By David Schoen
On the 19th anniversary of American movie director Stanley Kubrick’s death and, in his would-be 90th year of existence, a look back at the life of the iconic filmmaker:
Stanley Kubrick was born on July 26th, 1928 in Manhattan, New York City. Although born to a Jewish family, Kubrick was not exposed to a religious upbringing. He lived most of his early life in the affluent neighborhood of The West Bronx. Though somewhat shy as a child, Kubrick liked reading literature, playing chess, and watching baseball in his youth. Stanley Kubrick received a Graflex photography camera from his father for his 13th birthday and spent hours taking photographs and studying films in his early teens. He attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941-1945, and upon graduation was chosen as his high school’s official photographer.
For income, Kubrick would play chess for money in New York City chess clubs. By the summer of 1945, Kubrick had also sold a couple of photographic series to Look magazine and became a full-time staff photographer there by 1946. Kubrick liked to emulate stories in his photography. In 1946, Kubrick staged a fight between a couple in his series “A Short Story from a Movie Balcony.” Kubrick also covered Portugal boxing matches in the series “Prizefighter,” and Chicago nightlife in the series “Chicago-City of Extremes,” both of which were from 1949. Kubrick’s photography impressed readers at the time of their release and the pictures continue to resonate with modern audiences for their atmospheric, eerie, and black-and-white imagery.
Early films: 1951-1956
Stanley Kubrick learned about self-sufficiency in filmmaking, organizing staff and renting sets all on his own. By the mid-1950s, Kubrick had directed four short documentaries; Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951), Fear and Desire (1953), and The Seafarers (1953). Kubrick funded some of his films with his chess income, overall savings, and the financial help of his family and friends. Kubrick went on to direct the 67-minute film noir Killer’s Kiss in 1955. While receiving a mixed critical response, director Martin Scorsese cited it as a major influence on his 1980 Oscar-winning masterpiece Raging Bull. Kubrick then directed The Killing in 1956, a movie about a group of men planning a risky racetrack robbery based on Lionel White’s novel “Clean Break” and the writing of noir novelist Jim Thompson. The film stars Sterling Hayden and its nonlinear storyline was an influence on the structure of Quentin Tarantino’s famous 1994 neo-crime film Pulp Fiction. Though the film made little money, critics have generally praised the film and modern critics cite The Killing as one of the best works of Kubrick’s early directorial career. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Dore Schary was so impressed with The Killing that he gave Kubrick $75,000 to aid the production of his next film.
The Kirk Douglas films: 1957-1960
Kubrick’s next film was based off of a 1935 antiwar Humphrey Cobb novel. The film follows a French army unit ordered on an impossible mission during World War I and the resulting war trial of the group (led by commanding officer Colonel Dax) for misconduct. The 1957 film, shot in Munich, stars Kirk Douglas in the leading role as Colonel Dax and is titled Paths of Glory. Paths of Glory earned Kubrick critical acclaim, eventually being nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film (it wound up losing to The Bridge on the River Kwai). The realistic war scenes, dramatic sequences, and innovative black-and-white camerawork in Paths of Glory were all praised by many critics, and the film became Kubrick’s first commercial success, ultimately establishing him as a promising young film director. In early 1959, Kirk Douglas called Kubrick asking him to direct Spartacus, an epic film based on Spartacus’s life during the Third Servile War. Douglas starred in the main role and produced the film, casting stars such as Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis. Spartacus was released in 1960 to critical acclaim from mainstream media. Critics praised the film’s large panoramic scenes and fight sequences. The box office tallies for Spartacus were nearly five times larger than its budget. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, one of them being the Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov in the role of Lentulus Batiatus. Despite the film’s reception mostly being positive, Douglas and Kubrick constantly battled each other for control over the film’s artistic direction and script faithfulness. Spartacus marked the last time Kubrick and Douglas collaborated on a film together. However, the film’s success convinced Stanley Kubrick that, notwithstanding a difficult production, he could achieve anything.
The Peter Sellers films: 1962-1964
The next film Stanley Kubrick directed was Lolita in 1962, an adaptation of Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov’s classic 1955 novel of the same name. Kubrick decided to make Lolita in England and directed the movie as a dark comedy. Kubrick would remain in England and produced all of his future films in the country. Lolita, coinciding with the book’s storyline, depicts a middle-aged college professor becoming infatuated with a 12-year old girl, the titular character. Kubrick cast famous British actors such as James Mason and Peter Sellers in pivotal roles within the movie. Kubrick also cast American actresses for the film, such as Shelley Winters and the 14-year old Sue Lyon as Lolita. Kubrick removed much of the promiscuous elements from the book, but the film still generated controversy for its provocative storyline and impure allusions. As a result, Lolita was not really a successful film commercially. However, recent critics have praised its combination of pathos and comedy. Film critic Gene Youngblood stated that Lolita marked a turning point from “naturalistic” tones to elements of “surrealism” in Kubrick’s films. Kubrick used both his fear and confusion with The Cold War as the basis for his next project. This film was titled Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, (commonly referred to as Dr. Strangelove), based on Peter George’s Cold War novel “Red Alert.” Though Kubrick originally planned for Dr. Strangelove to be a serious political thriller, he worked with satirical author Terry Southern to write the script as a dark comedy. Kubrick cast Peter Sellers in three prominent roles, including the fictitious United States President Merkin Muffley. Kubrick also cast character actors George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, and James Earl Jones in Dr. Strangelove. Though having conflicting opinions on certain scenes, actor George C. Scott and Stanley Kubrick played chess in-between takes, with Scott later commenting that he respected Kubrick immensely for his chess-playing skills. Released in 1964, Dr. Strangelove garnered mixed opinion upon release. However, as with many of Kubrick’s films, critical reception has improved over time. Modern critics have praised the performances of Sellers, Scott, and Pickens while also commending the film’s use of irony. The film was ranked the third-greatest comedy of all time by the American Film Institute.
Polarizing cinema: 1968-1980
Kubrick spent nearly five years developing his next project, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the science fiction writings of Arthur C. Clarke. The movie follows a group of astronauts and their voyage to Jupiter with the lifelike computer HAL. The movie stars Keir Dullea as Dr. David Bowman. The film also features actors Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and the voice of Canadian actor Douglas Rain for the role of HAL. 2001: A Space Odyssey includes minimal dialogue and few actors, instead relying upon classical music, dreamlike imagery and spectacular special effects to advance its story. The film permeates with themes regarding human evolution, technological development, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life. 2001: A Space Odyssey is largely recognized as a groundbreaking film due to its unorthodox narrative structure, scientifically accurate depiction of space, and pioneering visual imagery. Filming the movie lasted from December 29th 1965 to December 1st 1967. The film was released in spring 1968. 2001: A Space Odyssey was Kubrick’s first colorized movie since his 1960 movie Spartacus and includes vibrant graphics in the latter half of the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey also won Stanley Kubrick his only personalized Oscar, an Academy Award for Visual Effects. The film served as a big influence on the Star Wars movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though initially receiving mixed reactions from audiences in 1968 for its slow pacing, 2001: A Space Odyssey gradually grew a cult following and is now regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.
While working on Dr. Strangelove, Terry Southern gave Kubrick the 1962 Anthony Burgess novella “A Clockwork Orange.” Though initially being confused by the novella’s fictitious Nadsat language (a mix of cockney rhyming slang and Slovakian-Russian terms), Kubrick felt persuaded to make a film version of the book. The film, like the novella, deals with a dystopian future filled with juvenile delinquency and the government’s strategy to rehabilitate a rebellious teenager. Kubrick saw actor Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film if…. and cast him to play the main character Alex in the film A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick also cast Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke, Michael Bates, Anthony Sharp, Madge Ryan, and Aubrey Morris in the movie. The film was shot over the winter of 1970-1971 on a small budget and eventually was released in late 1971. The film’s realistic depiction of violence and government corruption ultimately made it one of the most controversial films ever made. An infamous “Singin’ in the Rain” scene from the film was blamed as the influence of a few copycat crimes across England in the early 1970s. As a result, Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from Britain in 1973, and A Clockwork Orange remained legally unwatchable there for 27 years until it was re-released after Kubrick’s death. Despite its controversial nature of glorifying violence, A Clockwork Orange was a hit with American audiences, eventually earning four Oscar nominations. When director William Friedkin won Best Director for The French Connection that year, he defended A Clockwork Orange, stating that he felt Kubrick was “the best American filmmaker of the year. In fact, not just this year, but the best, period.” The film remains a very powerful essay on youthful rebellion and continues to be praised by international critics today.
Stanley Kubrick’s next project was titled Barry Lyndon, based on the 1844 William Makepeace Thackeray novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”, a book about an 18th century social-climbing Irish rouge trying to become a rich Anglo citizen. Kubrick began filming Barry Lyndon in 1973 and chose Ireland as the primary filming location due to its preservation of many buildings from the 18th century. After receiving death threats from the Irish Republican Army in early 1974, Kubrick relocated to filming in England and finished the project there. Kubrick chose Ryan O’Neal to portray the film’s lead and also cast Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leon Vitali, and Philip Stone in the movie. Kubrick used Zeiss camera lenses (developed by NASA) and made use of surrounding candlelights to light many of the film’s scenes, both of these techniques stressing natural lighting to emulate the appearance of 18th century paintings. Barry Lyndon was released in late 1975. The film was not successful at the box office due to its failure to attract American audiences in lieu of its three-hour length. Despite this, Barry Lyndon won four out of seven Oscar nominations and has been receiving critical acclaim from modern critics.
Kubrick then decided to film a movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The book and film both depict a writer acting as a winter caretaker at a big and isolated hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Like the novel, the film concerns the writer bringing his wife and son to stay with him at the hotel, and eventually follows the supernatural powers of the son, the writer’s descent into madness, and the hotel’s paranormal activity. Kubrick relied heavily upon the newly-invented Steadicam and its operator (Garrett Brown) to film smooth, handheld operated shots to imply the hotel’s eeriness. The Shining stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers. The Shining was released in May 1980 to a strong box office, earning $1 million in its opening weekend and nearly $31 million in America by the end of the year. Though being deemed a box office success, The Shining opened to relatively mixed reviews. Stephen King originally disliked the film due to its disloyalty with the source novel, but later claimed it is one of his favorite stand-alone movies. The Shining is now considered a horror classic, and its reevaluation in recent years has led to certain scenes from the movie (such as the “Here’s Johnny!” scene) to be deemed iconic film moments.
Later films: 1987-1999
Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film took roughly seven years to make. Kubrick officially put aside his dream project (a film on Napoleon Bonaparte) to work on his second-to-last film. Based on Gustav Hasford’s Vietnam War novel “The Short-Timers,” Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket follows the experiences of a U.S. Marine Corps platoon under their grueling drill instructor and their efforts in the Tet Offensive. Full Metal Jacket stars Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, and R. Lee Ermey. Kubrick again used Steadicams and natural lighting to depict the realism of the Vietnam War. Shockingly, Kubrick actually filmed the Vietnam War battle scenes in rural England. Full Metal Jacket was a box office success, but the film was critically overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s own Vietnam War drama Platoon. In 1988, the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards named Stanley Kubrick the Best Director and R. Lee Ermey the Best Supporting Actor for their respective work in Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick’s last film starred Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, and was titled Eyes Wide Shut, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella “Traumnovelle.” Both the novella and film center around the psychological developments in sexual fantasies of a married couple. Though “Traumnovelle” took place in early 20th century Vienna, Kubrick changed the script of the movie Eyes Wide Shut so that the film could take place in 1990s New York City. Nearing age 70, Kubrick worked almost 18 hours a day for 15 months to finish the editing of the movie. Shooting the film lasted from late 1996 to early 1998. Stanley Kubrick died on March 7th, 1999 of a heart attack in his sleep. Kubrick never saw the final version of the film. His funeral at his home in Childwickbury Manor was attended by 100 people, mostly family and friends. Kubrick’s final film has generally received mixed reviews from critics since its release.
Personal life and legacy
In his personal life, Stanley Kubrick was married to high-school sweetheart Toba Metz from 1948-1951 and then was married to Ruth Sobotka from 1952-1957. However, when filming Paths of Glory, Kubrick met German actress Christiane Harlan. He cast her in a key scene in the film’s climax and eventually started a relationship with her. The couple married in 1958 and permanently moved from New York City to England in the 1960s when Kubrick was in between filming Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Aside from Christiane having a daughter from a previous marriage, the Kubricks had two daughters together, Anya Renata (1959-2006) and Vivian Vanessa (aged 57 as of December 2017). Vivian Kubrick loved being around her father’s films sets and directed a BBC documentary entitled “The Making of The Shining” in late 1979. Stanley Kubrick remained married to Christiane Kubrick for 40 years until his death. Though Kubrick’s personal life was largely private, he is regarded as a family man with close-kit familial values.
One drawback of Stanley Kubrick’s repertoire is that it had not critically been fully appreciated during his lifetime. Many audiences only grasped his greatness after seeing his films multiple times. Perhaps that’s why Kubrick claimed “the whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art.”