Melissa Merli: Stone kept his promise

When director Oliver Stone first started working on "Born on the Fourth of July," Al Pacino was slated to play Ron Kovic, the young Marine paralyzed by a bullet during the Vietnam War.

With Pacino on board, the cast and crew rehearsed for two weeks. Then funding for the movie fell apart.

At the time, Pacino was a major star but 37 or 38 years old.

"He was, frankly, too old," Stone said after "Born on the Fourth of July" was shown at Ebertfest last week at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.

The director — here after a quick visit to the University of Wisconsin — went on to say Kovic, who was excited that Pacino would portray him, almost killed Stone after financing fell apart for the movie based on Kovic's war memoir.

"I swore to Ron if I ever made it in Hollywood, I would come back and make the movie," Stone said.

He was able to do that after one of his other Vietnam War flicks, "Platoon," became an international success after its release in 1986.

Released three years later, "Born on the Fourth of July" also did well overseas and became one of Stone's highest-grossing movies, he said.

When financing had come around the second time, the legendary director cast as Kovic the more age-appropriate Tom Cruise — then at the height of his post "Top Gun" fame.

Cruise's portrayal of Kovic, a Marine veteran and anti-war activist, brought him his first Oscar nomination — and the comment from one Ebertfest audience member that Cruise did the best acting of his career in "Born on the Fourth of July."

That's what I thought too.

And like others at Ebertfest, I was pleasantly surprised by Stone, who the Internet Movie Data Base describes as a master of controversial subjects, usually of a historic nature.

Because of his work and reputation, some of us had expected Stone to be bombastic. However, the 67-year-old director seems to have mellowed, one of my friends said. He was pleasant and personable — the welcoming Ebertfest audience, though, is largely liberal as was Roger Ebert. Stone noted that the late critic had been "kind and generous" to the movie we were to see.

After the screening, Stone told the audience he was "kind of shocked" by all the rage on screen. He called it "naked, raw anger" and said it came mostly from Kovic and his experiences.

Kovic, now 67 and "as healthy as an ox," had written his memoir "Born on the Fourth of July" in a poetic, fragmented way. While adapting it for the screen, he and Stone put in chronological order the incidents in Kovic's life, leading up to his appearance at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

Though the movie was a hit, Stone said he doesn't know whether "the country learned anything from it." He then mentioned a recent Gallup poll in which 51 percent of respondents age 16 to 28 said they believe the Vietnam War was a good war.

"Oh, no," the audience responded.

While Stone's movies might not have resulted in change, "Born on the Fourth of July" led to reforms of the Veterans Administration (now Veterans Affairs) hospital in Bronx, N.Y., Stone said.

He said it was a "hellhole" when Kovic was there being treated — you might use that term loosely — after his return from Vietnam.

Stone's movie shows rats on the hospital floor, and orderlies playing cards and smoking dope rather than tending to patients.

Stone said anti-war and other message movies and plays are like pebbles thrown in the water. No one respects what dramatists and artists have to say, he said.

Most of us have very little say, if we ever did, and are slaves in a "feudal corporate system," said Stone, who still urged people to vote.

However, some individuals — he cited Mikhail Gorbachev, Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — have made the world a better place.

"There was a huge amount of hope for change with Obama, but it didn't happen," he said.

Stone acknowledged he paid a price for trying to change the world via his work.

Because "Born on the Fourth of July" and some of his other movies — he cited "JFK" and "The Doors" — were polarizing, he ended up on an emotional roller coaster.

And over time, he said, he went from being considered a war hero to a national traitor.

"You put up with it and fight and defend your honor," he said.

Stone is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, having received a Bronze Star for gallantry and a Purple Heart. Coming from a privileged New York family, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after dropping out of Yale.

How many of his critics can say they served in the military during war time?

Stone said he doesn't think he will make more movies. His last project was the series "Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States." It aired on Showtime last year and is now available on DVD.

Matt Zoller Seitz, a movie critic and editor of ebert.com, called "Untold..." a major work, a "pure montage with Oliver Stone talking to you.

"It's a little like having Oliver Stone inside your head," said Seitz, who handled the Ebertfest Q&A with the director.

Seitz is now working on a book about Stone. During Ebertfest, Seitz's "The Wes Anderson Collection," the first in-depth look at Anderson's filmography, was sold at the Virginia along with books by Ebert and others.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (2):Film, People

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