Stanley Kubrick is right up there with Alfred Hitchcock as the director I most admire and if he was alive today, he would be turning 84 this week. Kubrick was born July 26th, 1928, in Manhattan, New York, of Austrian, Romanian, and Polish heritage. At age 13 his father bought him a camera, which subsequently led to a lifelong obsession with still photography, something that distracted him from his studies in school. Between his poor grades and even less stellar attendance record (he would skip classes to attend double-feature films), Kubrick’s family decided to send him to Los Angeles to live with relatives in hopes that he would focus his efforts on his studies. After high school, Kubrick became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine before becoming full-staff. He frequented film screenings while living in Greenwich Village, and became inspired by the fluid camera styles of Max Ophüls and Elia Kazan.
Early in his career, Kubrick specialized in documentary short films. His first, Day of the Fight (1951), was a 16-minute black-and-white doc about a boxer, and showed off his use of the reverse tracking shot, a signature move seen in Kubrick’s later work. He dabbled in short films, primarily working as a one-man crew. His first full-length feature film that used an entire cast and crew was titled The Killing (1956), which told the story of a racetrack robbery gone wrong, and starred Sterling Hayden. While the film didn’t achieve much financially, The Killing received critical praise and garnered the attention of MGM, who then opened their books for Kubrick’s next project.
Kubrick chose to adapt Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 antiwar novel Paths of Glory (1957), and a fantastic choice it was, as the film would become the first of many masterpieces from the director. Paths took place during World War I and starred Kirk Douglas as a Colonel who defends three soldiers picked out of an entire force that refused to continue with a seemingly impossible attack. The men were being made an example of by a power-hungry general, and as a result of its controversial (and fictional) subject matter the film was banned in both France and Germany for many years following. As far as cinematography in war films, it doesn’t get much better than Kubrick and Georg Krause’s work in Paths of Glory. Kubrick would work with Douglas again on Spartacus (1960) after Douglas had the first director (Anthony Mann) fired from the set. Spartacus was the most expensive movie ever made at that time, and after several conflicts with Douglas (and others) on the script, cinematography, and lighting, Kubrick would declare it the last film he would ever make where he did not have total control.
Kubrick then adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s dark comedy Lolita, where a middle-aged professor (James Mason) becomes obsessed with a provocative 14-year-old (Sue Lyon). It was a daring and controversial conversion, taking less of the eroticism from the novel and supplanting it with dark-comedy tones. The role of Clare Quilty was in fact expanded once Kubrick recognized Peter Sellers’ hilarious improvisational skills. Kubrick admired Sellers so much that he not only cast him in his next film, Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), but he cast the versatile actor in four different roles (the total dropped to three after an injury Sellers suffered during filming, and character actor Slim Pickens memorably replaced him). The pairing brought forth a hilarious and satirical black comedy on nuclear war poignantly delivered at the height of the Cold War. As he had done in Lolita, Kubrick gave Sellers the freedom to improvise wildly with his characters and dialogue. The result is the film that I consider to be the funniest movie of all time, and brought Kubrick his first three Academy Award nominations (Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Picture).
Aside from having directed the funniest movie of all time, Kubrick also helmed the film I feel is the best in my favorite genre: science fiction. He followed Dr. Strangelove up by bringing the most original and daring film of all time to the screen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel, Kubrick defied all preconceived notions of science fiction cinema, creating a visual feast for the eyes with ground-breaking special effects, while presenting mind-blowing subject matter that left an open-ended philosophical and allegorical meaning in its wake. Several critics faulted the film for its slow pace and lack of dialogue, two elements that I ironically feel help separate this film from so many others in its genre that came before and since. The film was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Visual Effects, and Director; however, it is a sad truth for the Academy Awards that the only time the great Stanley Kubrick ever won an Oscar was for his work on the visual effects for 2001.
In 1971, Kubrick directed A Clockwork Orange, a film that many consider to be the darkest and most controversial venture of his career (which is kind of saying something, isn’t it?). Adapted from Anthony Burgess’ novel, Clockwork examined extreme violence and the battle of free will versus experimental procedures on the mind in attempt to cure someone of the illness. He received three more nominations (Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay) for the movie. Kubrick then adapted William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, cutting the title to simply Barry Lyndon (1975), which followed the escapades of an 18-century Irish gambler. The period piece naturally did well with Oscar, receiving seven nominations (Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay for Kubrick) and four wins, the most for any Kubrick film.
In 1980, Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s The Shining into a motion picture that starred Jack Nicholson as the hotel caretaker who goes mad from isolation. And as it was the case with most of his movies, The Shining was met with initial mixed reviews, only to grow into critical acclaim over time. Seven years later, Kubrick adapted Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers into Full Metal Jacket (1987). Jacket was split into two equally harrowing parts, exposing us first to the most realistic feeling boot camp before transporting us to the horrors of warfare. He received his 13th and final nomination (Adapted Screenplay) for Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick’s final completed film was Eyes Wide Shut (1999), an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story novella, following the sexual encounters and infidelities of real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, playing married socialites mixed up in a dangerous game. Stanley Kubrick died in his sleep from a heart attack on March 7, 1999, only a few days after he finished editing Eyes Wide Shut. His biographer, Michel Ciment, believed his demise was caused from ”working himself to death trying to complete the film to his liking.”
Years before his death, Kubrick had collaborated with Brian Aldiss on turning his short story about a robot who dreams of being a real boy (a la Pinocchio) into a feature film. After Kubrick’s death, Steven Spielberg collected Kubrick’s notes and rough drafts for the film’s script and eventually brought the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence to the screen in 2001, an ironic year for the final Kubrick-touched work to hit the big screen.
My Circuit 3 for Stanley Kubrick:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971)
What are your three favorite/best Kubrick films? You can view his filmography here.
Tags: circuit 3, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, stanley kubrick, The Shining