Born on the Fourth of July (1989): Tom Cruise’s Oscar Role as Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War Movie

Oliver Stone’s second Vietnam War film, Born on the Fourth of July, made three years after Platoon, was inspired by the memoirs of vet Ron Kovic.
The film tells the touching story of a naive and idealistic youth, Ron Kovic, who joins the Marines and is shipped to Vietnam, where he is wounded and paralyzed from the waist down.
Among other distinctions, the film features the young Tom Cruise in his strongest dramatic performance to date, one that deservedly earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

By centering on the effects of the War in combat and on the home front, the movie, produced by Stone and A. Kitman Ho, is a logical companion piece to the helmer’s 1986 Oscar-winning “Platoon,” which had a much narrower narrative focus, depicting the inner tensions of a single fighting unit in Vietnam.

The Oscar-nominated script, co-written by Stone and Kovic himself, was controversial due to liberties that it took from the facts; the winner was Alfred Uhry for “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won Best Picture and other awards.

The story begins in Massapaqua, New York, where Kovic is raised by a large, patriotic family to become an all-American, religious athlete, which leads to enlisting in the Marines out of belief in the war’s cause. Sent to Vietnam, his value system begins to shatter, particularly after he accidentally ends up killing a fellow soldier in a firefight.

A bullet wound causes severe paralysis and he is sent back home, where his alienation from his family and disenchantment with the War and the government increase. He slowly becomes a drunken, self-pitying dropout, a phase that culminates in a hedonistic trip to Mexico.

With time, however, he begins to regain control over his life and transforms into an anti-War activist, a man endowed with a new sense of identity and self-respect.

Stone’s treatment of the stirring material is uneven, and many critics felt that he inserted all too strongly his own feelings about the war and America into Kovic’s life.

Even so, the movie is ultra-frank in dealing with the notion of tarnished masculinity, evident in several powerful confrontations between Ron and his mom (Caroline Kava) that are not easy to watch due to their boldness but also excessive pathos. Cruise’s fans and followers used this movie as proof that he can really act, and is not just a glamorous movie star.

Cast

Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic
Willem Dafoe as Charlie
Kyra Sedgwick as Donna
Raymond J. Barry as Mr. Kovic
Jerry Levine as Steve Boyer
Frank Whaley as Timmy Burns
Caroline Kava as Mrs. Kovic
Cordelia Gonzalez as Maria Elena
Ed Lauter as Legion Commander
John Getz as Marine Major in Vietnam
Michael Wincott as Veteran in Villa Duce
Edith Díaz as Madame in Villa Duce
Stephen Baldwin as Billy Vorsovich
Bob Gunton as Doctor
Jason Gedrick as Pvt. Martinez
Anne Bobby as Susanne Kovic
David Warshofsky as Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam
Reg E. Cathey as Speaker – Syracuse
Josh Evans as Tommy Kovic
Lili Taylor as Jamie Wilson
Tom Sizemore as Veteran #1 – Villa Duce
Andrew Lauer as Veteran #2 – Villa Duce
Tom Berenger as Recruiter Gunnery Sgt. Hayes
Michael Compotaro as William Charles Wilson
Dale Dye as Infantry Col.

Commercial Appeal

Made on a budget of 17 million, the film was commercially successful, earning $70 million the U.S. ($151 million when adjusted for inflation), and $91 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $161,001,698.  It was the seventeenth highest-grossing film of 1989

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone

Director: Oliver Stone

Screenplay (Adapted): Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic

Actor: Tom Cruise

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

Film Editing: David Brenner and Joe Hutshing

Sound: Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman, and Tod A. Maitland

Original Score: John Williams

Oscar Awards: 2

Director

Film Editing

Oscar Context

The most nominated film in 1989, “Driving Miss Daisy” received four Oscars out of its nine nominations, including Picture, Screenplay, and Best Actress. The biggest scandal was that the film’s director, Bruce Beresford, failed to receive recognition from his peers in the Directors Branch.

The other Best Picture nominees represented a mixed bag in genre and quality: Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama “Born on the Fourth of July” with 8 nominations and 2 Oscars, “My Left Foot” with 5, “Dead Poets Society” with 4, and “Field of Dreams with 3.”

The winner of the Cinematography Oscar was Freddie Francis for the Civil War movie “Glory,” which also won the Sound Oscar. The Scoring Award went to Alan Menken for “The Little Mermaid.”

 

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