We reassess the provocateur behind Wall Street, Platoon, and the new Savages.
by Phil Dyess-Nugent
At sixty-five, Oliver Stone is the grand old man of bad-boy moviemakers. His new one, Savages, based on the book by Don Winslow, finds Blake Lively in a menage a trois with pot merchants played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. These three run afoul of Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro, as the leaders of a Mexican drug cartel who don't like competition, and John Travolta, as a deeply untrustworthy DEA agent. In sum: sex, drugs, violence, hot lights, assaultive camera angles, and a beat you can dance to. Will it be any good? Hard to say, but based on the director's track record, there's reason to think it probably won't be boring. Herewith, his filmography from worst to best.
18. Heaven & Earth (1993)
With this epic about a young Vietnamese girl who endures torture and rape in her own country before entering into a (disastrous) marriage to a U.S. soldier (Tommy Lee Jones), Stone intended to lay rest to the talk that he couldn't create believable women characters. But he really can't seem to get into his heroine's head, so the scenes of her unhappy life during wartime play as over-the-top melodrama, while the scenes showing her alienation from the vulgar consumerist society of America are just shrill. Heaven & Earth is the worst of Stone's movies, because, as bad as some of the others are, this is the only one that has no entertainment value at all: with that suffering girl at its center, you can't even enjoy making fun of it.
17. Alexander (2004)
Stone's only pre-20th-century historical film turned out to be a three-hour, $155 million "Kick me!" sign pinned to the seat of his pants. Stone had good luck in the past when he cast hot actors (Tom Cruise, Anthony Hopkins) in unlikely roles, but Colin Farrell was unable to convince anyone that he could conquer the world by the force of his beetle-browed pout. Never one to accept defeat gracefully, Stone accused critics of reacting badly to a subplot about Alexander having a male lover, which would certainly have qualified as ironic justice after the arguably homophobic JFK. Two years later, he put out three-and-a-half hour version, apparently believing that audiences had ignored the theatrical release because it didn't go on long enough.
16. Seizure (1973)
Stone's first feature is an amateurish, low-budget, but artistically ambitious horror movie of the "Is this real or just an illusion?" variety. Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins of the TV series Dark Shadows, plays a horror novelist who's been having bad dreams, and who is having friends over for the weekend. The party is crashed by a silky, sexy "Queen of Evil" (played by scream queen Martine Beswick), a bearded dwarf (Herve Villechaize), and a hooded muscleman carrying an axe, who put the guests through a series of trials and torments. It's more nastily misanthropic than scary, and in its own way it's as pretentious as anything Stone has ever done. But as juvenilia, it does have a certain midnight-movie appeal, thanks in no small part to the freakishness of that cast.
15. The Hand (1981)
Stone's first major studio picture is a horror movie starring Michael Caine as a cartoonist who loses his hand in a car accident, with his wife at the wheel. As he grows more and more enraged over the loss of his drawing ability and the breakup of his marriage, his severed hand is crawling all over the place strangling people, including his young lover. If there's a way to show people reacting to having a disembodied hand wrapped around their larynxes without it looking funny, Stone couldn't find it. He may have included his own meta-review by casting himself as a bum who becomes the hand's first victim. Two qualities connect The Hand to Stone's later work: one, the targets of the cartoonist's fury are mostly women, and two, the tone is frequently hysterical.
14. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Well, you can't go home again. Money Never Sleeps involves Gordon Gekko being released from prison and having to confront the way the world has changed since the 1980s, but Stone himself doesn't seem to have a clear handle on what those changes are or how to fashion a movie around them. Douglas isn't half as much fun as he was in the earlier movie, but he's still the liveliest person here. If money never sleeps, it must not spend a lot of time watching Shia LeBeouf.
13. Any Given Sunday (1999)
The It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of football movies features everybody and his mother, plus LL Cool J, trying to out-shout Al Pacino. There are two schools of thought on this picture. One group thinks it's a crock of shit that was worth making just for the sake of Cameron Diaz's locker-room scene. The other group thinks it's a crock of shit that was worth making just to hear Lawrence Taylor hold forth on playing to prove yourself an honorable man.
12. The Doors (1991)
Stone, who has spent so much of his career chewing over the '60s, essentially missed the '60s himself, because he was in Vietnam. This overblown psychedelic diorama can best be explained as his attempt to find out just what he missed by restaging it for the cameras. As for his attempt to celebrate Jim Morrison as a charismatic artist, one megalomaniacal specialist in Dionysian excess might not really be the best person to depict another one. Stone wanted to portray Morrison as a hero; Morrison's surviving family and friends complained that he'd just made him look like an obnoxious, bullying drunk. That says a lot about Stone's notions of heroism.
11. U Turn (1997)
Every big American director working between 1996 and 1998 was apparently required to make a Jennifer Lopez movie at some point. This pervy sun-baked noir with self-mocking elements — Jon Voight plays a wise old Indian spouting gnomic gibberish, in apparent parody of The Doors — was how Stone burned off that obligation . A wild-eyed mess of murders, betrayals, money grabs, and reckless eyeballing, it's a rare Stone picture that has no political message to push, which is kind of refreshing. The down side is that, since it has no political message to push, at a certain point you stop paying attention to the story and just start wondering why he bothered.
10. Talk Radio (1988)
Actor-playwright Eric Bogosian's 1987 play is set entirely in a radio station where a shock jock is doing his nightly show. His rant and the callers with whom he jousts are meant to provide a searing indictment of American society. With the blessing of Bogosian, who stars in the movie and co-wrote the screenplay, Stone expanded the material, bringing in flashbacks and a violent ending. Stone must have thought this would make the story bigger, but all it does is dilute the intensity. And the flashbacks mainly serve to provide a searing indictment of whoever made Bogosian's wigs.
9. W. (2008)
To make a movie about a sitting president during the last year of his administration, and release it at a point when even the people who'd voted for him mostly seemed to want to forget he existed, suggests desperation to be talked about. If that's what Stone wanted with W., it didn't work. (In its opening weekend, the film was trounced by Beverly Hills Chihuahua.) Richard Dreyfuss' performance as Dick Cheney practically deserves its own movie, but for the most part, W. plays like a feature-length Saturday Night Live sketch with the jokes missing.
8. JFK (1991)
Once upon a time, Stone touted this epic illustration of Jim Garrison's conspiracy theories as a film that would tell the real truth about the murder of President Kennedy. After a few news stories examining his sources in detail, he started giving interviews in which he shrugged and said that nobody really knew what happened to Kennedy, but that he hoped that by offering a "counter-myth" to the Warren Commission Report, he would get classified documents opened to the public. His counter-myth turned out to be an impenetrable dust storm of speculation, but it's quite a show, if you don't mind the suggestion that the Pentagon hired the gay Mafia to kill the President.
7. Natural Born Killers (1994)
Natural Born Killers is a nasty piece of work, and many sensible people see it as a glorification of serial murderers. As satire, it's decidedly unfunny (except when Robert Downey, Jr. is onscreen, and he'd be funny in Death Of A Salesman). And some of the stuff that should be satire appears to be meant seriously. But if Killers is stupid and morally questionable, it's also something to gape at: Stone takes his roman-candle approach to filmmaking all the way to madness, mixing and matching different film stocks like a hip-hop artist sampling different sounds. The film also has an amazing soundtrack, and a performance by Tommy Lee Jones that's like live-action puppet animation. No one's counted how many people who've seen it have been inspired to make their own movies. But the list of people who've allegedly seen it and been inspired to commit violent crimes has its own Wikipedia page.
6. Wall Street (1987)
Here's a classic example of a movie made famous by great timing; it's far from perfect, but boy did it have its finger on the pulse. For the record, Michael Douglas' corrupt inside trader is the bad guy, but Stone has expressed surprise that so many young men saw the character as a role model to be emulated. This suggests that Stone himself doesn't really get how his movies work, even when they work. Not surprisingly, the movie doesn't go very far toward making sense of its subject, but with Douglas peacocking around and Stone keeping the camera in constant motion, it doesn't seem to matter.
5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Stone's second trip to Vietnam, starring Tom Cruise as U.S. Marine-turned-paraplegic-war-protester Ron Kovic, was a massive critical hit when it opened. It does have its good points, especially the scenes set in a hellish Veterans Administration hospital. But much of the acclaim was probably due to Tom Cruise's move from movie star to Award-Winning Serious Actor, even though his most impressive accomplishment here was showing how loud he could scream without his fake mustache coming loose. In the end, the Oscar (and enduring reputation as a serious actor) that year went to Daniel Day-Lewis, while Cruise has recently distinguished himself onscreen by scaling the world's tallest building in IMAX and singing Poison songs in tight leather pants. Which is what God always intended for him.
4. Nixon (1995)
Casting Anthony Hopkins as Nixon is hard to defend when you consider that both Dan Aykroyd and Rip Torn were available, and it's disappointing that Stone, that self-styled counterculture wild man, finally seems so sympathetically inclined toward the disgraced president. As you might expect, any high-school student who uses this movie as a principal source for his history paper is getting a D, if he's lucky. But it's hard to completely suck all the interest out of this story, at least for political junkies, who may enjoy Stone's all-star-disaster-movie approach to the historical epic. ("Hey, Paul Sorvino is talking like Dr. Strangelove — he must be Henry Kissinger!")
3. World Trade Center (2005)
News that Stone was making a movie about the 9/11 attacks set off red alerts all over the blogosphere; many assumed that the director of JFK would plaster the screen with whatever intriguing theories on the subject had latched onto his tinfoil hat. Happily, he does know when to be a good boy. Except for the portrayal of U.S. Marine and prayerful rescuer Dave Karnes (who declined the opportunity to participate in the filming and, as his reward, got to see himself played by Michael "Bug Eyes" Shannon), WTC is a respectful, apolitical film about how much it sucks to be trapped under fallen debris, a situation it treats almost as well as Amazing Spider-man #33 did.
2. Platoon (1986)
Having forged his style with Salvador, Stone dove right into production on his dream project, a war movie based on his own combat experience in Vietnam. The film's box-office success shocked Hollywood and showed the industry that audiences might be receptive to movies whose take on the war differed from Sylvester Stallone's. Platoon remains a flawed but blistering piece of work that rewrote the rule book on combat films. As a bonus, stories of Stone's on-set behavior and carousing provide a clue to the mystery of just who it is that Charlie Sheen thinks he's imitating.
1. Salvador (1986)
Salvador is the first real "Oliver Stone movie" as we've come to think of them — an impassioned, white-hot screed about violent chaos in Latin America, with a great performance by James Woods as a bottom-feeding reporter who, despite his scurrilous appearance and hustler's ethics, cares more deeply about what's going on than the politicians and TV "journalists" who shape official policy. In a little over two hours, it defines everything that Stone is good for.