Stanley Kubrick: A Master’s Career Revisited

Almost universally praised for his vision and independent spirit, Stanley Kubrick was truly a giant among directors. Steven Spielberg hailed him as “the grand master of filmmaking. He copied no one, and all of us were scrambling to imitate him. He created more than movies, he created complete environmental experiences that got more, not less, intense the more you watched his pictures.”

Killer’s Kiss: An Early Start

Kubrick was renowned for his visual grandeur, near-obsessive perfectionism, and withering cynicism, the roots of which could be found in his childhood. Born in The Bronx on July 26, 1928, Kubrick took an early interest in still photography, which soon developed into “an obsession.” He would wander around Manhattan, constantly snapping street scenes and hiding his camera in a paper bag to foil potential muggers. It wasn’t long before the young photographer’s dedication paid off: After capturing a news vendor’s grief on the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died in a 1945 photo, Look magazine offered him a staff photographer position at the age of 17.

But if his early success as a photographer laid the foundation for his infamous meticulousness, Kubrick’s legendary sense of irony was sparked by the glut of mediocre postwar films. “Bad films gave me the courage to try making a movie, ” reminisced the director. “I was aware that I didn’t know anything about making films, but I believed I couldn’t make them any worse than the majority of films I was seeing.”

Heartened by an abundance of shoddy movies, Kubrick bought a 35mm camera and shot his first film, the short boxing documentary Day of the Fight, in 1951. After two more shorts, The Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1951), Kubrick shot his first feature, Fear and Desire. A lyrical fable about a group of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during an unknown war, Fear and Desire bore the visual flair that would become the director’s trademark, though critics at the time were befuddled by its emotional coldness.

The Killing

The Killing

Stung by Fear and Desire’s poor reception, Kubrick opted for a grittier approach in his second project, the low-budget noir Killer’s Kiss (1955). Again, audiences and critics failed to connect with the film’s unsympathetic characters, but its stylish atmosphere caught the eye of United Artists, which bought it and contracted Kubrick to helm another crime thriller, The Killing (1956).

Path to Glory

Originally intended as one of the shoestring B-movies that padded the schedules of America’s numerous pre-television cinemas, The Killing is now considered one of the most effective film noirs ever made. A lean tale of a racetrack heist gone bad, The Killing was as meticulous as its creator, following an innovative non-linear time frame with almost clockwork precision.

Though technically a money-loser, The Killing proved to be Kubrick’s breakthrough movie, impressing an MGM executive so much that he gave the 29-year-old nearly a million dollars and nine months to shoot his next project. After carefully searching, the director chose to adapt the WWI novel Paths of Glory , and attracted high-profile stars Kirk Douglas and Ralph Meeker to the project.

The searing chronicle of a French military tribunal scapegoating low-level soldiers for a failed raid, Paths of Glory (1957) was the first major expression of Kubrick’s pessimism, an emotional thread that he would weave into later films. Paths of Glory also marked the beginning of his notorious perfectionism, with the director shooting one scene an unprecedented 58 times before he was satisfied. Again, his thoroughness reaped rewards: The New York Times hailed the film as “astonishing,” and other critics called Kubrick the most talented cinematic wunderkind since Orson Welles.

Pyrrhic Victory

The only place Paths of Glory failed was at the box office, where it barely broke even. Still, Kubrick’s dramatic results so impressed star Kirk Douglas that he personally requested the director to replace Anthony Mann at the reins of the Roman epic Spartacus (1960). A spectacle with a then mega-budget of $12 million, Spartacus was an unmitigated smash. It turned a massive profit and received three Oscars®, including a Best Cinematography award and a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Peter Ustinov.

Kubrick on the set of Spartacus.

Kubrick on the set of Spartacus.

Spartacus should have been the mainstream success that Kubrick had been seeking, but the experience only soured him on the Hollywood system. He disliked the constant scrutiny by studio heads and the friction he experienced with Douglas, who publicly called him “a cold bastard,” was almost too much for the young director to bear. Similar complications caused Kubrick to drop out of his next project, the Marlon Brando Western One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and he fled to Britain in search of greater creative freedom.

Triumph of the Wit

Kubrick wasted little time in testing the artistic limits of his new adopted land by adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s still-controversial novel Lolita (1962). Using his unique sense of irony to delicately present protagonist James Mason’s pedophilic urges, Kubrick turned an “unfilmable” book into a box office success (albeit a mild one). The director even taunted the censors with the film’s poster, which chimed, “How did they ever make a film of Lolita?”

Kubrick directs Peter Sellers on the set of Dr Strangelove.

Kubrick directs Peter Sellers on the set of Dr Strangelove.

However, it was Kubrick’s next project, Dr. Strangelove (1964), that became his comic masterpiece. Initially hired to film a serious adaptation of the proto-Tom Clancy thriller Red Alert, Kubrick found he couldn’t take the somber script seriously. He eventually turned the story into a spoof of nuclear holocaust, subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Though it’s indisputably hilarious, Strangelove’s black humor caused many to brand Kubrick a coldhearted cynic. Granted, it did take a large amount of comic sangfroid to thumb one’s nose at atomic warfare while the Cuban Missile crisis was still a vivid memory. But no one can react coldly to the zany antics of Kubrick’s characters. Instead of delivering the solemn commanders portrayed in such films as Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove showed the American Joint Chiefs as a jingoistic rabble all too eager to pull the nuclear trigger. One general, brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden, is so completely paranoid that he’s convinced fluoridation is part of the “international Communist conspiracy” to cause mass impotence.

Dr. Strangelove was a huge success for Kubrick, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Peter Sellers was also nominated for Best Actor for his triple-comic threat as President Muffley, Captain Mandrake, and the deranged titular doctor. The 34-year-old director himself garnered his first Best Director nod. But despite Dr. Strangelove’s success, it turned out to be Kubrick’s last comedy. He spent the next four years holed up in Shepperton studios outside London, working on a project that changed the very face of film itself.

A Film Odyssey

When Kubrick emerged in 1968, he brought with him one of the most controversial films of its day, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Originally derided for being too dramatically opaque and effects-obsessed, the film is now considered by critics to be one of the greatest movies ever made. Leonard Maltin has hailed it as “a unique masterpiece.”

With 2001, Kubrick attempted, in his words, to “create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbal pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.” Certainly he succeeded: Almost 2.5 hours long but featuring less than 30 lines of dialogue, 2001 relies on a combination of classical music and spectacular special effects to tell the tale of mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

2001 was also a testament to Kubrick’s obsession with detail. During four years of complete secrecy, Kubrick and Blade Runner production designer Douglas Trumbull crafted 2001’s groundbreaking visual effects, which remained state of the art for nearly a decade. Kubrick oversaw every detail of the outerspace sequences, including the construction of the 51-foot-long model of the Discovery, and helped patent several new photographic processes. So obsessed was Kubrick with perfecting the film that he continued to edit it up to the last minute aboard the ships and trains that carried him to California from England. Ironically, the director of film’s greatest space epic was afraid to fly.

But more important than 2001’s technical achievements is its dramatic vision. According to Roger Ebert, “The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention… Alone among science-fiction movies, 2001 is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.”

A Clockwork Orange: Savage Satire

If 2001 aspired to open moviegoers’ minds, A Clockwork Orange (1971) aimed to kick them in the groin. Kubrick’s portrait of a young ruffian “cured” of his violence by government brainwashing shocked audiences with its violent content, made all the more chilling by Malcolm McDowell’s performance. Orange’s graphic portrayal of rape and murder earned it an “X” rating in the U.S., and was pulled from release in the UK after allegedly inspiring copycat crimes.

Malcolm McDowell puts the boot in - A Clockwork Orange.

Malcolm McDowell puts the boot in – A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange’s brutal satire cemented Kubrick’s reputation for both maverick filmmaking and emotional detachment. The infamous “Singin’ in the Rain” rape scene ranks among the most gut-wrenching in film history, and is certainly the most extreme manifestation of Kubrick’s misanthropic sense of irony. And whereas Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess’s novel had a happy ending, Kubrick chose to conclude the film with McDowell’s character resuming his violent ways, chiming, “I was cured all right!” McDowell himself was less enthusiastic about the experience, saying of the director, “Extraordinary? Yes. Brilliant? Yes. But as a human being? That’s the test at which he doesn’t do too well.”

Barry Lyndon: Missteps and Success

While A Clockwork Orange was violent and 2001 was opaque, both were indisputably brilliant films. The same couldn’t be said for Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick’s languid period drama and arguably his only serious misstep as a filmmaker. The profile of an 18th century soldier who becomes a successful gambler and socialite, Barry Lyndon received mixed reviews, which alternately termed the epic “subtle” or “glacial.” Pauline Kael dryly panned it as “a three-hour slide show for art-history majors.” Despite receiving Best Art Direction and Costume Oscars®, Barry Lyndon was a financial dud, and its box office failure left the director more than a little embittered.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon’s poor reception drove Kubrick further into seclusion at his English mansion, an experience he likely used to help craft the claustrophobia and madness so manifest in his next film, The Shining (1980). Arguably the most acclaimed Stephen King adaptation to date, The Shining also gave Jack Nicholson one of his most famous roles as the mild-mannered author who descends into murderous madness. Though some complained of its icy atmosphere, The Shining was a worldwide financial smash, though it would be the last of Kubrick’s career.

The Shining: Seclusion and Secrecy

Despite The Shining’s Western American setting, Kubrick didn’t leave his adopted Britain during its entire production. He shot the entire film in English studios, save the opening aerial sequence, which he directed via radio. This seclusion only intensified during the remainder of his life, growing so complete that in the ’90s, a con-man made a short career out of impersonating the director. Kubrick poked fun at his hermit-like existence in a 1987 Newsweek interview, “The general opinion is that I’m a recluse surrounded by high walls and computers, who wears a football helmet while driving at 30 miles an hour and has a helicopter spray his garden.”

Kubrick maintained his isolation during the filming of his anti-war drama Full Metal Jacket (1987). He chose to recreate Vietnam in England and the south of France rather than undertake the journey to Southeast Asia. A blistering attack on war’s dehumanization of man, Full Metal Jacket was a drastic departure from previous Vietnam war films, showing both the madness of the military establishment and American soldiers at their most unheroic. Overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s more audience-sympathetic Platoon, it received mixed reviews and middling returns, though its acclaim has risen in recent years.

After making Full Metal Jacket, it took Kubrick nine more years before he picked up a camera again, and he spent that time shrouded under a veil of privacy and mystery. He tinkered with several projects, including a biopic of Napoleon and A.I., a 2001-like take on cyberpunk science fiction. Ultimately, his last project would be Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic thriller starring mega-celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

The Last Project

We’ll likely never know whether it was the idea of seeing two of the world’s biggest stars in a bizarre psychosexual drama or the simple beckoning of the director’s chair that lured Kubrick out of retirement. Eyes Wide Shut’s 15-month shoot was surrounded by a media blockade that was extreme even by Kubrick’s standards. There was little comment on its production from anyone until the film was screened for an ultra-select audience, namely Cruise, Kidman, and two executives. Sadly, their initial exuberance for the film’s July 16, 1999 release was soon dashed by news of the director’s death on 7 March.

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Though he never won an Oscar for his directing, Kubrick’s impact on film was immeasurable; he influenced directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg and David Fincher. He was one of the last directors of such a stature that they could demand complete creative control over a project in today’s profit-driven studio system. And though his films varied wildly in subject, his high standards, technical precision, and commitment to the filmmaking craft remained consistent throughout his 45-year career. During an acceptance speech to the Directors Guild of America, Kubrick summarized his career with eloquence and humor: “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

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