LOS ANGELES -- "Here is a woman," Oliver Stone said, "who goes through the entire roulette wheel of experience. She hits every ticket on the wheel. She's a rich man's mistress, she's a peasant, she's a traitor, she's a spy, she's a beggar on the street, she's a Vietnamese prostitute, she's an American housewife, she's a businesswoman, she has three different children with three different men."
And she is the heroine of Stone's new movie, "Heaven and Earth" (at 900 N. Michigan and Rolling Meadows). Her name is Le Ly Hayslip. She was born in the central highlands of Vietnam, in the last years of peace before the bombs began to fall. She came to the United States with a military adviser who married her and brought her to San Diego. And when Stone read the two books she wrote about her life, he felt he had found the story to conclude his trilogy about Vietnam.
It is well known that Stone, the patriotic son of a Republican stockbroker, volunteered to serve in Vietnam. That he was a combat infantryman. That he returned from the experience seriously disillusioned about the proper American role in Vietnam and elsewhere, and that he has spent his career making the kinds of movies that do not bring smiles to the faces of Republican stockbrokers.
"Platoon" (1986) was based on Stone's experiences as a kid discovering under fire that the reality of the war did not match the publicity campaign. It won Oscars for best picture and best director. "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989) was based on the life of Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed in Vietnam and found, on being shipped home, that America didn't much care. It won Stone another Oscar for directing.
Now here is "Heaven and Earth," told through the eyes of a woman. The role of Le Ly is played by a first-time actress, Hiep Thi Le, who was born in DaNang, came to America as a boat person at age 9, and now lives with her parents and six siblings in San Pablo, Calif. She got the role after her friends dragged her to an audition in San Jose.
The role of her American husband is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and there are supporting roles for Haing S. Ngor (the Oscar winner for "The Killing Fields") as her father and Joan Chen (from "The Last Emperor") as her mother.
The story begins in her family's rice fields. Le Ly is born into a tradition-bound society that has not changed for many generations. But her family's ancestral land is claimed by the Viet Cong and then by the South Vietnamese and their American advisers. For both sides, the attractive young girl is a prize of war, and rape is an acceptable weapon. She is swept up with a tide of refugees and carried to Saigon, where she works as a maid, a bar girl and even as a prostitute, before the gentle GI says he wants to marry her. If she had looked more closely, she might have realized he was not as gentle as he seemed.
What did it take, I asked Stone, to trust your entire film to a woman who has never acted before?
"There was no point in making the movie unless we could find a young Vietnamese woman, so we had a problem," he said. "There was no known actress who we could choose. We searched in six or seven American cities, and in Hong Kong and Bangkok. More than 16,000 Vietnamese came in to read for 30 different roles. When Hiep Thi Le came in, she didn't even take it seriously; she was with her friend, and the friend dragged her in.
"Our people saw her, put her on video, thought she was electric, and flew her down to Los Angeles. I thought she was charismatic. We worked with her, put her on video with other actors, introduced her to Tommy Lee Jones and Joan Chen and Haing Ngor, and then we put her on film. We tested her out for about five months, continuously, and she won the role. I didn't send her to any acting school. I didn't feel that it was necessary; she was a natural." An intense person
Stone talks like he directs, with big gestures. He is in his 40s now, with clout and fame, but he sees the world as a minefield, and himself as a rebel determined to prevail. Sometimes that orientation is central to his art; "JFK," the ultimate conspiracy movie, could never have been made by a man who felt serene and secure. Stone is more political than most of his contemporaries, more left in his opinions, and yet his films don't play like ideological harangues; they have an energy and intensity that sweep the audience along. You may have questions afterward, but while Stone is telling his story, there is room for nothing else. Audiences like the feeling. His films are usually box-office hits. That's why he can find the backing for projects like "Heaven and Earth."
Stone was able to find financing from Warner Bros. for the big-budget epic because the studio trusted him after "JFK" (1991): "It was a big investment Warners was making, on a 4-foot-11-inch woman they'd never heard of. I'm amazed they did it. They had their doubts about Tommy Lee Jones, too. At the time we were casting, he wasn't as big as he is now (after "Under Siege" and "The Fugitive"). They wanted me to go with a bigger star, but I felt very strongly that Tommy was the right military presence; he looks like a military man, he feels like it, and I wanted someone very big to go with her 4-foot-11. In some scenes, his face is two times the size of hers. I just thought there was a chemistry between them."
Tommy Lee Jones seems to belong in an Oliver Stone movie. But the idea that it's entirely told from a woman's viewpoint is not so likely. Your films have always been about men.
"Sometimes you're guided to your destiny; you don't pick it. After finishing `Born on the Fourth of July,' Le Ly Hayslip's first book came to my attention. I loved what it said and I realized that this story would complete what I had to say about Vietnam. I thought, not only is it raw and naive emotion, but there is a great truth in this story. Unlike a man, a woman can be more fluid and change roles and wear different masks. Through her eyes, I could see many different aspects of the story."
Now that you've finished this Vietnam trilogy, what have you discovered through the artistic process that you didn't learn in Vietnam?
"Maybe a concept about suffering. I was in touch with my own suffering on `Platoon' as a soldier. After that experience, I was able to live through the experience of Ron Kovic in a wheelchair and empathize with what he went through. And after that, I was able to empathize with the experience of a Vietnamese peasant girl. I got a larger idea of what it was about. We passed these girls in the villages. We distrusted them because we thought they were sympathetic to the Viet Cong. And we were right; they were.
"But I didn't understand why they were until 20 years later when I was able to go back to the village with Le Ly and understand that from the beginning, we alienated them because we relocated their villages into strategic military hamlets, which was a huge mistake. We separated the peasant from the ancestors who were buried in the soil. We separated them from their rice, from their shrines, from their spiritualism. We lost their hearts and minds from that point on."
Do you have a sort of interior list of issues, of grievances, which you work through one film at a time? Is that, more or less, a conscious decision on your part?
Stone smiled and opened his hands helplessly. "Yes and no. I don't necessarily go into a subject just because America is upset about it, because America changes every six weeks. We live in a society where issues are thrown up by the media and then they go away and there's another issue, so by the time you make a movie, the issue is gone.
"Something like Vietnam doesn't go away. Vietnam has haunted America. It's been its bastard stepchild since the '60s, and the people that try to deny it or ignore it are covering up America's soul. They're repressing the things that we did there, and as a result, we're going to make the same mistakes over and over again, whether it's in Panama or Iraq or any Third World intervention. People are going to get killed, mothers are going to lose their sons, unless we can come to terms with what we did there."
Stone leaned forward, speaking more quickly. "Between a million and 2 million Vietnamese died," he said. "Their suffering in comparison to 60,000 Americans who were killed is enormous. We have never, ever, given them the credit of that suffering. Mr. Clinton has renewed the sanctions against Vietnam; we continue to hate them, even though we rebuilt Germany and Japan after World War II, and those countries committed atrocities on an enormous scale. America has, somewhere in this Vietnamese conflict, lost its compassion. It's lost its ability to make up, to forgive, to reach across this gulf and shake the hand of an enemy and say, 'Let's be friends again.' If we could do that, it would be great for America's soul. This would be a better country." A society's concerns
Stone has been over this ground before. In a sense, what he's saying is like a political speech. In another sense, of course, there is truth in it. He has put his movies where his mouth is, avoiding the obvious commercial formula plots to work on the demons that haunt him and, he believes, his country.
"There's a great line in 'Wall Street,' " he said. "You look in the abyss and that's where you find your character. I think that a lot of my character has come from defiance and rebellion, from the get-go, as a kid, in school. Whatever formed me was coming out of that. I did my homework, but I was a quiet rebel and I blew up and went to Vietnam twice and I became another person. So defiance has worked for me. That's my character.
"But to be misunderstood constantly is hurtful to me. I've been characterized as an angry Vietnam veteran. I've been characterized as a conspiracy nut, a buff, which is insulting. I've been characterized constantly as a man who can't get his head out of the '60s. These are simplifications, and they hurt me because it's not me. I live in 3-D and I'm passionate about so much. I hate to be simplified."