- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Oliver Stone may have had trouble digesting his turkey over Thanksgiving. His baby, “Alexander,” the movie that had been gestating in the director’s head for years, flopped hard at the box office.

It cost more than $150 million — not unprecedented, certainly not by the standards of the $200 million cataract that was “Troy,” but not chump change, either.

Mr. Stone’s movies of late, including “Any Given Sunday,” “U Turn” and “Nixon,” have been far from automatic draws. So it’s no surprise that “Alexander,” though distributed by Warner Bros., was passed up by Hollywood and independently financed by London-based Intermedia Films.

The project that preceded “Alexander,” a truckling tribute to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, almost never made it to an audience due to a rather inconvenient timing problem: The Castro regime went on a dissident crackdown binge, compelling HBO to pull “Comandante” in April 2003. The network sent Mr. Stone back to the island prison for a follow-up before eventually airing the Castro documentary.

Opening on a Wednesday to many scathing reviews, “Alexander” took in a dismal $13.7 million after three days of business and a total of $21.8 million for the extended holiday weekend. It finished sixth overall.

In an era in which sword-and-sandal epics do extraordinarily well (e.g., “Gladiator,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, even the tepidly reviewed “Troy”), Mr. Stone’s three-hour saga about the Macedonian warrior Alexander the Great, starring marquee idols Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer, got its clock cleaned by a PG-rated Disney family movie (“National Treasure”) and an animated comedy (“The Incredibles”).

What gives?

The culture war, some are saying.

Naturally, “Alexander’s” poor showing has political junkies reliving the presidential election and its “moral values” aftershocks — specifically with reference to Mr. Stone’s choice of matter-of-factly portraying Alexander (played by Mr. Farrell with an unfortunate dye job) as bisexual.

The novelist Gore Vidal, who has long extolled permissive pagan morality — and expatriated to Italy to find it — said the homosexual elements of the movie were “barrier-breaking.”

Maybe so, but they appear to have been box-office poison.

Ben Shapiro, a young conservative syndicated columnist, said, “The cultural pendulum has begun to swing toward traditional morality again.”

“A large part of ‘Alexander’s‘ downfall is attributable to the moral distastefulness of the subject matter,” he speculated, referring to man-on-eunuch mouth kissing and “lingering glances” exchanged between Alexander and “boyhood chum” Hephaistion.

“This stuff doesn’t go over well with most Americans. Frankly, we don’t want to hear about it, and we’re definitely not going to pay money to see it.”

Guess that covers the red-staters.

But even blue-staters weren’t thrilled with “Alexander.”

Michael Musto of the ultraliberal Village Voice grumbled that Mr. Stone didn’t go far enough in showing Alexander’s homosexual affairs (the historicity of which is being disputed by a battery of red-blooded Greek lawyers, by the way).

“This film tries to have it both ways, like Alexander himself,” Mr. Musto gibed. “It can be hinted at, it can be talked about, but it can’t be shown. Whenever gay stuff has been cut out of these movies, it seems to damage these movies at the box office.”

For Mr. Stone’s part, he was in backpedal mode even before “Alexander” hit the streets. More recently, in Sweden to pick up a lifetime achievement award and lick his wounds, the director said, “Europeans tend to see me a little differently” — read: more sympathetically — “than they do in the U.S.”

(Early offshore returns suggest he may be right. “Alexander” is gaining some traction in Germany as well as Brazil and South Africa, according to Variety magazine.)

“Alexander lived in a more honest time,” Mr. Stone mused to Playboy magazine in mid-October, telegraphing a ready-made explanation for a sex-heavy flop. “We go into his bisexuality. It may offend some people, but sexuality in those days was a different thing — pre-Christian morality. Young boys were with boys when they wanted to be.”

Yes, well … hold on a minute.

Philosopher Allan Bloom — no puritan, he — argued in his book “Love and Friendship” that ancient Greece wasn’t as sexually laissez-faire as is often assumed. Plato condemned homosexuality, he pointed out. And pederasty was illegal in Athens, though “partially tolerated.”

We’ll have to leave it to the classicists and historians and Greek lawyers to hash all this out. Meanwhile, we have a high-profile dud on our hands — one that improbably has given the reds and the blues something on which to agree.

I like blogger Ann Althouse’s retort to Mr. Stone’s excuse-making. She said, “We’re all just too puritanical and repressed to appreciate your God-awful movie.”

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