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Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)

Director, Producer, Writer, Cinematographer

Main image of Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)

Stanley Kubrick was born in New York City on 26 July 1928 and grew up in the Bronx. A precociously intellectual child, he inherited from his father, a doctor, an interest in still photography and became a staff photographer on Look magazine at the age of 17. Turning to motion pictures, in the space of five years Kubrick directed three short documentaries and three low-budget independent features - Fear and Desire (US, 1953), Killer's Kiss (US, 1955) and The Killing (US, 1956) - which he also wrote and/or photographed. These gained sufficient notice for him to attract Kirk Douglas to star in his first major Hollywood picture, Paths of Glory (1957). The actor later returned the favour by hiring Kubrick at a weekend's notice to take over his massive production of Spartacus (US, 1960) after Douglas had dismissed its original director, Anthony Mann.

Spartacus was the only film over which Kubrick did not have full control. Henceforth, despite dealing exclusively with the major studios, he exercised autonomy over every aspect of his films' conception, execution and release. This creative independence was no doubt assisted by Kubrick's decision in the early '60s to work and reside permanently in Britain, which lent a certain distance from the seats of executive power in Hollywood. Once a project had been approved he was generally left alone to complete it to his own satisfaction, at his own pace and under his own guidance. His titanic international reputation, especially among his fellow filmmakers, no doubt derives in part from this rare privileged position, shared by few other directors since Chaplin and Griffith.

Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's scandalous novel Lolita (1961) was made in Britain partly for reasons of economy, but also to escape the censorious moral climate in America. Though he compromised the book's most intractable elements by casting the 14-year-old Sue Lyon as the 12-year-old nymphet and by avoiding physical eroticism, he nonetheless fashioned from it a brilliant black comedy of manners. The first half in particular is exemplary for its witty mise-en-scène and the superb performances of James Mason, Shelley Winters and, as the chameleon-like Clare Quilty, Peter Sellers. Kubrick again turned controversial subject matter into the stuff of high comedy when Peter George's novel Red Alert, a straight thriller about an accidental American nuclear attack on the USSR, became a Cold War satire with Sellers performing three different roles, including the eponymous Dr. Strangelove (1963). Dazzlingly designed by Ken Adam and photographed by Gilbert Taylor, it is one of the few film comedies in which an extremely stylised visual surface does not detract from the hilarity of the characters, dialogue and situations.

Strangelove's critical and commercial success helped persuade MGM to shell out $10.5 million for a science-fiction epic to be shot in 70mm and exhibited in Cinerama theatres as a prestige roadshow. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as the film was eventually known after four years of planning and production, is unquestionably the most abstract, avant-garde blockbuster ever made, as well as one of the biggest box-office hits of the '60s. Justly regarded as Kubrick's masterpiece, it largely eschews the gleeful humour of his preceding two films in favour of the glacial detachment which came to dominate his work, sometimes to its detriment. 2001 is nonetheless a breathtakingly immersive experience as well as a compelling cerebral puzzle: technically audacious, richly patterned and even, in the demise of HAL-2000 and the birth of the Star Child, surprisingly moving.

A recession in the industry led MGM to cancel Kubrick's planned biopic of Napoleon and he turned instead to adapting Anthony Burgess's satirical fantasy A Clockwork Orange (1971). The resultant film embodies all his worst tendencies: it is glib, vulgar, schematic, misanthropic, over-designed, and evades confronting the full implications of its subject - the necessity of free choice between good and evil - by dealing in grotesque cartoon caricatures rather than human beings. The film's cult reputation was enhanced in Britain by the director's ban on its UK exhibition from 1973 until a posthumous reissue in 2000. The willingness of Warner Bros - financier and distributor of this and all his subsequent projects - to indulge him speaks volumes about Kubrick's unique status.

A Clockwork Orange was conceived as a modern picaresque, and Kubrick returned to that narrative form with a lavish adaptation of William Thackeray's novel Barry Lyndon (1975). An exquisite, painterly series of eighteenth century tableaux, filmed in Ireland and lasting over three hours, it remains the most rarefied of all Kubrick's films and something of a test case for his admirers. Its disappointing reception set the pattern for his later work: initial bafflement and dismissal followed some time later by favourable re-evaluation. The Shining (UK/US, 1980), adapted from Stephen King's horror best-seller, was widely derided for Jack Nicholson's leering performance, but it is both a genuinely frightening ghost story and one of the screen's most intensely evocative portraits of madness. The first third of Full Metal Jacket (US/UK, 1987), set in a Marines' training camp, is its companion piece in theme and style: in both films, incarceration in a gleaming human rat-trap leads to psychosis and murder. Subsequent scenes in Vietnam reveal that Kubrick's main concern is with the brutal rituals, language and sexual repression of the military ethos rather than the war's political issues.

Both these films combine elements of surrealism and expressionism with the precisely calculated camera movements and wide-angle, deep-space images characteristic of all Kubrick's work, including his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (US/UK, 1999). An erotic melodrama with the narrative logic of a dream and a slow, hypnotic rhythm which alienated most critics as much as the public, it is surely now due for rediscovery. Kubrick died suddenly on 7 March 1999 soon after delivering its final cut. A long-planned collaboration with Steven Spielberg subsequently emerged as A.I. Artificial Intelligence (US, 2001), predictably displaying more of Spielberg's authorship than Kubrick's.

Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Continuum, 1994)
LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)
Phillips, Gene D. (ed.), Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
Sight and Sound, Sept. 1999 (special issue on Kubrick)
Walker, Alexander, Taylor, Sybil, and Ruchti, Ulrich, Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999)

Sheldon Hall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Barry Lyndon (1975)Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick's visually ravishing reconstruction of the 18th century

Thumbnail image of Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's dazzling and disturbing vision of near-future Britain

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