Film & TV

Monster Time: The Cinema of Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone poses for a portrait in 2008. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The maker of Platoon, JFK, and Natural Born Killers was told that his films were ‘too much.’ He wore the label as a badge of honor.

William Oliver Stone is the rare Hollywood figure who, you come to understand, probably downplays his outlandish antics in his book. “There were a few ‘Oliver Stone’ stories that I’d heard, bounced back at me, often with unbelievable outcomes,” he writes, a little prissily. He notes that a fellow screenwriter once told him that his legend had become a kind of model for other writers who wished to be seen as bad boys. Stone drily notes that at parties, “I would do something, never violent or intentionally harmful, but often outrageous, to make the moment less boring.” He withholds many of the details, which no doubt were gory (and perhaps delicious).

Less Boring would be an apt title for Stone’s memoir, but in the one he entitled Chasing The Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game, Stone shouts with the exuberance of a free American man — an obnoxious, abrasive loudmouth like the one played by Eric Bogosian with a buzzsaw voice in one of the director’s best films, Talk Radio (1988). As did many other Stone efforts, Talk Radio (available on Amazon Prime) took a true American story (the 1984 murder of Alan Berg, a liberal talk-show host gunned down by white supremacists) and filtered it through the director’s self-destructive passions: Bogosian’s Barry Champlain just can’t stop enraging people by shoving what he knows to be the truth in their faces. He’s a sort of lone gunfighter of the new American West, armed only with sleek, modern weapons (sarcasm, putdowns) in sleek, modern Dallas as hostile forces plot to ambush him in the night. Their weapons are more atavistic, but their goal is simply to shut his mouth.

For Stone, living loudly, nakedly, and extremely is the only way, even if it means dying extremely. Like his idol Jim Morrison, who channeled William Blake into acid rock, Stone is an archetypal Sixties Romantic (“Nothing was sacred — it was all possible — we were all going to ‘break on through to the other side,’” he writes) who places subjective feeling over objective fact and seeks elevated truths by burrowing into lived experience. Hence his accomplished career as a drug user; drugs cut you off from the distraction of external reality and help you bore down into yourself.

All of this is why I wouldn’t trust Stone to accurately report the score of a baseball game. As Gabriel Seidl once wrote of Beethoven, “He feels through his mind, he thinks through his heart.” But Stone serves what he sees as the truth. Late in the book, he discovers that the story that became his Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express (1978), which was first told to him as “hapless American kid smuggles a tiny amount of hashish to pay for college” (the amount in question was actually two kilos), was not what he thought it was. Billy Hayes, the subject of the film, laughingly told Stone many years later that he wasn’t busted until his fourth smuggling run, and though discarding inconvenient facts to make a better story is Hollywood S.O.P., Stone was hurt by the revelation. Midnight Express would almost certainly never have been made if Hayes had told Stone the truth beforehand, which might in turn have cost Stone his career — the movie became an out-of-the-box sensation just two years after he arrived in Hollywood. But instead of shrugging off Hayes’s after-the-fact admission, he’s genuinely upset that he was conned into participating in a lie, seeing himself as a weapon of truth in dangerous circumstances. Despised Cassandras are everywhere in Stone’s pictures, from Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July to Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison in JFK to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden.

Though Stone has worked with and known many famous people, his book (which ends after his third directorial effort, Platoon, wins the Best Picture Oscar) is almost entirely inward-facing; there are very few “as I told my good friend Laurence Olivier”-style anecdotes. Olivier, though, does pop up, in a funny second-hand way, as the source of the most perfect distillation of acting, relayed to Stone by Frank Langella: “Look at me. Look at me — that’s my bloody motivation!”

Chasing the Light is a study in Stone’s fears, his frustrations, and his addictions, as he tries to put his obsessions on the screen for us to share. Throughout his career, he has composed in his own brutal, vulgar, ostentatious key, scolds be damned: “The hell with good taste!” he writes. A recurrent phrase in his book — he heard it many times from people to whom he pitched his scripts — is “too much.” Too much sex, too much violence, too much everything. It took a while for the industry to grasp that, as the Eighties roared forth, “too much” could be the raison d’être of a highly successful filmmaker. Stone started to attract allies who loved the idea of going too far, such as the gonzo San Francisco journalist Richard Boyle, who would be played by the gonzo actor James Woods in Salvador. (Woods stole the role from Martin Sheen, who was originally cast, by telling Stone that Sheen’s wariness of the profanity in the script would result in “another bull**** Hollywood picture.”) As Stone was struggling to get Salvador made after his only previous directorial effort — a piece about a murderous, creeping appendage called The Hand — occasioned more laughs than screams, producer John Daly told the director, eyes twinkling, “I hope you live up to your reputation.” What he meant, Stone writes, is “be who you are, ‘the lunatic.’ . . . John was saying, ‘I want that Oliver, not their Oliver.’”

Stone’s matter-of-factness about his many mistakes makes for lots of dryly funny episodes. He once held a pound of heroin in his closet for friends, for instance. He doesn’t remember his 1981 wedding because he was high on marijuana, quaaludes, and cocaine during the ceremony. He notes that Gore Vidal once proposed a three-way tryst with Stone and Mick Jagger. On a Scarface research trip to Bimini to chat with some wealthy gentlemen who just happened to have a lot of theoretical knowledge about how one might go about sneaking cocaine into Miami, Stone unwisely mentioned a defense attorney he knew. The lawyer had once been a prosecutor, and the mention of his name made Stone’s interlocutors wonder if their new friend might perhaps be an undercover agent. The fellows excused themselves to discuss the matter in the men’s room, and Stone believed he was about to be tortured and fed to the gators. As dicey as it was to research, though, Scarface turned out to be useful in surprising ways: When Stone went to beg right-wing Central American government officials for help making Salvador, his leftist follow-up, their affinity for vigorous anti-communist Tony Montana made them incorrectly think the director was ideologically simpatico. (It helped that Stone whipped up a phony two-page treatment that suggested Salvador was a film about brave right-wing governments battling despicable Commie insurgents.)

Stone refers to his and his wife Elizabeth’s cocaine-defined years (as opposed to later ones, when he clarifies that he merely used the drug “socially”) as “monster time.” He was formed in a painful time for America, from the assassination of JFK and on through Vietnam, the shattering of Sixties idols, and Watergate, and he covered it all in his films. Did he engage with his subjects accurately? No, but I think he was honest about what he felt about them: panic, outrage, excitement, desperation, and anguish. He felt he had lived through America’s monster time, and set about sharing his sense of horror with as much operatic gusto as he could.

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