A frank, riveting autobiography
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 28 July 2020
I’ll have to admit, I was slightly disappointed when I learned that Oliver Stone’s autobiographical ‘Chasing the Light’ only covered his life up to his breakthrough success with Platoon. He made several great films after that, including some of the most fascinating and controversial of that generation: Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Natural Born Killers. What he’s given us here, though, feels neither truncated nor incomplete. Stone is interested in the forces that shaped him as a person and an artist, as well as the seeds of his mad ambition, which partly manifested themselves in his tempestuous filmmaking experiences. It’s a self-portrait: raw, emotional, brutally honest. Here we have the antithesis of the cliched shallow, ego-stroking Hollywood autobiography, as the writer-director lays bare his flaws and failures alongside his hard-fought victories.
From a happy, sheltered upbringing in New York’s Upper East Side – his stoic Jewish father worked on Wall Street, his vivacious French mother courted the Bohemian society – to his parents’ crushing divorce, on to his nomadic wanderings around South-East Asia, which led to him volunteering to fight in Vietnam, Stone’s early journey is joyful, sad, and a whirlwind of broken dreams and stirring passions. The way he describes himself, his spiral into aimlessness, we can see the adversities accumulate, forces that could either break a young man or forge him into something vital. It took time, heartbreaks, perseverance, and help along the way for him to find his personal spark in the creative process and fan it into screenplays that would blaze with his particular vision.
Even after he’d gained his foothold in Hollywood, he had to fight an uphill, Sisyphean battle every time, often to no avail. And the successes along the way, like Midnight Express and Scarface, inflicted wounds, both professionally and personally, that he carried into future projects. Lessons learned the hard way. At times Stone was his own worst enemy, by his own admission. Hubris, cocaine, naivety, arrogance, bad choices: his honesty is welcome, his self-analysis illuminating. I knew, by reputation, that he could be abrasive, but I didn’t realise how fragile his confidence could be. He’s a complicated guy, no question, and to his credit he digs deep to try to grapple with those contradictory forces.
Greek mythology has clearly had a profound influence on him. The way he approaches this literary self-portrait reminds me of his treatment of Alexander the Great – firstly, identify the forces that shaped what he would become, and then weave them throughout his life story, sometimes in non-linear fashion, with flashbacks, asides, and stream-of-consciousness passages. He never loses sight of those formative influences – his parents, their divorce, mythology, movies, combat, politics, etc. – and it’s a pleasure to see him address them at the various stages of his arduous climb to the top. Salvador and Platoon were the double-whammy that thrust him to the front ranks of American filmmakers in the mid-eighties. What’s clear from his behind-the-scenes accounts of those productions (and indeed the crazy journeys of the projects to production) is that he earned every bit of his success.
Chasing the Light is a riveting read. There’s rarely a dull page in this frank, fiercely self-aware autobiography. I’ve been a fan of Oliver Stone’s work for years, both as a writer and director, and this book has only bolstered my appreciation. It’s a scintillating chronicle of an artist’s almost Homeric struggle to discover, and eventually to blaze onto the screen, his own maverick, personal vision.
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