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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

Promising Kovic that he'd return for him and the project one day, Stone parlayed his success with "Midnight Express" (his screenplay earned him an Oscar at the age of 32) into his first directing job. The film was a sensationalist psychological horror picture called "The Hand," which Stone now considers an ill-advised personal concession to Hollywood commercialism--a response to the disappointments of "Born on the Fourth" and "Conan" "but part of the learning curve."

His next picture, Stone says, was his "first complete ballgame," one in which the outcome was his to control. "Salvador," a hit with many critics when released in 1986, was based on the experiences of free-lance journalist Richard Boyle in strife-torn El Salvador. Like the director, he was down-and-out, treading water, looking for salvation. Boyle found it in Central America. Stone in making this film.

With "Platoon," his acutely personal vision of Vietnam combat, he got his hands on a tiger with which the whole nation was wrestling. The $6 million film, which starred Charlie Sheen as Stone's alter ego, became a shocking commercial success when it was released at Christmas, 1986. The movie grossed more than $137 million in the U.S. and Canada, did about as well abroad, and won four of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated--including those given for best picture and best director. Stone was suddenly one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood.

While Stone moved on to write and develop the script for "Wall Street," Tom Pollock was getting used to his new job as president of Universal Pictures and decided to take another look at the "Born on the Fourth of July" script. "I realized that it was one of the great unmade screenplays of the past 15 years," Pollock says. "I told Stone we'd be interested if he could do it real cheap."

"Cheap" to Universal meant $14 million, if the film was cast with a major star. Stone considered Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage--all of whom he believes the studio would have accepted. But in the end, he opted for Cruise.

Superficially, there were some similarities between Kovic and the actor: the Catholicism, the working-class ethic, the drive to be No. 1. As a child of divorce who attended nine grade schools, three high schools and struggled with dyslexia, Cruise identified as an outsider, someone with things to overcome. "I grew up hearing the 'no's and 'can'ts,' " he says, "but I pushed myself forward, always looking ahead so I wouldn't get stuck. I tried to grow, to learn about life and not be swallowed up by circumstance."

It was Cruise's image as America's Golden Boy, however, that locked it up for Stone.

"I saw this kid who has everything," the director explains, rubbing his hands together like the witch sizing up Hansel and Gretel. "And I wondered what would happen if tragedy strikes, if fortune denies him. In the film, one thing after another begins to unravel in a man's life. He kills one of his own men and atones by wandering through nine circles of hell. I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?" Stone pauses and cackles at the thought, then continues. "I had a hunch about Tom, just as I did with Michael Douglas. People said he was too lightweight to carry 'Wall Street,' but I knew he had a good financial head, and he had to have some of old Kirk's genes in there somewhere."

Bregman, doubtful that Cruise could equal the power of Al Pacino's readings, is convinced that box office was the overriding factor. "Tom Cruise was an interesting choice, but not a brave one," he says. "Given his popularity with the youth audience, Cruise could do Tom Pollock's Bar Mitzvah picture and it would do well commercially." Not so, says the studio head. "There's a risk in using an international motion-picture star. Will the public accept their hero, Tom Cruise, doing something so radically different?"

Kovic initially shared Bregman's skepticism. His fears dissipated, however, the first time they met. When Stone and Cruise drove up to his childhood home in Massapequa, Long Island, the actor rushed out of the car and gave Kovic a hug. "I felt an instant rapport with him that I never experienced with Pacino. They descended upon my house, going through my books, playing old home movies on the VCR.

"We talked for hours in the kitchen and I began to cry," Kovic continues, his eyes misting over. "Oliver asked if I was OK. 'Tom understands, he really understands,' I told him. I felt like a burden was lifted, that I was passing all this on to Tom. I knew he was about to go to Vietnam, to the dark side, in his own way. Though he didn't realize it, he was embarking on quite a journey."

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