Stanley Kubrick (Obituary)

He was the sphinx of modern American cinema, a misanthrope with a cold, monocular eye and an uncompromising genius.

Kubrick, Stanley

He was the sphinx of modern American cinema, a misanthrope with a cold, monocular eye and an uncompromising genius. Director Stanley Kubrick, whose classic films include Dr Strangelove, 2001: a Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, died of natural causes at age 70 last week in his country estate in Hertfordshire, near London. He leaves his third wife, Christiane, and their three daughters. The notoriously reclusive filmmaker had just put the finishing touches on Eyes Wide Shut, a story of erotic obsession starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as sexual psychologists. With no studio deadline, and a shoot that dragged on for 15 months, there were fears the film might never be finished. But executives at Warner Bros. insist it is complete and will be released in mid-July. It is as if Kubrick, famous for controlling every last detail of his movies, would not even let death intrude on his schedule until he was ready.

Practising his craft with a dictatorial precision that recalled the arrogance of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Kubrick forged a unique balance between European taste and American ambition. He was a true original, creating the template for military-scale auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. "He copied no one, while all of us were scrambling to imitate him," said Spielberg. Kubrick made movies about men with elaborate plans, rational men who lose their rationality in a world beyond their control - the professor infatuated by a child in Lolita, the nuclear warriors in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the astronauts betrayed by Hal the computer in 2001: a Space Odyssey, and the psychotic writer in The Shining, who fills an entire novel with the sentence "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

Kubrick, himself an obsessive workaholic, lived in his own world. Sequestered in England since the early 1960s, he would summon Hollywood to his doorstep, re-creating the jungles of Vietnam, the war rooms of the Pentagon and the depths of outer space in the safe quarantine of the studio. Kubrick was a man of phobias. His fear of infection led him to ban anyone with a cold from the set, and he would demand that any car in which he was a passenger be driven no faster than 55 km an hour. He was also a man of paradox, a Hollywood director who shunned Hollywood, a licensed pilot who developed a prohibitive fear of flying, a control freak who satirized control freaks. "He's a genius," said Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell, quoted in John Baxter's 1997 biography, Stanley Kubrick. "But his humour's as black as charcoal. I wonder about his ... humanity."

Born in New York City in 1928, Kubrick was a teenage prodigy who won money playing chess and was hired as a staff photographer by Look magazine at 17. Immersing himself in European cinema at the Museum of Modern Art, he mastered a variety of genres, from film noir to science fiction. But he was especially obsessed with the horrors of war, from the First World War drama of Paths of Glory (1957) to the Roman carnage of Spartacus (1960), from the nuclear satire of Dr. Strangelove (1964) to the Vietnam shock of Full Metal Jacket (1987). In the year of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, the stark pathology of Kubrick's antiwar movies remains indelible - the last word in fin-de-siècle paranoia. Kubrick was a voyeur in the pure sense, an unblinking visionary staring down the void with eyes wide open.

Maclean's March 22, 1999