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The Latest Exorcism of Oliver Stone : With Ron Kovic's "Born on the Fourth of July,' the film maker returns to Vietnam to cast out more of the war's demons

December 17, 1989|ELAINE DUTKA

With such films as "Platoon" and "Salvador" to his credit, Stone--a self-described "anarchist"--is one of the more political directors around. Be prepared for a diatribe if the subject of George Bush or the U.S. government is raised.

"The vandals are at the gate," he says. "We have a fascist security state running this country . . . Orwell did happen. But it's so subtle that no one noticed. If I were George Bush, I'd shoot myself. Existentially, there's no hope. His soul is dead."

Yet, in his work, Stone says, it's people-- not principle-that motivate him. "A person fuels me, gets me going. I'd never do a social issue if it wasn't personalized. I'd never put my finger on a map and say, 'Ah, South Africa, I must go there next.' I'd never work outside myself. I have to find a way in.

"The ability to connect emotionally with the material excites Oliver," says Tom Pollock, Stone's lawyer in the early days and president of Universal Pictures, which is distributing "Born on the Fourth of July." "You won't find him tackling movies in which he doesn't identify. He gets his best work when he's driven, and he is driven as a film maker. It's a handful, but good things come from that."

Tom Cruise experienced that firsthand during the "Born on the Fourth" shoot. "I call Oliver 'The Van Gogh film maker,' " he says, downing a pitcher of iced tea in a Westwood Marquis Hotel suite. "His films are intense, vibrant, explosive, unrelenting . . . just like he is." Ron Kovic agrees: "Watching him in action is like seeing Bruce Springsteen live for the first time."

Stone's diary is another source of release, The World According to Oliver, in which he scribbles daily. How does he find time in his already jammed schedule? The director flashes a gap-toothed smile. "Winston Churchill ran the country by day and dictated history at night," he says, delighting in the analogy.

Writing proved to be Kovic's salvation as well, purging him of his own emotional baggage and helping to extract meaning from his truncated life. Pecking with two fingers on his $40 Sears Roebuck manual typewriter, pounding so hard the periods left holes in the paper, Kovic says "the words poured out like a scream."

One month, three weeks and two days later, it subsided and, to his surprise, the world began to listen. When Kovic gave a prime-time speech during the 1976 Democratic Convention and, a month later, ended up on the front page of the New York Times book review section, Hollywood--in the form of Martin Bregman moved in.

"I wanted to undo those romantic images presented in films like 'Guadalcanal Diary' and 'Sands of Iwo Jima,' the John Wayne mentality that led me to war," says the 43-year-old Kovic, speaking with evangelical fervor during an interview in 72 Market Street, a Venice restaurant where he often hangs out. "For years, I felt there was nothing worthwhile about the tragedy that had befallen me. Making a movie would enable me to give something back to others instead of merely being a victim. Life isn't about avoiding conflict and pain, but shaping it into something beneficial."

Bregman realized from the outset, however, that it was "almost an impossible film to make." For one thing, he says, it dealt with decidedly non-commercial themes: Vietnam and a paraplegic. For another, he found out, Kovic had served as a consultant on another film on the same subject for which Jon Voight had won an Oscar. The release of "Coming Home" in 1978, Bregman is convinced, proved to be the death knell for his project. When Universal Pictures pulled out, "Born on the Fourth," as he puts it, began to sour. "We couldn't get a studio," he says. "We couldn't get a director, and I approached everyone in town. It was just me and a young unknown writer named Oliver Stone."

Bregman's Artists Entertainment Complex picked up the project in turnaround, financing all the pre-production with money to be provided by a group of German investors. Things were looking good. Dan Petrie would direct. Al Pacino would play Kovic. Orion Pictures would distribute. A few weeks before rehearsals were to begin, however, the foreign financing fell through. Bregman was left with an empty checkbook and the rights reverted to Universal.

Stone, a fledgling screenwriter denied his big break, went into a total depression. "Al (Pacino) got cold feet and went on to do ' . . . And Justice For All,' says Stone. "Ron became crazed. Marty was in for $1 million of his own. I just gave up at the thought that a studio wouldn't make a $6 million film--not a lot for one starring Al Pacino--because they considered it too tough, too realistic. It was a heartbreaker for everyone involved."

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