The Kubrick Legacy

The news of director Stanley Kubrick’s death in England is a premature finis to an unprecedented career in film.

To legions of fans and wannabe filmmakers, the 70-year-old filmmaker was a master. More than Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Lean or Kurosawa, all of who received the Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement nod, he was in sole control of his world both on and offscreen — unheard of then and definitely unheard of now.

For an actor, a summons to work with Kubrick was the imprimatur on a career.

Tom Cruise, at the height of his Hollywood bankability, and his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, were supposedly ecstatic to give almost two years and a relocation to London for the making “Eyes Wide Shut.” A reputed slave driver on the set, Kubrick’s death from a heart attack instantly gives “Eyes” event film status.

If the film, shot with Kubrick’s customary obsessiveness, rises to the level of “Spartacus,” “2001, a Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange,” his reputation will be safe.

Kubrick would never have been accused of being a warm person. He viewed the world with a sardonic, even cruel detachment.

The son of a Jewish doctor, the Bronx-raised Kubrick moved in what was virtually an all-Jewish circle. Many Jewish kids during that time wanted nothing more than to belong to the mainstream, to become a “real American.” Kubrick wasn’t interested. He didn’t join any school clubs, or show up for football games. He wasn’t even academically driven.

On the occasion of his being honored by the Director’s Guild with its D.W. Griffiths Lifetime Achievement Award, Kubrick, the man Oscar-nominated a dozen times, joked, “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film knows that, although it can be like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

After working as a photographer for Look Magazine in the late 1940s, Kubrick made his film directorial debut with a 16-minute boxing documentary “Day of the Fight.”

His first feature film, “Fear and Desire,” was made in 1953 for a meager $100,000. He followed up his debut with noir classics like “The Killer’s Kiss” and “The Killing.”

In 1960, Kubrick made “Spartacus,” starring Kirk Douglas. Originally intended for director Anthony Mann, the Hollywood epic wasn’t really Kubrick’s style, and he complained about its “pretty dumb script.” But under his direction, “Spartacus” proved that a historical epic could involve real emotions and believable human beings.

In 1961, Kubrick went to England to make “Lolita,” and decided to stay. Fear of flying restricted Kubrick’s movements and, by the late 1960s, kept him isolated in a walled mansion outside of London, where he found sanctuary and anonymity. But his anxieties didn’t limit his artistic courage. From that time on, he made his films according to his own set of rules: No studio interference.

From his empire outside London, Kubrick crafted some of his most important films, including “Dr. Strangelove,” and “A Clockwork Orange,” in which he anticipated an urban future of violent youth.

Whether dubbed a success or failure, every Kubrick film was different. From 1980’s “The Shining,” with its dark claustrophobic hotel and Jack Nicholson’s disturbing star turn, to 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket,” a Vietnam horror story, Kubrick illustrated a leap inconceivable to any other director.

Kubrick’s relationship to World War II and the Holocaust was complicated. After marrying two Jewish women — the first his high school sweetheart, the second an Austrian refugee ballerina — he wed German actress Christiane Harlan, whom he met when he cast her as a young German girl in “Paths of Glory.” The daughter of two opera singers and third generation of a family of musicians and artists, Harlan had also been a member of Hitler Youth, and her uncle made the infamous Nazi propaganda film “Jew Suss.”

Nevertheless, Kubrick was proceeding with his film project on the Nazi conquest of Europe. He acquired a suitable property — Louis Begley’s 1991 novel “Wartime Lies,” set in Poland. He was to have begun shooting in Denmark in 1994 when Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” pre-empted him — just as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” had stolen “Full Metal Jacket’s” thunder.

The project was dropped and Kubrick moved on to “Eyes Wide Shut.” According to Warner Bros. executives who viewed the final cut just a few weeks ago, Kubrick deemed the film complete. Early obituaries have quoted Kubrick as being ecstatic over the film, considering it his best. Nothing better characterized Kubrick than the hoary old Hollywood joke that gets updated for each generation of young filmmakers:

“Steven Spielberg dies and goes to heaven. Greeted by St. Peter, he spots a man with a thick beard, thinning hair and glasses pedaling a bicycle.

Spielberg: Isn’t that Stanley Kubrick?

St. Peter: No that’s God. He only thinks he’s Stanley Kubrick.”

Ivor Davis, who writes a weekly column distributed worldwide by The New York Times Syndicate, has covered the entertainment industry for more than 25 years.