Oliver Stone Biography (1946-)

Oliver Stone, controversial director of such films as “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers” was the product of a French mother and an American Jewish father. Louis changed his name from Silverstein to Stone as a teenager in 1927 as he sensed the wave of anti-Semitism that was brewing. Jacqueline Goddet was from a suburb of Paris, France and met Louis days after World War II ended. They were married in November 1945 and in January of 1946 took the troopship to New York and during the long crossing Jacqueline was seasick. She later discovered that she was pregnant.

William Oliver Stone was born in New York, New York on September 14, 1946. His timing was impeccable as his father was working in the world of high finance and doing extremely well, living in a fine apartment overlooking the East River. He grew up speaking French even before he mastered English. Lou Stone was unhappy with his Wall Street job and opted to form his own business in order to sustain their high-end lifestyle. He established a business manufacturing machetes in Stamford, Connecticut, moving there and retaining the apartment. Oliver was sent to the Trinity School in Manhattan where he remained through the eighth grade. Many weekends were spent going to the movies and Oliver’s father had the ability to analyze the filmed stories and find plot holes. Frederico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” made an impression on young Oliver who loved the mythology that the 1960 film presented.

Living at home no longer became a reality when he was sent to the exclusive all-boys Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Although an athletic and intelligent teen, Oliver (using his real first name of William) was a loner. He was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Yale. During his visits home he was subjected to his parents’ opposite personalities—the socialite/artistic mother and the Wall Street father. In 1962, at the age of 15, his parents got divorced; his father was broke from his mother’s freewheeling spending days. The only thing Lou Stone promised his son was the Ivy League education.

In 1964 he entered Yale. A year later he was an English teacher at the Free Pacific Institute, a Catholic school for Chinese students located in Cholon, a suburb of Saigon. Stone taught for a while but quit because he didn’t enjoy being a teacher. He worked aboard a ship, and then later sold his first UPI story. He signed on with the Merchant Marine and went down to Mexico where he wrote “A Child’s Night Dream” his first novel. He returned to New York and continued working on his opus, later having it rejected by several publishers.

Acting on impulse, Oliver joined the Army in 1967, undergoing infantry training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Oliver went by the name of Bill and was in the 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Infantry. Wounded twice, Stone wasn’t out of action too long. He met with his father during an R&R and the elder Stone tried to get his son out of combat action. He failed and in April 1968, Oliver was transferred to a reconnaissance platoon where he met one of the men who would figure prominently in his famous movie, “Platoon.” Serving 15 months in Vietnam earned Stone a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Bronze Star.

Returning to New York, an angered Stone wore all black and listened to Jim Morrison of the Doors singing “The End.” He borrowed a Super 8 camera and made home movies. Writing his first screenplay, “Break” was a form of catharsis and the seed from which “Platoon” would emerge. He enrolled in New York University’s Film School and completed “Dominique: The Loves of a Woman” inspired by his mother and Fellini.

In 1969 Oliver took a class from Martin Scorsese whom he found to be a very insightful and inspiring professor. Oliver made three short black and white films while at NYU: “Last Year in Vietnam,” “Madman of Martinique” and “Michael & Marie.” He met his wife, Najwa Sarkis, an attaché at the Moroccan Mission to the United Nations, who was from a wealthy Lebanese family. They got married in May 1971. He was working as a taxi driver and enduring rejection for his films and scripts. He finally was able to travel to Canada to film “Seizure” only to be confronted with a bankrupt film company. A rich Canadian came up with the money and the movie was shot.

Moving out to Los Angeles to launch his career he worked on writing scripts and had a job selling sporting films. He wasn’t a salesman and spent his days writing. He got a $15,000 advance for “The Cover-Up” and signed on with the William Morris Agency.

During the summer of 1976, Oliver decided to write the screenplay for “Platoon” before he forgot everything that had happened over there. He wrote it in New York. He was also alone, as his marriage had ended. A few weeks later the script was finished and he moved to Los Angeles for good.

With his war film making the rounds of the studios, the script was rejected everywhere it went. But the quality of the writing attracted the likes of Columbia Pictures and they hired him to write the screenplay adaptation of the Billy Hayes’ Turkish prison story, “Midnight Express.” The movie was released in the fall of 1978 to favorable reviews and earned Oliver his first Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Adapting the Robert E. Howard fantasy novel, “Conan the Barbarian,” Stone’s imagination made the screenplay too expensive. Ridley Scott was supposed to have directed it but ultimately John Milius took over as both writer and director.

While attending a Hollywood party, Oliver met Elizabeth Cox in May 1979. They were married two years later. Meanwhile, Oliver directed another horror movie, “The Hand,” starring Michael Caine. It was released in 1981 to generally negative reviews. The sight of a disembodied hand ‘walking’ around struck laughter rather than fear into the audience.

“Scarface” was originally conceived as a retelling of the 1932 classic but instead was changed to 1980 Miami, Florida and the criminals were coke dealers. Next up for the director/screenwriter was writing the screenplay for “Year of the Dragon.”

Although 1984 wasn’t a great year for Oliver, it ended with the birth of his first son, Sean Christopher Stone. Soon afterwards, he met reporter Richard Boyle and thus began their collaboration on the film “Salvador.” Originally Martin Sheen was supposed to have played the investigative reporter but James Woods ended up with the part and also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

“Platoon” became a reality in February 1986 in the Philippines where it was filmed. The team from Hemdale, John Daly and Derek Gibson, along with Arnold Kopelson, financed the personal Vietnam story. Winning four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, it was Stone’s biggest film accomplishment to date. A year later he attended the Academy Award ceremonies when Michael Douglas accepted a Best Actor award for his portrayal of a “Wall Street” tycoon.

“Talk Radio” was based on a play by Eric Bogosian and was filmed in Dallas, Texas in the spring of 1988. Oliver’s successful streak continued with 1989’s “Born on the Fourth of July” which was a Vietnam story based on the life of Ron Kovic, an honorable young man who went to war and returned home in a wheelchair. Tom Cruise gave a superb performance as the antiwar activist. The Academy awarded Oliver with a second Best Director Oscar.

“The Doors” was based on the life of Jim Morrison, singer-songwriter for the popular 1960s band. Val Kilmer portrayed the mercurial singer and did a lot of the singing.

“JFK,” arguably his best film, was released in late 1991 and starred Kevin Costner as the district attorney who investigated the Kennedy assassination. The ambitious film was three hours long, had 200 speaking parts and a varied cast of seasoned professionals such as Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek and Sally Kirkland to mention only a few. Oliver’s second son, Michael Jack Stone was born just prior to the film’s release.

The last film of his Vietnam War trilogy was Oliver’s most unique as it was told from the point of view of a Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip. “Heaven and Earth” was released to a somewhat tepid audience response in 1993.

Controversy followed him after “JFK” and it returned in August 1994 when “Natural Born Killers” hit the theatres. Also that month he was divorced from Elizabeth, his second wife.

At the end of 1995 “Nixon” starring Anthony Hopkins as the late 37th President, was impressing critics and educating audiences about the life of Richard M. Nixon.

“U-Turn” failed to create any controversy, or strong box office receipts, in 1997. The cast featured Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte. A small role was given to Stone’s girlfriend, Chong Son Chong and mother of his only daughter, Tara Chong.

“Any Given Sunday” starred Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz and Dennis Quaid in a movie about the goings-on in the world of professional football.

Throughout his career, Oliver Stone pushed the limits in storytelling and filmmaking.

A director of conscience, his films informed and entertained us, serving as visual reminders of our radical times.

Filmography:

“Seizure” [1971] — Director

“Midnight Express” [1978] – Screenwriter

“The Hand” [1981] – Director and Screenwriter

“Scarface” [1983] – Screenwriter

“Year of the Dragon” [1985] – Screenwriter

“Salvador” [1985] — Director

“Platoon” [1986] — Director

“8 Million Ways to Die” [1986] — Screenwriter

“Wall Street” [1987] – Director

“Talk Radio” [1989] — Director

“Born on the Fourth of July” [1989] – Director

“The Doors” [1991] — Director

“JFK” [1991] — Director

“Heaven and Earth” [1993] — Director

“Natural Born Killers” [1994] — Director

“Nixon” [1995] — Director

“Killer: A Journal of Murder” [1995] — Producer

“Evita” [1996] – Screenwriter

“Freeway” [1996] — Producer

“The People vs. Larry Flynt” [1996] – Producer

“U-Turn” [1997] — Director

“Savior” [1998] – Producer

“Any Given Sunday” [1999] – Director, Producer and Screenwriter

“The Art of War” [2000] — Producer

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