Stanley Kubrick (July 26, 1928 – March 7, 1999) was an American film director. In a career which spanned five decades, he created a notable body of work consisting of thirteen feature films, many of which are considered classics of 20th century cinema.
Kubrick's films, most of which were adapted from literary sources, are characterized by technical brilliance, inventive cinematic storytelling, and sardonic wit. His stylistic trademarks include long tracking shots and extensive zooms, as well as the clever use of pop songs and European classical music. Among his best known works are the Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove (1964), the landmark science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange, whose graphic portrayal of violence caused a controversy when it was first released in 1971.
Following a string of commercial successes throughout the 1960s, Kubrick was able to enter into a uniquely secure and loyal financial relationship with Warner Brothers. The backing of a major Hollywood studio made it possible for him to retain creative freedom and high control over the production process while enjoying such benefits as large budgets, major stars, and media exposure. Subsequently, Kubrick also became known for the great demands his exacting working methods imposed on his cast and crew.
Stanley Kubrick was born on July 26, 1928 in the Bronx, New York City, United States as the first child of Jacques Kubrick and his wife Gertrude (née Perveler). A second child, Barbara, was born in 1934. Jacques, whose parents had been Jewish immigrants of Austro-Romanian origin, was a successful doctor who would in due time introduce his son to two hobbies which proved to be of crucial importance for his future filmmaking career.
When Kubrick was twelve years old, his father taught him how to play chess. The game would provide pleasure (and frequently income) for Kubrick throughout his nascent career and beyond. An even more significant initiation occurred a year later when Jacques bought Stanley a Graflex camera for his thirteenth birthday, thus triggering young Kubrick's fascination with still photography. Since the Kubricks were an upper middle-class family they could afford to set up a darkroom in their home. Working in the darkroom occupied much of Kubrick's time as he invested himself thoroughly in photography during his teenage years. At this time, he was also very interested in jazz, and strove to become a drummer by studying the technique and playing in bands.
Kubrick attended the William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. He was a poor student who passed with a meager grade average of 67. While Kubrick would later become a voracious reader who researched each of his films in painstaking detail, he had relatively little interest for reading during his teens. In an interview, the mature Kubrick voiced his thoughts on education:
- "I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker... I never learned anything at all in school and didn't read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old."
When he graduated in 1945, colleges were flooded with soldiers returning from service in the Second World War, and Kubrick's poor grades eliminated his hopes of getting into a post-secondary school.
It was during Kubrick's high school years that his interest in photography started to become increasingly more serious and dedicated. As well as being chosen the official school photographer for a year, he also sought out job opportunities on his own. By the time of his graduation Kubrick had already sold a series of pictures to New York's Look. His first contribution to the richly illustrated weekly magazine was a snapshot of a solemn newspaper vendor surrounded by headlines announcing the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kubrick, who took the picture on his way to school, sold the photograph to Look for $25 because they offered him ten dollars more than the New York Daily News.
To supplement his income, Kubrick began playing "chess for quarters" in Washington Square Park and in Manhattan chess clubs. Often playing up to twelve hours a day, he sharpened his skills to a point where the winnings could, for instance, easily cover the cost of groceries. Kubrick also registered for night courses at the City College, hoping to improve his grade average in order to increase his chances of enrolment for the following year. Most importantly, however, Kubrick continued to approach Look with new pictures to sell. He was hired as an apprentice photographer in 1946, and later became a full-time member of the staff.
During the years he spent at Look (1946-1951), Kubrick not only developed his photographic talents in various commissions both in the United States and abroad, he also married Toba Metz and moved to Greenwich Village with her. It was also during this time that Kubrick began frequenting film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and at cinemas all over New York City. He became particularly inspired by the complex and fluid camera movements of Max Ophüls, whose films undoubtably had the strongest influence on Kubrick's own developing visual style.
Foray into film
In 1951 Alex Singer , who worked as an office boy at Time Inc.'s March of Time, introduced his friend to the idea of making short documentaries for the well-known provider of cinema-distributed newsreels. Kubrick agreed that the format would be suitable as his first foray into filmmaking and independently financed Day of the Fight (1951). The 16-minute black-and-white documentary was largely based on a Look piece called Prizefighter which Kubrick had photographed in 1949. Both the photo-story and the film provide a 'day in the life' glimpse at a promising middle-weight boxer Walter Cartier. Although the March of Time went out of business in 1951, Kubrick was able to sell Day of the Fight to RKO Pictures for the small profit of one hundred dollars.
Encouraged by his first effort, Kubrick quit his job at Look and began work on his second documentary. Funded by RKO, the little over eight minutes long The Flying Padre (1951) is about a priest in rural New Mexico who uses a Piper Cub airplane to travel from one isolated parish to another. The Seafarers (1953), Kubrick's first film in color, was a 30-minute promotion for the Seafarers' International Union. These three films, in addition to several other short subjects which have not survived, would be his last works in the documentary genre. Beginning with Fear and Desire in 1953, Kubrick would concentrate solely on feature-length narrative films.
The story of Fear and Desire concerns a team of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in a fictional war. In the finale, the men realize the faces of their enemies are identical to their own (the characters are played by the same actors). Fear and Desire garnered some respectable reviews as it went through the arthouse circuit in New York, but on the whole the film was a failure both commercially (it did not turn a profit) and artistically, not least in the eyes of the film's director. Kubrick strictly denied the showing of Fear and Desire in retrospectives and other public screenings after he had established himself as a major filmmaker. He later described the film as an "exceedingly serious, undramatic, and pretentious allegory".
Kubrick's marriage to his high school sweetheart Toba had come to an end during the making of Fear and Desire. He married dancer Ruth Sobotka in 1954, and even worked in a cameo appearance for his second wife in his next film. Killer's Kiss (1955), like Fear and Desire, is a relatively short feature film with a running time of just a little over an hour. Also much like Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss gained limited commercial and critical success. The lurid crime film revolves around a young welterweight boxer at the end of his career who gets himself mixed up with organised crime.
Even if Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss are now generally regarded as uncharacteristic Kubrick films, many of his standard working methods were being used for the first time behind the scenes. For example, Kubrick relied on the help of people he knew from his school years in putting the films together: the composer Gerald Fried created his first film scores for Kubrick, the poet and playwright Howard O. Sackler wrote the original screenplays, and amateur actors such as Paul Mazursky were also culled from Kubrick's circle of friends.
Another note-worthy aspect of Kubrick's early style of working was his financial and creative independence. Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss were both privately funded by loans from close family members, and during the planning, shooting, and editing of the films Kubrick essentially transformed himself into a one-man production team. The most significant 'open secret' of Kubrick's subsequent creative freedom was the way his production teams were assembled. Even Kubrick's future large-scale projects would be achieved with very small crews composed of highly dedicated key personnel.
The next important step in Kubrick's career occurred after Singer, a mutual friend, introduced him to a young producer named James B. Harris . The two became lifelong friends, and their business partnership Harris-Kubrick Productions would finance Kubrick's films from The Killing (1956) to Lolita (1962), effectually launching both of their careers in Hollywood.
Looking for a suitable story as the basis for their first project, Kubrick and Harris purchased the rights to the Lionel White novel Clean Break which Kubrick and co-screenwriter Jim Thompson turned into a screenplay. Starring Sterling Hayden, The Killing was Kubrick's first film with a professional cast and crew. The film made impressive use of non-linear time, and although not a financial success, it was Kubrick's first critically acclaimed film. The Killing is frequently considered as the most noteworthy of his early works in that the stylish film noir is effective and entertaining solely on its own terms.
The Killing brought Harris-Kubrick Productions to the attention Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The major studio offered the pair the chance to pick out a project to develop from their massive collection of copyrighted stories. Harris and Kubrick spent two weeks simply going through the alphabetical synopsis cards, finally settling on The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig, which Kubrick turned into a screenplay with Calder Willingham. However, the deal with MGM fell through before the film got properly underway.
Back on their own, Kubrick and Harris began to plan their next project. Remembering one of the few novels he had read and enjoyed in his youth, Kubrick suggested that they adapt Humphrey Cobb 's Paths of Glory. Kubrick, again with Willingham, developed the story into a complete screenplay. Prior to Kirk Douglas's involvement in the project, Harris and Kubrick had little success in interesting a studio. Once a major star of Douglas' caliber was on board, United Artists decided to take up the film. Paths of Glory (1957) went on to become Kubrick's first significant commercial and critical success.
The production of the film took place in Munich. While in Germany, Kubrick met and became romantically involved with a young actress named Christiane Harlan (who performed under the stage name of Susanne Christian), for whom he created the only female part in Paths of Glory. Christiane, four years his junior, had been born in Germany into a theatrical family, and she had trained as a dancer and actress. She later stated that at the time of their meeting, she and Kubrick were in "grotesquely unhappy marriages and both in the throes of divorce." The two would marry within a year. The marriage was Kubrick's third and last, ending only in his death in 1999. In addition to raising Christiane's young daughter Katharina (born 1953) from her previous marriage, the couple would have two daughters: Anya (b. 1958) and Vivian (b. 1960).
After returning to the United States, Kubrick worked for six months on the Marlon Brando vehicle One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Because Brando wanted to direct the film himself, Kubrick left before the actual production began and spent some time working on projects that never went beyond the script stage. Kubrick's brief spell of inactivity came to an end after Douglas requested that he take over the director's chair on Spartacus (1960). Kubrick agreed, partly out of frustration at the projects which had failed to materialize, partly out of the great opportunities the massive all-star production presented.
During the production of the Roman epic, creative differences arose between Kubrick and Douglas, who was both the producer and star of the film. Kubrick was frustrated by his lack of creative control over the film, a result of having been selected as the second director after Anthony Mann had dropped out for similar creative differences only one week into production. Although well-received by critics and moviegoers, the battles waged over Spartacus convinced Kubrick that he would have to find ways to work with the financial resources of Hollywood without becoming involved in Hollywood's production conventions.
In the 2001 documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, actor Peter Ustinov, one of the stars of Spartacus, says: "And he did turn his career into that of an artist, whereas it could quite easily, had he surrendered at any juncture, had been that of a very successful journeyman." Ustinov is referring to the next phase of Kubrick's career, which started in 1962 with Lolita and ended over three decades later with his last film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. After a few youthful exercises, an entertaining crime film, a hard-hitting anti-war polemic, and a Hollywood blockbuster, Kubrick would from the 1960s onwards create a succession of films which would carve him a niche in film history and make 'Kubrickian' a shorthand description of his unique cinematic style.
Lolita (1962) would cause Kubrick's first major controversy. He worked with the book's author, Vladimir Nabokov, to produce a screenplay that would allow the book to be filmed without being banned from theaters worldwide. It was with Lolita that he discovered the talent of Peter Sellers. Kubrick asked Sellers to play four roles simultaneously in his next film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and Sellers accepted (though he eventually only played three of those roles).
Kubrick's decision to film a Cold War thriller as a jet-black comedy was a daring risk, one that paid off handsomely for both himself and Columbia Pictures. By belittling the sacrosanct norms of the political culture as the squabbling of intellectual children, Strangelove foreshadowed the great cultural upheavals of the late 1960s as well as Kubrick's next project.
Kubrick's great success with Strangelove persuaded the studios that he was an auteur who could be trusted to deliver popular films despite his unusual ideas. Kubrick thus entered into a fruitful relationship with Warner Brothers, who gave him almost complete artistic freedom on all his ensuing projects.
Kubrick spent five years developing his next film, 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (photographed in single-film MGM Camera 65/Super Panavision 70 Cinerama). Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke, adapting parts of Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" (Clarke also wrote a novelization of the screenplay, which was released alongside the film). The film was groundbreaking in its use of visual effects, which Kubrick himself supervised. It was also notable for its use of European classical music (including Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube). 2001 represented a radical departure from both Kubrick's previous films and the mainstream Hollywood paradigm. While Kubrick would never again push the experimental envelope quite so hard, paradoxically Kubrick would win a uniquely total creative control from Hollywood by succeeding with easily the most "difficult" film ever to win such a wide release. Kubrick and 2001 are sometimes associated with the hippie counterculture due to the final, abstracted chapter of the film; the marketing campaign of 2001 certainly exploited this idea by calling the film "the ultimate trip." Critics were initially divided in their response to the film, but it was a huge popular success. As Clarke put it in 1972, "As for [those] who still don't like it, that's their problem, not ours. Stanley and I are laughing all the way to the bank."
Kubrick's next project was to be an epic biopic of Napoleon. Explaining his interest in Napoleon to interviewer Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick said "he fascinates me. His life has been described as an epic poem of action. His sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler." He did a great deal of research and wrote a preliminary screenplay, but ultimately the project was cancelled due to the box office failure of the Napoleon-themed Waterloo (1970).Instead his next film would be A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was darker in tone than 2001 (and originally released with an "X" rating in the US). The film was based on Anthony Burgess' novel about a criminal who undergoes treatment to be 'cured' of violent urges; the novel asks questions about how society defines morality. Its depictions of teenage gangs committing acts of rape and violence made the film controversial, and the controversy increased when copycat acts were committed by criminals wearing the costumes of the film's characters. Kubrick was apparently genuinely perplexed by critics who said he was glorifying violence. When he received death threats targeting himself and his family, Kubrick took the unusual step of removing the film from circulation in Britain, with the result that the film was not shown again in Britain until its rerelease in 2000, after his death.
Kubrick now set his sights on a period piece. William Makepeace Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a picaresque novel about an 18th century gambler and fortune hunter was just what he wanted. He told an interviewer, "At one time, Vanity Fair interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film... as soon as I read Barry Lyndon I became very excited about it." It would be Kubrick's least appreciated, in the U.S., post-Strangelove film. Barry Lyndon (1975) was considered by some critics to be cold, slow-moving, and lifeless. As with most of his films later assessments would change. His innovative adaptation of cameras and lighting techniques (including filming scenes lit only by candlelight) and the blending of music and action would set standards that others would attempt to match (see Ridley Scott's first feature The Duellists ).
Kubrick's filmmaking pace slowed considerably after the release of Barry Lyndon. He made only three more films in the next twenty-five years; but his reputation and his "mystique" were such that the premiere of each new Stanley Kubrick film was an event hailed by audiences worldwide.
The Shining (an 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) and Full Metal Jacket (one of several films in the 1980s which dealt with the Vietnam War) did not reach the heights of Dr. Strangelove and 2001 in the eyes of many critics, though they are still seen as exceptional examples of their genres, and they contain many Kubrickian moments.
After Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick spent years planning a project entitled A.I., but due to the limited special effects technology of the time, he postponed the idea and filmed Eyes Wide Shut instead. (In 2001, Steven Spielberg directed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence based on a treatment by Kubrick.) Released in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a couple caught up in a sexual odyssey (Cruise and Kidman were married at the time). The story is based on Arthur Schnitzler's novella, Traumnovelle (Dream story).
Just a few days after completing the editing of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick died of a heart attack in his sleep, and was interred in the grounds of Childwickbury Manor, Hertfordshire, England.
The Kubrick myth
Kubrick was interviewed numerous times during the course of his career, but these conversations dealt almost exclusively with his views on the filmmaking process. Kubrick's unwillingness to discuss personal matters publicly, coupled with the controversies created by some of his films, led to a situation where newspaper articles started to repeat a set of unfounded rumors as reported facts. These articles ultimately gave rise to a myth of Kubrick as a kind of highly eccentric hermit genius akin to Howard Hughes in his later years.
After his death in 1999, Kubrick's family and close associates began to take steps to debunk the myth in earnest. Jan Harlan directed the documentary (2001), while Michael Herr published a short book simply entitled Kubrick (2001). The memoir was based on his 1999 Vanity Fair article written to coincide with the release of Eyes Wide Shut.
Some of the more widely circulated tabloid rumors include the following:
- A popular rumor, started in the mid-1980s, was that Kubrick had not only shot a fan who intruded on his property, but delivered a coup de grâce gunshot to the intruder's face because he had bled on the grass. This was untrue and was intended to irritate Kubrick into giving an interview; he didn't, though he was deeply upset.
- Kubrick often had an antagonistic relationship with the writers with whom he collaborated. Arthur C. Clarke was upset that Kubrick's actions caused the delay of the publication of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey so that it appeared the book was a novelization of the film rather that the film an adaptation of the book as the pair had agreed. Anthony Burgess was appalled that he was called on to defend A Clockwork Orange when Kubrick refused to as the film contradicted the message of his novel.
- The last occasion on which Kubrick was seen in public was at a performance of The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse then starring Nicole Kidman.
- Unrealized projects: Over the years, Kubrick worked on a number of projects which did not evolve beyond the script stage. Some of the more well-developed film ideas that were never realized include Napoleon (1969-1971), which was canceled upon the release of Waterloo; Aryan Papers (1988-1991), a Holocaust story postponed because of Schindler's List; and Blue Movie (late 1960s, early 1970s), about a director so highly regarded he is allowed to direct a pornographic movie starring major Hollywood stars. This project was proposed by Terry Southern following their collaboration on Dr. Strangelove and was the basis of his novel Blue Movie. For a short time in 1997, it was believed that Kubrick was making his own "blue movie" with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (this later turned out to be Eyes Wide Shut).
As a writer/director who was also his own producer, Kubrick was thoroughly involved in all aspects of the production process, and he closely supervised the cinematography, editing, and sound design of each of his films.
Early documentary short films
- Day of the Fight (1951)
- Flying Padre (1951)
- The Seafarers (1953)
- Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Documentary film. Dir. Jan Harlan. Warner Home Video, 2001. 142 min.
- (Excerpted from the book Kubrick by Ciment.)
- "Biography." The authorized Stanley Kubrick Exhibition website. Accessed on April 9, 2005.
- Kubrick, Stanley (2001). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1578062977.