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Oliver Stone: Less Crazy After All These Years

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Stone got to know crazy people before he was even born. His father, Louis, had fallen in love with a young Frenchwoman, Jacqueline Goddet, while serving as an officer in France at the end of World War II, then persuaded her to follow him to America. The 35-year-old stockbroker and the 24-year-old
free spirit had an uneasy relationship, Stone reflects when we meet again two weeks after our initial interview. (He spent much of his youth in France and speaks French fluently, if tinged with an American accent.)

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“They’re both strong people,” he says of his father, who died in 1985, and his mother, now 91. “My father was a serious man, a hardworking man, a Republican — not only at the highest end of the stock broking business but also a hell of a good writer. He wrote a monthly letter that was translated into 15 languages and was very respected on the Street.”

As for his mother, she “was a classic Auntie Mame type — very popular, center of attention, exaggerating everything, sleeping late in the morning, not exactly a great example. We’ve always had conflict. She was a rebel all her life; she had tons of friends and drugs and gay boys and was certainly on the wild side. It’s in me, too. I mean, a lot of her is in me, and some of that I don’t approve of.”

He rejects allegations of an incestuous relationship, hinted at in his autobiographical novel, A Child’s Night Dream. Did anything of the kind ever happen? “No,” he says categorically, though he notes parallels between his own life and the “edge of incest” in 2004’s Alexander.

Stone grew up privileged in a Manhattan townhouse but during his teens was sent away to a rigid boarding school, The Hill, and it was there at age 15 that he learned his parents were divorcing. The news proved devastating, not only because his mother subsequently disappeared for weeks but also because it coincided with his father’s financial losses, meaning Stone now lost the only home he had known.

Neither parent was faithful, and Louis at times resorted to call girls, which was how Oliver was initiated to sex. “I have no shame about it,” he reflects. “It was great. It was an exciting, wonderful experience. It was impossible [to have sex] at that time. I mean, I grew up in boarding schools. Every other kid I knew in my classes had to go to some professional for this. It wasn’t doable with women of our generation.”

He adds of his father: “I loved him. I really did. He had a wild side, too, a very wild side. He was insane on a certain level, which I loved in a way.”
Still, the marital collapse plunged Stone into despair: “I was lost for a long time, and I stayed lost. It took another 13, 14 years to start to come out of it.” Even in the decades since, he has had bouts of depression, he says. “I’ve taken medication, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not a Prozac person anymore; I’ve already taken too much of that. I feel you have to confront it on a spiritual basis.”

Adrift and feeling as confined when he entered Yale as he had been at The Hill, Stone abandoned college to teach in Saigon and Cholon, Vietnam, before a stint in the merchant marine. “I saw this advertisement on a billboard: ‘Do you want to teach school in Cholon?’ And as long as you could get there, they’d hire you,” he explains. It was in Asia that Stone came alive: “Oh man, I’d never seen women like that in my life. Sex wasn’t evil. It wasn’t a sin. It was like eating rice. It was like a candy store. But there’s a downside, too: You can get crazy.”

The craziness might have contributed to his divorces — from Najwa Sarkis, whom he married in 1971 (they parted in 1977), and Elizabeth Cox (1981 to 1993). “I was wild,” he says. “Women were certainly a preoccupation that took a lot of my time and sometimes were a waste of money, too.”

In Vietnam, the joy of sex and Stone’s burgeoning love for Asia led him to extend his initial teaching commitment from June 1965 into the following year. When he returned to Yale and experienced a hard-hitting failure after his 1,400-page novel went unpublished, he contemplated heading back to the brave new world he’d encountered. “I wanted to get away for adventure,” he explains. “Jack London, I loved him. Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim” (about a young man who commits an act of cowardice) all contrib- uted to his enlisting in the Army. “Would I be a coward?” he pondered. “I was alone. Rejected. So I decided, if I go out there as an infantry soldier, it’ll sort things out for me. I was suicidal. This was a way to take it out of my hands and not make a choice.”

The young Stone — at the time using his given name, Bill — enlisted with the infantry in 1967 and remained 15 months. He acknowledges that terrible things happened. “I was a romantic. But when I got there, it became another story because it’s pretty gritty. It’s very hard, and death is very ugly. I got more realistic, I guess.” He continues: “I saw my share of ugly. You gotta kill and make sure your buddies survive. There is a line, and people lose that line over there. But I did not, nor did a lot of people I know.”

While in Vietnam, he started to take photographs, which in turn led him to film. A favorite early memory had been of trips to the movies with his mother and in particular one picture with “two lovers who were kissing in the car and crashed. The road was blocked, and they went right into it and died. It was very sad.”

Returning to the U.S., he signed up for film school at New York university, where Martin Scorsese was an influential teacher. But the following years were a struggle. In his 20s, he wrote 11 screenplays that didn’t sell or made him next to nothing (including Platoon and Fourth of July) and barely eked out a living until his career shifted gears when he was commissioned to adapt Billy Hayes’ memoir of life in a Turkish prison, Midnight Express — a movie that led to condemnation from Amnesty International, among others.

“I said in Turkey, ‘I regret there has been a misunderstanding about it,’” Stone emphasizes, noting that cuts darkened the tone of the film. “It was trimmed to make a $3.8 million movie. It was very good, but it doesn’t convey completely the absurdity of the situation in the jails and some of the humor [in the script].”

He still smarts that director Alan Parker and producer David Puttnam refused to invite him to Midnight’s Cannes premiere, but the movie won Stone a 1978 Oscar for best adapted screenplay and gave him a chance to direct his first Hollywood feature, the generally panned horror flick The Hand (1981).

Stone’s directorial hopes seemed dashed. He continued to work as a writer, but it was not until he met a flamboyant mogul named John Daly that he got his next break behind the camera.

The acclaim generated by their 1986 movie Salvador, about a down-and-out journalist (James Woods) who travels to El Salvador with his oddball buddy (James Belushi) on a mission to expose its horrors, helped him get another dream project off the ground: 1986’s Platoon.

“It was around for several years; everybody read it. And I felt like we’d never get it made, and I forgot about it and moved on with my life,” says Stone. Then Daly stepped in, along with producer Arnold Kopelson. “We made it for not more than $4 million to $5 million. During the shoot, we had a coup d’etat when Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos was kicked out. It was just tough — 50 days of rain, and we had to shoot, no matter what. But it was the right thing at the right time.”