Oliver Stone has become known as a master of controversial subjects and a legendary film maker. His films are filled with a variety of film angles and styles, he pushes his actors to give Oscar-worthy performances, and despite his failures, has always returned to success.
William Oliver Stone was born in New York City, to Jacqueline (Goddet) and Louis Stone, a stockbroker. His American father was from a Jewish family (from Germany and Eastern Europe), and his mother, a war bride, was French (and Catholic). After dropping out of Yale University, he became a soldier in the Vietnam War. Serving in two different regiments (including 1rst Cavalry), he was introduced to The Doors, drugs, Jefferson Airplane, and other things that defined the sixties. For his actions in the war, he was awarded a Bronze Star for Gallantry and a Purple Heart. Returning from the war, Stone did not return to graduate from Yale. His first film was a student film entitled Last Year in Viet Nam (1971), followed by the gritty horror film Seizure (1974) for which he also wrote the screenplay. The next seven years saw him direct two films: Mad Man of Martinique (1979) and The Hand (1981), starring Michael Caine. He also wrote many screenplays for films such as Midnight Express (1978), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Scarface (1983). Stone won his first Oscar for Midnight Express (1978), but his fame was just beginning to show.
1986 was the year that brought him much fame to the U.S.A. and the world. He directed the political film Salvador (1986) starring Oscar-nominated James Woods. However, his big hit was the Vietnam war film Platoon (1986) starring Charlie Sheen,Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, and Francesco Quinn. Berenger and Dafoe received Oscar nominations for their roles as the polar opposite sergeants who each influence the tour of duty of Chris Taylor (Sheen). Stone won his first Oscar for directing this film, which won Best Picture and was a hit at the box office. After Platoon (1986), Stone followed up with the critically acclaimed Wall Street (1987). The movie, starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas, focuses on the business world of tycoons and stock brokers. The film was well received and won an Oscar for Douglas’ portrayal of the villainous Gordon Gekko. Stone returned immediately the following year with Talk Radio (1988), which talked of a foul-mouthed radio host (played by Eric Bogosian) who never fails to talk about the serious issues. Although it was not as successful as his last three films, Stone did not slow down at all. He directed Tom Cruise into an Oscar-nominated role in Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
The movie talked about the return of an embittered, crippled Vietnam soldier from the war. Although it failed to win Best Picture or Best Actor, Oliver Stone won an Academy Award for Directing, his third win to date. After Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Stone took a hand in producing several movies, including the Academy Award-winning film Reversal of Fortune (1990). He returned to the director’s chair in 1991, once again with two films. Val Kilmer starred as the legendary and controversial Jim Morrison in Stone’s psychedelic film The Doors (1991).
Despised by former Doors member Ray Manzarek, the film is nevertheless a wonderful achievement, with Kilmer pulling off an almost flawless impersonation of Morrison. Regardless of opinion, The Doors (1991) was overshadowed by Stone’s colossal film JFK (1991), which Stone himself considers the best of his films. In Stone’s movie, Jim Garrison tackles the conspiracy behind the murder of America’s president John F. Kennedy. The large cast featured such well-known names as Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, and Walter Matthau. This film represented a change in Stone’s works, because it was with this film that he really began to explore the different camera styles and combining them together to create a multi-dimensional way of showing a movie. JFK (1991), as with Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), earned eight Oscar nominations and was one of Stone’s most successful films. However, he failed to win a third Oscar for Best Director.
After this film, Stone directed his third Vietnam film to date. Heaven & Earth (1993) was a film about the war from the viewpoint of a Vietnamese girl, and also co-starred Tommy Lee Jones (who had received an Oscar nomination for JFK (1991)). Despite its new woman’s perspective and several positive reviews, it was a box office failure. Stone was unfazed; his next film is perhaps his most notorious film to date. Adapting a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Stone made Natural Born Killers (1994) starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield in his only dramatic performance. The film was received well at the box office, while review were very mixed. Because of the violence that people claimed was inspired by the film, it was compared to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). As usual, Stone was at the center of controversial subjects; his next film Nixon (1995) was no exception. The film focused on the life of President Richard Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, while featuring another well-known cast, including Joan Allen in the role of Nixon’s wife. Both went on to receive Oscar nominations, while Stone received his sixth Oscar nomination for Screenwriting. The film got mixed reviews, and failed to recoup its budget.
Aside from directing, Stone has worked as a producer on several different films. There was, of course, the successful film Reversal of Fortune (1990), which won Jeremy Irons an Oscar and also nominated the director for an Oscar. There was also the highly praised and successful emotional drama The Joy Luck Club (1993) which centered around four Chinese immigrant women whose relationships with their daughters is affected by their own lives. Another highly praised Oscar nominated film was Milos Forman’s classic film The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) starring Woody Harrelson, Edward Norton, and Courtney Love. Whether the crime/action film The Corruptor (1999) or the brilliant war epic Savior (1998), Stone has worked in a variety of film genres.
Stone had directed ten films in nine years; now however, he began to slow down. He directed the film U Turn (1997) starring Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez. As with Natural Born Killers (1994), it was a dark and twisted satire on violence, but did not have the same success as the former. Stone was set to direct several projects in the late 90’s but they fell through and were not made. However, success came back to Stone in the Al Pacino film Any Given Sunday (1999). This sports movie centered on the life behind the game of football, and it starred an impressive cast that included frequent Stone collaborators James Woods and John C. McGinley. This film was one of his most successful box office films, and put him back on track.
The following years brought Stone no new theatrical films, though he did make three fascinating TV documentaries. Two of them, ‘Looking for Fidel’ and Comandante (2003) were interviews of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, while ‘Persona Non Grata’ was an interview of several Palestinian leaders. Stone was also set to direct American Psycho (2000) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyond Borders (2003), starring Angelina Jolie and at the time, Ralph Fiennes. However, Stone dropped out of both projects, as did a number of the actors mentioned. Finally, five years after Any Given Sunday (1999), Stone directed a film he’d long wanted to make; the colossal epic Alexander (2004). Starring Colin Farrell as the Macedonian leader, Stone attempted to capture the essence of Alexander the Great through his conquests of the known world. The film focused on Alexander’s relationships with his parents (a brilliant performance by Val Kilmer and a less impressive one by Angelina Jolie) and his relationships with his wife and childhood friend/ gay lover (played by Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto respectively).
Alexander (2004) was a critical failure, and failed to win back its budget domestically. Despite being one of 2004’s highest grossing films internationally, and recouping its budget through DVD sales, Stone’s pet project was heavily criticized. Despite a far superior version (Alexander Revisited) being released on DVD, the film’s reputation remains low by the majority. Stone was personally stung at these attacks, but managed to rebound, if mildly, with his hopeful film World Trade Center (2006). The film centers on two firefighters trapped in the rubble of the twin towers. It received good reviews, and allowed Oliver to step forward from his failure towards the possibility of more films.
In late 2007, besides a number of projects Stone was set to direct “Pinkville”, which would have been his fourth Vietnam film to date. It was set to star a large number of well known actors such as Bruce Willis, Toby Jones, Channing Tatum, Michael Pitt, Woody Harrelson, and Michael Peña. However, a week before shooting was to begin, the Writer’s Strike was started, and the finance for the film was cut, using the strike as an excuse. After Willis backed out of the project, it was eventually scuttled, much like Stone’s early productions of Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Stone turned to another project he had worked on with former Wall Street (1987) collaborator Stanley Weiser. The project was W. (2008), a biography on president George W. Bush. Stone initially cast Christian Bale in the role of Bush but the actor dropped out at the last minute. Josh Brolin was cast, and this followed with a large cast of well known Oscar nominated character actors such as Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, and Ellen Burstyn. The film was made in a record four months, starting in June and released in October. The film opened to mixed reviews, and though film’s budget was recouped, it was not a financial hit.
Stone then made the documentary South of the Border (2009), a documentary which focused on bringing to light the positive aspects of the left-wing governments in South America, particularly Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Stone was much less critical than usual, instead making the documentary as a response to the harsh reputation that Chavez has in the States. The documentary was poorly received in the States. Stone also began work on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, and Eli Wallach, the film focuses on the 2008 economic crisis, and the return of Gordon Gekko from prison. The film was screened at Cannes to positive reception, and hailed as Stone’s triumphant return. After this, Stone made a film adaptation of “Savages”, a novel by Don Winslow. The movie follows two highly successful marijuana growers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson ), whose shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) is kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and held for ransom. The movie also starred Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, and Emile Hirsch. The film was a return to the tense action and violence of Stone’s earlier films, though it polarized many audience members due to the colorful narrations of Lively’s vapid and naive character, as well as the film’s ending.
After completing the ambitious and well-received television project The Untold History of the United States (2012), as well as a documentary on Hugo Chavez, Stone finally returned to feature films with Snowden (2016). Based on the life of American whistle blower Edward Snowden, Stone’s film depicted his awakening to the truth behind the massive surveillances conducted by the NSA, and his attempt to warn the general public of what they did not know. The film was done independently, financed by Europeans on a low budget. It was also a return to form for Stone in a way that had not been seen since “Alexander”. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delivered a very strong performance as Snowden, with the supporting cast including Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Timothy Olyphant, and Nicolas Cage. Sadly, the film received a mixed response from critics, and was a box office disappointment.
Since then, Stone has returned to television for his next two projects. One is a series of interviews with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and the other is directing a new fictional series based on the abusive Guantanamo prison. It will be his first venture into fictional television.
Oliver Stone is a three-time Oscar winner, and although he has mostly been stung by critics of his films, he remains a well-known name today in the film industry. The films he directed have been nominated for 31 Academy Awards, including eight for acting, six for screen writing, and three for directing. There is no denying that Stone has cemented himself a position among the legends of Hollywood.
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