THE CONTENDER: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)
Number of Nominations: 8 – Picture, Director (Oliver Stone), Actor (Tom Cruise), Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic), Original Score (John Williams), Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman and Tod A. Maitland), Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Film Editing (David Brenner and Joe Hutshing)
Number of Wins: 2 (Director and Film Editing)
If you won the Oscar office pool back in 1990, you earned some serious bragging rights for the rest of the day. (Also, if you actually remember that as a particular source of pride, you may want to explore some other hobbies. For real.) There was no clear front-runner going into the ceremony. Indeed, most of the conversation leading up to the event had revolved around what hadn’t been nominated, most notably Spike Lee being passed over for Best Picture and Director for Do The Right Thing.
The battle for Best Picture that night was really between two films: Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July and the genteel Driving Miss Daisy (or, as Spike Lee calls it, Driving Miss Motherfuckin’ Daisy). Miss Daisy led the field with the most nominations, nine of ‘em in total, but it was by no means a lock. Its biggest perceived obstacle was the fact that director Bruce Beresford had been ignored in the Best Director category. At the time, only two films had ever won Best Picture without securing a director nomination, the last one being Grand Hotel back in 1932. It’s still exceedingly rare. Argo pulled it off a few years back. But in 1990, those kinds of long odds were about as close as the Oscars got to science.
Born On The Fourth Of July, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Oliver Stone had already mined his Vietnam experiences for Oscar gold with Platoon a few years earlier. In fact, the Academy seemed to be quite fond of Mr. Stone and his work in general. He’d won his first Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express and was also nominated for Salvador, while Michael Douglas had just won the Best Actor trophy for his work in Wall Street. After Stone won the Best Director award that evening, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Born On The Fourth Of July would be that year’s Best Picture.
Not so fast, Sparky. As we know, the Academy decided for whatever reason to honor Driving Miss Daisy instead. Whatever else you may think about Spike Lee, he is absolutely correct in his assessment of that film. Today, Driving Miss Daisy is mostly forgotten. Nobody studies it or talks about it. It’s soft-edged, inoffensive and the best thing you can really say about it is that it’s a nice movie you can watch with your grandparents. But as satisfying as it may be for ironic purposes to say that Do The Right Thing lost to Driving Miss Daisy, it’s not true. Lee’s movie wasn’t even in the race. If anybody should be pissed off at the triumph of Hoke and Miss Daisy, it’s Oliver Stone.
On paper, Born On The Fourth Of July looks like a road map straight to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s the true story of Ron Kovic, a gung-ho, anti-Commie supporter of the war in Vietnam who volunteered for the Marine Corps, was wounded and paralyzed on his second tour of duty, and eventually became one of the most visible and best-known anti-war activists of the 1970s. The material is tailor-made for Stone, a fellow Vietnam veteran and self-appointed chronicler of the Secret History of the United States of America. But honestly, half of Stone’s work was done the second he cast Tom Cruise as Kovic.
In 1989, Cruise was already an enormous movie star thanks to his instantly iconic turn in Risky Business and the runaway success of mega-blockbuster Top Gun. He was even able to make Cocktail, a movie that is actually dumber than a bag of hammers, into a smash hit. And to his credit, Cruise has always been very smart about his career and the projects he picks. He had already started the effort to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as an impossibly good-looking movie star by teaming with respected filmmakers and well-established Hollywood stars. First, he joined forces with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman for The Color Of Money. Two years later, he hooked up with Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on Rain Man. Both Newman and Hoffman won Best Actor Oscars for their work in those films, while Cruise wasn’t even nominated.
Born On The Fourth Of July would be Cruise’s first shot at carrying a Big Prestige Picture on his own. And if it’s easy to see why Stone wanted Cruise, it’s even easier to understand why Cruise said yes. The role of Ron Kovic is straight out of the Movie Star’s Guide to Getting an Oscar Nomination. Are you playing a real person? Check. Do you age noticeably over the course of the film, say a decade or more? Check. Do you suffer some form of physical impairment or disability? Check. Is this character reflective of a broader political statement on either historic or current events? Check. Does the role fit comfortably within your wheelhouse as a movie star while still stretching you somewhat as an actor? Check and check again. Well, right this way, Mr. Cruise. We’ve been expecting you.
To be fair, Cruise is actually good in the role. He isn’t done any favors by the series of unflattering and unconvincing hairpieces he’s required to wear. Also, at 27 years of age, he was a bit long in the tooth to pull off playing a high school senior in the film’s early sequences. Stone’s solution to this, surrounding him with equally aging classmates played by the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine, gives the impression that Ron Kovic went to the same high school as Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. But Cruise/Kovic goes on quite a journey in this film and the actor sells the moments that matter most, whether it’s his steely-eyed determination to walk again, his eventual despair over being trapped in a body that no longer obeys his commands, or his growing disillusionment with the government and his rebirth as an advocate for change.
Cruise is such a uniquely American movie star (himself born, improbably enough, on the third of July) that his casting here is used as a canny bit of cinematic shorthand by Stone. Cruise is one of the few actors who could go from “America, love it or leave it” to “the war is wrong and the government lied to us” without making one extreme or the other sound hollow. The mom, baseball and apple pie Tom Cruise at the beginning of the film who volunteers to go end Communism in Vietnam is the same god-fearing, flag-waving guy at the end calling the government a bunch of thieves and rapists. A lot of other actors probably could have played Ron Kovic. But none of them would have been able to drive home Oliver Stone’s thesis about America as effectively or efficiently as Cruise.
Perhaps the strangest thing about revisiting Born On The Fourth Of July today is how conventional it is. Stone will never be accused of being a particularly subtle filmmaker but his movies are usually more dynamic, challenging and provocative. His earlier films courted controversy with their subject matter. Later films like The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon would push boundaries stylistically. Say what you will about the historical accuracy of JFK, it’s tough to argue with its Oscar wins for Cinematography and Film Editing. But Born On The Fourth Of July is a pretty straight-forward biopic, told linearly with helpful subtitles to establish time and place every time we jump ahead a few years. The two Oscars this movie took home, one for Stone as director and one for Film Editing, feel in no way inevitable.
In fact, a look at the entire list of winners and nominees for the 62nd Academy Awards inspires a collective shrug. Of the five movies up for Best Picture, perhaps the one that has had the most lasting cultural impact is Field Of Dreams, another perfectly nice, crowd-pleasing movie of the sort that almost never wins Oscars. At the end of the day, the great American movie of 1989 really was Do The Right Thing and the Academy dropped the ball by only recognizing it with two nominations (Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Original Screenplay for Spike Lee). But righteous indignation had no place at the Oscars that year. Born On The Fourth Of July was the most incendiary movie up for Best Picture but it doesn’t burn hot. Instead, it’s one of Oliver Stone’s warmest, most sun-dappled movies. It isn’t angry so much as it is mournful and nostalgic, from Robert Richardson’s lush cinematography to John Williams’ elegiac score. Perhaps Stone won the Oscar simply for delivering the least controversial movie of his career.
Born On The Fourth Of July is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.