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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

Cruise admits he couldn't have handled the role five years ago. But, after working with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman on "The Color of Money" and Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on the Academy award-winning "Rain Man," the actor says he'd "have to be an idiot not to walk away with something. Charlie, my character in 'Rain Man,' was spiritually autistic so I didn't play the emotion. Ron holds nothing back, so I had to put everything out. It was my most challenging role ever. I made it work one day at a time. If I looked at the mountain, it was just too high."

Stone was worried at first. "Tom was cocky, sure he could handle everything. But I wasn't so sure. I saw he'd bitten off a lot--more than he'd thought. He was shaky at first, but we shot in continuity as much as possible to show how, step by step, he began to understand. A part of Tom has passed from youth to middle age. Just as 'Platoon' sucked something out of Sheen, it will be hard for Tom to go back to being innocent again. He'll always carry around Kovic. No matter what Laurence Olivier led us to believe, he won't be able to put it in a closet like an old costume."

Cruise takes his acting very seriously. (So seriously, in fact, that on the last day of the shoot, Stone told him to step back and start enjoying life.) In preparation for the role, Cruise spent days in veterans' hospitals and wheeled around Westwood with Kovic until the chair became an extension of his body. Pouring through books on the war and Kovic's diary became a political awakening of sorts since the 27-year-old actor was a child during the heart of the conflict.

"I remember seeing a Life magazine cover of a girl hit by napalm running in the streets," Cruise says. "I remember a girl who wore a copper bracelet for her Green Beret brother who was missing in action. I remember bits and pieces on the news, but for a 7-year-old, Walter Cronkite was just the lead-in to 'Batman.' They never taught us about the war in school, but reading up, I realized that there had been a pervasive feeling that the U.S. could do anything, that you didn't question the government because it just wants what's best for the country. Looking back, it seems naive, but that's the way it was. Everyone was sold on 'freedom.' If I was drafted, I probably would have gone."

The 65-day shoot was a tough one, the toughest Stone can recall. The script spanned 20 years, requiring time-consuming makeup changes, 15,000 extras and 160 speaking roles. Filming was divided between Dallas and the Philippines, the location for the Vietnamese and Mexican scenes. "We shot 10 to 12 hours a day in 100-degree heat," Stone says, "and there was no shade on the beach. Tom got sinusitis. He lost it. He was exhausted. There was a lot of fainting. Half the actors were down on certain days. But Dallas was really the killer. There was a strange bug all over the place. I was sick for days."

It was tough emotionally, as well. Kovic, who came to the set daily, found one scene particularly painful: the one in which he comes home drunk and, stripped of his psychological defenses, informs his flag-waving, religious mother that "There is no God. There is no country, just me in this . . . wheelchair for the rest of my life." In rehearsals, Stone asked Kovic to read his own part while Cruise took the role of the mother. Three or four readings proved to be so draining, says Kovic, that he headed back to Dallas, intending to hop a plane back home to Redondo Beach.

"A jeep pulled up beside me and it was Cruise," he says. "I rolled down the window and he yelled, 'Why does your life have to be so difficult, so challenging? This is very depressing for me.' We cursed and shouted and laughed back and forth and all the frustration came out. I began to realize that I wasn't alone, that Tom was paying a price for this film too. That night, I slept well. The film has helped me let go of the anger, the regret and the pain and begin to search for the better person inside myself."

One of Cruise's more difficult assignments: a scene in which a sexually impotent Kovic sampled the wares of a local Mexican prostitute. As in the rest of the film, Cruise, an actor strong on athleticism and grace, had to convey emotion solely through facial expression. Lying in bed--a naked woman astride him--he knew he wasn't getting it.

"It was a hard few days," Stone says. "Tom is very shy, but the girl was excellent, free with her body in a Latin way that made it easier for an uptight Anglo. We just kept shooting, working up to the place where Tom cries, thinking about everything he'll miss--certainly not from the joy of sex. On one take, something happened inside him. Those tears come from someplace in Tom."

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