Today, September 15, 2015 is director Oliver Stone's 69th birthday. The ever opinionated, and often controversial Stone has been both lauded and loathed, celebrated and denigrated during his thirty plus year career as a writer and director. After nearly two decades of artistic and box-office mis-steps, it is easy to forget that at one point in time, from 1986 to 1995, Oliver Stone was arguably the most powerful force creatively, politically and financially in both Hollywood and the culture. It is also easy to forget that Oliver Stone is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of American cinema.
To celebrate Oliver Stone's birthday, let's take a look at his meteoric, tumultuous and often-times brilliant career. Here are what I consider his top five films of all time.
OLIVER STONE'S TOP 5 FILMS
. THE DOORS (1991)
Oliver Stone, like many of his fellow baby boomers, excavated some of his most glorious inspirational treasures by going back to his formative years in the turbulent 1960's. In 1991 Stone went back to his, and my, favorite rock band, The Doors, and their iconic lead singer Jim Morrison.
Years ago I watched the dvd extras for The Doors which had a series of interviews with Stone and the actors talking about the process of making the film. It was pretty standard dvd-extra fare, until the very end of an interview with Stone. In it he talks about what Jim Morrison meant to him, both as a young man and as an artist, and Stone speaks eloquently about what Morrison represented, what he symbolized, and then he says, rather poignantly, with his voice breaking, "I miss him". It was a strangely moving, oddly touching and intimate glimpse into Stone, who is often portrayed in the media as a hyper-masculine, misogynistic boor. What that interview reveals is that The Doors was not just a bio-pic of Morrison, but also a deeply personal film for Oliver Stone and his artistic soul. That is what makes it both very good to some people (Me and John Densmore) and very bad to others (Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger).
The Doors is a remarkably hypnotic film with Val Kilmer's magnetic performance as its center. The concert scenes are among the most vibrant and realistic ever captured on film. While the film is less a bio-pic of the band and Morrison than it is an exercise in cultural myth making and personal/psychological exploration, it still has a seductive and fascinating dark energy to it…not unlike its main character and its director.
4. NIXON (1995)
In 1995 Oliver Stone once again went back to the 1960's well and made a sprawling and peculiarly sentimental bio-pic about disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Shakespearean in its scope and execution, Nixon is a testament to Stone's skill as both writer and director. As a writer Stone is able to coherently and dramatically weave countless historical events amid intimate personal motivations all the while spanning multiple decades. As director, Stone coaxes a uniquely powerful and fantastically courageous performance from Anthony Hopkins in the lead, and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. The supporting cast is terrific across the board, with James Woods and Paul Sorvino doing especially great work.
Nixon is a staggeringly ambitious film that only Oliver Stone would have made, could have made, or should have made. Nixon may be the last great film Oliver Stone ever makes, but even if it is, it is a worthy testament to his artistry and skill.
3. PLATOON (1986)/ BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)
When Platoon came out in 1986, I went and saw it and like most everyone else, I was blown away by it. The four time Oscar winning film, including Best Picture and Best Director, was an original and unique perspective on the daily grind of the regular soldier toiling away in the morass of the Vietnam war. Ten years later I caught the film again when it was on tv somewhere and was terribly underwhelmed by it, the film simply did not hold up to the test of time at all. The main problem was that visually, the film looked flat and washed out. I came away thinking the film was, like another Stone film from that period, Wall Street, a superb script, but unlike his early 90's films , JFK, The Doors, Nixon and Natural Born Killers, a rather cinematically sluggish film. I was more than happy to share my self declared brilliance with anyone who would be foolish enough to listen to my insufferable ravings on the visual failings of Platoon versus Father Time. Now of course, I am unable to rave too loudly as my throat is stuffed with crow. Why the change of heart you ask? Well, I recently saw a restored version of the film, and boy oh boy, it looks really magnificent. Stone's longtime cinematographer, the brilliant Robert Richardson, creates a subtly vibrant and layered look to the film that shows an incredibly deft and masterful hand on his part.
The film also boasts powerful performances from a wide array of actors, including Charlie Sheen, of all people, in the lead. Stone is such a great director that he makes Charlie Sheen seem like he could be the next big thing in acting. Sheen would have been wise to keep his wagon hitched to the Oliver Stone band wagon rather than venturer off into the land of Young Guns, ahhh…what could have been. Willem Dafoe and Tom Beringer also give standout performances as the ying and yang of the American psyche in regards to the Vietnam conflict and the conflict over Vietnam.
The one thing that does hurt Platoon in retrospect is that it is compared to other films of the same Vietnam War genre. In 1987, one year after Platoon came out, Stanley Kubrick's vastly superior Full Metal Jacket hit theaters. Oliver Stone joins a long list of other great directors, in fact, every other director, who has failed in comparison to the singular genius of Stanley Kubrick. Platoon is, without a doubt, a truly great film, probably the third greatest Vietnam War film ever made, behind Full Metal Jacket and Francis Ford Coppola's iconic masterpiece Apocalypse Now.
In keeping with the Vietnam War genre, Stone's second foray into that most personal of wars (he was a Veteran of the war and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient), was 1989's Born on the Fourth of July. The film is the story of Ron Kovics, a Long Island born and raised, flag waving patriotic son of America, who enthusiastically enlists in the Marine Corps to go fight in Vietnam.
Born on the Fourth of July won Stone his second Best Director Oscar, and for good reason. The film is a remarkable piece of work for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is easily the best performance of Tom Cruise's long career. As good as Cruise is in the film, and he is in nearly every scene, it is an indication of Oliver Stone's power as an artist that you never feel like you are watching a Tom Cruise picture, but rather an Oliver Stone picture.
Like many of Stone's films, Born on the Fourth of July covers a staggeringly vast amount of history, and it is also able to personalize that historical struggle by poignantly showing the gut wrenchingly emotional struggle of its main character Kovics.
The film is really a love story, with the love being between a man and his country. The man, Kovics, discovers that his lifelong love, America, has betrayed him by not living up to it's values, the war in Vietnam. This is wonderfully portrayed in a secondary narrative of unrequited love between Cruise's Kovics and his high school sweetheart played by the luminous Kyra Sedgwick. The film is at once heartbreaking and invigorating, and only Oliver Stone, with his deeply intimate relationship with Vietnam and America could have made the it.
2. NATURAL BORN KILLERS
Yes, I know, Natural Born Killers at number two? Many people, maybe even most people, would more consider Natural Born Killers AS a number two rather than AT number two. I realize I am in the minority, but I don't mind. I think Stone's frantic, ultra-violent assault on the media and the culture is a genuine and daring masterpiece prescient in it's foresight.
The film precedes and perfectly captures the vile cable news era and the odious reality tv era. Remarkably the film came out a mere month after O.J. Simpson's wife was murdered and well before the sickening media and cultural circus of his trial. (As an aside, I hope you join me in praying that they find the real killers!!).
Critics thought the film was a bombastic and vacant orgy of sex and violence. Of course, what makes the film so genius is that it is a satire of American culture, which is a bombastic and vacant orgy of sex and violence. If you don't believe me, turn on any cable news channel at any time of the day, a reality show or a prime time network sitcom. In fact, one of the most inspired parts of the film is when it wonderfully eviscerates the vapid and insipid sitcom which had become the staple of the American tv diet at the time.
What Stone did with Natural Born Killers was show how hyper, frenzied and frenetic our culture had become and how toxic that was to our collective and personal psyche. Of course, since 1994 our culture has only become more frenetic and frenzied. Our thirst for violence and our hunger for the salacious has increased infinitely since Stone showed us our true and more base impulses gyrating up on silver screens in cineplexes across America in the fall of 1994.
Once again the brilliant Robert Richardson does masterful work with the camera and gives the film a muscularly vivid visual style. There are also some great performances from some surprising places, most notably Rodney Dangerfield, (who you may remember previously "got no respect") who deserved not only respect for his performance, but a Best Supporting Actor trophy for his work as a disgustingly repugnant sitcom dad, sadly he didn't get nominated. Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Robert Downey Jr. all give inspired and memorable performances as well.
You may hate Natural Born Killers, and you wouldn't be alone, but the reality is that Stone accurately depicted the rot at the heart of the American culture, and that rot has only grown more aggressive and malignant as the decades have passed.
1. JFK (1991)
JFK is Oliver Stone's masterpiece. It is also the film that garnered him the most criticism and made him a marked man of both the Washington and media establishment. With JFK, Stone did the near impossible, he made a uniquely original, intensely captivating, coherent, heart pounding suspenseful drama of President Kennedy's assassination, all the while challenging the establishment narrative in the form of the Warren Commission and it's lapdogs in the media with his own self described "counter-myth". He also forced the movie going public to actually sit down and watch the Zapruder film, over, and over, and over again, making sure there was no doubt there now dead President's head snapped "back and to the left".
Stone wasn't saying that JFK was the absolute truth about what happened on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, what he was saying was that his film, an acknowledged piece of fiction, is as close to the truth as the Warren Commission, a supposed work of investigative non-fiction.
The best way to know that Oliver Stone was on to something with JFK, was in seeing the reaction of the establishment to it's release. The Washington and New York chattering classes went absolutely apeshit. Stone was attacked across the board, from those on the left, the right and the center. "Serious" people from "serious" news organizations told us that Stone was a mere "conspiracy theorist", so anyone who wanted to be taken seriously on any other subject, had to show their bona fides by knocking Stone as an unserious person and attacking the the film. This sort of thing has become old hat for the establishment. It is also a sure fire sign that the person they are attacking is cutting them close to the bone. If Stone were such an unserious kook, then ignoring him would have sufficed, but he wasn't and isn't, so the knives had to come out.
As a result of the success of JFK and of Stone's tireless public work on the subject, Congress was persuaded to release some of the files relating to the JFK assassination. At the time it seemed like things might be changing, that all of the files might be released. That was over twenty years ago and still nothing has changed. The JFK assassination was over fifty years ago, yet we have barely gotten a glimpse of the vast seas of paperwork that remains classified on the subject.
As far as the film goes, Stone's script was, once again, Shakespearean in it's epic scope. His brilliant use of newsreel footage mixed with dramatic footage created an intense immediacy that brought the viewer ever closer to the edge of their seat. JFK was also cinematographer Robert Richardson's masterpiece as well. His use of multiple film stock was as vital a reason for JFK's dramatic edge as anything else, as was his impeccable camera work and framing. Editor Pietro Scalia also was a key figure in bringing this dramatic beast under control. Both Richardson and Scalia won Oscars for their work.
The acting was stellar across the board. Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald was particularly brilliant. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as one of the alleged conspirators Clay Shaw.
In many ways, all of Oliver Stone's other films, including his Oscar winning pictures, pale in comparison to JFK. JFK was a cinematic, artistic and cultural bellwether. It is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all-time, and it is a towering monument to the legacy of Oliver Stone.
(For more on the JFK assassination, the media and Oliver Stone, check out this article from my archive. JFK AND THE BIG LIE )
In many ways, Oliver Stone reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola. Both men won Oscars for screenplays, Coppola for Patton, Stone for Midnight Express, before they had tremendous runs of artistic and financial success as Oscar winning directors. Then both men, for reasons that I can't quite explain, fell off a cliff creatively and never recovered. Coppola of course, had his incredible run in the seventies with both Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, while Stone had his from '86 to '95 with the films listed above (among others).
I think it is a great loss for filmmaking that Oliver Stone has lost his cultural relevance. Cinema, and the culture, were much more interesting when he was at the top of his game and relevant. His willingness to stand for what he believes and to challenge the culture that bred him, are traits sorely lacking in todays Hollywood. My birthday wish for Oliver Stone, is that his next film, Snowden, lives up to his stellar previous work, and is as worthy a film as the subject at its center.
I tip my cap to you Oliver for your brilliance!! Happy Birthday!!
I received a few emails regarding this post. One from a reader named "Captain Big Guy" and another from a reader named "Johnny Steamroller".
Capt. Big Guy wrote " In each of the 4 movies leading up to the 5th (#1), you described your thoughts on the lead actor - which I really enjoyed - BUT WHY NO MENTION OF COSTNER IN JFK?" In keeping with that thought Johnny Steamroller wrote, " Dude, you got me sooooooo interested in what you were going to say about Costner in JFK, your #1 movie!! Seriously, I kept reading. You do mention Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones by name but zero mention of the lead actor in "Oliver Stone's masterpiece"?? Arggggghhhhhh!!!"
Both the good Captain and the esteemed Mr. Steamroller make an excellent point. In my haste to post this piece I overlooked Kevin Costner's performance in JFK . It was an egregious oversight. Maybe not as egregious as Waterworld, but egregious none the less.
So without further adieu…my thoughts on Costner in JFK .
Let's be clear, Costner isn't Marlon Brando. With that said, he didn't need to be Marlon Brando in JFK. What makes Costner effective in JFK is the fact that he was maybe the biggest movie star in the world at the time of the films release. In addition his persona was that of an all-American, squeaky clean guy. His image and persona were a key part of why he works in JFK and why he was cast. Casting Costner accomplished two things for Oliver Stone in his most ambitious film. 1. In terms of the business, it got the movie made. I am sure the studio was much more at ease making this rather challenging film with the biggest movie star in the world, at the height of his fame and popularity, on top of the marquee. 2. In terms of creatively, casting Costner made Stone's challenging the establishment, and the public, much more effective with the persona of the all-American good guy making the case to the public for Stone. It was a very wise move on Stone's part to use Costner and all of the good will he had accrued with the public through his earlier work.
Remember, just two years before JFK, Costner had starred in Field of Dreams, which is as mythically and archetypal an American film as has ever been made. And the year before JFK was released, Costner had won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Dances With Wolves. In many ways, not the least of which was symbolically, by the time JFK came out Costner had become the modern day Jimmy Stewart.
Costner's acting in the film is pretty paint-by-numbers, leading man stuff. As in all of Costner's work, he doesn't have too much range or depth. But because of the intangible traits and very particular image Costner the movie star (as opposed to Costner the actor) brought to the film, I believe he ends up being very much a net positive for the film, and a very wise and shrewd casting choice by Oliver Stone.
So thanks to Captain Big Guy and Johnny Steamroller for the emails!! Hope my answer was satisfactory.