Whose Stanley Kubrick?:
The Myth, Legacy, and Ownership of the Kubrick Image
By Robert J.E. Simpson
[From Stanley Kubrick: Essays on His Films and Legacy ©2008 Edited by Gary D. Rhodes
by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. http://www.mcfarlandpub.com]
Despite the increasing public interest in the director as a kind of star, very few film directors would be easily recognized by the average cinemagoer or even ardent cinephile; the Terry Gilliams and Quentin Tarantinos are few and far between. While most film fans could list at least some of Kubrick’s output (e.g., A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining), only a small number would have any idea what the director of those films looked like. During his lifetime, Stanley Kubrick remained enigmatic – removed from the public gaze, offering (intentionally or not) a public persona that was often likened in tabloid shorthand to an eccentric reclusive genius. The director with a reputation for absolute control on his film sets was also in control of his public image. His few in-depth interviews tended to repeat their content – Kubrick would provide stock answers, elaborating or deviating only slightly each time.[i] He requested (demanded?) final approval before any could be published, a fact that several of the published interviews mention in their text.[ii] The interviews themselves are rife with paradoxes of the man who was a mystery.
After Alfred Hitchcock immigrated to the US from Britain, he actively shaped his own very public image – developing an infamous caricature of himself, appearing in cameos in many of his films and cultivating a popular image through his almost comical appearances in the trailers to his films and through the filmed introductions to his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also contributed to the dissection and analysis of his films by critics the world over, offering much insight into the intentions behind his work.
By comparison Kubrick remained elusive, a name – an ethereal quantity. Like Hitchcock’s work, Kubrick’s were films that cinemagoers would view based on the director’s credit alone (one thinks of the Eyes Wide Shut campaign – “Cruise, Kidman, Kubrick” – putting Kubrick on par with the film’s stars). And yet, the public had no idea who Kubrick actually was. Aside from a few photographs in unauthorized biographies, Kubrick’s face was largely unknown. Released portraits grew even fewer as time went on. In the 1960s, Kubrick moved from the US to England in a reversal of Hitchcock’s career path and continued to make all his films in the UK until his death in 1999, just three days after delivery of the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut. By immigrating to England, it seems that Kubrick was not only seeking more control of his pictures, outside of the influence of the studios, but also looking for security and privacy.
Kubrick moved into a large mansion in the country, complete with a long drive and big fences. He conducted nearly all his business regarding the films by telephone, often late into the night. His colleagues would report having to visit him at his home. By all accounts he was little seen in public, but a vast body of anecdotes about the director’s lifestyle and his working methods did appear in print. Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time producer Jan Harlan makes reference to these stories in his documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (1999), directly engaging with the Kubrick mystique and attempting to counteract it.
Kubrick’s working methods were subject to rumour and his private life was subject to much speculation, with Kubrick providing few comments on either. And yet in the years since his death, a wealth of material has emerged analyzing and presenting what we now perceive to be the “real” Stanley Kubrick. This essay is concerned with Stanley Kubrick’s public image, engaging with the problem that a man who was intensely private in his lifetime has become increasingly revealed to the world. While the paper will not provide a definitive answer to the questions surrounding the motivations behind this exposure, it is hoped that by voicing them some important debate may be stimulated.
Kubrick’s Working Practice
Kubrick not only attempted to control his biographical details in his limited number of interviews, but he also attempted to manage details of his working practices. While Kubrick was alive, only a few accounts of his on-set approaches to filmmaking were available, and they were generally brief. Those that were published raise awareness of the essential problem inherent in all authorised accounts of Kubrick’s life and career; Kubrick’s established method was to have final approval on all publications that sought his cooperation. As for those texts subjected to his approval, we know that he is in clear control of the image that we receive and our understanding of the man and his methods.
In his own interviews, Kubrick generally refused to talk about his methodology, he resisted indepth conversations about his early experiences in film production in the 1950s, and he spurned discussion of the influence of other directors.[iii] During his lifetime, he collaborated on only one documentary film about his work, Making of The Shining (1980), filmed by his then seventeen-year-old daughter Vivian and broadcast on the BBC as part of the Arena documentary strand. This half hour film (edited down from over 40 hours of footage) is vital for its glimpses of Kubrick at work that both support and reject the established myths concerning the director’s working practice. Perhaps this is even a further example of Kubrick’s control over his own image. In watching Making of The Shining, the viewer might assume that the documentary shows a frank and open depiction of the director. Indeed, the involvement of his family in the production might have meant that Kubrick was less guarded than he would normally be. But we must consider the other possibility, that the film was a careful attempt to control and solidify the Kubrick image: we are shown just enough of the control to be humbled by the director’s skill, and just enough of a human side to warm to Kubrick as a personality.
In Making of The Shining, Kubrick rows with Shelly Duvall, the director growing increasingly frustrated by the actress’s complaints and apparent inability to follow simple instruction.[iv] By contrast, he is shown working amicably on the set with Jack Nicholson, composing the shots for one scene on an ad hoc basis. The viewer is brought into Kubrick’s home, shown sitting around a table with his mother and Nicholson discussing the various colors relating to different drafts of the script, a scene that simultaneously suggests that the script is being repeatedly rewritten.[v]
Is this constant issuing of new script pages a simple case of script changes, or an acute example of Kubrick’s ongoing and absolute control over the script itself, even over the entire production? Similarly his desire to visually compose scenes in the moment, such as when Nicholson’s character is locked in a storage closet, suggests perhaps a director who is so thoroughly prepared that he is able to consider the alternatives in an instant. How does this sit with most received knowledge of Kubrick’s methods, which suggests he is a harsh taskmaster prepared to do fifty takes or more of a scene in order to get a shot right? There is a deliberate contrast in our understanding of Kubrick’s methodologies in these juxtaposed sequences, leaving the viewer without a solid definition of Kubrick’s directing process. Biographer John Baxter claims that Kubrick provided the final cut on his daughter’s film, suggesting that he carefully selected the images of himself for public observation.[vi] Presumably footage that did not support the image he wished to be seen was left on the cutting room floor.
Making of The Shining and the small number of authorized Kubrick interviews then attempted to reconcile the few known facts with the public image of Kubrick the enigma. In other words, it is the lack of knowledge about Kubrick that seems to have inspired descriptions like “recluse.” The term becomes a shorthand explanation for Kubrick, as exemplified in a montage of various magazine and newspaper clippings at the opening of Jan Harlan’s Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures documentary. Kubrick’s daughter Anya argues: “Recluse is a word that gets thrown at him in practically every article, and as far as I can work out, ‘recluse’ must be defined as someone who doesn’t talk to journalists.”[vii]
In the early 21st century, the cinephiles among us read and write in-depth analysis of even the most mundane and disposable of films; the popularity of home cinema means the ability to view and re-view films; the development of DVD means endless extra features, such as alternate edits of films, deleted scenes, production stills, commentary audio tracks from critics, “making of” featurettes, and the like. There has been criticism amongst Kubrick’s fans for the lack of additional representation of his work on the format. During the 1990s, Kubrick chose not to release supplemental features or audio commentaries for the laserdisc issues of his films,[viii] and even now Kubrick’s earliest films (which he allegedly suppressed from public view) are conspicuous in their absence.[ix] His reluctance to discuss his work in more detail, as well as his evident desire to maintain his personal privacy, resulted in the inaccessibility of archival materials. According to Jan Harlan, Kubrick personally supervised the destruction of the outtakes from his films (with the exception of the material from Eyes Wide Shut, which will not be released) during the mid-1990s. Harlan added: “Unless some bright spark at the lab or archive duped them before that, they’re all gone.” [x]
Existing evidence supports the idea of Kubrick’s exacting control over his body of work, almost treating each final cut of the film like a final painting, a masterpiece in its own right. We know from contemporary accounts that editing decisions were often made between the previews and first runs of some of his films, even during the run themselves. 2001 was shorn of approximately twenty minutes of material during its opening weeks, for example.[xi] Historians and theorists are denied the opportunity to analyse the various footage captured for given films and thus infer something about Kubrick’s choices for his final cuts. Instead we can only view what he wanted us to view – the final draft. His attempt at control, exhibited in the “authorized” interviews, had extended to his body of work as well. But like any effort to exert control, it was met with challenges.
In August 1998, the English magazine Punch published an article in which they employed the services and opinion of a professional psychologist who claimed that Stanley Kubrick was clinically insane. While many bizarre and unfounded stories had circulated concerning Kubrick for years, this marked a change in the Kubrick mythology, directly casting doubts on Kubrick’s mental state. In an unprecedented move, Kubrick took Punch to court for libel. The exact reasons for the legal action were given as follows:
The British satirical magazine Punch has vowed to defend itself against a libel suit filed by Stanley Kubrick. … The article remarked, “There’s a thin line between being an artistic perfectionist and being a barking loon.” James Steen, editor of Punch, told the London Independent on Sunday: “The lawsuit is just laughable, and I’m surprised it started in the first place.” The newspaper also quoted a magazine insider as saying, “Punch is not The Lancet the medical journal. We’re not saying he’s clinically insane. What is means is he’s a well-meaning eccentric.”[xii]
The Punch article moves beyond acceptable boundaries of speculation for Kubrick into the realm of deliberate provocation. It is only when Kubrick’s sanity is questioned that he finally speaks out.
Warner Brothers executive Rick Senat was a frequent advisor to the Kubricks and opted to clarify details of the Punch case in June 1999.[xiii] As the proceedings were private, we are dependent on the limited reporting by Senat to reveal the workings of the case. According to his article, the offending phrase printed by Punch was: “We’re hearing stories that suggest Kubrick is even more insane than psychiatrists have led us to believe.” Senat also noted Punch filed a defense stating Kubrick: “was autocratic, eccentric and difficult to work with. It based this defense on a hundred or so stories from a variety of newspaper articles and poorly researched books…”[xiv] On March 4, 1999, Kubrick appealed to have the case struck out and “Punch’s defenses of justification and fair comment were struck out. Costs were awarded against Punch….” Despite the verdict of the courts:
To this day the journalists at Punch have treated the whole affair as a trifling matter driven by lawyers, but never once apologized for grossly offensive remarks. On the contrary, in the first issue of Punch after Kubrick’s death, it misleadingly suggested that it had a defense which would have been heard later this year, failing to mention that its defense had been struck out.
Press reports at the time centered on the possible public appearance of Stanley Kubrick. In its obituary, The Scotsman claimed “Kubrick’s death comes before he was due to make his first public appearance in decades at the High Court in London where he was pursuing a libel action against Punch magazine.”[xv] The idea of the “recluse” entering into the public sphere had captured the imagination of journalists, who had so often been denied access to the man himself.
During the trial itself just three weeks earlier many of the newspapers were already providing obituary-like career summaries in lengthy articles partially concerned with the trial. The Sunday Times dubbed him “…a legendary recluse who has not given an interview for more than 25 years,” which was very definitely an error. [xvi] Kubrick had conducted interviews after each and every one of his films including Full Metal Jacket in 1987, a mere 12 years before his death. According to his daughter Katharina: “In May, after Stanley died, Punch wrote that he went into the garden and shot some picknickers and then gave the picknickers loads of money that he just happened to have around his person so they wouldn’t say anything.”[xvii]
Eyes Wide Open
A key turning point in discussions of the “real man” is not Stanley Kubrick’s death and the release of Eyes Wide Shut, but the publication of a short non-fiction work by Frederic Raphael, the screenwriter of Kubrick’s final film, entitled Eyes Wide Open. [xviii] Eyes Wide Open recounts Raphael’s version of his collaboration with Kubrick; the released book provoked vitriol from many members of the film community.[xix] Its form is a peculiar blend of recalled conversations in the style of a film script, juxtaposed with apparent diary entries and prose reminiscence. Some have taken it as a revealing look at the director. Others believe it is a spiteful, warped picture of Kubrick, the author seemingly complaining about the prolonged late-night phone-calls and Kubrick’s extreme paranoia about Raphael’s contract. Kubrick refuses to tell Raphael the name of the source material for the novella on which the film script is to be written (even though Raphael retrospectively claims he recognizes it).[xx] His contract stipulates that Raphael must not work on any other writing duties whilst employed on the film, even down to simple book reviews, and he reacts negatively to Raphael’s passing on a copy of his script to his agent for safekeeping before showing it to Kubrick.
That the Kubrick estate should have been so upset by the book and pushed for its withdrawal is interesting. Eyes Wide Open was, from the tone of the text, in preparation while Kubrick was still alive; the last two pages of the book read like a rushed update on progress in order to get the book to publication as soon as possible following Kubrick’s death, with only the last paragraph his demise. Despite a long-held policy that refrained from commenting on speculations and rumours surrounding Stanley Kubrick, the Kubrick family chose to speak out to the press on publication of the book.
In a statement on her official website at the time, Kubrick’s widow Christiane rebuked the entirety of Raphael’s text in the following statement:
In violation of that trust and in breach of what would be regarded by many as a normal professional duty of confidence, Mr. Raphael announced the publication of his memoirs within days of Stanley’s death…. The timing of the publication of the book was clearly intended to take advantage of the publicity build up immediately prior to the opening of the film Eyes Wide Shut.
We believe that Mr. Raphael … has in fact denigrated Stanley and unjustly caused pain to those who knew him well.
…insofar as this family is concerned, Mr. Raphael’s analysis of Stanley’s personality bears no relation to the man we knew and loved so well.[xxi]
When Kubrick died, he in many ways remained a mystery. His survivors clearly did not want Raphael’s depiction, coming so soon after his death, to crystallize into the “truth” behind that mystery.
Alexander Walker, a film critic for The Evening Standard who had been collaborating with Kubrick on a biography before his death, became one of the first to attack Raphael’s tome.[xxii] Walker likened Raphael’s book to a love story, but one of unrequited love; he finds fault with Raphael’s inadequate knowledge of French (a knowledge which Raphael boasts about possessing) and his over-analysis of Kubrick’s communications. In one paragraph, Walker states:
This is a sad little book, jam-packed with lapidary phrases, but devoted so frequently to embittered stone throwing. What began as a chance to serve genius – better than diving in to that moat in Zenda, eh, Fred? Degenerates into a vulgar dick-measuring contest: show me your genius and I’ll show you mine. Only Kubrick won’t play. He keeps his zipped up. “I have the whore’s consolation,” Raphael notes proudly, “whatever I am, he chose me.”
Even that may be more curse than favour.
A dim consciousness of this appears: “Pray God my epitaph won’t be, ‘He worked with Stanley Kubrick. Once.’” But the harm is done.[xxiii]
Harmful or not, Raphael’s book was the first key text to emerge after Kubrick’s death.
In the weeks and months immediately following Kubrick’s death (in particular the interviews with Jan Harlan and Christiane Kubrick in The Daily Mail[xxiv] and Sight and Sound[xxv]), the estate raised major objections to Raphael’s work. Close reading of the Kubrick estate’s apologias and Raphael’s tome suggests an attempt was made to discredit the screenwriter. But discrepancies emerge between what Raphael is alleged to have said and the actual text of his manuscript. At times Raphael has been misrepresented in reports, even if only in minor ways. For example, much has been made of Raphael’s apparent allegation that Kubrick was anti-Semitic. However, Eyes Wide Open does not make that direct charge, and it seems that Raphael’s thoughts on that subject were exaggerated by a New York Post article published days before the release of his book.[xxvi] Regardless, it was perhaps Raphael’s own newspaper column and other related publicity that became the source of more ire than the actual contents of his Eyes Wide Open.
When asked by Nick James what Kubrick biographies were the most unreliable, Christiane Kubrick named Raphael without further elucidation on the matter.[xxvii] In an interview with The Mail on Sunday she details clearly the reasons she finds the book “reprehensible.”[xxviii] As her website affirms, the family remain outraged that Raphael was “pitching it to publishers not long after Stanley died.” She also suggests that Raphael’s work incorrectly portrays the family home. “He describes Kubrick as a ‘scruffy little man,’ and our two rather elegant tiled guest lavatories as a ‘row of urinals.’” [xxix]
In Eyes Wide Open, Raphael actually describes the toilet facilities as follows:
I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind a pee myself.’
He led me along corridors and down steps and around corners and into the kind of facility you would expect to find in a clubhouse. There were two separate cubicles side by side. As he went to leave, I said, ‘How do I find my way back?’
‘Stick to the left-hand wall,’ he said, ‘You’ll get back finally.’
The house … It seemed nothing like a home whatever. It was a vast shell for the shrewd snail who found protection in it.[xxx]
While the description of the facilities as urinals doesn’t appear in the actual text of the book, the passage itself could well be read as cruel. Elsewhere he describes Kubrick as “vain and self-effacing” and as having blue overalls and frail white hand,[xxxi] both comments being as potentially demeaning as the depiction of a “scruffy little man.”
In his original New York Times article, Raphael’s tone is even more insulting: “He was wearing blue overalls with black buttons, he might have been a minor employee of the French railways. He was a smallish, rounded man… His hands were curiously delicate and white.”[xxxii] Raphael also adds the following anecdote:
Kubrick said, “Do you like New Zealand wine?”
He was already opening a bottle. Again, I was aware of his delicate white hands. As he strained at the cork, I remembered Billy Wilder’s doing the same thing and saying, “Forty five years of masturbation, and I still don’t have a muscle in my hand.”
It should be a witty story, but–in the context of Raphael’s article–it seems more like a jibe at Kubrick and his perceived shortcomings.
Raphael’s newspaper article also reveals the source of the “urinal” comment, in which he says:
[Kubrick] led me along corridors and down steps and around corners and into the kind of facility you would expect to find in a clubhouse. There were two cubicles side by side and a row of urinals. As he went to leave, I said, “How do I get back?”
“Stick to the left-hand wall,” he said. “And keep coming.”
… It seemed nothing like a home whatever. It was a vast shell for the shrewd snail who found protection in it. Something about Kubrick’s house had the allure of Bluebeard’s castle. One did not know, or care to guess, how many screenwriters had died and been buried in its recesses.[xxxiii]
In death Kubrick has no control over Raphael or approval over these comments, and so Raphael is free to write as he pleases. That the Kubrick estate conflated what he wrote in his newspaper article and in Eyes Wide Open may very well be a minor point, but it might also suggest that negativity towards to article led to a slightly softer tone in the book.
At first glance, it is possible to argue that Christiane Kubrick and Jan Harlan embark on a series of interviews after Kubrick’s death (which continue to the present) in order to correct the myths of the past and to assert their own impressions, but closer examination shows us that Christiane had been battling the myths for more than 30 years by the time of her husband’s death. In a 1973 interview, she said: “Recently the local paper came to see me. It was to do with a fund-raising scheme to help the deaf. Imagine what I felt next day when I saw a headline which said: ‘My Husband Is Not A Beast, says Mrs. Kubrick.’ It was so funny. Stanley is so gentle, such a shy and sensitive person.”[xxxiv]
The same article sets up the role that Christiane will play as the guardian of the Kubrick image:
Stanley Kubrick has found a way of protecting himself against intrusion. Christiane is still vulnerable and can be hurt by clumsy nudgings about her German background and worse, the raw curiosity and preconceived ideas about her husband. But, perhaps unconsciously, she has set herself up as his protector.[xxxv]
In the aftermath of Kubrick’s death and Raphael’s writings, the estate’s role of protecting Kubrick forged ahead in an active manner very different than in 1973, and their task was made more difficult by other, even more questionable publications.
Imposters: Possessing the unknown
In 2004, The Guardian newspaper printed an investigative report by Kubrick’s former assistant Anthony Frewin about Stanley Kubrick’s purported final interview.[xxxvi] The article under scrutiny was credited to journalist Adrian Rigelsford, and the cited interview was supposedly conducted on the set of Eyes Wide Shut. It was published in the TV Times UK television listings magazine just a few months after the publication of Raphael’s book.[xxxvii] The Guardian piece revealed a tangled web of intrigue, at the center of which was the strongly supported belief that the interview itwas a work of fiction and deception; The Guardian journalist had spent some months following up the article and investigating Rigelsford in a bid to discredit him.[xxxviii]
According to the Guardian article, dates and names were verified with the Kubrick estate, but in fact Kubrick had not yet entered into the publicity campaign for Eyes Wide Shut. At the time of his death, he had given no interviews for the film.[xxxix] The final conclusion was that Rigelsford had concocted the entire interview from his imagination. Indeed, Kubrick as a rule didn’t give interviews during the production process. Does the Rigelsford interview content even sound like Kubrick compared to other authentic interviews? Should we even care, given its apparent fiction?
Rigelsford has received much praise for his research, earning a reputation and certain respect for his encyclopaedic knowledge of British film and television, but questions had been raised regarding the authenticity of a number of his interviews even prior to the Kubrick debacle. Doctor Who fans and scholars alike have questioned both his involvement in the aborted 30th anniversary story The Dark Dimesion (1993)[xl], and in an article claiming to carry original Doctor Who star William Hartnell’s last-ever interview. Rigelsford’s connection to controversy was compounded in 2004 when he received an 18 month prison term for the theft of over 40,000 photographs from a photo archive in London.[xli]
Raphael’s texts played with the popular perceptions of Kubrick’s image, an image that does not meet with the family’s approval; at the same time, Raphael did certainly know and work with Kubrick. By contrast, Rigelsford’s project was a complete fraud, developed out of the mythologies that the press had created about Kubrick. The wholly fictitious interview was a bold attempt at possessing and shaping Kubrick’s identity. After Kubrick’s death, Rigelsford apparently believed he was free to offer the creation to the public.
Perhaps Rigelsford was emboldened by the fact that he was not the first person to create a faux-Kubrick. For at least ten years during the 1980s and 1990s, conman and (apparently) reformed alcoholic Alan Conway assumed Kubrick’s identity in public. Film industry professionals, rent boys, and a string of other unsuspecting victims were conned out of thousands of pounds, including a number of men who engaged with Conway in a string of sexual liaisons. Each of them believed he was Kubrick, even though he was a man who bore no physical resemblance to the filmmaker. The con was only possible because Kubrick had been so rarely seen in public, and so few photographs circulated in the public sphere. Perhaps it is indicative of the shallow nature of the entertainment business that the name alone was enough to convince people that they were in the presence of the “real” Kubrick.
Who was this man? Conway was a Londoner, complete with an undisguised English speaking voice, as opposed to Kubrick’s Brooklyn accent. Physically the two could not have been more different. Though they were approximately the same age, Conway was clean-shaven, whereas Kubrick sported a black beard during the time of Conway’s scam. It was only following a run in with an American theatre critic that the fraudulent Kubrick was exposed (though unnamed as yet), following confirmation from the Kubrick estate that they had received several reports about him.[xlii] Newspapers and magazines repeated the rhetoric of Kubrickian anonymity and reclusiveness, and certainly Kubrick’s lack of visual recognition left the name open to abuse. Conway would eventually sell his story to several newspapers, confessing all about his deception.[xliii] By the mid-1990s, he was outed on a BBC television programme,[xliv] still attempting to convince minor celebrities he was Stanley Kubrick.[xlv]
Why did both Rigelsford and Conway attempt in fraudulent ways to control Kubrick’s identity? What was there to gain from pretending to interview a film director, or pretending to be him? Journalist Andrew Anthony has written on the need to have a “real” Kubrick by claiming: “…celebrity abhors a vacuum. If Kubrick did not want to exist in public, then somebody had to invent him.”[xlvi] Both men are tapping into the cult of the film director, a phenomenon that extends the praise, fame and recognition usually reserved for actors and rock stars to the filmmaker, bringing acclaim to themselves by association with the name of Stanley Kubrick. As John Malkovich has suggested: “Like many, Conway would have wished to be other than what he actually was…. Conway wasn’t mentally ill, he was just too ordinary for his dreams.”[xlvii]
Save the Punch magazine incident, Kubrick generally refused to comment on the various rumors about him. Conflicting anecdotes circulated, with Kubrick avoiding them. According to Jan Harlan, Kubrick and his advisors regularly debated about responding to the myths and their inventors, with Kubrick opting for silence. Hence, friends took it upon themselves to involve Vanity Fair in disclosing the truth about Alan Conway. Exposing the con hardly made it disappear, however. Indeed, it has become better known after Kubrick’s death than while he was alive.
Curiously, Alan Conway has become far better known after Kubrick’s death. His story has twice been turned into films, forever granting Conway the fame he desperately sought. The first was the obscure 1999 short documentary The Man Who Would Be Kubrick, in which Conway himself tells the viewer how he came to impersonate the director.[xlviii] Later, a dramatised account of Conway’s story became the basis for the little-seen Colour Me Kubrick (2004). Directed by Kubrick’s longtime collaborator Brian W. Cook and from a script by former Kubrick assistant Anthony Frewin, the film stars John Malkovich as the drunken homosexual Conway, a serial predator whose fiction is brought back to reality when he is tricked over the names of the films he is meant to have directed.
The Man Who Would Be Kubrick shows a rather quiet, unassuming individual seemingly oblivious to the distress he has caused, even going so far as to suggest he could play Kubrick in a film about the director’s life. But in Colour Me Kubrick, Malkovich and Cook have given Conway a series of extravagant and garish outfits, more in keeping with the invention of a camp, homosexual predator than with the actual Conway. Cook’s film attempts to correct the mistakes of the past, but in the process changes Conway’s identity much as Conway affected Kubrick’s reputation with his own identity theft. It is as if those who had to be silent during Kubrick’s life feel able, even obliged, after his death to be the protectors of his name and image.
The Stanley Kubrick Archive
Since Kubrick’s death, the public has become increasingly aware that he maintained a vast personal archive of papers and ephemera collected throughout his lifetime. Elements of it have been released to the public via a series of publications and a touring exhibition.[xlix] Plans also exist to make the entire Kubrick papers available as an academic resource for film scholars: “The Archives will be secured in a new purpose-built Archives and Special Collections Centre on the campus of London College of Communication.”[l] [Update, March 2019: The Archives are at the University of Arts London now house the Kubrick Archive -https://www.arts.ac.uk/students/library-services/special-collections-and-archives/archives-and-special-collections-centre/the-stanley-kubrick-archive]
That the archival material is being released to the public is somewhat in conflict with the private image we have inherited of Kubrick during his own lifetime. Is Kubrick’s image changing, and is he moving from the unknown into the known?[li] Or is this an attempt to control the Kubrick image in a manner similar, but far more proactive, than Kubrick attempted in his own lifetime through the “authorized” interviews and the like? Perhaps this is even an attempt to fend off the Raphaels, the Rigelsfords, and the Conways, an attempt to offer the “truth,” even if only a controlled truth given the careful selection of materials released to the public.
Jan Harlan has admitted that Kubrick had never stated that he wanted his archive to be made public, and agrees that the archive’s release would probably not have happened during Kubrick’s lifetime. But he also adds that Kubrick never directly stated that these materials remain private, a point underscored by the fact that Kubrick did destroy items (such as film outtakes) that he specifically wanted kept from public view.[lii] Indeed, perhaps there is something almost inevitable in the archive being made accessible, for it seems that Kubrick was meticulously cataloguing it during his lifetime for some purpose.
In 1997, journalist Nicholas Wapshott wrote: “[Kubrick’s] proclivity to stash away favourite props from movies and his belief that he is a master film-maker ensure that there is an extensive archive of material at his home in Childwick Bury. When that is eventually opened, we may get close to understanding the tangled brain which brought to life HAL, the Droogs and Jack Torrance.”[liii] Some two years before Kubrick’s death, we have a press account speaking of the archive being “eventually opened.” Perhaps Kubrick was cataloguing it for future view, carefully selecting what would and would not be seen. But even if so, the question remains as to why he did not clearly indicate these intentions.
Journalist Jon Ronson picked up on stories about the Kubrick archive in a 2004 article for The Guardian in which his recounts his regular visits to the Kubrick estate once a month from the time of his first trip in 2001.[liv] He likened his experience to being “in the middle of an estate full of boxes,” with multiple electric gates barring entrance to the property. Kubrick’s organization of his work and his domestic setting are by implication paralleling Kubrick’s persona and mindset, like Russian dolls the layers must be stripped in order to reveal something else inside.[lv] Materials relating to each film are extensively archived; for example, one entire room is devoted to research for Kubrick’s unfulfilled Napoleon project, sporting a cabinet full of 25,000 library cards containing information. Ronson also described hundreds and hundreds of boxes devoted to research for Eyes Wide Shut.
But at least some of this material will never be made available. According to Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire will not be legitimately issued on DVD or other formats because of Kubrick’s express wishes that it should not be. When asked, Harlan has said that he would be happy to see it released, but that it would be against the wishes of his former friend and employer.[lvi] In other words, though Kubrick did not specifically suggest he what (if any) he wanted materials made public, he did specifically prohibit the release of particular items. Kubrick continues to exert control even after his death; at the same time, the estate exerts its control in matters Kubrick did not dictate. The archive is putting Kubrick on public display, but in an expurgated manner.[lvii] Its existence also continues Kubrick’s tradition of authorizing projects endorsed for public view, which implicitly makes a comment on unauthorized projects that exist outside the archive.
Regardless, the archive is gradually making its way into the public sphere through a number of different projects. Jan Harlan’s documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001) provides a 142 minute overview of Kubrick’s work, aided by the use of photographs from the Kubrick family and even brief footage from what years earlier would have seemed unimaginable: Kubrick’s home movies. Christiane Kubrick’s book of the same name, published by Bulfinch Press in 2001, offered dozens of previously-unpublished photos of Kubrick from his childhood to the end of his life. Working with Alison Castle and Taschen, the Kubrick estate has also released a major coffee-table book appropriately titled The Stanely Kubrick Archive. Printed in 2005, the weighty tome features page after page of high-quality reproductions of previously unpublished photographs and ephemera from the archive. Accompanying the book is a CD featuring a lengthy audio interview with Kubrick, again offering the previously-unthinkable: audio of the director’s voice, discussing his life and career. These releases seemingly pave the way for an announced Taschen book on Kubrick’s Napoleon, as well as the papers at the London College of Communication.
The archive is also alive and growing. Since the death of Kubrick, there have been several film projects that can (or at least seek to) claim a Kubrickian authorship. Most famously, Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) had originally been a Kubrick project. Even in newspaper articles of the 1990s, the film was still being discussed as Kubrick’s film before all of his notes are passed on to Spielberg.[lviii] That Spielberg’s A.I. had Jan Harlan serving as executive producer created yet another important link to Kubrick’s estate and archive.
By the end of 2006, a trio of Kubrick’s other unproduced film projects were announced as in development: 1) The Down Slope, a script written with American Civil War historian Shelby Foote; 2) God Fearing Man, a script by Kubrick about a priest who became the biggest bank robber in America, and 3) Lunatic At Large, from an 80-page original treatment for Kubrick by Jim Thompson.[lix] All three projects originate in texts from the 1950s and are now being put into production, creating the paradox of new Kubrick films without Kubrick at the helm; again the question of ownership comes to the fore. Producer Philip Hobbs[lx] does make the assertion: “I remember Stanley talking about Lunatic… He was always saying he wished he knew where it was because it was such a great idea.”[lxi] But considering the precision and time Kubrick spent planning his projects, it seems probable that the projects had been abandoned intentionally.
What we shall learn from Kubrick works revisited and completed some fifty years after their abandonment remains to be seen. Perhaps they will reveal more about the filmmaker, adding new insight to an increasing battery of knowledge that stems from the Stanley Kubrick Archive and other unauthorized sources. Or perhaps they are yet other imperfect pieces in a puzzle that can never be completed. Maybe they are even new creations of a vibrant and growing archive that attempts to own and display the real Kubrick before more Raphaels or Conways have the opportunity to do the same, protecting and serving a man who may or may not have desired to take on these tasks himself.
Kubrick has in death become publicly exposed in a way that in life he never allowed. Discussion of the contradictions between Kubrick’s closed possession of everything about him and the posthumous release of so much information poses some difficulties. For example, more than twenty unofficial books on Kubrick and various components of his work have appeared since the director’s death in 1999, and bootleg DVDs of Fear and Desire and the short films from Kubrick’s fledgling moments are regularly traded between fans and admirers. In addition the Kubrick estate has authorised several other pieces, including Harlan’s documentary, the travelling exhibition, Castle’s Stanley Kubrick Archive book, a book of Kubrick’s own photography and another compiling the scientific interviews conducted for 2001. In an interview, Jan Harlan suggested that it is unlikely that so much would be available were Kubrick still alive.[lxii]
Ultimately we must ask ourselves once again, just who really does own Kubrick’s image? Is it Kubrick, whose dictates on issues like Fear and Desire continue to be followed even after his death? Is it the estate, with their intimate knowledge of Kubrick in life and in-depth awareness of the unexpurgated contents of his archive? Is it the critics and historians who have amassed reams of material in an investigation of the man and his methods, and who are perhaps less resolute against voices like Raphael’s?
Perhaps in the end the real Kubrick will never be known, and perhaps ownership of the unknown–his image–are the film buffs, the fans, and the collectors. Those persons who track every word printed on Kubrick, and who are thus aware of every resulting contradiction. The myth and legend loom so large after so many years that any new information might in some way be new disinformation. The Kubrick image remains a paradox.
[i] Most of which are now gathered together in Gene D. Phillips, ed., Stanley Kubrick Interviews (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001).
[ii] “In the interest of precision, Kubrick customarily asked an interviewer for the opportunity to read the transcript before it was published. He read the text of an interview with pen in hand, making marginal comments along the way.” Phillips, Gene D. “Introduction,” Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ix.
[iii] It is tempting to suggest that Kubrick seldom gave interviews, however, there is a surprisingly large body of contemporary interviews and discussions with the director, most of which were conducted in the aftermath of a film release. A comprehensive list is available at [http://www.matthewhunt.com/stanleykubrick/interviews.html]. Accessed 2 Jan. 2007.
[iv] Now available on the Warner Bros DVD of The Shining, complete with a commentary by director Vivian Kubrick.
[v] The rhetoric on Kubrick frequently suggests that the director was absolute and unmoving in his vision of the film text, There is however a substantial body of evidence to suggest his on-set working practices were more open to improvisation and spontaneous inspiration. According to Brian Cooke, Assistant Director on Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut: “His method didn’t vary with the films. First of all, he’d write the scene and adapt it according to the actors.” Colour Me Kubrick Press Kit (New York: Magnolia Pictures, 2007) 9.
[vi] John Baxter, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997) 318.
[vii] James 16.
[viii] According to Leon Vitali, interviewed in 2001, “…Stanley just didn’t want much of that to be seen. He wanted the films to really speak for themselves. There was the documentary on The Shining that was shot by his daughter. Since that had been done for TV, he felt that it would be good to include – that it was good.” Qtd. in “Leon Vitali Talks Kubrick on DVD,” The Digital Bits http://www.thedigitalbits.com/articles/kubrick/vitaliinterview.html Accessed 1 Jan. 2007.
[ix] In response to questions about Kubrick’s early films on dvd, Vitali responded: “Well[….] Fear and Desire, I have to tell you, Stanley withdrew from circulation and he never wanted it to be seen again. The documentaries, however, he didn’t mind. He felt indifferent about them, I suppose….
I guess [Warner] could release them. Certainly, there are no plans right now to do so.” Qtd. in “Leon Vitali Talks Kubrick on DVD.”
[As of March 2019 those early films have finally made their way to official releases on DVD and Blu-ray. Things change.]
[x] Harlan, Jan, personal interview 2 Mar. 2006.
[xi] Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (London: Davis-Poynter, 1972) 272; Phillips 77; “Shine On… and Out,” Monthly Film Bulletin 47 (1980) 562.
[xiii] Rick Senat, “Kubrick’s KO Punch,” The Times 8 June1999.
[xiv] Senat’s comments bring up the issue that much of the newspaper reporting which goes on into Kubrick is widely inaccurate and of dubious quality. This paper uses such pieces as source material because I am concerned with the image of Kubrick as is widely accepted, and in a large part this is received through stories in newspapers and the like, inaccurate or not.
[xv] Brian Pendreigh and Conal Urquhart, “Stanley Kubrick, The Eccentric and Genius,” The Scotsman 8 Mar. 1999: 3.
[xvi] “A Recluse Flirts with the Spotlight,” The Sunday Times 14 Feb. 1999.
[xvii] Qtd. in James 15.
[xviii] Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut (London: Orion Media, 1999).
To call Eyes Wide Open a work of non-fiction is heretical in the eyes of some Kubrick followers. Reviews of the book at the time of publication were unanimously scathing, and members of the Kubrick estate have taken the book to task for the author’s invention of factual detail, and a twisted view of Kubrick himself. Questions are asked about the author’s motivations and liberties taken that are “offensive”. The book itself was published in June 1999, just three months after Kubrick’s death.
[xix] Publication of Eyes Wide Open was preceded by an abbreviated account in The New Yorker magazine (Frederic Raphael, “A Kubrick Odyssey,” The New Yorker 14 June 1999), which was itself trailed in newspapers around the world. The uproar surrounding the condensed version of Raphael’s complaints overshadowed the book’s true scope in providing a complete account of working with Kubrick.
[xx] It seems odd that Raphael could not have deduced the identity of the work in question, particularly considering Raphael’s familiarity with Kubrick’s other projects. Eyes Wide Shut was first posited in the 1970s, and along with the aborted Napoleon is referred to on a fairly regular basis in Kubrick interviews.
[xxi] Christiane Kubrick’s Website, http://eyeswideshut.warnerbros.com/ck/ckenglish.htm. Accessed 1 Jan. 2007
The webpage, as of 1 Jan. 2007, has not been updated since 1999 and still carries the declaration “On this website I intend to take the opportunity to confirm the truths about Stanley and correct the inaccuracies.”
[As of 7 March 2019 the website now links to a brief outline of the film and links for purchase as part of the WB catalogue]
[xxii] The eventual text was a slight updating on a well-received earlier biography written with Kubrick’s co-operation: Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs.
[xxiii] Walker, Alexander, “What Was Kubrick Like?”, The Evening Standard 19 July 1999: 47.
[xxiv] Danae Brook, “I Am Sick Of All These Lies About My Husband. They Wounded Me So Much,” The Mail on Sunday 12 Sept. 1999: 32.
[xxv] Nick James, “At Home With the Kubricks”, Sight and Sound 9:9 (1999), 12-19.
[xxvi] Rod Dreher, “Stanley Kubrick, Self-Hating Jew: The Eccentric Director of Eyes Wide Shut as Seen Through ‘The Eyes Wide Open’ of Screenwriter Frederic Raphael,” New York Post 16 June 1999: 59.
[xxvii] James 15.
[xxviii] Brook 32.
[xxix] Ibid 32.
[xxx] Raphael, Eyes Wide Open 36.
[xxxi] Ibid 29, 83.
[xxxii] Raphael, “A Kubrick Odyssey.”
[xxxiv] Ann Morrow, “Christiane Kubrick: Flowers and Violent Images,” The Times 5 Feb. 1973: 10.
[xxxv] Morrow 10.
[xxxvi] Anthony Frewin, “What Stanley Didn’t Say,” The Guardian 20 Nov. 2004: 50.
[xxxvii] Adrian Rigelsford and Kim Meffen, “Kubrick: The Last Interview,” TV Times 4 Sept. 1999. The text of the interview was picked up without question by the AAP Newsfeed and passed on to a global audience.
[xxxviii] Journalist Anthony Frewin actually worked as Stanley Kubrick’s assistant for many years. He penned a number of articles relating to Kubrick in recent years, many connected with the theme for his screenplay Colour Me Kubrick.
[xxxix] According to Jan Harlan, Kubrick was preparing himself for a round of interviews on Eyes Wide Shut, but had not begun to do so at the time of his death. Critic and Kubrick biographer Alexander Walker had been shown an early edit of the film and published an advance review which itself prompted a series of angry comments from an unnamed Warner executive: Alexander Walker, “A Sex Odyssey,” The Evening Standard 22 June 1999: 23; “Standard critic’s Kubrick scoop leaves the web world wide-eyed”, The Evening Standard 24 June 1999: 9.
[xl] Rigelsford wrote the script for the BBC tv project, which was subsequently aborted late in the day. A number of rumours regarding casting and crew and the production process circulate on the internet, most casting doubts on much of Rigelsford’s claims.
[xli] The story was covered across most of the UK national papers and the BBC news website. “Cunning Photo Thief Is Jailed”, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/3839733.stm. Accessed 2 Jan. 2007; “Author faces jail for stealing pictures,” Guardian Unlimited 22 May 2004, http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,1227220,00.html. Accessed 2 Jan. 2007.
[xlii] Frank Rich, “Stanley, I Presume,” The New York Times 15 Aug. 1993: 66.
[xliii] Martin Smith, “Alan Conway Conned Showbusiness Into Believing He Was Famous Director Stanley Kubrick… But It Was All A Fantasy To Support His Lavish Lifestyle,” The Mail on Sunday 17 Mar. 17, 1996: 52.
[xliv] The Lying Game: The Great Pretenders, broadcast 15 May 1997 on BBC1.
[xlv] Additional information on the Conway story: Frank Rich, “As Queer As A Clockwork Orange,” The Guardian 20 Aug 1993: 18; Anthony Frewin, “Someone’s Pretending to Be Me, Kubrick Told Me. You’ve Got to Track Him Down And Stop Him,” The Mail On Sunday 19 Dec. 2004: 47-50.
[xlvi] Andrew Anthony, “The Counterfeit Kubrick,” Guardian Unlimited 14 Mar. 1999, http://film.guardian.co.uk/Feature_Story/Observer/0,,30123,00.html. Accessed 2 Mar. 2007.
[xlvii] Malkovich, Qtd. in Colour Me Kubrick Press Kit 5.
[xlviii] This wasn’t merely a story of complaints about a director who taxed the patience of some but of a lothario who was casting doubts on Kubrick’s professional life and sexuality. Conway would die himself, just a few months before Kubrick, and prior to the broadcast of The Man Who Would Be Kubrick.
[xlix] Full details of the official Stanley Kubrick exhibition, and the tour schedule, which at time of writing has played Frankfurt, Berlin, Melbourne, and is due to go to Zurich and Rome during 2007/8, can be found at The Authorized Stanley Kubrick Exhibition Website, http://www.stanleykubrick.de. Accessed 23 Mar. 2007.
[li] In interviews Christiane Kubrick has discussed the family’s frustration at Stanley Kubrick’s reluctance to publicly refute misconceptions about him, and acknowledged that their wishes may not have been shared by her late husband. “Perhaps he would not have approved of what I am doing now… but I and the entire family are sick of the lies about my husband which gathered a sort of dark momentum in the last years of his life.” Brook 32.
[lii] Harlan, personal interview.
[liii] Nicholas Wapshott, “Stanley on a Knife Edge”, The Times, November 1, 1997. As referenced in Jon Ronson, “Citizen Kubrick.” The Guardian, Saturday March 27, 2004, 16 Wapshott is misquoted with “The good news is Kubrick is a hoarder…There is an extensive archive…” etc.
[liv] Ronson, ‘Citizen Kubrick” 16.
[lv] Ronson describes the sheer volume of material : “There are boxes everywhere – shelves of boxes in the stable block, rooms full of boxes in the main house. In the fields, where racehorses once stood and grazed, are half a dozen portable cabins, each packed with boxes. These are the boxes that contain the legendary Kubrick archive.” Qtd. in “Citizen Kubrick”, The Guardian 27 Mar. 2004, 16.
[lvi] Harlan also contradicted the widely discussed belief that Kubrick’s documentary shorts Flying Padre and Day of the Fight would be similarly suppressed. The documentaries are I was told, owned by Warner and will be released on DVD.
[lvii] In a recent newspaper interview conducted with Christiane Kubrick at the family home, we receive further evidence that the archive has been broken up and not everything will be available to the Kubrick scholar: “…past the creepy feathery masks for Eyes Wide Shut, and into a blood-red library crammed with art books, Thackery, De Sade and the well-thumbed volumes on witchcraft that Stanley Kubrick collected for The Shining.” James Christopher, “He Never Stopped Worrying, or Learnt to Love the Bomb,” The Times 19 Oct. 2006 18.
[lviii] Sources disagree about when the project switched from Kubrick to Spielberg, but the two are said to have had a working relationship collaborating on ideas for the project for many years. According to Jan Harlan in the production notes on the film’s official website: “It simply would have disappeared into the archives if Steven Spielberg had not taken it” http://www.warnerbros.co.uk/video/ai/production.html. Accessed 2 Jan., 2007.
[lix] Ben Hoyle, “Death is no obstacle to Kubrick’s career,” The Times 2 Nov. 2006: 12.
[lx] Hobbs is not only producer on the forthcoming projects, but is also Kubrick’s son-in-law, apparently uncovering the scripts when going through paperwork following Kubrick’s death.
[lxi] Hoyle 12. Curiously this statement would also suggest that Kubrick’s archiving and filing practices weren’t as rigorous as others such as Ronson have inferred. Speculatively this may purely be because of the vastness of the archival hoard and a move from America to the United Kingdom.
[lxii] Harlan, personal interview.