Although he first won acclaim for films he made during the 1950s such as Spartacus and Lolita, director Stanley Kubrick (born 1928) is best known for his later work, including Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket.
During his long and distinguished career as a filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick has earned a reputation as a control-obsessed perfectionist who often re-shoots scenes hundreds of times, driving actors and actresses to distraction. Yet a number of his films are considered classics of postwar American cinema, including the one critics most often point to as his masterpiece, the black comedy Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick himself for the most part ignores what people have to say about both him and his movies, believing that his work speaks for itself.
Born in New York City in 1928, Stanley Kubrick grew up in one of the more prosperous families of his Bronx neighborhood. Yet his childhood was rather bleak and unhappy. His father, a doctor, tried his best to stimulate his son's interest in learning. He made books from his library readily available, for example, and also taught the boy to play chess. But Kubrick was a poor student throughout his school years; nothing his teachers presented in class seemed to be able to hold his attention. "I never learned anything at all in school and didn't read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old, " he is quoted as saying in The Making of Kubrick's 2001. When he turned 13, however, his father bought him a still camera as a birthday present. As time would tell, it was probably the most significant gift he ever received.
Although young Kubrick took a dim view of school, he was an avid moviegoer with a keen sense of what worked and what didn't. "One of the important things about seeing run-of-the-mill Hollywood films eight times a week was that many of them were so bad, " biographer Vincent LoBrutto reports Kubrick told a writer for the New York Times. "Without even beginning to understand what the problems of making films were, I was taken with the impression that I could not do a film any worse than the ones I was seeing. I also felt I could, in fact, do them a lot better."
Experimented with Still Photography
But it was still photography, not film, that brought Kubrick his first commercial success. Rarely without his camera, he made a hobby of taking pictures to document the events unfolding around him. One such occasion presented itself following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945. Kubrick, who was then only 17, came upon a newspaper dealer at his stand surrounded by headlines trumpeting news of the president's death. His subject's dejected posture and mournful facial expression captured the eye of the young photographer, who snapped his picture. But as LoBrutto observed, "Stanley didn't just take the man's picture, he made the situation into a piece of photojournalism." Editors at Look magazine recognized the nascent artistry in his work and bought the photograph for publication. It was the first picture Kubrick had ever sold.
Not long after that, Kubrick landed a job as a staff photographer for Look. He remained in the job for several years and traveled all over the United States. Many of his assignments were simply routine, but some allowed him more freedom to exercise his creativity.
Kubrick's travels eventually inspired him to enroll at Columbia University as a non-matriculating student. In his spare time, he often attended films shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art. And those childhood chess matches with his father finally paid off when he began playing the game for money from time to time in several New York City venues.
Tried His Hand at Filmmaking
In 1951, at the age of 23, Kubrick financed his first film with his own savings. His 16-minute documentary, entitled Day of the Fight, was about boxer Walter Cartier, the subject of one of his Look magazine photo assignments. Kubrick served as director, cinematographer, editor, and sound technician for the film, which RKO bought for its This Is America series. It played at the Paramount Theatre in New York.
Kubrick soon quit his job at Look to pursue filmmaking on a full-time basis. With an advance from RKO, Kubrick made a short documentary, The Flying Padre (1951), about a priest named Father Fred Stadtmueller who traveled around his New Mexico parish in an airplane. Two years later, Kubrick made his first color film, a 30-minute industrial documentary entitled The Seafarers.
Kubrick raised $13, 000 from relatives to help finance his first feature-length film, Fear and Desire (1953). The plot centers around four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines who kill four of their adversaries while trying to escape only to discover they've killed their own doubles. (Kubrick's first wife, Toba Metz, whom he married when he was 18, was one of the crew members on the project.) In later years, Kubrick disowned the film, calling it amateurish. On more than one occasion, he has even prevented it from being shown in public.
Kubrick's next film was Killer's Kiss (1955), financed with $40, 000 raised from friends and relatives. It tells the story of an aging boxer who becomes involved with a gangster's girlfriend. He followed this with The Killing (1956), which focuses on a gang of small-time hoods and their elaborate plan to rob a racetrack. Widely regarded as an above-average crime thriller, it is the film Kubrick himself reportedly considers the true beginning of his filmmaking career.
Scored First Cinematic Triumph
In 1957, Kubrick directed Paths of Glory (1957), an adaptation that he, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson wrote of the best-selling Humphrey Cobb novel of the same name. No studio had been willing to take on this particular project until Kirk Douglas agreed to star. Filmed in Germany, Paths of Glory is about three soldiers tried for cowardice; it is regarded as one of the best films ever made about the insanity of war.
Despite the kudos he received for Paths of Glory, Kubrick ran into some difficulties with his next few projects, which never even reached the production stage. His fortunes took a turn for the better, however, when the original director of Spartacus, Anthony Mann, was fired and producer Kirk Douglas offered Kubrick the job, making the 32-year-old filmmaker the youngest person ever to direct a Hollywood epic. It took 167 days to shoot, employed some 10, 000 people, and cost more than $12 million, an astronomical sum in those days. Although Spartacus was a hit upon its release in 1960 and attracted some Academy Award attention, it left Kubrick feeling as if he had had too little creative control. As a result, he later sought to dis-associate himself from the film.
Having acquired the rights to Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita with its themes of sexual obsession and pedophilia, director Kubrick and producer James B. Harris headed to England to do the film. The two men ended up rewriting Nabokov's script, leaving only about 20 percent of the original (by Nabokov's own estimate). The novel's subject matter was handled very subtly in the film, primarily through looks and double-entendres. But this toned-down version left many moviegoers and critics disappointed because they felt it was not true to the frank eroticism of the original story.
Ever since making Lolita, the thrice-married Kubrick has called England home; he even refuses to leave the country to work elsewhere. Notoriously reclusive, he lives in a semi-rural manor house in Childwickbury, near St. Albans. He rarely grants interviews, but when he does, he demands total control over the circumstances and the result. "He doesn't like people much; they interest him mainly when they do unspeakably hideous things or when their idiocy is so malignant as to be horrifyingly amusing, " Kubrick biographer John Baxter quoted Kubrick's onetime collaborator Calder Willingham as saying. That assessment would seem to be supported by Kubrick's next film, Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Tackled Diverse Themes
Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis led the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Based on Peter George's novel Red Alert, it is what some consider the blackest comedy in movie history. The film is both a suspenseful Cold War thriller and a wicked farce that lampoons both the military and political establishments. It was a resounding hit, with Kubrick receiving Academy Award nominations as co-author, director, and producer.
Kubrick next hired science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to develop a story about man's encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence. The result was the landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It netted Kubrick more Academy Award nominations for writing and directing and his only Academy Award for designing and directing the movie's complicated special effects. Critics generally panned 2001, but audiences loved it. Regarded as a technological triumph of filmmaking, it is also noteworthy for the fact that it contains fewer words than any other commercial sound film of its length in history (about 40 minutes' worth over the course of nearly 3 hours). "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize it, " Kubrick once explained, as reported online at Criterion's The Films of Stanley Kubrick. "I tried to create a visual experience."
In 1971, Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange for the screen and also filled his customary roles of producer and director. Controversial because of its violent scenes, the film initially garnered an "X" rating in the United States. Kubrick nevertheless wound up with three Academy Award nominations (for writer, producer, and director) as well as the New York Film Critics' Best Picture and Best Director honors. It played in England for nearly a year to sellout crowds before Kubrick and Warner Brothers removed it from theaters in the wake of several crimes that appeared to be modeled on acts of violence depicted in the film.
Kubrick's next film, Barry Lyndon (1975), represented quite a departure from his previous works. Based on the eighteenth-century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it was an expensive, meticulously detailed costume drama that did not do well at the box office. But it was a hit with critics and with Kubrick's fellow filmmakers, who nominated it for seven Academy Awards. Three of those were for Kubrick himself as the movie's writer, director, and producer.
Five years later, Kubrick adapted Stephen King's novel The Shining for the screen. Although it was a financially successful film, it left critics unmoved and angered King, who deeply resented the changes Kubrick had made to his original story. King eventually bought back the rights to The Shining and approved a 1997 television remake that he felt was more in line with how he himself envisioned the characters and themes.
In 1987, Kubrick released Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers. A brutal look at Marine basic training and the subsequent combat experiences of a group of recruits sent to Vietnam, the film tackled one of Kubrick's favorite themes-dehumanization, particularly amid war and violence. But some moviegoers and critics took issue with the fact that he insisted on shooting the movie in London rather than in a more appropriate locale. To make his sets look as authentic as possible, Kubrick demolished a number of 1930s-era buildings to create his own rubble, brought in palm trees from Spain, and imported over 100, 000 plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong.
Scheduled for release in late 1998, Eyes Wide Shut took nearly two years for Kubrick to complete. Based on a novel by Frederic Raphael, it is a tale of jealousy and sexual obsession involving a married couple who are both psychiatrists. Problems plagued the project almost from the beginning. Star Tom Cruise reportedly balked at having to reshoot so many of his scenes and was furious that the delays finally forced one of his co-stars, Harvey Keitel, to quit due to a scheduling conflict. His departure meant that six months' worth of work had to be scrapped.
Despite his eccentricities, Kubrick is an acknowledged master of the modern cinema. His thought-provoking, carefully crafted films address timeless themes such as the absurdity of war, the nature of crime and punishment, obsessive love, madness, and even the enigma of humankind's evolution. The fact that he has not yet had a blockbuster success during his career is of no concern to him; he aims to please himself above all, which is perhaps the source of his perfectionism. As Kubrick remarked in a 1997 speech upon accepting the D.W. Griffith Award from the Director's Guild of America, a transcript of which is available online at http://pages.prodigy.com, "although [directing a film] can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling."
Further Reading on Stanley Kubrick
Agel, Jerome, editor, The Making of Kubrick's 2001, New American Library, 1970.
Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, Carroll & Graf, 1997.
Ciment, Michael, Kubrick, Holt, 1984.
Falsetto, Mario, editor, Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.
Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, Continuum, 1993.
LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, Donald I. Fine Books, 1997.
Nelson, Thomas, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze, Indiana University Press, 1982.
Entertainment Weekly, December 15, 1995; April 11, 1997.
Film Comment, September-October 1996.
New Statesman, October 3, 1997.
Omni, May 1993.
People Weekly, January 27, 1997; June 9, 1997.
"Criterion's The Films of Stanley Kubrick, " http://www.voyagerco.com/criterion/indepth.cgi? (March 4, 1998).
"Stanley Kubrick's Videotaped DGA Acceptance Speech, " http://pages.prodigy.com/kubrick/dgaspe.htm (May 19, 1998).
"Stanley Kubrick: The Master Filmmaker, " http://pages.prodigy.com/kubrick (May 19, 1998).