Born on 26 July 1928, Stanley Kubrick would have been 91 this year. Two decades have passed since his death, yet he remains one of the most significant influences on modern American cinema. You only have to watch The Simpsons to see the impact that he has had on American culture, as the cartoon series is dotted with homages to Kubrick's 13 features. Moreover, everyone from Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam to David Fincher and Christopher Nolan claims to be indebted to him, while his legacy is continuously being reassessed in documentaries like brother-in-law Jan Harlan's Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), Rodney Ascher's Room 237 (2012) and Tony Zierra's Filmworker (2017). Even Kubrick's chauffeur, Emilio D'Alessandrio, has told his story in Alex Infascelli's S Is For Stanley (2015).
The Truant With Talent
As the son of a New York doctor, Stanley Kubrick had a comfortable childhood. However, he took his easy existence somewhat for granted and not only failed to apply himself at school, but often didn't bother to show up at all. In an effort to improve his grades, Jack Kubrick bought Stanley a Graflex camera for his 13th birthday and he began taking pictures with his friend, Marvin Traub, who had his own darkroom. Taking their cues from Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig, the pair favoured street scenes, although Kubrick also became the unofficial photographer at William Howard Taft School, where he also developed a lifelong love of chess. His greatest passion, however, was for jazz and Kubrick considered becoming a professional musician after becoming the drummer of the Taft Swing Band.
He changed his mind after Look magazine paid $25 for an unsolicited photograph of a mournful newsboy selling papers announcing the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945. When he was offered a chance to become a trainee shutterbug, Kubrick left school without formal qualifications and spend the next four years producing story spreads that often caught ordinary people in everyday situations. In 1948, he visited Portugal for a travel item, while domestic assignments led to him snapping such celebrities as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio.
Such was Kubrick's compositional sense that it wasn't always apparent whether he had captured a moment or artfully posed his subjects to shape reality. He had developed this directorial skill while supervising the family's home movies and, in 1950, he was encouraged by school friend Alexander Singer (who was working for the March of Time newsreel) to follow up a print profile of prizefighter Walter Cartier by featuring him in the documentary short, Day of the Fight.
The young Kubrick had watched a couple of mainstream movies a week at the Loew's Paradise and the RKO Fordham. But he became hooked on more refined film-makers like Fritz Lang, GW Pabst, Max Ophüls, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller while attending screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and Cinema 16, where he also discovered the Soviet montagists Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. During his spare time, Kubrick also started taking classes at Columbia University and became a voracious bookworm.
Having sold his first outing to RKO-Pathé for $4000 (earning him the princely profit of $100), Kubrick produced two more shorts, The Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953), which, like its predecessor, are available on Eureka's edition of his debut feature. He later admitted, '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. Bad films gave me the courage to try making a movie.' The result was Fear and Desire (1953), a Korean War drama that Kubrick made with $9,000 borrowed from his pharmacist uncle, Martin Perveler.
In addition to helping Howard Sackler with the screenplay, Kubrick also served as his own cameraman during the five-week location shoot in the San Gabriel Mountains in California. Moreover, he also edited the footage and supervised the sound dubbing process that caused the budget to spiral to $53,000. The picture received lukewarm reviews and recouped little of its outlay. But Kubrick was bailed out by Singer's March of Time colleague, Richard de Rochement, who sent him to Hodgenville, Kentucky to shoot second unit footage for Mr Lincoln, a 1952 docudrama for television that starred Royal Dano as Abraham Lincoln and Joanne Woodward as Ann Rutledge.
Despite being disappointed with a debut that he strove to keep out of circulation for the rest of his life, Kubrick had found his métier and he borrowed $40,000 from family and friends to embark upon Killer's Kiss (1955). Once again scripted by Howard Sackler, the noirish story was filmed across New York and centred on a ménage involving struggling boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), taxi dancer Gloria Price (Irene Kane), and her short-fused boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Despite a climactic punch-up in a mannequin factory, this was strictly pulp fare. But Kubrick experimented with camera angles and lighting and made such effective use of negative footage and symbolic doubles to cast a nightmarish pall that he and new producing partner, James B. Harris, were offered a contract by United Artists to turn Lionel White's hard-boiled page-turner, Clean Break, into The Killing (1956).
Trapped in Tinseltown
As an East Coaster who had become accustomed to doing things his own way, Kubrick was never going to fit into Hollywood's studio system. During pre-production for The Killing, he became embroiled in a dispute with the craft unions, who refused to let a director act as his own cinematographer. Veteran Lucien Ballard soon discovered that the softly spoken 27 year-old was not an easy collaborator and star Sterling Hayden also found him cold and detached. Kubrick did have art director Ruth Sobotka rooting for him, however, as she had become his second wife after he had divorced high-school sweetheart, Toba Metz. But the damage was done and UA were happy to let Kubrick move on to MGM after his slick racetrack caper (which has since acquired cult status) did less than modest business at the box office.
Initially, Kubrick hoped to rework Stefan Zweig's 1913 novella, Burning Secret (the script for which was rediscovered and auctioned last year). But he plumped instead for Paths of Glory, a denunciation of French military injustice during the Great War that Kubrick had adapted from a pacifist novel by Humphrey Cobb with co-scribes Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson. However, when studio chief Dore Schary was removed in a front-office coup, Kubrick and Harris were informed that their project had been cancelled. But star Kirk Douglas saved the day by offering to co-produce through his Bryna Productions company and the shoot in Munich passed off relatively smoothly. While on location, Kubrick fell for the only female member of the cast, German-born artist Christiane Harlan, who became his third wife in 1958. He had less luck with the film itself, however, as it underperformed after mixed reviews, while its unflattering depiction of the high command led to a ban in France that was only lifted in 1974.
Despite its commercial shortfall, Paths of Glory sufficiently impressed Marlon Brando for him to contact Kubrick about directing him in an adaptation of Charles Neider's Wild West novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. Rod Serling (the creator of The Twilight Zone, 1959-64) and Sam Peckinpah had each taken a tilt at the screenplay, which went through two more revisions before One-Eyed Jacks (1961) was ready to shoot. Two weeks before the camera started to roll, however, Kubrick abruptly withdrew to leave Brando to take his one and only stab at directing.
Needing a job, Kubrick accepted Kirk Douglas's offer to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus (1960), an account of the Gladiator War in 73 BC Rome that had been adapted from a Howard Fast novel by Dalton Trumbo, who was returning to action after being blacklisted during the Hollywood witch-hunt (a shameful episode that is recalled in both Peter Askin's documentary, Trumbo , and Jay Roach's 2015 drama of the same name, which earned an Oscar nomination for Bryan Cranston). Shot in Super-Technirama and boasting over 10,000 extras, this $6 million epic was the most expensive picture that Hollywood had ever produced. But, despite revisiting Kubrick's recurring theme of human nature's response to conflict, this often rousing saga lacks his personal imprint.
Matters weren't helped by the on-set tussles with his star. But the Production Code's insistence on the removal of Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis's notorious snails and oysters scene (which has since been restored, with Anthony Hopkins dubbing Olivier's lines) confirmed Kubrick's conviction that he needed to quit America if he was to regain full creative control over his movies. His chance to relocate came when Warner Bros asked him to take on Vladimir Nabokov's adaptation of his own provocative novel, Lolita, and James B. Harris managed to secure Eady Levy funding to enable Kubrick to shoot at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.
Casting James Mason as Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged academic who becomes besotted with the underage Lolita Haze (Sue Lyon), and Peter Sellers as his scheming rival, Clare Quilty, Kubrick kept Oswald Morris's camera moving in a manner that recalled such Max Ophüls masterpieces as La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1952). He had troubles with the temperamental Shelley Winters as Mrs Haze, while the critical response was decidedly mixed. But, while it might lack the book's poetic elegance, this risqué comedy far surpasses Adrian Lyne's 1997 remake, with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella and Melanie Griffith.
Days of Future Past
Now installed at Abbots Mead to the south of the Elstree/Borehamwood studio complex, Kubrick considered Rosalind Erskine's study of teenage sexual habits, The Passion Flower Hotel, which was eventually filmed by André Farwagi with Nastassja Kinski in 1979. He clearly decided that the theme was too close to that of Lolita, however, and settled instead for Peter George's Cold War tome, Red Alert. In the initial stages of development, Kubrick planned a serious treatise on the perils of the nuclear arms race. But he realised that the message would be more potent if he took a darkly comic tone and the result was Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
Satirist Terry Southern was brought in to give the script a final polish, while Kubrick recruited Peter Sellers to play three roles, as he had done in Jack Arnold's The Mouse That Roared (1959). In fact, Sellers was due to add B-52 Stratofortress commander Major TJ 'King' Kong to the roles of Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and wheelchair-bound former Nazi Dr Strangelove, but he struggled to master the Texan accent and a leg injury meant that the part was memorably taken by former rodeo clown, Slim Pickens. Kubrick was frustrated in his bid to conclude with a giant custard pie fight in production designer Ken Adam's magnificent War Room set, but compensation came in the form of Armageddon taking place to the strains of Vera Lynn's wartime favourite 'We'll Meet Again'.
Having decided he was better at interpreting existing material than attempting original screenplays, Kubrick contacted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke about turning his short story, 'The Sentinel', into a $10.5 million blockbuster that would chime in with NASA's bid to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. Treatments for what was to be called Journey to the Stars were completed in 1964, while shooting at Borehamwood and Shepperton lasted into 1966. But, while Kubrick waited for Douglas Trumbull and his team to complete the special effects, science fact began to catch up with fantasy, as the Apollo programme was launched and captured the public imagination. Consequently, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was perfectly timed and its success gave sci-fi cinema new respectability and paved the way for George Lucas's Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977).
Not everyone agreed it was a masterpiece, however, with Pauline Kael dismissing it as 'the biggest amateur movie of them all'. By contrast, John Lennon was so blown away that he suggested that the film be shown in a temple 24 hours a day. Indeed, he also tried to talk Kubrick into starring The Beatles in an adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with himself as Gollum, Paul McCartney as Frodo, Ringo Starr as Sam and George Harrison as Gandalf. The venerable Oxford don detested the idea, however, and it never got off the ground and the same was true of Kubrick, whose fear of flying (after a runway incident while piloting a plane at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey) prevented him from personally accepting the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for 2001, which was just as well, as Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson, Wally Veevers and Tom Howard had done all the hard work.
Stepping back from the edge of space, Kubrick resumed his research for the biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte that he had started in 1961. Over the course of two years, he read hundreds of books on the French emperor's life and campaigns and was even granted access to his personnel writings. Moreover, he tried to watch every film that had been made about the Corsican, including Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) and Sergei Bondarchuk's Oscar-winning version of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1966). By all accounts, he considered the former to be hugely overrated, although, to be fair, he wasn't able to see the restored version prepared by Kevin Brownlow.
Unwilling to leave Britain, Kubrick dispatched Andrew Birkin to visit key battlegrounds and the scenes of Bonaparte's exiles. While sifting through the resulting 15,000 location photographs and 17,000 slides, he also made plans to hire the Romanian army. But, while he hoped to persuade Audrey Hepburn to play Empress Josephine, Kubrick couldn't decide between David Hemmings and Ian Holm to play Napoleon. By the time he settled on Jack Nicholson, however, MGM had got cold feet about the scale and cost of the project and pulled the plug in 1969. When Bondarchuk's Waterloo (1970) proved an expensive flop, the studio cancelled the picture altogether, Holm would eventually take the title role in Alan Taylor's The Emperor's New Clothes (2001). But, while both Spielberg and Cary Fukunaga have announced that they are developing small-screen versions of Kubrick's script, nothing has come to fruition.
While making Dr Strangelove, Terry Southern had given Kubrick a copy of Anthony Burgess's novel, A Clockwork Orange. Set in a bleak near future, the story of a delinquent's reformation by a repressive state appealed to Kubrick. But he was concerned that audiences wouldn't be able to understand the Nadsat street slang that Burgess had created from Russian. However, he returned to the text towards the end of a decade that had seen the Production Code replaced by a rating system that allowed film-makers to take a more sophisticated approach to contentious topics. Features like Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968) clearly impressed Kubrick, who cast its star, Malcolm McDowell, as the anti-heroic Alex DeLarge, the leader of the droog gang whose fondness for 'a bit of the old ultraviolence' results in him being arrested and subjected to the pitiless Ludovico Technique.
Burgess was more or less happy with Kubrick's screenplay, although he regretted the decision to ignore the 1962 book's redemptive final chapter. But, despite arriving in cinemas shortly after Sam Peckinpah's equally violent Straw Dogs, the film ran into censorship difficulties in the United States. Moreover, having garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, A Clockwork Orange was blamed in the British press for incidents of supposedly copycat violence in Bletchley and Lancashire. Refusing to let his film be scapegoated for wider social ills, Kubrick withdrew it from UK circulation in 1974 and it remained unavailable until after his death a quarter of a century later.
In collecting his Oscar for The French Connection (1971), William Friedkin declared Kubrick to be the best director in the world and he benefitted from his decision not to adapt William Peter Blatty's horror bestseller, The Exorcist (1973). Despite being fascinated by Nazi Germany, Kubrick also declined an opportunity to film Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich and turned, instead, to The Luck of Barry Lyndon, an 1844 picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Although set in the 1750s, the project allowed Kubrick to use much of his Napoleonic research and he insisted on shooting in daylight and candlelight to replicate the textures of contemporary English painting.
However, the location sojourn in Ireland proved endlessly frustrating and, despite converting four of its seven Oscar nominations, Barry Lyndon (1975) failed to make money. One New York critic branded it 'an egocentric film, made by a man who has lost touch with his peers, his critics and his audience', while even Spielberg compared it to 'going through the Prado without lunch'. Kubrick retreated to his new home, Childwickbury Manor, near Harpenden, as the press started to portray him as an eccentric recluse who only emerged from his cocoon to call Warners or individual theatres whenever he learned that one of his films had been shoddily projected.
The Long, Slow Fade
Many were surprised when Kubrick ended his silence with an adaptation of Stephen King's horror classic, The Shining (1980), especially as he had spurned the chance to direct Exorcist II: The Heretic (with the gig going to John Boorman). The bestselling novelist was far from impressed by Kubrick's interpretation, however, and leant his name to Mick Garris's 1997 retool, Stephen King's The Shining. Making innovative use of the new Steadicam camera rig, Kubrick encouraged stars Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to improvise. However, his fabled perfectionism taxed the energy and emotions of his cast, with one scene between young Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers requiring 148 takes. He even criticised himself by removing a closing sequence involving hotel manager Barry Nelson visiting Duvall in hospital five days after the picture's much-heralded opening. Moreover, he cut 25 minutes from the version that premiered in Europe. But, while reviews were mixed, business was brisk and Kubrick was able to laugh off the fact that he received a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Director after being snubbed entirely by the Academy.
Having contemplated Shelby Foote's American Civil War novel, Shiloh, and Martin Russ's Korean War opus, The Last Parallel, Kubrick latched on to two studies of the conflict in Vietnam. He asked Michael Herr to work on a screenplay based on Dispatches, while Gustav Hasford was taxed with adapting The Short-Timers. Eventually, the latter became the basis for Full Metal Jacket (1987), which Kubrick made for $17 million without leaving home. All of the locations were within a 30-mile radius of Childwickbury, including the derelict gasworks at Beckton in London's Docklands, which was transformed into the decimated city of Hue. A near-fatal jeep accident involving R. Lee Ermey, who stole the film as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, caused the production to shut down for five months. But, while Ermey would receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the picture followed the predictable pattern of dividing the critics and underwhelming audiences who were somewhat Vietnammed out after a string of postwar exposés that included Oliver Stone's Best Picture winner, Platoon (1986), and John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987).
Twelve years would pass before Kubrick released what would prove to be his swan song. Around this period, he considered numerous projects, including Virginia C. Andrew's Flowers in the Attic, H. Rider Haggard's Norse novel, The Saga of Eric Brighteyes; a recreation of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC; Gavin Blakeney's sci-fi radio play, Shadow on the Sun; and Brian Aldiss's short story, 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long'. Press reports that Kubrick was also linked to adaptations of Patrick Süskind's Perfume, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Herbert Selby, Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn turned out to be mere conjecture.
There was more substance to the rumour that Kubrick was intrigued by Robert Marshall's All the King's Men, which centred on British espionage during the Second World War. Indeed, this period proved the most enticing, as Kubrick considered a biopic of controversial German film-maker Veit Harlan (who also happened to be his wife's uncle), and an adaptation of Louis Begley's Wartime Lies, which centred on a Jewish boy and his aunt going into hiding during the Holocaust, Michael Herr titled his screenplay Aryan Papers and Kubrick was reportedly keen on pairing Joseph Mazzello with either Julia Roberts or Uma Thurman. Following the success of Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), however, Kubrick dropped the project to concentrate on AI Artificial Intelligence. Ironically, Spielberg would follow Kubrick's notes and screenplay to realise this study of the relationship between humans and robots in 2001.
One idea that kept coming back to Kubrick, however, was an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella, Traumnovelle. In the late 1950s, he had been drawn to the Austrian's 1902 story, 'The Death of a Bachelor', but a decade was to pass before he inquired about the rights. Following the production of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick toyed with the idea of casting Woody Allen as the Jewish doctor in 'Dream Story', while Steve Martin was mooted in the 1980s. In all, Candia McWilliam, Sara Maitland and Michael Herr all took a tilt at the screenplay. But it was Frederic Raphael's version that appeared as Eyes Wide Shut. Despite the casting of Hollywood power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the shoot was shrouded in secrecy as it sprawled into becoming the longest in American film history.
Kubrick didn't live to endure the typically polarised critical reaction, however. Just four days after showing Warner Bros a workprint, he died of coronary thrombosis on 7 March 1999. Respected British critic David Thomson declared Kubrick 'the most significant and ornate dead end in modern cinema'. But French counterpart Michel Ciment came closer to the mark in proclaiming him 'one of the most demanding, most original and most visionary filmmakers of our time'. He was played by Stanley Tucci in Stephen Hopkins's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004), while John Malkovich headlined Brian W. Cook's Color Me Kubrick (2005), which recalled the efforts of con man Alan Conway to pass himself off as the reclusive auteur during the 1990s.