The apotheosis of the movie director Stanley Kubrick, after his death in 1999, has been consummated in a traveling exhibition of his photography and motion-picture projects now lodged, until the end of June, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Reading its 300-page catalogue, I was reminded of Geza Vermes’s book, Christian Beginnings, which depicts the charismatic figure of Jesus of Nazareth becoming the focus of veneration by his followers and then by their followers. After his death, he acquires quasi-divine status and, later, through the pious scriptural refiguration of his character, purpose, and nature, he is rated identical with God Himself. Through this process of being praised literally to the skies, Jesus was finally detached from the Jews, among whom he lived and to whom he preached exclusively. He even came to be blond and “Aryanized” in Hitler’s Germany.
Aryan Papers was the name of one of several projects Kubrick never realized, although it came very near to production. Its 1993 script was based closely on Louis Begley’s novel, Wartime Lies, about a teenage boy named Maciek and his aunt, who deceive and lie their way to survival at the price of mental and moral self-mutilation. Kubrick never made a Holocaust movie, but it was not for want of trying—even though he once said to me that he wasn’t Jewish, he just happened to have two parents who were.
The catalogue’s contributors were corralled by Stanley’s brother-in-law and producer, Jan Harlan (who is, bizarrely, the nephew of the director of Joseph Goebbels’s 1940 film production, Jew Süss). The majority of the articles are translations from solemn German pundits and technicians, who venerate their subject as the one true artist and transcendent genius of modern cinema. These unsmiling evangelists are seconded by a posse of Kubrick assistants, of whom only Ken Adam, the designer of Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, can be called creative.
The volume begins with a preliminary “Word of Greeting” from Christiane Kubrick, the director’s widow and Harlan’s sister; she thanks “the Hollywood studios…who made this exhibition possible.” Since Stanley spent his life outlasting the last tycoons, there is comedy in this genuflection, although, as in all hagiography, solemnity is of the essence here. Christiane’s deference reminds me of when, after I had contributed I cannot count how many drafts of the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley seemed ready to make the picture. I asked him what would happen next. He said: “I tell Terry Semel and Bob Daly [the heads of Warner Bros. at the time]…they can fly over and read the script. They get to London, I leave them alone in the hotel for 24 hours, without calling them; then I send a car, have them come out here, and read it. What can they do? Come all this way for nothing?”
Geza Vermes never denies that, despite all the upholstery and dogmatic additions made to the figure of Christ, elements of Jesus the Jew remain indelibly attached to the New Testament savior. The Gospel according to Harlan and his acolytes depicts a Kubrick without humor and without faults, unless we count his inability to draw, for which Ken Adam served as a brilliant prosthetic, although he nearly went nuts trying to give Stanley everything he wanted. It was never quite enough in any department: Kubrick was notorious for working actors past the point of exhaustion. The trick is often used by still photographers who believe that the “truth” will appear on a subject’s face only after he is too tired to hold a comely pose. It’s a wonder Kubrick never wanted to make a vampire picture.
Adam said once that “except for drawing…he was personally able to handle just about any other tasks relating to filmmaking. That was a permanent threat to those who worked with him.” Well, up to a point. It was Stanley who spoke these words to me as I worked on the screenplay for what would become his final picture, Eyes Wide Shut: “Listen, I’m not a writer, I know that.”Let me clear something up before I go any further. I did something for which the Kubrick clan will never forgive me. In all other cases, Stanley made it a condition of working for him, in any capacity, that all his hirelings be bound by a legally composed obligation never to disclose anything about their experiences in his employ. How did I become the sole exception? One of the clauses in the draft contract concerning my potential work on the adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story required me to agree to concede to him all decisions concerning who had written any part of the script and who had conceived any of the ideas contained in it. In other words, a condition of my employment was that Kubrick could claim sole authorship even if, in fact, he had written little or nothing of the final screenplay.
I was then in my sixties and had been round the Hollywood block a few times. When he called to ask if I’d signed the contract, I said no and that I wasn’t going to. I was really sorry, since I greatly admired his films, but I couldn’t work with him. The stipulation that he should be the sole judge of who had written what was an implicit guarantee that I would be written out of the record, no matter how much I had contributed. There was a pause and then he said, “How did that get in there?”
I said, “Come on, Stanley, how does anything get in there when you’re involved?”
He said, “OK, how about I tell them to cut the clause right out?”
“In that case, I’m ready to go.”
“So that’s what I’ll do.”
And he did. But here’s the kicker: The clause in question included a sub-clause embodying the vow of silence so rigorously enforced on all his helpers. As a result of his lawyers’ obedience to Stanley’s instructions, there was nothing—apart from yelling and screaming—that the Kubrick Community could do, after his death, to stop me from publishing what was at once the truth about working for Stanley and a tribute to his undeniable genius. Nevertheless, for me to have indicated that he was not without flaws or blank spots was deemed tantamount to blasphemy.
Although a few lines from my book Eyes Wide Open are printed (without my permission) in the catalogue, my name did not originally appear anywhere in the part of the exhibit devoted to Eyes Wide Shut. The Harlans had decided that, although I had worked on the script for two years, Kubrick should be credited with the whole screenplay—though I am officially credited as the film’s co-writer. Under pressure from the Academy and the Writers’ Guild, I have been given grudging acknowledgement in Los Angeles.
I learned from the catalogue that Stanley’s interest in Schnitzler’s book goes back to 1968. I have no idea how many writers had already been in Bluebeard’s castle by the time that I was summoned there in 1994. I never saw any of their work, nor was any mentioned. As soon as he had read the first 50 or 60 pages of my “translation” of the Dream Novella to modern New York, Stanley called to say that he was “absolutely thrilled.” I was told, by his assistant Tony Frewin, that he had not seen Stanley so happy since the day that he saw his first royalty check, for $5 million, from 2001 (that work of epoch-making tedium, redeemed by a superb opening sequence). Still, whether or not I stand tall, or at all, in the eyes of the Harlans is the least of my worries. The script of Eyes Wide Shut is less important to my vanity than the shortest of my short stories, but it is still true that, as Stanley once said to Frewin, “Paranoia is knowing what’s going on.”
Kubrick’s early career, like that of any number of clever Jewish boys, begins with precocious transgression, in Stanley’s case, a move from the Bronx, where his father was a well-established physician, to Manhattan, where Stanley practiced the literally surreptitious art of street photography. In the late 1940s, Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) was the highly paid, how-does-he-do-it guy who seemed always to be on hand when there was a sensational snap to be taken. The New York streets were full of instant black-and-white drama.
Young Kubrick devised a case for his quite cumbrous camera, which enabled him to catch people unawares. The mastery of other people, by whatever means, played a lasting part in his life. The love of chess (shared with the author of Lolita, which he made into a film in 1962) was in keeping with a character for whom domination was itself an art. There is no evidence that Vladimir Nabokov and Kubrick ever faced each other across a chessboard, but I would have bet on Kubrick winning, after however many moves. Nabokov was a class player, but he couldn’t take a punch. Defeated a couple of times by the philosopher Max Black, he gave up competitive play and limited himself to devising problems. Not so Stanley. His second full-length film was called Killer’s Kiss; his idea of a romance was a duel to the death.
The teenage prodigy’s best-known Weegee-like photograph was taken on the day of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. It depicts a doleful-looking newspaper vendor, sitting in his kiosk framed by the day’s headlines. It looks as if it was caught on the hoof, but in fact young Stanley got the vendor to take up the “realistic” pose. He sold the picture the same day to the photo editor of Look magazine, and pretty soon the teenager was on the staff. I asked Lee Friedlander, probably the greatest living American photographer, whether what Stanley did was a breach of professional ethics. Lee replied, tactfully, “I don’t remember asking anyone to do such a thing…but K. was a director.” Not yet, he wasn’t; but he was certainly on the way. He had the ego, and then some. John Baxter’s biography says that he was not above taking someone else’s credit when it was offered to him.
One of the unexamined curiosities of his filmography is the fact that Weegee, well past his heyday, was hired by Kubrick to be the stills-man on Dr. Strangelove in 1963. A whole article in the catalogue by Daniel Kothenschulte is devoted to minimizing the significance of Weegee’s presence on the set. Presumably the old guy needed the work, but what a furtive pleasure (the best kind for some people) it must have been for Stanley to have his one-time master as his slave; generosity and ruthlessness were heads and tails to him!
Stanley gave unambiguous admiration, and license, only to a very few actors, of whom Peter Sellers was the first, but Sterling Hayden (a real man, according to the mythology), Jack Nicholson, and, I hope, James Mason were others. The least known was Leonard Rossiter, an English comic actor, who played only a small, memorable part in Barry Lyndon. Rossiter hardly spoke, but Stanley said to me, “I don’t know how he did it. There was nothing written. I didn’t tell him anything. He made something outta nothing.”
Kubrick never tried to impose his “shoot-till-they-drop” technique on Sellers. He told me: “Peter said he couldn’t promise to do the same thing twice. And he couldn’t do anything more than two, three times. So the day we did the [Dr. Strangelove] sequence that ended with ‘Mein Führer, I can walk,’ I had six cameras lined up and he came in and?.?.?.?no one knew what he was going to do, himself included.” The result is visible in the final cut: Experienced actors such as George C. Scott can be seen to “corpse” (barely contain their out-of-character laughter) as Sellers does his unrepeatable, unrehearsed stuff. There were no other takes for the editor Tony Harvey to cut away to or from.
James Mason was superb in the admitted failure Lolita, a production that recalls the old smart-ass remark, “They said it couldn’t be done, and it couldn’t.” Lolita is mentioned in the catalogue only en passant. The film foundered not least because, although the 17-year-old Sue Lyon did her best to impersonate jailbait, she was no nymphet. “If Lolita was a flop,” Kubrick said, “then only because the eroticism was missing.” Not only that at all: There were too many fancy words in the voiceover and forced into the mouths of the actors. Kubrick made unduly rococo attempts to be as inventive visually and dramatically as Nabokov had been linguistically. He tried to make comedy stand in for wit, and failed. In fact, Mason’s voice alone could deliver Humbert Humbert with no help from the camera or the director. No wonder his performance passes unremarked in the Harlan gospel.
Jack Nicholson, so I am told, also balked at the number of takes Stanley demanded during the shooting of The Shining. In particular, he warned Kubrick that, despite all the respect he had for his genius, he could not do more than two or three takes in the scene where the demented Jack Torrance tries to break the door down with an axe to get at his terrified wife, played by Shelley Duvall, who seems never quite to have recovered from the experience.
Stanley said he understood and, this time, he kept his word. They did three takes, and Stanley said he was ready to move to the next set-up. Nicholson said, “Are you sure?”
“You couldn’ta been better.”
Typically enough, Kubrick never allowed anyone to see the rushes. The next morning, Nicholson asked Stanley, “How was it?” Stanley said it was fine. But he seemed thoughtful. So at lunch, Nicholson said, “Are you sure I was OK?”
Stanley said, “You were fine. You were great.”
“The girl, you can see her face in the split in the door.”
“That’s what you wanted, I thought.”
“Yes, I did, but she doesn’t look right. And the way I shot it, I can’t cut away.”
“So would you mind doing it again?”
In chess terms, Stanley’s gambit might be labelled a queen sacrifice.
A great deal is made in the catalogue of Kubrick’s project to film the life of Napoleon—by now surely the most famous unmade picture in history. A volume of more than 1,100 pages has already been published devoted to the meticulous preparations for what Kubrick, in an unusually boastful note, said would be “the greatest movie ever made.” All sorts of excuses are again advanced for the abortion, not least the lack of sufficient funding from the movie industry, which was going through one of its recurrent economic crises. Kubrick is declared to be “a Napoleonic historian who will be read for pleasure and gain.” Not on the basis of the script, which is clumsy and a parasitic gloss on the work of a grande armée of researchers who compiled cabinets full of details. This accumulation did not save Kubrick as screenwriter from a series of ineptitudes: Napoleon is said to drink “Scotch” and even to look at his “wristwatch” (a 20th-century invention). He is also said to have had a “teddy bear,” which his mother Letizia tidies away at the end of the script, an echo perhaps of the sleigh with “Rosebud” on it at the end of Citizen Kane—only there were no “teddy bears” until Teddy Roosevelt came along a century later.
The most likely reason for the abandonment of the Napoleon project remains unstated. Despite the mountain of detail, Stanley had no idea of what Napoleon was “really like,” for the simplest possible reason: He could never have inhabited Napoleon’s persona, or given him plausible things to say, because he knew only one phrase of French—which was, in his pronunciation of it to me, “Cattoodee.” This, I was able to discover, was his idea of “Qu’as-tu dit?” (“What did you say?”). No wonder the dialogue he wrote for Napoleon would never fit in the hero’s mouth.
Faultlessness in the arts is often a symptom of petty achievement. It is to Kubrick’s credit that he was willing to make occasionally futile deviations in pursuit of perfection. To grace him with omniscience and perfect pitch in every department of movie-making, as the catalogue does, is the work of advertising rather than admiring appraisal. Kubrick’s humanity is thereby amputated. Pedestalled on the granitic prose of his Germanic admirers, translated with elephantine clumsiness (for example, he is said to have “pawed” over hundreds of books), Kubrick is made to star, albeit against character, in one of his own aborted projects: Cleansed of anything but the signs and stigmata of a unique being, this confection of tendentious and witless verbiage constitutes his Aryan papers.