Kubrick: Biographical Notes

by Michel Ciment

Excerpted from the book "Kubrick" by Michel Ciment (translated from the French by Gilbert Adair), Copyright ©1982 Michel Ciment, All Rights Reserved


Stanley Kubrick was born on 26 July in the Bronx, New York. His parents were American Jews of Central European origin. He has one sister, Barbara, six years his junior. His father, a well-known doctor, introduced him to chess at the age of twelve and to photography the following year when he gave him his first camera -- a Graflex -- for his birthday. The gift took Kubrick's mind off another of his youthful enthusiasms, jazz, and his dream of becoming a professional drummer. At school -- William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx -- the only good grades he received were in physics (science was his favorite subject) and he left at seventeen with a poorish average of sixty-seven. He was therefore refused entry to college, especially as in 1945 the return of thousands of young GIs from the war made standards of enrolment in higher education even more strict.

While still at high school, Kubrick had taken numerous photographs -- he was actually made the official school photographer -- and a few of these were exhibited. One morning in April 1945, on his way to school, he chanced to snap the haggard features of a newspaper vendor beside headlines announcing the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt; he then sold the photograph for twenty-five dollars to Look magazine, which offered him ten more than the New York Daily News. Shortly after, he proposed two other features to Look and both were accepted. One of these involved his English teacher, Aaron Traister, who had aroused his interest by playing all the roles in Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays himself (a fascination with multiple role-playing which will later be found in his films.)

Though he enrolled in evening city classes at New York's City College in the hope of eventually being eligible for university, his involvement in photography was given a boost when Helen O'Brian, the head of Look's photographic department, found him a place on the magazine's team. He worked there for four years, travelling all over the country and even to Portugal, his camera concealed inside a shopping bag so that he would not be taken for a tourist or a journalist.

During these years of apprenticeship -- when his independence, his stamina, and his bright ideas were already such that he came to be regarded as one of the magazine's best photographers -- Kubrick applied himself to the avid study of a wide range of books that would contribute to his intellectual development in every possible field of knowledge. Because of this thirst for facts and ideas, he enrolled as a non-matriculating student at New York's Columbia University, where he sat in on classes given by Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren.

Though they were destined to give way to the cinema, the young Kubrick's three favorite activities (two of which, chess and photography, are often viewed as frivolous pastimes) left a lasting mark on him. From chess, which he would continue to practice between takes (with George C. Scott, for example, during the filming of Dr. Strangelove), cam the mathematical precision of his plots, his enthusiasm for abstract speculation, and his view of life as a game in which one wrong move could be fatal. Photography, of course, gave him a feel for composition and an interest in visual effects, qualities evident in all of his films: he controls their photographic textures by working in close collaboration with his lighting cameramen, and occasionally shoots certain hand-held camera sequences himself. Jazz, finally, gave him a grounding in rhythm, in editing and in the art of selecting the right musical accompaniment for a scene, a talent which will have struck everyone who has seen his films.

In 1949, Kubrick and his first wife, Toba Metz (whom he had known at Taft High School and married at the age of eighteen), moved to Greenwich Village. He furthered his newly acquired ambition by becoming a film-maker by assiduously attending screenings at the Museum of Modern Art. His tastes were -- and have remained -- eclectic, his curiosity ever alert and his interest in formal problems constant. He admits that at that period Eisenstein's books had not impressed him, and adds: "Eisenstein's greatest achievement is the beautiful visual composition of his shots and his editing. But as far as content is concerned his films are silly, his actors are wooden and operatic. I sometimes suspect that Eisenstein's acting style derives from his desire to keep the actors framed within a composition for as long as possible; they move very slowly, as if under water...Actually anyone seriously interested in comparative film techniques should study the difference in approach of two directors, Eisenstein and Chaplin. Eisenstein is all form and no content, whereas Chaplin is content and no form."

When the American magazine Cinema asked him in 1963 to name his favorite films, Kubrick listed the following titles: 1. I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953), 2. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1958), 3. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), 4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), 5. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931), 6. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1945), 7. La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), 8. The Bank Dick (W.C. Fields, 1940), 9. Roxie Hart (William Wellman, 1942), 10. Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes, 1930). In this choice one can detect a broadminded attitude towards very dissimilar aesthetic experiences, with a preference nevertheless for European art films strongly colored by a pessimistic view of life (Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman); and a predilection for American directors known for their larger-than-life, as also for their marginal position with regard to the system (Welles, Huston, Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Howard Hughes, Wellman). Which should not surprise us from the future director of Dr. Strangelove.

The absence of one name, however, is striking: that of Max Ophuls, for whom Kubrick has always had the greatest esteem and about whom he said some years earlier: "Highest of all I would rate Max Ophuls, who for me possessed every possible quality. He has an exceptional flair for sniffing out good subjects, and he got the most out of them. He was also a marvelous director of actors." All of these qualities are to be found in Kubrick's work, along with the elaborate camera movements characteristic of the director of Le Plaisir. Finally, one might mention his admiration for Elia Kazan, whom he considered in 1957 "without question the best director we have in America. And he's capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses." By his bold choice of themes (adapted from Tennessee Williams, as with A Streetcar Named Desire, or straight from the headlines, as with On the Waterfront), by his introduction of a new approach to acting (via the Actors Studio) and by his desire to keep his distance from Hollywood (filming Waterfront with the independent producer Sam Spiegel in New York's dockland), Kazan in the early fifties could hardly fail to attract the attention of a young director with aspirations to independence and originality.

For Kubrick in 1950 was determined to take the plunge and become a film-maker. He spent his leisure hours (and augmented his modest income) playing chess at the Marshall and Manhattan Clubs and in Washington Square, proving to be one of the finest experts there. He would put his strategic gifts to the test by changing boards at nightfall: "If you made the switch the right way you could get a table in the shade during the day and one nearer the fountain under the lights, at night." This he confided to a physicist, Jeremy Bernstein, who visited him on the set of 2001: a chess enthusiast himself, the scientist claimed that he always won every fifth game. Intrigued, Kubrick challenged him. They played twenty-five games together, Bernstein gathering valuable information for an article by drawing Kubrick out during the breaks.

It was through meeting a former school friend, Alexander Singer (a future director himself), that he was given his first chance to direct a film. Singer worked as office boy at March of Time (a famous newsreel company) and had discovered that his employers would spend 40,000 dollars on films lasting only eight or nine minutes Kubrick and he decided to make the same kind of film for a tenth of the cost. The subject of their first documentary was the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, on whom Kubrick had already done a photo-feature for Look entitled "Prizefighter." The result was a 35mm film, Day of the Fight, whose musical score was written by another friend, Gerald Fried (subsequently a collaborator on Kubrick's early features, then a notable Hollywood composer.) Kubrick endeavored to sell the film, but was offered less than its cost price of 3900 dollars. When March of Time went into liquidation, RKO bought the documentary for a derisory sum (one hundred dollars more than its production cost), but offered an advance of 1500 dollars on a second documentary, The Flying Padre. After the violence of sport, this gave Kubrick a chance to deal with another of his favorite subjects, aviation: the film centered on a priest in New York who used to fly from one parish to another in a Piper Cub. Having recovered his costs, Kubrick decided in 1953 to direct his first feature and resigned from Look. He was encouraged by Joseph Burstyn, a New York distributor and exhibitor who was one of the first to introduce the idea of "art-house cinemas" in the United States at a time when European and independent films were impossible to see there. Kubrick scraped together 9000 dollars, borrowing from family and friends, in particular from his father and his uncle, Martin Perveler. He commissioned a screenplay from one of his poet friends in Greenwich Village, Howard Sackler (later to the author of The Great White Hope) and set off to film Fear and Desire in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, as the severe New York winter precluded any exterior shooting on the East Coast. The crew consisted of three Mexican workers to transport the equipment, a few friends and his wife Toba. Kubrick was director, lighting cameraman, and editor. For twenty-five dollars a day he rented a Mitchell camera, whose owner taught him to use it. But post-synchronization expenses amounted to three times the shooting costs and the film failed to make its money back.

Refused by all the major studios, it was finally distributed by Joseph Burstyn, who screened it at one of his cinemas, the Guild Theater in New York. Fear and Desire garnered critical attention, which encouraged Kubrick to direct a second film -- adopting the same means of financing, with 40,000 dollars put up mostly by Morris Bousel, a Bronx chemist to whom he was related. Killer's Kiss was shot in 1954 in the streets of New York, edited and mixed over a period of ten months and featured his second wife, Ruth Sobotka, who played the role of a dancer in one brief sequence. Though for the critics it confirmed the young director's importance, it failed to recover its costs.

A meeting with James B. Harris gave new impetus to Kubrick's career. Alexander Singer had known Harris in the Signal Corps where he was making training films for the Korean War. The son of the owner of Flamingo Films, a cinema and television distribution company, he had hopes of becoming a producer and was on the lookout for a talented director. He made contact with Kubrick through their mutual friend Singer; and, after seeing Killer's Kiss, decided to give him his chance. They were both twenty-six when they co-founded Harris-Kubrick Pictures. Together they produced The Killing in 1956. Though appreciative of Kubrick's abilities, the distribution company, United Artists, agreed to take over most of the budget (its investment amounted to 200,000 dollars) only after receiving a completed screenplay and the assurance that some well-known actor would be cast -- in this case Sterling Hayden, who had confidence in the young film-maker.

The Killing attracted the attention of Dore Schary, head of production at MGM, who invited Harris and Kubrick to select a subject from one of the novels in which the studio owned the rights. Kubrick and Calder Willingham wrote a screenplay based on Stefan Zweig's The Burning Secret, but the project aborted when Schary was dismissed. After Paths of Glory, (1957), also produced by Harris and filmed in Munich, they announced several projects for which scripts were written but never filmed: "The German Lieutenant," a World War II story by Richard Adam, "I Stole 16,000,000 Dollars," the autobiography of a former safecracker, Herbert Emerson Wilson; "The 7th Virginia Cavalry Raider," which recounted the adventures of a Confederate Cavalry officer, John Singleton Mosby, during the Civil War, with Gregory Peck slated for the leading role. During this same period, Kubrick spent six months preparing One Eyed Jacks, for and with Marlon Brando, but the actor finally decided to direct it himself.

In 1960 the producer of Spartacus, Kirk Douglas (also the star of Paths of Glory), asked Kubrick after one-week's shooting to replace Anthony Mann, with whom he had serious disagreements (Mann had directed the opening sequence and prepared the gladiatorial bouts). However remarkable his achievement, Spartacus is an exception in Kubrick's oeuvre: he did not contribute to the screenplay (as he invariably does), had no control over casting, and so simply had to accommodate himself to a project which he had not initiated.

He once more collaborated with James B. Harris on Lolita. Because of the exertion of pressure by various leagues of decency and the possibility of easier financing, Kubrick shot the film in Britain, then settled there for good. The interest aroused by an adaptation of Nabokov's novel placed him in a strong bargaining position, and he signed an agreement with MGM which would henceforth guarantee him real financial independence. After Lolita he and Harris separated, the latter branching out as a director ("The Bedford Incident"). Thanks to the commercial success of Lolita, it was Kubrick himself who produced his subsequent films, Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980), five unique works, all of them bearing the stamp of a single man who had mapped out a private, artificial space for himself in which to pursue his preoccupations. In the sixties and seventies, Kubrick enjoyed absolute security, the product of a hard-won independence.

Free to choose his projects, supervising each stage of their creation, he is able to make whatever films he pleases. He has often been compared to Orson Welles, and indeed there are parallels in their independence of character, moral preoccupations, extraordinary visual invention and showmanship. As their careers developed, however, they could scarcely be more different. Both of these young prodigies turned to film direction at the age of twenty-five. But Welles began at the very top of the pyramid -- Hollywood and its huge technical crews -- and was offered carte blanche on his first film, Citizen Kane, without the least interference from the studio; whereas Kubrick directed his first film on a tiny budget. Yet, never having had economic control of his films, Welles has always been at the mercy of his producers. Kubrick's strength derives from his realisation that if the film-maker is not in charge of every element of his product -- from the original rights via the screenplay down to the advertising campaign that will launch his film and the very cinemas in which it will be screened -- three or four years' work may go for nothing.

But Kubrick appeared on the film scene ten years after Welles, and in the decade beginning in 1950 significant changes took place which he, unlike his brilliant precursor, was able to turn to his advantage. The fifties marked the decline of the hierarchical, all-powerful major studios, outside of which nothing could be achieved in Hollywood. The growing popularity of television, coupled with the movement of urban populations away from the inner cities, would deprive the cinema of its regular audience. In order to regain it, the studios sought out younger talents bursting with new ideas (the generation which started in television: Frankenheimer, Lumet, Ritt, Mulligan, Penn), while according a greater degree of independence to its most prestigious directors who now became their own producers (Hitchcock, Wilder, Kazan, Preminger, Mankiewicz, etc.) Making The Killing, which would be distributed by United Artists, allowed Kubrick to step into this breach. His case is both unique and exemplary, however, and may be compared rather to the future French New Wave (Killer's Kiss, shot in 1954 in the New York streets, predated A Bout de Souffle by six years). Unlike his confreres, Kubrick was not the product of TV, the theatre, or film; nor had he ever been an assistant director, producer, or actor. He was an independent who learned everything on the spot, starting out with whatever means were available and ending up with absolute control over highly sophisticated technical equipment.

He has never really been absorbed into a system on which he is nevertheless financially dependent; jealous of his autonomy, juggling with millions of dollars, he probably enjoys greater freedom now than in the straitened circumstances in which he started his career. And today all his efforts are channelled into preserving the same autonomy in his films which he had in his first films so that, instead of becoming the victim of the means at his disposal, he can on the contrary make them serve his purpose, one which has never changed: self-expression. This is how he summed up his personal experience: "The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I'm doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of non-creative aspects to film which have to be overcome and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc...It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered artistic environment when you make a film and being able to accept this is essential.

"The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can and quickly go out and do it."

There is no doubt that Kubrick's ideas were confirmed by his period in Hollywood. The years spent there waiting for the go-ahead from MGM on "The Burning Secret," as well as on his other projects, made him suspicious of production companies which kept directors in a permanent state of inactivity. Similarly, the filming of Spartacus -- on which, as he himself phrased it, he was just a "hired hand" -- could only make him more determined that it should never happen again. In fact, it was after Spartacus -- whose commercial success, the first for him of such a magnitude, helped him to gain his independence -- that he opted definitively to work in London. It is as if his geographical separation from the United States might henceforth be a metaphor for the distance which he was determined to keep between himself and the mecca of cinema.


Everyone knows how exacting Kubrick can be, how he insists on being in sole command of a film from its preparation and shooting to the editing process. "Stanley is an extremely difficult and talented person. We developed an extremely close relationship and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquillizers", remarked one of his set designers, Ken Adam. And Arthur C. Clarke, the scenarist of 2001, added, "Every time I get through a session with Stanley, I have to go lie down." In effect, Kubrick submits his scenarists (Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, Vladimir Nabokov, Terry Southern and Arthur C. Clarke) to a gruelling work schedule in which he himself actively participates (he wrote A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon on his own), devoting between six months and a year to the preparation of the script. But his view of screenplays remains pragmatic: "Thinking of the visual conception of a scene at script stage can be a trap that straitjackets the scene. I find it more profitable just to try to get the most interesting and truthful business going to support the scene and then see if there's a way to make it interesting photographically. There's nothing worse than arbitrarily setting up some sort of visual thing that really doesn't belong as part of the scene."

Kubrick has no interest in theories and, like all American directors, gives prominence to his actors. Shooting a film is the natural extension of writing it and actors are the essential means by which a director can give flesh to his vision. "Writers tend to approach the creation of drama too much in terms of words, failing to realize that the greatest force they have is the mood and feeling they can produce in the audience through the actor. They tend to see the actor grudgingly as someone likely to ruin what they have written rather than seeing that the actor is in every sense their medium." James Mason, Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Kirk Douglas have all recognized Kubrick as a great director of actors, who is willing to spend his 'breaks' in lengthy discussions with them. Much has been written about the number of takes which he requires for each shot in his search for perfection; but none of his actors has ever questioned the merits of this method, however much he might have suffered from it. As Lady Lyndon's spiritual adviser, Murray Melvin recalls having played one scene fifty times. "I knew he had seen something I had done. But because he was a good director he wouldn't tell me what it was. Because if someone tells you you've done a good bit, then you know it and put it in parentheses and kill it." Jack Nicholson adds, "Stanley's demanding. He'll do a scene fifty times and you have to be good to do that. There are many ways to walk into a room, order breakfast or be frightened to death in a closet. Stanley's approach is: how can we do it better than it's ever been done before? It's a big challenge. A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don't he'll beat it out of you -- with a velvet glove, of course." Malcolm McDowell has spoken of the long discussions he had with Kubrick about his character, emphasizing the degree to which the director, far from browbeating the actor, leaves him free to invent gestures and suggest variations: notion of using 'Singin' in the Rain' to accompany one of A Clockwork Orange's most violent sequences. "This is why Stanley is such a great director. He can create an atmosphere where you're not inhibited in the least. You'll do anything. Try it out. Experiment. Stanley gives you freedom and he is the most marvellous audience. I used to see him behind the camera with the handkerchief stuffed in his mouth because he was laughing so much. It gave me enormous confidence." Anthony Harvey, who edited Lolita and Dr.Strangelove, has noted how Kubrick would adjust the editing to the performances: "If an actor gives something terribly exciting in terms of performance, I think it is important to stay on his face, even though the conventional thing is to cut every so often to the person he is talking to. I think the audience can imagine the other character's reactions for themselves. There was a scene in Lolita where Sue Lyon is talking to James Mason and they are alone in the room: she was so extraordinary that we remained on her for the entire scene without cutting to him at all." The shooting script of Dr.Strangelove, though regarded by Harvey as the most brilliant and most perfectly constructed he had ever read, was also modified at the editing stage. Once the film had been shot, they realised that the rhythm was not sufficiently varied and the tension did not develop properly. They therefore decided to delay each change of scene in order to gain clarity and sustain interest.

For Kubrick to maintain such autocratic control over the work in hand, he needs total isolation. Pursuing his Pascalian reflections on the infinity of space during 2001, he cloistered himself in a private protected estate far removed from any distractions. He lives in a country house about twenty miles from London with his third wife, the former German actress Susanne Christian (who played the cafe singer in Paths of Glory and is now a well known painter), his three daughters and lots of cats and dogs. There he leads a real family existence, with everyone interested in what everyone else is doing and he only very occasionally goes up to town. He travels as rarely as possible, forbids his chauffeur to drive faster than 40 miles an hour, and while filming 2001 wore his safety helmet rather more often than was necessary. His clothes are famous for their simplicity (baggy trousers, open-necked shirt and anorak -- "a balloon vendor," his wife says), and his working-day meals for their frugality -- he has no time to waste.

For his whole life seems to be a race against the clock, a battle against the relentless passage of time. He has, for example, turned part of his garage into an editing room so that he can continue working at home; he has had a 35mm projection room installed in which, with voracious curiosity, he has the latest films screened for him; and he communicates essentially by telephone, telex, video, tapes and brief memos. He employs an entourage of technicians, secretaries and assistants to form an empire within the vaster empire of the company which distributes his work, but from which this parallel power allows him to retain his independence. There is no affectation in such an attitude (social standing means nothing to him and he has no interest in acquiring it; money serves exclusively to guarantee him independence): wholly absorbed in his work, he is not the kind of person to make capital out of his inaccessibility. When, on the release of a film, he agrees to be interviewed by a few critics, he does so with good grace and modesty. I observed, on the occasions we met, how measured and methodical were his replies to my questions, his obvious concern being to get down to essentials without either showing off or spouting paradoxes. His features are alert and extraordinarily intense, their authority accentuated by his beard and dark, l spoken, with a crisp, surprisingly youthful voice, alternately serious and humorous in tone. Later, he will insist on checking each sentence entrusted to the tape recorder. What could be more natural, given that so many remarks are distorted then quoted again and discussed without the speaker having any further say in the matter? His sole contact with the press, then, takes place every four or five years. A chauffeur drives the chosen few (Kubrick would be happy to arrange more of these meetings, but his other activities make it impossible...) to a roadside pub near the director's home or to his office, or even to the editing room piled high with cans of film, newspapers, files and card indexes, like some enormous artist's loft in Montparnasse or Greenwich Village where this 'eternal student' can work away in privacy.

Since Kubrick sees only those who may, in one way or another, be of assistance to the career of his films, his principal concern he has been spared the increasingly frequent globe trotting to which his less fortunate colleagues have to resign themselves in order to launch their films, repeating the same remarks over and over again (how they must envy him!). He prefers to prepare a project, collect material for it over a period of months, even years, pore over books and magazines with the systematic curiosity of an autodidact, monitor the seating capacity and average takings of cinemas in each foreign capital or the design and deployment of posters or even the distance between seats and screen at press shows, not to mention the size of newspaper ads and the rates of currency exchange. He also has the subtitles of every foreign version of his films completely re-translated into English to make certain that nothing crucial has been omitted, supervises all dubbed versions, and checked out the quality of the seven hundred prints of The Shining which were released the same day in the United States.

He may interrupt the interview to ask you about some technical detail or plot point of a film which he has never seen. Alexander Walker, the critic who has written about him best, described how on a single evening in Kubrick's company the conversation ranged over an incredible variety of subjects, all of which required his close attention. "An evening's conversation with him has covered such areas as optical perception in relation to man's survival; the phenomenon of phosphene; German coastal gun emplacements in Normandy; compromised safety margins in commercial flying; Dr Goebbels' role as a pioneer film publicist; the Right's inability to produce dialecticians to match the Left's; the Legion of Decency's pressures during the making of Lolita; S.A.M.-3 missiles in the Arab-Israeli conflict; Irish politics and the possibility of similarities in the voice prints of demagogues; and, of course, chess."

We have become too accustomed to the romantic image of the artist as someone creating in an ivory tower not to entertain doubts about such indefatigable attention to economic, technical or administrative questions. But in Kubrick's case one can draw no strict line between his work and this kind of super-technician's existence. Some film-makers find their inspiration in the contemplation of nature, others from the study of news items, still others in constant contact with the world at large. Kubrick's films reflect his perfectionism, his inordinate taste for technology, his fascination with diagrams and statistics, but also his fear of any flaw in a totally programmed system, of an excessive dependence on machines. It should be understood that the power which Stanley Kubrick has acquired within the film industry (he not only has the right to the final cut -- that goes without saying; but he also, in the case of Barry Lyndon and The Shining, received millions of dollars from Warners, the distributors, without being obliged to screen either film to the studio heads more than ten days in advance of their release date) he means to exploit solely in furtherance of his work. Unlike Coppola, who has extended his empire to include real estate, newspapers and distribution, Kubrick's only concern is an artistic one. At the centre of the extraordinary organization which he has created, he remains as much a craftsman writing, photographing, directing and editing his films as the young amateur who started out in the streets of New York if now with infinitely greater means at his disposal. And the painstaking care he brings to the release of his films simply reflects his concern to see them presented in the best possible conditions without their being compromised by a bad print, faulty projection or flat dubbing. Kubrick, who in his youth sensed the arrival of TV as a dangerous competitor, has undoubtedly understood that, if the cinema is to compete with the small screen, it must make each film an 'event' displayed to advantage in technically perfect conditions.

Thus his career has been guided by logic and lucidity, since they alone can guarantee his freedom vis-a-vis a system which he has succeeded in beating at its own game.

For if the major studios MGM and Warners have for twenty years given him carte blanche on his most unconventional projects and most extravagant budgets, it is because he has enjoyed an unbroken string of commercial successes, with the exception perhaps of Barry Lyndon (even though that too, in the long term, should prove profitable). Of course, Dr. Strangelove's takings (5 million dollars to the United States distributor), Barry Lyndon's 10 million, A Clockwork Orange's 15 million and 2001's 25 million cannot compare, even if one takes inflation into account, with Star Wars' 175 million, Jaws' 135 million and the 85 million each of The Exorcist and The Godfather. But they represent an undeniable and enduring financial success for what are exceptionally personal works, blockbuster 'auteur films', projects so much riskier and more original than those of Hollywood's Movie Brats (who venerate Kubrick no less for his independence than for the films themselves).

The director of 2001 appears to have mastered the subtle game of art and finance that was the downfall of his celebrated predecessors. I refer to those powerful and ambitious artists who seem to surface every ten years in Hollywood to shake it up, rebel against its conventions and revitalise its genres. Griffith at the beginning of the century, Stroheim in the twenties, Sternberg in the thirties, Welles in the forties, Kazan in the fifties, Kubrick in the sixties and Altman in the seventies. In the past, each of them found himself virtually forced into retirement or exile . Orson Welles (a man not given to fulsome praise) recognized this lineage when he remarked in 1965: "Among the younger generation Kubrick strikes me as a giant." With Griffith Kubrick shares a penchant for super-productions (2001 is his Intolerance, Barry Lyndon his Birth of a Nation) and for the primacy of the image; with Stroheim the relentless search for the telling detail and a taste for novelistic length (his dream of a film lasting twenty hours and the 'Greed in high society' aspect of Barry Lyndon); with Sternberg the fusion of visual invention with detached irony; with Welles the influence of expressionism, the sense of deep focus and mobile camerawork; and with Kazan the pleasure of letting the actor contribute by drawing out what is most deeply rooted in him.

If the general public has had no difficulty appreciating such a rebel and individualist, his relations with the critics have always been ambiguous -- at least since Lolita, which is to say for the last twenty years after they had been virtually unanimous in their praise of his first features, The Killing and Paths of Glory. With hindsight, the vast majority of critics have acknowledged his importance. When in 1978 the Cinematheque royale in Belgium polled 200 international specialists (film-makers, critics, historians, etc.) on the most important films in the history of the American cinema, Kubrick's name was cited 138 times, preceding that of every other post-war director and figuring in sixteenth place. In the same year, 300 readers of the French magazine L'Avant-scene du cinema established their ideal film Pantheon and placed 2001 at the top of their list ahead of Citizen Kane, Les Enfants du Paradis, Modern Times and Battleship Potemkin. Finally, at the end of the seventies, the Parisian weekly Les Nouvelles litteraires questioned about forty well known personalities on what they considered the outstanding films of the preceding decade: both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon were listed, with Kubrick and Fellini coming out on top.

But such a consensus is deceptive, as the admiration which it appears to reflect is scarcely borne out by the reception accorded his films on their initial release, a reception which their subsequent prestige has consigned to oblivion. Who now remembers the firing squad directed at 2001: A Space Odyssey by New York's 'establishment': "It's a monumentally unimaginative movie" (Pauline Kael, Harper's magazine); "A major disappointment" (Stanley Kaufman, The New Republic); "Incredibly boring" (Renata Adler, 'The New York Times'); "A disaster" (Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice)? Variety, the American show business bible, is the most reliable barometer of the profession's suspicion of any unique, unconventional artist. It could hardly have foreseen 2001's enormous success when it wrote prior to its release: "2001 is not a cinematic landmark. It compares with but does not best, previous efforts at film science-fiction; lacking the humanity of Forbidden Planet, the imagination of Things to Come and the simplicity of Of Stars and Men. It actually belongs to the technically slick group previously dominated by George Pal and the Japanese," and, as the ultimate criticism, "Film costs too much for so personal a film." Seven years later, writing of Barry Lyndon, it noted "The point which seems to be made is that some people are hustlers, a few succeed, life goes on, the sun still comes up in the East. Well, we knew all that walking in" (17 December 1975). As for The Shining, it was demolished in almost parodic fashion, with Variety complaining above all that Warners "not having learned its lesson with Barry Lyndon was silly enough to let him do it" (28 May 1980).

The reaction of the Hollywood community at Oscar time perfectly illustrates the ambivalence of Kubrick's status. Because of his ambition and commercial success they are obliged to recognize him, but his refusal to become one of the 'family' and the distance which he maintains from Hollywood have wrecked his chances of ever being honoured Nominated Best Director for four films in succession (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon), he shares with Charlie Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Robert Altman (rebels, all of them!), but also with Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, the unique distinction of never once having received an Academy Award for Best Direction.

The explanation for his equivocal position vis-a-vis critics and film people lies in the very nature and personality of his art. Disturbing both stylistically and thematically, refusing ever to do what is expected of him though sometimes infiltrating traditional cinematic genres (the war movie, science fiction, horror), ceaselessly experimenting yet prepared to play the commercial game, preferring spectacle and fantasy to moral complacency and philosophical certitudes, Stanley Kubrick, as an intellectual and an artist, has contrived to win over the public without sacrificing any of his ambitions. Which is surely because as a visionary film-maker bringing personal obsessions to life on the screen of his fantasy, he has been able to apprehend the underlying tensions of his period and tap its collective unconscious.

The essays above were published in the early 1980's; since that time, Kubrick has gone on to finish or to prepare three more features: the Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, and the erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut. In 1997 he received the D.W. Griffith Award for Lifetime Achievement from The Directors Guild of America. Mr. Kubrick passed away Sunday morning, March 7th, 1999, at his home in St. Albans, UK.