Ebertfest 2014: Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Director Oliver Stone

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Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July is also turning 25 this year, just like Do the Right Thing, and Born was screened at 9 p.m. on Saturday night followed by a discussion with Oliver Stone, who was present. As Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of Rogerebert.com, said, there are just some years that are great movie years. Like a year that is really good for wine. 1989 was one of those years. Even the tentpole blockbusters were awesome that year.

In the discussion following the film, Oliver Stone said, and I loved this: “Born on the Fourth of July is the closest I ever came to making a Frank Capra movie.” Which is so true. He shared the history of the film, which is probably well known to a lot of you. Oliver Stone started out as a screenwriter, of course. He had been hired to turn Ron Kovic’s book into a screenplay in the late 1970s, and at the time, super-director-star William Friedkin was slated to direct. Ron Kovic’s book is not linear at all, it is more of a collage, flowing back and forth in time, impressionistic, and it ends with the moment on the dunes when he kills his fellow soldier. The entire book is leading up to that confession. So Oliver Stone had been struggling to figure out how to capture that in his screenplay, the non-linear quality, etc. And in one of his meetings with Friedkin, Friedkin said, No, no, that’s not the way to go with this material. “This is good corn,” said Friedkin. It was a comment that obviously stuck in Stone’s mind, he said it a couple of times during the discussion. And so he went into writing the script with that in mind: Frank Capra, and good corn. Don’t shy away from the corn, run towards it. I mean, if you think about it, the scene where Ron (Tom Cruise) runs through the rain to the Prom to have a dance with his high school unrequited sweetheart (Kyra Sedgwick) is probably the corniest thing Oliver Stone has ever filmed.

I saw the film during its original release. I remember being absolutely blown away by Tom Cruise’s performance, and that impression remains. So much of the film is done in deep deep closeup (even the poster is a closeup), and the transformation that the character goes through over the course of the film is startling. Tom Cruise really DOES that. There is the scene with the hooker in Mexico, where he starts to weep. That is some fine fine acting. I haven’t seen the film in years, but boy, I remember that scene.

And I remember Lili Taylor vividly. She has one line. She is unforgettable.

The discussion with Stone ran very late (we didn’t get out of there until quarter of 1), and it’s a long movie, so it was a long night. Matt Seitz did a great job handling the discussion (he’s writing a book on Oliver Stone, and they know each other well). Too funny: one guy in the balcony stood up and said he’d love it if Oliver Stone did an autobiographical film. Stone said he’d actually considered it. Maybe some day. The guy in the balcony quipped that the whole film could start “with this moment,” meaning his suggestion. Pretty funny. But even funnier was Stone’s reply: “No, I’d start it with a sex scene.”

Stone and Kovic are still friends and he said Kovic is doing well, working on another book (he has been doing so for years), and in a happy stable relationship. “He is the strongest person I’ve ever met,” said Stone.

Afterwards, the guy was mobbed. Signing books and DVDs at the edge of the stage.

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2 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Director Oliver Stone

  1. Have to say that I had the pleasure to march in a demonstration once with Ron K…It was a small demonstration and so relatively intimate and I got a good sense of him up close and somewhat personal over a long afternoon and evening…and believe me, it’s impossible to praise Tom Cruise too highly for his performance. He got Ron’s mannerisms and so forth, but he also got him at a gut level that I would never have understood without that little personal experience. No matter how crazy Cruise has occasionally gotten over the years, I never made the mistake of taking him lightly after that!

  2. sheila says:

    Nice! Yes, the whole look and feel of the character was very different than anything he had done up until that point.

    I am still shattered by the scene where he is walking through the VA hospital, all pumped up and excited, and then falls. It’s just devastating. That whole VA hospital sequence was horrifying.

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