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Stanley Kubrick, Cinema's Unsurpassed Cynic, Dies

By Sharon Waxman and T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 8, 1999; Page A1

   


Stanley Kubrick, AFP
Film director Stanley Kubrick died in his home in Hertfordshire near London. (AFP)
Stanley Kubrick, the adventurous moviemaker who took audiences from Spartacus's slave revolt in ancient Rome through Dr. Strangelove's Cold War fantasies and on to distant worlds in the year 2001, died yesterday as he was finishing the final cut of a long-awaited new film.

Police were called Sunday afternoon to the 70-year-old director's rural home in Hertfordshire in London's northern suburbs. Kubrick's family said nothing about the cause of death; Hertfordshire police issued a brief statement saying, "There are no suspicious circumstances." Kubrick's death was utterly unexpected; a friend who spoke with him Saturday night said there was no indication anything was wrong.

His movies were often as controversial as they were unique, and just as often came later to be regarded as cinematic monuments that resonated through American popular culture.

The notoriously reclusive American-born director, who rarely left London, his adopted home, created "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Dr. Strangelove," "Lolita" and "Full Metal Jacket," treating themes as diverse as war, pedophilia, the tyranny of technology, the nature of madness and the nuclear age.

For more than three decades, the opening of a Stanley Kubrick film has been an event, and the planned July 16 release of his final effort "Eyes Wide Shut," starring Hollywood's first couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman may be the biggest ever. Kubrick had completed enough of the film about sexual obsession to allow an editor to bring a copy last Tuesday to New York, where Warner Bros. chiefs Bob Daly and Terry Semel along with stars Cruise and Kidman were allowed a first glimpse. The film was then immediately returned to London.

"He was on Cloud 98. He was very, very excited. Obviously I'm really happy that he got to see how we all reacted to the movie he made," Semel said. He talked to Kubrick by phone for an hour on Saturday night. "But if you'd have said to me he was either sick or God knows what, that the next morning I would find out he died I would never have dreamt that."

In the film, Cruise and Kidman play psychologists who are married but cheat on each other with their own patients. Cruise reportedly wears a dress in one scene.

To work with Kubrick, Cruise and Kidman moved to London and enrolled their children in school there. Filming took 15 months one of the longest shooting schedules in recent movie history and the meticulous Kubrick then spent months editing and re-editing.

Semel said Kubrick's passing would not delay the film. "Short of one or two minor things, the movie was finished. It would not, nor does it need to be, cut in any way," he said.

Cruise and Kidman issued a statement saying they were "devastated" and "in shock." "He was a genius, a dear friend and we will greatly miss him," they said.

Kubrick's family he lived with his third wife, Christiane, with whom he had three daughters said there would be no further comment.

Malcolm McDowell, who starred in "A Clockwork Orange," issued a statement through his publicist saying Kubrick "was the last great director of that era. He was the big daddy."

His work has also been an inspiration to many independent filmmakers. Tony Kaye, director of "American History X," said "Eyes Wide Shut" was the only film he was looking forward to seeing this year, since he knew it would be Kubrick's vision alone. "It was the only thing the meddlers couldn't get their hands on," he said.

In an industry known for its formulaic scripts and heavily marketed concepts, Kubrick was one of the few true renegades. He worked in total secrecy on his projects, often serving as his own producer, screenwriter and cinematographer, and maintained absolute artistic control over his films from start to finish. He refused to travel for his films since the 1960s, and instead re-created elaborate sets in England notably a war-ravaged Vietnamese city in an abandoned gasworks for "Full Metal Jacket" rather than shoot on location.

Kubrick "has shown more imagination with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town," wrote Time magazine in 1955. Few critics have differed with this view in the years that followed.

His films have produced a litany of indelible cultural images, whether it was "HAL," the humanlike computer in "Space Odyssey," the mad gesticulations of Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove," or the manic face of Jack Nicholson hissing, "Heeere's Johnny" in "The Shining."

If there were an Oscar for Most Influential Space Film, Kubrick's "Space Odyssey" would probably have won it in a walk. The powerful movie, with minimal dialogue and a plot that trailed off mysteriously into dark corners of space and time, set the mold for space movies ever since and incidentally restored a forgotten Richard Strauss tone poem, "Also Sprach Zarathustra," to a prominent place in the repertoire of symphony orchestras around the world.

The film brought Kubrick his lone Oscar, which was not for directing but for the film's special effects.

His work often fell into categories between drama and black comedy, so that critic Pauline Kael called "Lolita," Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's disturbing novel about a pedophile, "black slapstick, and at times it's so far out that you gasp as you laugh."

Born in the Bronx, Kubrick was a largely self-educated man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He performed poorly in high school, but by age 17 had landed a job as a photographer with Look magazine. He also took literature courses at Columbia University taught by Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren and played chess for money.

In 1951 he made his first film, a 16-minute short for RKO called "Day of the Fight," and quit his job at Look. In 1953 he made a 30-minute union documentary called "The Seafarers," then raised $13,000 to finance his first feature movie, "Fear and Desire."

In 1956 Kubrick went to Hollywood, where he teamed with James B. Harris and made his first real studio film, "The Killing." The next year he made his first critically acclaimed movie, "Paths of Glory," which starred Kirk Douglas. In 1959, Douglas recruited Kubrick to direct "Spartacus," the classic story of a slave revolt in ancient Rome. He vowed it would be the last film he made without full artistic control and it was.

In 1962, Kubrick made "Lolita," which, because of its controversial story, could not be filmed in this country. Kubrick made it in England, where he settled and made the rest of his movies.

The hilarious and macabre "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" followed in 1964. Featuring George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers in a variety of roles, it became both a cult and commercial hit. For that film, Kubrick received Oscar nominations as co-author, producer and director.

He was also nominated for screenwriting, direction and Best Picture in 1971 for "A Clockwork Orange," based on the Anthony Burgess novel; the film was panned by many critics because of its violence and sexual content.

On all of his films, Kubrick became renowned for his attention to detail. The Guinness Book of World Records notes that Kubrick has the dubious honor of demanding the most retakes of any scene: 127 takes for Shelley Duvall in "The Shining." The director's demanding style meant that many actors clamored to work with him a first time, but few did so again.

In a rare interview with The Washington Post in 1987, Kubrick disdainfully noted that he expected actors to know their lines cold before acting in a scene. "You cannot think about your lines and act," he said. "Some actors and those are usually the ones who go back to L.A. and do interviews about what a perfectionist I am don't go home after shooting, study their lines and go to bed. They go out, stay out late and come in the next morning unprepared."

In the same interview, Kubrick said his love of movies came from seeing early films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, movies by Erich von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.

"I was star-struck by these fantastic movies," he said. "I was never star-struck in the sense of saying, 'Gee, I'm going to go to Hollywood and make $5,000 a week and live in a great place and have a sports car.' I was really in love with movies. I used to see everything at the RKO in Loew's circuit, but I remember thinking at the time that I didn't know anything about movies. But I'd seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, 'Even though I don't know anything, I can't believe I can't make a movie at least as good as this.' And that's why I started, why I tried."

Waxman reported from Los Angeles, Reid from London. Staff writer Richard Pearson in Washington also contributed to this report.

   

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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