greengrass's extraordinary, faithful rendition of events that day, and it seems that Stone has been similarly assiduous in his research, retaining the real survivors, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, and their families, as consultants.
Greengrass himself will not comment on the film or on Stone himself. As he has never encountered Stone nor seen World Trade Center, this is probably wise. But he does admit to having a correspondence with Stone over their relative 9/11 projects in which they wished each other luck, understanding "how fucking hard it is to make a 9/11 film".
The son of a Jew and a Roman Catholic, William Oliver Stone was born on 15 September 1946 in New York City. His father, Louis Stone, was a successful Wall Street stockbroker. While acting as aide to Dwight D Eisenhower in France during the Second World War, Stone Senior met Oliver's mother, Jacqueline. A combination of his father's failing finances and extramarital affairs led to their divorce while Stone was at high school. Much of his upbringing in the 1950s was in France,where his mother returned after the divorce.
Stone was a restless student. He attended The Hill School, Yale University and New York University. He dropped out of Yale after a year and went to teach English in South Vietnam for six months. Returning to Yale after a short time as a merchant seaman, he dropped out again.
A Vietnam veteran, Stone served with the US Army from April 1967 to November 1968. He requested combat duty and was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, where he changed his name to "Bill" on the grounds that "Oliver" wasn't macho enough - and then the 1st Cavalry Division. Twice wounded in action, he was awarded the Bronze Star with "V" device for valour and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.
He has three children, two sons from his 12-year marriage to Elizabeth Stone and a daughter by his girlfriend, Chong Son Chong.
Stone began his career writing scripts for horror movies and made his debut as feature director with Seizure in 1974. He won his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Midnight Express. In 1981 he made The Hand with Michael Caine but it wasn't until 1986 that he found his distinctively abrasive voice in Salvador. The 1980s were to prove his most successful decade, with Platoon (for which he won the Best Director Oscar), Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July (for which he bagged a second Best Director Oscar).
In 1991, his rock biopic of Jim Morrison, The Doors, ushered in a new era of psychedelia for Stone, who was allegedly experimenting with magic mushrooms and other hallucinogens. This reached its apotheosis in Natural Born Killers, where his experiments in multi-formats (using VHS, 8mm and 70mm film, B&W, manipulated colour and animation) seemed almost out of control.
Fellow director Quentin Tarantino, who had written the script of Natural Born Killers, disliked Stone's treatment of his work so much he requested his name be removed from the credits.
As the 1990s wore on, Stone became more disenchanted with Hollywood and with the Bush government - "An ex-alcoholic who believes in Jesus. What could be more dangerous?" he once said. In 1999 he was arrested and pleaded guilty to drug possession and no contest to driving under the influence. He was ordered into a rehabilitation programme. He was arrested again in May 2005 in Los Angeles for possession of a small quantity of marijuana, by which time waggish commentators had taken to calling him Oliver Stoned.
As a filmmaker, Stone's rehabilitation has proved more dramatic. Widely read in American history, especially in the murkier areas he says have been sanitised or reconstructed for political and social expediency, Stone is a formidable exponent of the right of free speech and a champion against injustice. He is also a proud American. In his keynote address at The Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, he ranged across subjects like the genocide of the Native Americans, Thailand and the US Civil War, suggesting movies should resemble "the great Hindu and Buddhist ideographs I saw in the temple walls of Southeast Asia. Massive paintings and murals telling the common tales, well-known tales of danger, fear, death, heroes, elephants, love, the birth of children and new kings, new dreams."
Meanwhile, World Trade Center, described by Fox News commentator Cal Smith as: "One of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see," has once again shoved America's greatest renegade filmmaker back on to centre stage. But in the likelihood that the Right now feel they can embrace Stone as one of their own, they should not lose sight of the fact that they have a guerrilla in their midst.
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