For His Look Back in Anger at Vietnam, Platoon's Oliver Stone Is Bombarded with Oscar Nominations
updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
Vietnam veterans came home clutching souvenirs like neon pillows for the same reason that losers in Las Vegas buy worthless objets d'art: a need to recover something of value from a stupefying experience. I never bought a pillow, but I own a very unsightly tassled yellow tablecloth from Thailand, and I also picked up a tasteless bronze bar set. Oliver didn't buy the neon pillow. Not him. "I was never into cheap crap," he says. He was not like other soldiers. They came home with junk. He came home with a vision. If you see his movie Platoon, you will understand.
The pillow was Elizabeth's purchase. She bought it in Thailand last year when she and Oliver were returning from the Philippines after filming Platoon, the movie that took him 10 years to make and was just nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Dale Dye, a retired Marine officer hired by Stone to be military adviser on the film, says, "I think that when Platoon was finished, everybody felt that they had been through a military tour of duty overseas, even the girls." Platoon wasn't filmed on location as much as it was filmed in Oliver Stone's theater of operations. For 13 days Dye trained the actors, teaching them first to be soldiers and then to be bush rats, denying them decent food, proper rest, dry clothes. When that was over, he and Stone pushed them for another 54 days. It's still uncertain whether Platoon is being accepted by audiences as a pro-war or an anti-war film, but the actors certainly got the message. "I'd probably be in Canada if there was another Vietnam," says Charlie Sheen, whose role is based on Stone's combat experiences.
Platoon, which was written and directed by Stone, is an impressionistic look at the war, a movie with more symbolism than an Italian film festival. Stone went off to Vietnam in 1967, a 21-year-old seeking "the bottom of life." For once, the U.S. Army kept an enlistment promise. He was wounded twice and awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, an admirable but not unique record. What made Stone's tour of duty so different was his ability to see the war not strictly as a matter of life and death but also as a spiritual struggle of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. "To me Vietnam was very much like the Iliad, a country beating on foreign shores for 10 years with endless internecine warfare," he says. There were 2.7 million American soldiers in Vietnam, and it is fair to say that few others came away comparing the experience to a Greek epic poem.
Two of Platoon's Oscar nominations, for screenplay and direction, went to Stone. (His screenplay for Salvador also was nominated.) Nearly every scene is either autobiographical or based on an event Stone knew to have taken place in Vietnam, yet Platoon is more than just authentic. It is, in Stone's words, "heightened reality," which is actually a pretty accurate description of the man himself. He says of the movie, "I pushed beyond the factual truth to the spiritual...no, to a greater truth. This is the spirit of what I saw happening."
The war that Stone survived is not the same war that most American soldiers experienced. His war was about as bad as it got, and what makes his film so passionate, so effective, is his certainty that what he went through is what Vietnam was all about. Elizabeth says of him, "He believes in the truth as he sees it. He seeks out the truth. Then he clings to it. He's pretty obsessive that way." His vision of Vietnam is uncompromising. His was a war of mud, rot, mosquitos, snakes, booby traps, napalm, perimeters, firefights, wounds, bodies, medics, stretchers and death. If you ever suspected that Vietnam was the worst place on earth, Platoon will confirm your nightmares. Far worse to him than the resisters who stayed home and refused to fight were the soldiers who went to war and weren't asked to fight. To him every top sergeant in Saigon was selling contraband from the PX; everybody not wading through leeches was partying with tax-free booze.
Not long after meeting Stone, I tell him that I was in Vietnam but not in his jungle. I confess that I was an REMF, a contemptuous Army expression. Each letter stands for a word, and the first three are Rear Echelon Mother. Maybe you can guess the fourth.
"Oh, no," he says. "What's your complaint, that you didn't make any money in the war?"
He beams, quite pleased with the barb. He has a wicked sense of humor, not a all innocent. Whenever I sense that Stone is about to launch a joke, I have an urge to yell "incoming" and dive into a foxhole. Willem Dafoe, nominated for an Oscar as Best supporting Actor in Platoon, describes Stone's maniacal grin as a "crazy, kidgap smile." He is grinning maniacally now. I can tell that he is unimpressed with my career.
"You were a supply sergeant, right?"
I tell him my job—an officer in an Army boat company, transportation corps.
"Oh, no," he says.
He stops smiling. This is beginning to upset him. The man is 20 years out of Vietnam, and he is still angry about how the war was fought. He has all the statistics memorized, how the United States needed six or seven men in the rear for every man in the field. Somehow everything he despises about the Vietnam War is focused on the non-combatants, not the non-participants. Soldiers like me were "morally corrupt." He fought. We stole and ate and went to the post theater.
"You were leeches. You guys were eating steaks and lobsters every night," he says. "What if Napoleon was going to Moscow and all his troops were saying, 'I want to be back with the food wagons.' "
I decide to stop goading Stone. He is an easy target, because he cares so deeply about almost everything. I feel as though I could engage him in an argument about almost any place dominated by politics: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Santa Monica. For that matter I could probably get him to argue about his 2-year-old son Sean's diaper service. He claims that he has mellowed and become a lot calmer. Dye, who has known him only since the filming of Platoon, says, "He didn't used to laugh. His success has given him a chance to laugh, which he likes to do."
Stone returned from Vietnam in December 1968. He had gained religion in combat. He had lost everything else. He was alienated. He was angry. He was using drugs, mostly marijuana, acid and angel dust. He says that he was saved by the New York University film school, which he attended on the Gl Bill. Elizabeth says he was saved by his first wife, Najwa Sarkis, whom he married in 1971. She was seven years older, worked in the Moroccan mission to the United Nations, took care of him. In 1976, about the time his marriage was ending and his screenplays weren't getting any attention, he wrote Platoon. At this point it is almost obligatory to name the studios that turned down an Academy Award-nominated movie, but that is unnecessary. Every studio turned it down. "They said it was too grim, too down, too realistic," he says. It was finally produced by the Hemdale Film Corporation, which had made (and still hasn't earned money on) Salvador. Asked why he agreed to go ahead and back Platoon, John Daly of Hemdale quipped, "We felt we couldn't do any worse than we did with Salvador."
In 1978, while Stone was still shopping Platoon, he wrote Midnight Express, for which he received a Best Screenplay Oscar. A few months later he met Elizabeth Cox. She was working as a secretary and trying to be an actress, although by her own admission she was "too shy to ever really get an acting job." Their meeting was the stuff of which low-budget beach movies are made. She had just broken her leg skating on the boardwalk in Venice, Calif., and she was sitting immobile at a party when Oliver walked in. He saw a tall, blond, blue-eyed California girl. (Actually she's a tall, blond, blue-eyed Texas woman with two college degrees.) She saw a tall, dark-haired, Hollywood screenwriter with irresistible Mongolian eyes. He was, she says, "the golden boy around town." Their eyes met, and they fell in love right there at the party. Then she didn't hear from him for two weeks. "Finally he called," she says, "and I asked him where he had been. He said he was severing all his relationships so that we could start with a clean slate. He's an honest man. He never went out with anyone else again. Oliver is unequivocal."
They moved in together almost immediately, but there was a problem. She was beautiful, and this bothered him. She says he felt it necessary to justify their relationship by announcing to all his friends, "This is my girlfriend, Elizabeth. She can type 90 words a minute." He paid her $125 a week to type his screenplays. He still pays her $125 a week to type his screenplays. She thinks this need he has to justify her usefulness around the house comes from his parents. His father, who died in 1985, was an American stockbroker, very practical. His mother was a French war bride, rather frivolous. "Oliver was always proud of the fact that I was functional," Elizabeth laughs.
They were married in 1981, when Oliver was in his fifth year of trying to sell Platoon. He says, "It was my hair shirt." He was working steadily, turning out screenplays, but still he wasn't satisfied. "He hasn't been struggling since I met him," says Elizabeth, "but he always feels like he is." On their honeymoon in Tahiti, he brought along his typewriter and worked every day, until what he called "the winelight." Elizabeth says that he inherited a split personality from his parents, the part he acquired from his mother tempting him to party every night, the part that he got from his father insisting that he get up every morning at 7 to write. For years he did both quite well. He and Elizabeth used cocaine regularly, and during this period he co-wrote the screenplay for Conan the Barbarian. Finally they left California for France, determined, she says, "to cleanse our brains."
In Paris they took an apartment, stopped doing drugs, and Oliver wrote the screenplay for Scarface. "The apartment had a skylight," she says, "but he curtained it off, wrote in blackness while a recording of a French singer with a warbling voice played over and over. Needless to say, I was gone every day. He calls that movie 'adieu to cocaine.' "
Scarface established Stone as one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood, but he was still not a director. He says that was all he ever wanted to do. In 1981 he got his first chance to direct a major film, The Hand. It was so bad that he didn't get his second chance for another five years. "I was called everything: a hack, a bum, a hype artist," says Stone. "I've been through a lot of criticism. You can't say much worse than what was said about me." Last year, after he directed Salvador, critics finally came around, but audiences didn't. Then he made Platoon.
He was unprepared for the public reaction, the lines outside the movie houses. Elizabeth says that now when they go out for a drive, Oliver makes detours to pass theaters where Platoon is playing, assuring himself that people are really seeing it. "He'll stand outside the theater, listen to remarks," she says. "He's amazed that people like it. He's cute. He gets mad at me when I don't do it. He says, 'Aren't you driving around?' "
These days, in the uniquely pillowed Santa Monica home of Oliver and Elizabeth Stone, the telephone rings constantly, usually with media requests for interviews. Otherwise their life hasn't changed much. He plays with the baby. She changes the baby. "A lot of our friends are superdads, but Oliver changed a diaper once in two years," Elizabeth says. "It was an hour-long ordeal that ended with a bathroom full of used towels. It was the event of the afternoon. They both had to tell me about it." He writes. She types. He asks for a drink. She makes tea. There are no indications that Platoon has made them wealthy, and both suspect it will not, but there is reason to believe their time is at hand. Oliver says he never received a cent from his percentages in movies, even though several grossed more than $50 million, but he expects to earn money from Platoon after it passes $40 million. It recently did just that.
He is asked if it isn't time, then, for Elizabeth to be paid more than $125 a week.
"She gets taken care of real nice," he says.
He is reminded of all she does. Among other things, she remains cheerful whenever he runs around the house bellowing because he has misplaced his ballpoint pen.
"But she doesn't work full time," he argues.
He is not an unreasonable man. His actors will vouch for that. He is reminded that he considers himself a compassionate man, that he is always railing against ideologues who are insensitive to the needs of mankind.
"If you insist," he sighs, "I'll give her $10 more a week."