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The Influences on Our Taste : OLIVER STONE : A Moralist in Movieland

December 20, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

This is Calendar's third annual listing of Taste Makers, individuals who have brought a distinct focus to 1987 and who we feel will continue to influence the world of arts and entertainment long after this year passes. They were selected not so much for specific contributions in their respective fields but because they are clearly creative forces who move and shape taste. They were interviewed to find out what kinds of influences have moved and shaped them.

We've selected these eight individuals to reflect a broad range of creative work, though each year we try to vary the disciplines. For instance, in 1985 we interviewed architect Arata Isozaki, composer Philip Glass and restaurateur Alice Waters, among others. Last December, the group included choreographer Mark Morris, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown.

What follows, we hope, is a look at the thinking behind some of this year's brightest creators and commentators . . . 1987's Taste Makers.

This project was edited by David Fox, assistant Calendar editor.

With "Platoon," "Salvador," "Midnight Express" and now "Wall Street" to his credit, the director-writer has helped shape our thinking on American issues.

There is a water pipe, wrapped in aluminum foil, that curves around the 12-by-nothing office of Oliver Stone. Neither the pipe nor anything else in the undecorated room could be considered "tasteful," especially on the 20th Century Fox lot that boasts some terribly tasteful work spaces. But Oliver Stone may not notice these things: His mind is probably elsewhere, and wherever that is--be it on the Iran-Contra hearings or on the stock market--it will doubtless show up in his work.

The double Oscar winner ("Midnight Express" and "Platoon") is a Hollywood irony: Son of a high-rolling stockbroker, Stone early on went away from a money career--and wound up making more than he ever dreamed. "I live the outer life of a bourgeois," he said late one recent afternoon, "and the inner life of a writer."

The inner life is nurtured not by the obvious--"Does 'Taste Maker' mean I drink Chateau Montelena and dine on Melrose Avenue?"--but by the kinds of things that used to shape writers, things like social conscience. Like social realism. Stone is, in short, a throwback to a time when screenwriters at least aspired to something more than deal making.

Ask him what influences him today, right now, and he says quickly, "Social novels. 'Carrie' by Theodore Dreiser, and 'An American Tragedy.' 'Dodsworth' and 'Main Street' by Sinclair Lewis. The books of Zola and Hugo and Balzac and Upton Sinclair. The lawyers in (Dickens') 'Bleak House' are characters who fascinate me." So are the lawyers in the Contragate hearings: Don't be surprised if they eventually show up in a Stone screenplay.

Listening to Stone one thinks his kind of larger, more political thinking has almost disappeared. And Stone wouldn't disagree. "Paddy Chayefsky died," he says and mentions the Chayefsky screenplays for "Hospital" and "Network" as examples of screenwriting that influence him, both now and years ago. But Stone is a man of duality--half-Jewish and half-French--so if you listen long enough you will hear the other side of any coin you care to toss. This 42-year old storyteller can cover the turf, as Time magazine put it, from Rimbaud to Rambo--or from the '70s to the '80s. When he talks about the cultural influences of today, he makes it sound like tomorrow.

"We are coming out of a relentlessly selfish period," he says convincingly. "All you have to do is read, as I'm doing now, Arthur Schlesinger's 'Cycles of American History.' The shifts in our culture from liberalism to conservatism and back are so clearly documented. Another book I'm devouring is Walter Russ Mead's 'Mortal Splendor,' which perfectly explains American liberalism in the post-Empire--or post-Reagan--years."

But what about the American spending spree of the Reagan '80s? Stone shook his head in disbelief; a child of New York (and an alumnus of Manhattan's posh Trinity School, along with a year at Yale) Stone can do 20 hours on what he calls "the entitled '80s, the decade when everybody's entitled to everything." But he simultaneously admits he "couldn't get through" Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," the novel that's practically revered by New York's glitterati . For entertaining reading, Stone prefers Hollis Alpert's biography of Federico Fellini, "because I could identify a little with the ups and downs of a career, the financial roller coaster."

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