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OLIVER STONE LIGHTENS UP

First he momentarily blanks on the name of his star, Jennifer Lopez. Then Oliver Stone discusses some of the physical reasons why he cast Lopez in his film "U-Turn."

There follows a somewhat amazing and surreal two-minute discussion of Lopez's lower anatomy in which a grinning and conspicuously happy Oliver Stone asks the journalists seated around him at the table (including three women) for their detailed physical appraisals of Lopez.

Does it give offense? Well, of course. But it somehow charms everyone -- including the women -- sitting there nevertheless. And thereby hangs a tale.

Look at it this way: As Oliver Stone questions go, his cheery inquiries about Lopez's anatomy are very far from "Who killed Jack Kennedy?" and "Why were we in Vietnam?" and "Richard Nixon -- presidential traitor or pathetically misunderstood visionary?" and "What is the relationship between our media infatuation with violence and the real thing?," questions that Oliver Stone has previously bedeviled America with at top volume.

You might think that a man who has, among myriad other charges, been accused of being a 350-horsepower sexist would soft-pedal an anatomical discussion of such length and specificity. But Stone was clearly having a rather good old time.

Consider that good time, then, as symptomatic of a new Oliver Stone, not the old-style locker-room palaver. And it seemed to be the good old time he wanted to have that pleased those women at the table far more than any sexist talk annoyed them.

Nobody ever said Oliver Stone wasn't a paradoxical man.

I've interviewed Stone at length twice before -- always, though, on the phone.

Here with a small table full of journalists from around the country, I can see that he comes off in person as a soft-spoken, intelligent and strangely likable fellow, even though he's dressed in an earth-tone jacket and polo shirt that most likely cost more than the clothes of everyone else at the table combined.

His gender politics may be retro but he somehow succeeds these days in being very significantly simpatico anyway.

It wasn't always so. I once idly asked a very experienced Toronto makeup woman who the biggest jerk was that she ever worked on (her vocational list was long and filled with movie and rock glitter), and she answered "Oliver Stone" without a millisecond of hesitation. Such was his former intensity that he is not a fellow likely to leave anyone indifferent.

For instance, in Jane Hamsher's new tell-all memoir book "Killer Instinct" (Broadway, 275 pages, $25), about the making of Stone's "Natural Born Killers," he comes off as paranoid, abusive, drugged and rather mad. None of which aptly describe the cordial, Yale-educated, middle-aged stockbroker's son who is sitting here at the table.

If all that is true, how then does the list of actors who work with him continue to be so stellar?

"I always get bored watching an actor do something he's done before. I try to steer the actor in another direction, not by pulling him but making him think." Clearly actors find the experience a tonic.

Oliver Stone has become uncommonly interesting again. And that's because, as he sits here talking about his new film, "U-Turn," it is entirely possible that he has, for quite a while, given up being a major filmmaker. It's even possible that the man talking to us could tolerate being a very entertaining minor one.

This slightly new Oliver Stone says things like "I might be wrong" occasionally and may even mean them. He also makes darkly funny movies.

"I've become more humorous as I've become older," he admits, "but I've always had a sense of humor. It's a black sense of humor, though. . . . Maybe now that I'm getting older I know better how to have it come out."

He is not only the only major filmmaker of his generation to wrestle obsessively with recent American history, he's the only one whose films -- mostly notably "Platoon," "Wall Street" and
"JFK" -- have made American history. "U-Turn," though, is a ribald black comedy about what happens when a desperate motorist (Sean Penn) is stranded in the overwrought town of Superior, Ariz.

"I can't really say this is a radical change," he insists. Nor did he do it because he "felt stale."

"When you get known in your field, you always get defined. That's what always happens. I'm defined as a conspiracy theorist and a Vietnam veteran and the guy who made 'Natural Born Killers.' . . . Every film I make, though, I'm trying to break new ground for myself."

The editorial page brickbats aimed at "JFK" and "Nixon" were some of the stoniest ever tossed at a major filmmaker.

"I'm not a politician," he says. "I consider myself a dramatist. Every dramatist likes to sell tickets and be loved. Shakespeare did, too. Who wants a fight? But if it comes I'm not going to run away from it. I will defend the film I made. I've been accused of lying and fraud and brainwashing the young. These are very disturbing charges. I'm not going to just stand by and let them make them."

That, he says, is why he has done so much public brawling over his movies.

"Nixon" was something of a Waterloo for him, by many other lights. At least "JFK" was a financial success. "Nixon" was a roundhouse financial flop.

"You know, it was a tough film," Stone says. "It was three hours long. It was about white men in suits. . . . There was no sex in the movie. Richard Nixon is not an attractive man like John Kennedy. He had no charisma. . . . He was the antipode to Kennedy. These are the two founding fathers of my generation. I'm happy that at the end of the day, I've made two uncompromised films about these two leaders. Very few filmmakers have made even one uncompromising film of a political nature. It doesn't happen very often. You can't get those films made.

"Just because the film is called 'U-Turn' doesn't mean that I've made a U-turn. You've got to follow your instinct, though, your inner voice."

His inner voice still knows how to offend, apparently, without even giving it a second thought. But it also seems to be giving us a man who doesn't want to pound us into the ground at every opportunity with the failures of American history and our moral failures as a people.

If journeys of a thousand miles begin with a single step, Oliver Stone may well be making one.

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