Stanley Kubrick Biography

PHOTO: Stanley Kubrick

Clockwork Orange, 2001, Full Metal Jacket, Lolita, The Shining and ‘I’m Spartacus’...if you saw no other films, you would have seen some of the best. But for all his wide, engrossing work he remains one of cinemas great enigmatic directors.

Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx district of New York, into a family with Jewish ancestry. As a child, Stanley was considered intelligent, but he did not achieve particularly high grades at school. His father, Jack, who worked as a doctor in New York, was concerned to find a remedy for his son’s poor academic performance, so in 1940 he sent him to stay with his uncle in California, hoping that a change of scene would help to improve Stanley’s grades.


Stanley returned to New York in 1941 but his grades remained as mediocre as ever. He was very interested in music, however and developed a passion for jazz drumming. In desperation, his father taught him to play chess, hoping that this would stimulate him mentally and spur him on to greater intellectual achievement. His dad was right - Stanley took to chess with gusto and soon became an accomplished player. He even played chess for money at the Marshal and Manhattan clubs and in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Kubrick graduated from William Taft High School in 1946 but was unable to get into college because his grades were so low. His father then hit upon the idea of giving Stanley a camera for his birthday, which led indirectly to his son’s discovering his future destiny as a film director. Stanley soon developed a passion for photography and began taking trips all over New York in order to take photographs, which he then developed in a friend’s darkroom. Whilst he was still a teenager, Stanley succeeded in selling an unsolicited photograph to “Look” magazine. At the age of 17, he landed a job as a staff photographer at “Look” magazine and spent the next few years traveling throughout the United States working on photographic assignments.

Meanwhile, Stanley had also developed a keen interest in cinema and attended as many movie screenings as his busy schedule would permit. By 1951, when he was just 23 years old, he had begun to dream of becoming a film director. He used his own savings to finance his first film, a 13-minute documentary short about the boxer Walter Cartier, called Day Of The Fight. Stanley acted as producer, director and cinematographer on this first film; he’d first met Cartier whilst shooting a magazine photo assignment. The young Kubrick knew nothing about filmmaking and was taught how to use the equipment by the man who rented it to him.

Stanley’s first short film was a success and was bought by RKO for its This Is America series, earning Stanley a small profit. Several other short films followed, including Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1952). Finally, thanks to the money he’d earned hustling chess games, Stanley raised enough cash to be able to make his first full-length film, Fear and Desire, which he filmed in California in 1953.

Meanwhile, Stanley had married his high school sweetheart, Toba Metz - but filming Fear and Desire was a difficult and traumatic experience and the marriage did not survive. Kubrick received mixed reviews for Fear and Desire but his talent for directing began to be noticed further a field. His next two movies, Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956) succeeded in attracting the attention of the big Hollywood production houses and in 1957, he was asked to direct Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas as leading actor.

Stanley subsequently went on to direct Kirk Douglas again in the epic movie Spartacus in 1960 and clearly relished being given the opportunity to flex his directorial muscles in a large-scale arena. Kubrick took command of the project, but provoked a certain amount of antagonism among the crew, allegedly for seeking to impose his own ideas and standards of production on the film as a whole. To give one example, the cinematographer Russell Metty reportedly complained to the movie’s producers that Kubrick was taking over his job, claiming that Stanley apparently told him to “sit there and do nothing”! Metty apparently did as he was told - and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Next, Stanley was scheduled to direct Marlon Brando in the movie One Eyed Jacks, but discussions broke down and Brando eventually wound up directing the film himself. With his second marriage, to Ruth Sobotka now on the rocks, Stanley became thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood and decided to move to England. He moved to the UK in 1962 and remained here for the rest of his life.

The first film that Kubrick shot in England was Lolita, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. The film told the controversial story of a teenage girl and her love affairs and had to be filmed with great care, so as not to be banned by the Board of Censors. Next came one of Kubrick’s biggest successes, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, made in 1964. Stanley originally wrote the script as a drama, but then came to the conclusion that the film contained too many funny ideas for it to be taken seriously. Starring Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove was a huge success, both artistically and financially.

With his newfound status and financial security, Stanley could afford to take greater risks as a film-maker. From now on, he would always have several projects in various stages of development and production. The next film he actually completed was another massive success, namely 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a collaboration with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. This was a ground-breaking sci-fi movie which soon became a cult classic, regarded by many as Stanley Kubrick’s greatest achievement.

Always keen to innovate and break new ground, Kubrick followed up his sci-fi success with one of his most controversial movies yet, namely A Clockwork Orange (1971), which starred Malcolm McDowell. This film caused a furore when it was released, on account of its graphic portrayal of violence. Kubrick changed pace yet again with his next big hit, a film called Barry Lyndon (1975). By now, Stanley had become renowned as a difficult taskmaster of a director, who required actors and technical crew alike to match his exacting, unrelentingly high standards. This frequently involved actors being made to do take after take - often dozens of takes - without a break. By the early 1970s, he had also acquired a reputation for being something of a recluse and had a strongly developed sense of both security and privacy.

Next, Kubrick turned his attention to directing a horror film, one of the few genres he had not yet explored on film. He turned down an invitation to direct a sequel to The Exorcist, instead deciding to adapt Stephen King’s classic chiller, The Shining, for the big screen. The Shining, which starred Jack Nicholson, quickly became a cult classic since it was first shown in 1980.

Following The Shining, there were increasing intervals between Kubrick’s movie projects. He had married again for the third time; his new wife was called Christiane and she and Stanley had three children together. The next major film Kubrick released was Full Metal Jacket, in 1987, which explored the themes of war and violence. Rumour has it that during the long pre-production period of this movie, Kubrick became disillusioned by the success that other war films released during this time had enjoyed, such as Platooon, and Hamburger Hill. But when Full Metal Jacket was eventually released, it soon earned the fame and respect that was routinely afforded to all Kubrick’s movies.

An even longer interval of time ensued before the release of Kubrick’s next movie, Eyes Wide Shut. In the early 1990s, he began an intermittent collaboration with Brian Aldiss on a new sci-fi project called Artificial Intelligence - AI - but this project progressed very slowly, because the special effects technology that Kubrick wanted took so long to be developed. Whilst the technology labs struggled to keep up, Stanley turned his attention to other projects. He developed a project called The Aryan Papers, a wartime movie that then became known as Wartime Lies - but shelved this project when he discovered that Steven Spielberg was about to start production on his own holocaust movie, Schindler’s List. Pre-production work on “AI” was still moving along, albeit very slowly, when Kubrick began work with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on what would actually be his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. The film explored the intricacies and dynamics of marriage and Kubrick claimed he thought it was his best film yet.

In the late 1990s, Kubrick returned to working on “AI” but tragically, his dream of finally releasing this movie was cut short when he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep on 7 March, 1999. Since Stanley had frequently discussed this project with his friend Steven Spielberg, it was then decided that Spielberg would take over as the film’s director and finish the project on Stanley’s behalf. “AI” was finally released in 2001 but the question of whether Stanley Kubrick would have approved of the final version - and what kind of movie he himself would have directed - will forever remain one of the great unanswered questions in movie history.

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