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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

Kovic remembers the moment he--and everyone else--realized that Cruise was going to pull off the role. "We were watching the dailies," he says, "and the place was packed. A crew member leaned over to me and whispered 'He's doing it, he's doing it.' We all knew something special was happening, and that Tom Cruise was right in the middle of it . . . He is the great surprise of this film. Tom gave the performance of his life, going to the ragged edge, at great risk to himself."

Stone believes the risk was more personal than professional. "Tom is a racer, a gambler, a ballsy character, I'll admit. He certainly went 'out there.' But he could always do 'Top Gun II' and they'd come out in droves. If he confined himself to those roles, though, his soul risked dying. This film gave him an enormous amount of self-respect."

If Cruise came through, Stone deserves a measure of the credit. His role, as he sees it, was peripheral, but crucial. "I served as the cheerleader," he says, "like the wife in a marriage rooting for her husband to win the ballgame. Directors aren't tyrants. We listen and set up an environment that's warm and supportive for the actor."

Though the chemistry between the two of them was good, says Stone, there were occasional friction points. "Tom is macho, aggressive, male and he wants the best. Perfection is his goal and if he doesn't achieve it, his frustration is high. He was polite and patient under very trying circumstances but he's not a saint. He has a temper, but anyone who's healthy does."

Stone also admits to some rough spots with Universal. Battles over money, he says, siphoned off creative energy and forced him and Cruise to forgo their usual salaries, gambling instead on a percentage of the profits. If the film does well, they do well. If not, they walk away with memories.

"Tom (Pollock) is the only executive I know who would have made the film," the director says, "and he deserves all the credit for that. But when it came to numbers, it was like pulling teeth. He was concerned about the commerciality of the piece and maybe he was right. The verdict's not in. But this was a huge movie, hard to pull off at $14 million, even in Texas."

The film was shot in wide screen format to free the viewers, as Stone explains it, "to get them out of the chair." The effect--the opposite of "Talk Radio," which was intentionally claustrophobic--added to the cost. "We ended up coming in at $17.8 million," says the director. "It was ridiculous to fight World War I over $3.8 million. Tom did loosen up when he saw the assembled film, though, and gave us more support. He also let me go 10 minutes over the two-hour and 15-minute mark delineated in my contract. He didn't have to do that."

Having worked with a number of auteur film makers in the past few years (Martin Scorsese in the controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ," Spike Lee in "Do the Right Thing," and now the mercurial Stone, Pollock is a veteran of the Hollywood wars. "You have to reconcile what you think is good with what you think is profitable," he says. "That's what we do all day. In the end, we sprung for changes and let Oliver reshoot some scenes. We got an epic film at a very reasonable cost. There's no one else who could have made it with the emotional impact Oliver did. I'd work with him again in a minute."

While "Platoon" may be viewed as Stone's "Iliad" (his retelling of the war) and "Born on the Fourth" his "Odyssey," (the saga of the homecoming), the director is tight-lipped about the thrust of Part III. "Another true-life story, though not my own," is all he will say, " . . . about two or three years down the road." First on the agenda: a movie about the late rock singer Jim Morrison, who died of heart failure in 1971. Financed by Carolco Pictures, it's due to begin shooting in March.

"Morrison was my hero, like Marilyn or Elvis was to others," says Stone. "He was God, Dionysius come to Earth. I saw him as the Jimmy Dean of his era, a guy who defeated death every day. The film is a goodby to my youth, the last hurrah of my 20s. I want to do it while I'm still young enough."

Stone, suicidal at 18 and still in torment 15 years later, reluctantly admits to a minor sense of inner peace these days. Married for the second time and the father of a 4-year-old son, he claims to seek refuge in "music, laughter, gaity, hedonism and doing the occasional good thing for people" instead of self-destructive acts.

Is the director afraid that his cinematic therapy might take away his edge and undermine his creativity? "No," he says, without missing a beat. "One day I might do some 'gentler' films, the kind turned out by Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir and Woody Allen. But, I'm convinced that the more you know, the more powerful you get. It's in your genes or it's not."

Stone leans forward to finish the point: "You're either born crazy or you're born boring."

* Film Maker's Victory: New life for a documentary. Page 40

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