Oliver Stone: The Stone Age
The eighties were a good decade for writer-director Oliver Stone. And based on the success of JFK, there was little reason to expect that to change in the nineties. But alas, Stone’s post-JFK career has seen the director slowly fade from relevance to the degree that I doubt anyone reading this really cares what Stone is up to when he’s not interviewing dictators. Or for that matter, when he is. But in 1992, a lot of us cared about the movies Oliver Stone had made. So much so that Movieline contributor Joe Queenan did an in-depth analysis of Stone’s filmography for the August ’92 issue of the magazine.
At the very beginning of Oliver Stone’s most interesting movie, Salvador, sleazeball photojournalist James Woods’s nagging wife gets ready to pack up her bawling infant and go back to Italy, tired of waking up every morning to find eviction notices, a grimy apartment and sleazeball photo-journalist James Woods. Desperate for cash, Woods seeks an immediate assignment in El Salvador, but has the phone slammed down on him by a cold bitch of an editor. While he is on the phone, Woods is harassed by a fat bitch who wants to make a call herself, and after he gets off the phone he is arrested for speeding by a tough bitch of a cop. Bail is posted by his pal Jim Belushi, a sleazeball deejay who has just broken up with his yuppie bitch of a wife because she wants him to stop being a sleazeball deejay and start being a sleazeball computer salesman.
The lurid Jims now decide to head south to Guatemala, but not before dropping by the local dog pound to pick up Belushi’s beloved mutt. Alas, the dog has already been dispatched to the great kennel in the sky, and it is a cold-hearted bitch of a dogcatcher who breaks the bad news to the boys. Thus, perhaps 10 minutes into Stone’s most successful movie (even though it’s really just a remake of Under Fire, which appeared three years earlier), Jim and Jim have had miserable dealings with two nags and four bitches. No wonder they now find themselves on the way to merry El Salvador, where even though they’ll have to deal with a moronic female journalist, an overbearingly pious nun and a local witch doctress who ramrods a huge needle into Belushi’s huge buttocks, at least, as Woods says, “[you can] get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks.”
I think this says a lot about Oliver Stone’s worldview.
Because most of Stone’s movies deal so intensely with political themes–the war in Vietnam, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the inexplicable rise of hate groups hellbent on killing performance artists like Eric Bogosian– there is a tendency to discuss his films as if they were primarily political films, or, as some critics have dubbed them, propaganda. But this ignores the underlying theme that binds all Oliver Stone movies together, and accounts for their box-office appeal to a primarily male audience. Oliver Stone, whether he is directing, producing, or writing the screenplay for a film, basically makes buddy movies.
In buddy movies, women do not exist, or, if they do exist, they don’t exist for very long. Yes, JFK is a profoundly disturbing film about the threat posed to this fine, pluralistic republic by the sinister machinations of the military-industrial complex, but it’s also a buddy movie about a crusading district attorney and a bunch of his pals who try to pin the rap for the President’s murder on Tommy Lee Jones and his buddy Joe Pesci and his buddy Ed Asner. The major female character is a nagging bitch (Sissy Spacek) who periodically surfaces to make dinner, put the kids to bed and complain. Salvador is a buddy movie about a couple of fuck-knuckles who go to Central America to get wasted and have virgins squat on their faces. The major female character is a Latino madonna who periodically surfaces to chide James Woods for little things like getting her kid brother abducted, tortured and murdered by death squads. Wall Street is a buddy movie about Charlie Sheen and his sleazeball buddy Michael Douglas who rig the stock market. The major female character is Daryl Hannah, an entirely ornamental interior decorator (a role she was born to play).
The Doors is a buddy movie about the adventures of Jim Morrison and his pals Robby, Ray and John in never-never land. The major female character is the hilariously miscast Meg Ryan (When Sally Met the Lizard King…), the most wholesome groupie since Barbra Streisand charmed the leather pants off Kris Kristofferson in the 36th remake of A Star Is Born.
Platoon is a buddy movie about a bunch of guys like Oliver Stone going through hell in Vietnam–there is no major female character. Born on the Fourth of July is a wheelchair buddy movie about a bunch of guys like Oliver Stone going through hell in Vietnam. The major female character is a dim-bulb cupcake played with consummate verve by the indefatigably bland Kyra Sedgwick. Throughout the movie, intransigent heterosexual paraplegic Tom Cruise repeatedly complains that because of Vietnam, he’ll never be able to use his penis again. Wasted tears, Tommy-boy–in an Oliver Stone movie, where the hell would you find a woman you’d want to stick your penis into? You’re lucky if you can find a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks.
The buddy theme goes all the way back to movies Stone merely scripted. Scarface is a buddy movie about a bunch of Cuban dirtballs who come to the United States and have a lot of interesting adventures in the cocaine trade. The major female character is Michelle Pfeiffer, a coke-snorting slut, though she does get some serious competition from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, a coke-snorting slut.
Talk Radio is a buddy movie about a couple of late-night buddies trying to make a big splash on the national scene. The major female character is a prim cutie pie who favors those neat little neckties that businesswomen from the Midwest always wear in a desperate attempt to be taken seriously by their male colleagues.
Conan the Barbarian is a Stone Age buddy movie about a mighty Vikingish warrior and his somewhat less mighty chum who lock horniness with James Earl Jones and his two gigantic, longhaired buddies who look like power forwards in the Ozzy Osbourne Look-alike Basketball League. The major female character is Sandahl Bergman, who has enough muscles for eight buddies.
And you really can’t find a more explicit buddy movie than Midnight Express, which is, after all, set in the ultimate buddy environment: a Turkish prison. The only female character in this cheerful affair is Brad Davis’s girlfriend, whose one big scene involves squashing her bare breasts up against a glass partition so that her imprisoned boyfriend can lick her reflection.
I think this says a lot about Oliver Stone’s worldview.
I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on the pathetic cartoons that pass for women in Oliver Stone’s movies, but it’s a pretty damning statement when the most fully realized female character in any film Stone has ever been associated with is the Thighmaster pinup girl played by Sandahl Bergman in Conan the Future Republican. At least she has a job. The rest of the Family Stone are trophy wives, girls-next-door and an endless parade of coke-sniffing whores and yuppie bimbos. If Stone were not peddling a politically fashionable anti-Americanism that never goes out of style in Hollywood, feminists would already be all over him as one of the most reactionary, sexist moviemakers alive.
Stone is, of course, one of our most sadistic auteurs, whose particular brand of mayhem involves the surgical removal of important body parts from their customary moorings. Stone’s first major motion picture was The Hand, a 1981 film that announced Stone’s fascination with dismemberment by portraying a cartoonist (Michael Caine) whose severed cockney hand starts running around murdering people. (Let your fingers do the stalking.)
The next year, with the screenplay for Conan the Future Kennedy In-Law, Stone worked his way further up the human anatomy: The film begins and ends with a decapitation, but also features a scene in which what appear to be Vestal Virgins or Vestal Vixens (I can never tell the difference) drink a puke-colored bisque containing skulls and human hands–Cro-Magnon nouvelle cuisine, if you will–and apparently enjoy it. After Conan, Stone scripted Scarface, which features a man who has his head cut in half with a chain saw, and Year of the Dragon, in which the villain drops a bloody head onto his plate in the middle of an otherwise refined business luncheon with the Khmer Rouge. This certainly gets everyone’s attention.
Salvador, which Stone directed in 1986, features no explicit decapitations, but there are plenty of bullet holes in the forehead and numerous references to another recurring Stone theme: castration. In fact, the movie’s climax occurs when James Woods is threatened with a machete poised perilously close to the crown jewels, which elicits memories of Midnight Express when Randy Quaid is beaten so badly that he loses a testicle, and then is beaten so badly that he loses the other (NB: Even in macho Oliver Stone films, men are limited to two testicles per customer). This was certainly one way to make Quaid less randy.
Platoon is filled with numerous dismemberments and disfigurements, as is Born on the Fourth of July, in which Tom Cruise gets shot in the chest in Vietnam and loses the use of his sex organs. Male urinary-tract problems resurface in The Doors, where Val Kilmer’s propensity to show off his tumescent manhood results in all sorts of legal wrangling and leads to several unparalleled American tragedies: Morrison’s death, the subsequent death of his wife, and the release of the song “Touch Me.”
Then, in JFK, Stone returns to the leitmotif that has served him so well in the past: exploding skulls. When JFK was released, a friend of mine speculated that Stone’s next movie would be about Jim Jones or the Moonies or the Church of Scientology, but I’m not so sure. When you’re dealing with a guy as obsessed with head trauma and ball-busting sluts as this guy, you’ve got to figure Marie Antoinette is going to turn up eventually.
All this said, it would be a mistake to dismiss Oliver Stone’s movies as merely spectacularly obvious, misogynistic buddy films in which people lose important parts of their bodies. Oliver Stone’s movies are spectacularly obvious, misogynistic buddy films in which people lose important parts of their bodies that already have lots of drugs in them. Midnight Express is a movie that deals with testicle loss in which the drug of choice is hashish. Scarface depicts the bifurcation of a human skull with a chain saw; the drug of choice is cocaine. Year of the Dragon has decapitation, bullet holes in the cheeks and strangulation with piano wire; the drug of choice is heroin.
In Born on the Fourth of July, a paraplegic Platoon, the drug of choice is tequila (yes, alcohol is a drug). Platoon itself showcases men shot in the head and nailed to trees; the drug of choice is grass. JFK covers exploding skulls,- the drug of choice is cocaine. Conan, Buddy of Kurt Waldheim deals with crucifixion, decapitation and having one’s flesh ripped apart by vultures; the drug of choice is mead.
Oliver Stone certainly knows how to recycle his best material. Buoyed by the audience response to the scene in Midnight Express where Brad Davis bites a nice chunk of flesh off the prison snitch’s face, Stone reprises the scene in Conan, having Arnold Schwarzenegger rip a vulture’s lungs out with his teeth. (Arnold is pretty awful in the film, but this scene is a whole lot more convincing than the one where he makes love to Sandahl Bergman in what amounts to a steroid version of Wuthering Heights.)
Buoyed by the audience response to the scene in Year of the Dragon where a cop has a half-dozen bullet holes rip through the back of his skull and come out through his rather ruddy cheeks, Stone reprised the scene in JFK, where the audience is repeatedly treated to the sight of the President’s head flying off in Jackie’s general direction. Nice touch, Ollie.
Thematically, Oliver Stone conveys three messages that are repeated over and over again in his films. They are:
1. America sucks.
2. If you get too caught up in your work, it’s going to ruin your family life.
3. Beware of foreigners.
The first message is so obvious that we need hardly belabor it. But what kind of an Oliver Stone article would this be without a little belaboring of the obvious? So let’s do it. Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July tell us that Republicans are ruining the country with their filthy little wars. Platoon and JFK tell us that Democrats are ruining the country with their filthy little wars. Wall Street tells us that greedy businessmen are ruining the country. Scarface tells us that Latin American cocaine dealers are ruining the country. The film 8 Million Ways to Die also tells us that Latin American cocaine dealers are ruining the country, but throws in alcohol for good measure. Year of the Dragon tells us that Chinese heroin dealers are ruining the country. Talk Radio tells us that redneck assholes who murder people like Eric Bogosian are ruining the country. Midnight Express tells us that Turks are ruining the country, or at least making it hard for clean-cut American hashish smugglers to travel abroad without being hassled.
I don’t have any idea what The Doors tells us, except not to whip out your cock in Miami. In any case, once you’ve blamed all of the country’s woes on Republicans, Democrats, businessmen, drug dealers, drunks, foreigners and rednecks, that only leaves three entirely blameless people: Bill Moyers and Ben & Jerry. This is ultimately what is wrong with Oliver Stone’s movies: If you blame everyone for everything, it’s impossible to blame someone for something or anyone for anything.
Stone’s second message is a tad more subtle, but if you look at his movies from the American Heart Association’s point of view, one message comes through loud and clear: Type A behavior is going to ruin your family life. Consider the following chart.
|Mickey Rourke, Year of the Dragon||Wife leaves him, then gets the strangled|
|Val Kilmer, The Doors||Band breaks up, common-law, wife leaves him, dies|
|Charlie Sheen, Wall Street||Ruins family, loses good job, goes to jail|
|Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian||Girlfriend dies, no kids|
|Eric Bogosian, Talk Radio||Wife leaves him, he gets murdered, show cancelled|
|Brad Davis, Midnight Express||30-year sentence in Turkish jail, loses girlfriend, wrecks family, frequently beaten|
|Kevin Costner, JFK||Wife gets really pissed off, loses case anyway|
|James Woods, Salvador||Loses wife and kid; friend gets killed taking dumb photo that wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer Prize anyway|
|Al Pacino, Scarface||Wife leaves him, sister tries to kill him, Mom won’t talk to him, ends up with 500 bullet holes in his body|
|Jeff Bridges, 8 Million Ways to Die||Loses wife and cute daughter; ends up with Rosanna Arquette|
|Tom Cruise, Born on the Fourth of July||Becomes paraplegic, loses girlfriend, wrecks family|
|Tom Berenger, Platoon||Kills fellow officer, turns into real asshole, dies horrible death|
WHAT HAPPENS TO GUYS WHO GET TOO CAUGHT UP IN THEIR WORK
Yes, the Oliver Stone Health Advisory reads like this: Type A behavior is going to ruin your marriage, wreck your health, and just generally screw up everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. So get your shnozola out of that mountain of coke, shelve that hypodermic and stop swallowing those worms with all that tequila, you big knucklehead. And keep your eyes peeled for guys with chain saws in their suitcases.
Not surprisingly, The Gospel According to Stone even dominates movies that-he did not write or direct, but merely produced. Reversal of Fortune is a film about a woman who hits her head on the bathroom floor because she has too many drugs in her body; the principal character is a lawyer whose obsession with his work has ruined his marriage. Blue Steel is a movie about a young female cop whose obsession with her job ruins her life. (She’s dating a guy who’s trying to murder her, which is just flat-out dysfunctional behavior.) Iron Maze, the 1991 Bridget Fonda vehicle (as in tricycle) that absolutely no one but I saw (I checked), deals with an overly ambitious Japanese guy who gets so caught up in his work–dismantling a Pennsylvania steel mill and turning it into an amusement park–that he nearly gets himself killed. And how does he nearly get himself killed? By smashing his skull on a gigantic steel pipe. What subtlety. What imagery. What. . . nuance. Incidentally, the alternate title for the story you are reading was Head Shots.
We now come to the third ubiquitous element in Oliver Stone movies: Always set up a moral conflict in which the forces of good are represented by white males–even if they’re a bit on the jackassish side–while the forces of evil are represented by ethnics, homosexuals or ethnic homosexuals. In Scarface, the villains are Cubans. In JFK, the villains are Cubans and Bourbon Street gays. In Year of the Dragon, the bad guys are Chinese and Thais. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July target the Vietcong, though the latter also thoroughly vilifies Mexican whores who specialize in sleeping with paraplegics. Salvador and 8 Million Ways to Die finger Hispanics, while Midnight Express blames it all on those stinking Turk prison guards. Well, what do you expect from a guy who writes a movie (Conan the Austrian) set in some misty, prehistoric era in which the villain (James Earl Jones) just happens to be the only black person in the movie with a speaking part. Let’s face it: Ollie boy thinks ethnics are scary.
Do I accuse Oliver Stone of deliberately targeting the ethnic groups America loves to hate as a pandering sop to xenophobic audiences? Hell no, he’s just making movies, and in the world of movies, inscrutable ethnics with facial scars who pronounce the word “shit” by saying “chit” fall under the general category of “color.”
Stone probably isn’t even aware that he’s made the same movie 10 times, that he’s used coke-sniffing whores and fiendish Orientals and head trauma every chance he’s gotten. He’s merely dancing with the one who brung him. Who just happens to be a gook slut.
I hope I have not created the impression that I dislike Oliver Stone films. Far from it. To give the Man of Stone his due, his movies zip along at a nifty pace, he is a master at creating a sustained mood of imminent menace, and his screenplays, except for the obligatory harangue in which he feels compelled to actually explain what his transparently obvious films are about, are quite good. He gets terrific performances from people you’d expect it from–James Woods, Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman–but also gets terrific performances from people you wouldn’t expect it from–Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas. His movies are always obvious (Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio) and frequently stupid (JFK, The Doors), but I’d take obvious antiwar movies and stupid films that spark national debates rather than Driving Miss Daisy or another goddamn E.M. Forster film any day of the week. All antiwar movies are good movies. All movies that demand an explanation of John Kennedy’s death are worth making. Even if they are stupid. Great art and incredible stupidity frequently make comfortable bedfellows. Just look at the Rolling Stones. Or Frank Sinatra. Or Richard Burton.
On the other hand, we’re not talking about a John Ford or a Jean Renoir here. We’re talking about a Jim Cameron who’s read one more book. Great filmmakers look at complicated things–love, politics, crime–and show you that the world is a complicated place where moral decisions are difficult to make. Filmmakers like Oliver Stone look at complicated things and tell you that the world is a simple place, where all you have to do is to be like Oliver Stone. This explains Stone’s obsession with JFK, because, like all conspiracy theory devotees, Stone would rather believe that we live in a world where sinister forces pull all the strings than that we live in a world where things just happen. But the truth is: We do live in a world where things just happen. Otherwise, how do you explain Dan Quayle?
When JFK was released just in time to bring us all some yuletide cheer last year, Stone came in for tremendous criticism from all sides. Virtually all of that criticism focused on the story line in JFK, taking Stone to task for hawking the least plausible of the myriad JFK assassination theories, and for deliberately twisting the facts to suit his purposes. But just about none of the criticism was directed at the film qua film.
Here, I would like to put in my two cents on the subject. Personally, I found JFK quite engaging, and was very impressed by the performances of Gary Oldman and Kevin Costner. But the film didn’t work for me, because at no point could I even come close to buying Stone’s theory about the assassination. Why did I have so much trouble swallowing the theory that the United States government was in on Kennedy’s assassination? Basically, because of Joe Pesci’s wig.
Joe Pesci is a preposterous-looking guy in the best of times, but that radiant shock of tangerine-hued fabric that was supposed to pass for Pesci’s hair looked like something the wardrobe department bought mail order from Vito’s Hair Research Center on Channel 67. To my way of thinking, if the creep played by Joe Pesci had anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination, the CIA and the mob and the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex and the KGB and Lyndon Baines Johnson and Fidel Castro would have chipped in to give him enough money to buy a better wig. They did not; he wore the ridiculous wig to his interrogation by Kevin Costner; and for me the whole conspiracy theory fell apart right there.
La Coiffe Pesci was not the first time that a movie Oliver Stone had worked on was stopped dead in its tracks by a disruptive hair style. Lamentably, Stone seems to have learned about hair grooming from the same people who taught him editing: Michael Cimino and Brian De Palma. Mickey Rourke’s hair in Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, dyed white to make him look like a middle-aged asshole instead of a youthful asshole, had the inadvertent effect of making Rourke look like a chemotherapy patient trying to unravel an international heroin conspiracy on an outpatient basis. In De Palma’s Scarface, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks like she broke into the Pam Grier Memorial Museum and purloined an Afro-American fright wig. Hair also plays a major role in Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko’s do very nearly upstages the man sporting it; in Conan the Kennedy, where James Earl Jones looks like a “Dungeons & Dragons” Cher impersonator; and in The Doors, where the actor playing Ed Sullivan appears to have enlisted the styling assistance of Herman Munster.
But if Stone is to be taken to task for Pesci’s absurd coiffure in JFK (and don’t get me started on Tommy Lee Jones’s dapper locks), he must be applauded for the decision to airlift the spectacularly chemotherapeutic Donald Sutherland into the movie two-thirds of the way through the proceedings. A lot of critics have objected to Stone’s use of this entirely fictitious Deep Throat, but I think Stone’s decision to use Sutherland was brilliant. Sutherland, it must be recalled, can talk faster than anyone in the history of motion pictures, meaning that in one 12-minute set piece, he can advance the plot of a movie by at least two hours. Without the intervention of Donald Sutherland, JFK would have been five-and-a-half hours long. We all owe Donald a debt of gratitude,- his exemplary work in JFK very nearly makes up for such previous crimes against humanity as Wolf at the Door, Revolution and siring Kiefer.
In summing up the work of Oliver Stone, let me cite two highly autobiographical chunks of dialogue he has written for characters over the years. The first comes from the street-smart cop played by Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon, who tells his jaded colleagues: “I give a shit, and I’m going to make you people give a shit.” This is the Stone credo in a nutshell: This is a man who gives a shit and who is going to make other people give a shit, even if they don’t give a shit about the things he gives a shit about, or think that he’s full of shit, or that he is a shit, or think that the things he gives a shit about are a load of shit.
The other illuminating passage comes from the mouth of Hal Holbrook, who plays a dignified old stockbroker in Wall Street (one assumes the character is based on Stone’s deceased father, a stockbroker to whom both Wall Street and Salvador are dedicated). At the very end of the movie, just as Charlie Sheen is about to be nailed by the feds for insider trading, Holbrook wraps his arm around the youthful sleazeball and says: “Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
Actually, man looks in the abyss and Oliver Stone is staring back at him. And that’s what keeps him out of the abyss.
Joe Queenan wrote “Clerical Errors” for our July issue