Actor’s Insider Commentary on Lighthouse International Film Festival’s 30th Anniversary Screening of ‘Born on the Fourth of July’

By MONIQUE M. DEMOPOULOS | Jun 12, 2019

Long Beach Township — Actor Jerry Levine made a special guest appearance at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences on June 9 during a 30th anniversary screening of Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” in which Levine played the supporting role of Stevie Boyer.

“Looks like my entourage is here!” Levine joked. In the audience were his mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, as well as lifelong family friends. “We should’ve done this at my mom’s house,” he said, chuckling as he referred to the home his parents have owned in Harvey Cedars for 45 years.

This year marked the 11th annual Lighthouse International Film Festival, which ran for four days and featured over 40 films in different venues spanning Long Beach Island.

Unlike the dozens of other films featured in LIFF, “Born on the Fourth of July” was a major industry film, produced by Universal Studios in 1989 and adorned with “all the bells and whistles,” as Levine described – but not without praising the independent films featured during LIFF.

“The films you are seeing at this festival are extraordinary,” he said. “Very special. You don’t get to see them in your cineplexes or wherever else you go. I think what they’re doing here is an extraordinary thing. Not a Hollywood thing. It’s about this community. It’s about LBI and how much the community supports art, creativity, filmmakers, cinema.”

Levine introduced the film with a disclosing apology for those viewing it for the first time. “Try to enjoy this film. It’s a very powerful and intense film, but very important.” At its conclusion, he provided commentary on a theme he believes is “absolutely relevant” to today’s audience. Levine himself had to exit the room during the movie due to its intensity.

“Born on the Fourth of July” is the second biographical war drama in Stone’s trilogy about the Vietnam War. The American classic won two Oscars and four Golden Globe awards. It is based on an autobiography of Ron Kovic (played by lead actor Tom Cruise), who grew up in the 1950s era of American patriotism. Indoctrinated with the national fear of Communist invasion, Kovic joined the U.S. Marine Corps directly upon finishing high school. During his second tour in Vietnam, he became paralyzed.

The story illustrates Kovic’s disenchantment with the so-called “American dream” upon experiencing the horrors of war – specifically, U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, which resulted in millions of civilian deaths, as well as the neglectful mistreatment of hospitalized veterans. The story follows Kovic’s journey through anger and despair to his new life as a peace activist.

According to Levine, Oliver Stone dropped out of high school to enlist in the Vietnam War. “I think he wanted to prove something,” said Levine. The trilogy was Oliver’s interpretation of his own feelings of betrayal by the American government. Levine described the often controversial Stone as a “mad scientist,” who during that era was “‘possessed’ by this story.” He painted a vivid picture of Stone pushing a baby stroller down a busy street with his head in his script. “He was so involved with exorcizing this (story) from his soul,” Levine emphasized.

Amir Bogen, executive director of LIFF, asked Levine to describe his reaction to viewing this controversial film 30 years later. He responded: “War, violence, killing … it’s a terrible thing, no matter when it happens.” Levine went on, “We separate the good wars from the not-so-good-wars,” referring to the distinction between World War II, which Levine described as a justified war with a positive outcome, and the Vietnam War. America had foolishly “inherited all the confidence of previous wars.”

As such, the “war hero” became the model for young boys growing up in the American ’50s, which Levine called “a time of innocence.” Stone’s generation of men envisioned themselves becoming heroes, like John Wayne. “That’s not what happened to any of those guys,” Levine lamented. The Vietnam War quickly transformed into the “rock and roll war.” He elaborated, “This was The Doors, and drugs, and all kinds of things. They were lost.” He reminded the audience many men and women of the Vietnam War, “to this day, are still in pain and broken.”

Levine further explained to Bogen that viewing scenes of violence during the national political conventions was reminiscent of violence he has seen at modern conventions toward people trying (unsuccessfully) to express themselves. He elaborated on a metaphor used by Stone in the film, suggesting that a war-oriented culture teaches children to communicate through brutality, and desensitizes them to the inhumane reality of violence.

Levine reiterated, “War, fighting and violence is really not worth much, and my character embodied this spirit.”

His character, Stevie Boyer, was Kovic’s cynical friend who rejected the impassioned attitude about war. While many of his friends went out to fight, he pursued a college degree and opened a fast food chain. His character was not in Kovic’s original story, but according to Levine, he represents a combination of characters and acts as the retrospective voice of Oliver Stone.

Although Boyer comes off as a “sleazy, cynical capitalist,” Levine emphasized that this was essential in his refusal to buy the anti-communist propaganda that inspired young men to go to war. “I see Boyer as a prophet.” According to Levine, the real Ron Kovic is now in his 70s and living in California, although he has been quiet for a few years. “We need Ron today,” Levine concluded.

He lightened the mood by talking about his experience on set with Stone. Bogen asked him if he felt overshadowed by the presence of Tom Cruise. He responded, “I will tell you, it is one of the greatest table readings I have ever been to. The room exploded.” While the caliber of the talent is very evident, Levine explained, “It doesn’t matter who you’re working with. You’re just working. You can feel the super-stardom in the production, but not while you’re working.”

He said whenever they rehearsed one of his scenes, he and Stone would begin by singing the Sinatra favorite “Fly Me to the Moon.” He went on to share his favorite off-camera moments and described to the audience his favorite scene, which was later cut. It was the last scene filmed, lasting an entire evening. Although it was cut for not belonging to the story, Levine described it as a hilarious and unforgettable experience.

He explained how Bogen had reached out to his agent about the prospect of a 30-year anniversary screening of “Born on the Fourth of July” and invited Levine to attend.

“I thought there’s only one LBI. My family is here, my friends are here. One good thing going, I’m a Jersey boy. Second, my parents have a house here on the Island. Third, (Bogen) is a Jewish guy … from Israel! That’s three good things.”

Levine and Bogen became fast friends, Levine commending him for his selection of films featured at LIFF. “The films that I saw here, that Amir picked, blew me away.” Levine suggested he intends to be involved with LBI and LIFF for years to come.

— Monique M. Demopoulos

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