Stanley Kubrick Dies At 70; Director Of Landmark Films

Posted: March 08, 1999

Stanley Kubrick did not live to see the year he so indelibly foretold.

The perfectionist director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and The Shining died yesterday at his St. Albans estate just north of London, apparently of natural causes. He was 70 and had just completed his first release in 12 years, Eyes Wide Shut, a psychosexual drama starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that was three years in the making. The film is scheduled to open July 16.

The Bronx-born filmmaker and former still photographer was the opposite of prolific. In 48 years, he made only 13 movies. But what a 13!

Perhaps because Mr. Kubrick came of cinematic maturity at a time when moviegoers saw fewer and fewer films, he took care that each of his films was an event.

From the high-tech sets of 2001 that modernized interior design to the enhanced sound of A Clockwork Orange that revolutionized movie music to the special lenses used for Barry Lyndon that enabled the director to shoot scenes of his costume drama by candlelight, Mr. Kubrick was a meticulous craftsman whose obsession about every detail raised the level of film artistry.

The exacting filmmaker, who shunned interviews and since 1961, when he moved to England, left his manor only to make movies, likened filmmaking to ``trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park.''

While there is no defining theme unifying Kubrick films, most could be summed up by the title of his 1953 feature debut: Fear and Desire.

Like iron filing to a magnet, Mr. Kubrick was drawn to controversy and taboo. Lolita (1962), adapted by Vladimir Nabokov from his own novel, involves the tragic romance between a professor and his underage stepdaughter. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) dares to satirize American generals who would drop the bomb as guys worried about proving their manhood. A Clockwork Orange (1971), adapted by Anthony Burgess from his book, proposes that a diet of sexually violent imagery might feed society's appetite for sexual violence.

Mr. Kubrick's early films Killer's Kiss (1953) and The Killing (1955) were about thieves and his next two, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), were about insurgent soldiers and insurgent slaves, prompting the filmmaker to quip that he found criminals and soldiers interesting because ``they're doomed from the start.''

To no one's surprise, Eyes Wide Shut, suggested by an Arthur Schnitzler novella, about married psychoanalysts who initiate affairs with clients, has already generated a transatlantic buzz about its sexual explicitness.

* Stanley Kubrick, a doctor's son, was born in the Bronx in 1928. A solitary youth, he spent much of his free time at the movies. He was a teenage chess master and amateur photographer who borrowed his father's Graflex to take candid shots of his schoolmates and neighborhood. He sold his photo of a grief-stricken news vendor surrounded by papers headlining FDR's death to Look magazine in 1945 when he was just 16. Although he enrolled at the City College of New York in 1946, he shortly after dropped out to become a staff photographer for the magazine.

In between taking shots of theatrical celebrities and political personages, Mr. Kubrick educated himself in film by ``religiously'' studying movies shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Still photography was ``too passive,'' thought the young man more challenged by taking pictures that moved. He used his earnings to buy a 35mm camera and make a short, The Day of the Fight, based on one of his Look photo essays about a boxer.

After completing three shorts, he borrowed $50,000 from his father and his uncle to make Fear and Desire (1951), about soldiers caught behind enemy lines reflecting about the meaning of life and about the individual's responsibility to the group. (This theme, with a multimillion-dollar budget, is echoed in 2001.) Although all the major studios rejected it, a small distributor brought it to art houses, where the film, heavier on visual symbolism than narrative coherence, earned mostly positive reviews.

Killer's Kiss (1953), a hallucinatory story that includes a shoot-out in a mannequin factory, was another Kubrick film longer on images than plot. (Quentin Tarantino has said it inspired Reservoir Dogs.) His third film was a charm: The Killing (1955), an edgy account of a robbery at a racetrack, is the first Kubrick film that is memorable for its whole rather than for the images in one sequence.

With The Killing, he got the attention of the majors and signed on to make Paths of Glory (1957), a trenchant World War I-era film starring Kirk Douglas as a colonel who defends soldiers tried for cowardice for refusing to be cannon fodder. Mr. Kubrick's indictment of the military mindset was echoed in Dr. Strangelove. At the time Douglas was so impressed with the young filmmaker that he persuaded Mr. Kubrick to direct Spartacus (1960), starring Douglas as the gladiator who leads a slave rebellion. The movie they made was a classic, a character-driven story in an era of spectacles, but their second collaboration led Douglas to call Mr. Kubrick ``a cold bastard.'' Malcolm McDowell, who starred in A Clockwork Orange, called the filmmaker ``the ultimate control freak.''

* ``In the time it takes Stanley to make a movie, you could get to Jupiter,'' complained a British film critic.

Cinematographer Garrett Brown, who did the Steadicam work on The Shining, attests to Mr. Kubrick's deserved reputation as a perfectionist who would sometimes demand as many as 100 takes of the same scene. ``Filmmaking is a business of compromise; you never get it exactly right except by accident or when you worked with Stanley,'' Brown said yesterday by phone. ``In his deliberate way, he creeped up on perfection.''

One story circulated from the set of Mr. Kubrick's Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket (1987) that the director was so hard on actors that when he asked which extras wanted to die early in the movie, almost the entire cast raised their hands.

Mr. Kubrick's first marriage, to high school sweetheart Toba Metz, ended in 1951, just after the completion of Fear and Desire. His second marriage, to Ruth Sobotka, a dancer with the New York City Ballet, ended in 1955, just after the completion of The Killing.

In 1958, he married Christiane Harlan, a German actress-turned-painter, and adopted her two daughters, Anya and Katherine. With Christiane he had a daughter, Vivian, a filmmaker and composer who scored the music to Mr. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).

In 2001, a film that many hail as Mr. Kubrick's masterpiece, the filmmaker prophesied a Computer Age where machines have souls and people do not. Historian Arthur Schlesinger was one who noted the film's dualism: For Schlesinger, it was both ``intellectually obscure'' and ``intensely exciting visually.'' Steven Spielberg cites it as the film that most influenced Close Encounters, while George Lucas has called it his inspiration for Star Wars.

Mr. Kubrick's films won eight Oscars and 14 nominations. None was for Mr. Kubrick as a director. Mr. Kubrick is survived by his wife and three daughters. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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