The haunting presence of Stanley Kubrick

  • Themes: Culture, Film

Twenty-five years after his death, Stanley Kubrick remains the most influential director in English-language cinema, yet his influence will be felt less and less if the industry continues its inexorable decline.

Still from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
Still from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

The most commercially successful film of last year, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, may have attracted attention for its inimitable mixture of pop feminism and outrageously catchy songs, but there is another factor, hidden in plain sight from the very first trailer, which is just as significant, if entirely unexpected: that a film supposedly dedicated to celebrating female emancipation was wholly in thrall to one of the 20th century’s most male – if not masculine – filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick. The picture begins with a shot-for-shot homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and goes on to allude to the likes of The Shining and Dr Strangelove. Perhaps it should have been entitled Barbie: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stanley Kubrick.

A quarter of a century after Kubrick’s death from a heart attack at the age of 70, his protégés and admirers show no signs of dissipating. The major winners at this year’s Golden Globes, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, are both films that owe a substantial formal debt to Kubrick, in terms both of the rigorous control of the filmmaking and the breathtaking audacity of their central conceits – Kubrick could have got away with a three-hour epic about J Robert Oppenheimer or a sexually explicit adaptation of an Alasdair Gray novel, but very few others could have, until now – and his disciples are standing to be counted in contemporary cinema. That’s before we get onto the homages in The Simpsons.

If you have seen a picture by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher or Alfonso Cuarón, you are watching a work explicitly influenced by the master filmmaker. In the case of 2022’s widely acclaimed Tár, the similarities go even further; its writer and director Todd Field was directed by Kubrick in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and since then, the three formally brilliant pictures that he has made all tip their hat to his mentor. No wonder that Field declared, of Kubrick, that ‘He confirmed a lot of things for me about the process of making a film, such as the importance of ensuring that your working relationships are immediate and even-keeled and non-hierarchical and predominantly with your cast, not the crew. A certain single-mindedness, not being afraid to try something. And trusting your script, not trying to make everybody love it.’

To commemorate the anniversary of his death, a new biography of Kubrick is about to be published, written by Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams. The first life of the filmmaker for two decades, it has been authorised by the estate, consisting of Kubrick’s widow Christiane and his brother-in-law Jan Harlan, and is rich in anecdotes about filmmaking and the director’s life off-set. We learn that his dedication to cinema was such that he never took holidays and rarely and reluctantly travelled abroad in the final decades of his life. He liked instead to remain in his palatial home of Childwickbury Manor near St Albans developing projects, where he hosted writers, filmmakers and studio executives, who dined largely on junk food, much of which was imported from the-then popular American restaurant Maxwell’s in Hampstead.

Stories have circulated for decades that Kubrick was a recluse who became increasingly eccentric in the final years, but Kolker and Abrams authoritatively demolish these and other myths, while replacing them with fascinating nuggets of trivia; Kubrick’s final film, the Schnitzler adaptation Eyes Wide Shut, owes a passing debt to James Cameron’s True Lies – another picture about marital strife – and after Kubrick summoned Cameron for an audience, ended up recycling a couple of the earlier picture’s lines of dialogue verbatim. The book is richly fascinating on the vagaries of his creative process, too; we learn that the financially conscious Kubrick liked to ensure that he could make at least one lucrative insurance claim per film, which would give him time to extend the – already lengthy – process and to take stock of what he had already accomplished.

Many of the stories about Kubrick in the public domain are true. His pictures underwent punishingly long filming periods – Eyes Wide Shut holds the dubious record of the longest ever production period, at 400 days, including an unbroken shoot of 46 weeks; by way of contrast, the three-hour Oppenheimer was shot in 57 days, and Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon, a film that Kubrick himself longed to make, was filmed in a comparatively brief 62. He pushed his actors to their psychological limits over multiple takes, and it is doubtful that Shelley Duvall, playing the put-upon female lead Wendy in 1980’s The Shining, ever fully recovered from his controlled abuse of her.

Many would argue that his tutelage resulted in the perfect performance, others that no piece of cinematic art, however enduring it is, justifies the unbearable pressure that he placed upon an actor. It will also not help claims of misogyny on Kubrick’s part that we learn that the film’s star Jack Nicholson had a cheery and amicable relationship with the director, only being marginally soured when Nicholson offered champagne if the crew would agree not to perform overtime on the weekends, meaning that the actor could have some time off, much to Kubrick’s chagrin.

If the films were less accomplished, or beginning to seem like relics of another time, then his methods might seem like mere self-indulgence, or even cruelty. From his debut proper in 1956 with The Killing to his much-misunderstood swan song Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, there is not a bad or even ordinary picture among them. Several, including A Clockwork Orange, 2001 and Barry Lyndon, are acknowledged classics of cinema, and a worthy testament to their monomaniacal filmmaker’s innovative techniques, which included everything from cutting-edge special effects to depict space travel – so convincingly that a pop rumour started that Kubrick faked the moon landings for NASA in 1969 – to using camera lenses for Barry Lyndon of such sharp intensity that the scenes could be lit purely by candlelight, and capture the mise-en-scène of the 18th century portraits and landscapes that the film was inspired by. And the others, whether it’s his Roman epic Spartacus, the much-debated Shining or, by now, Eyes Wide Shut, have gone from incomprehension and ridicule to being regarded as masterpieces.

Cinema today is at a low ebb. Even as the once-lucrative superhero genre now bores audiences, who stay away in droves, it is a given that only a very few filmmakers – if we’re being honest, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron, really – are able to ply their wares with the formal control that Kubrick once did at a big-budget level and expect their pictures to enjoy wide and lucrative release in cinemas. The likes of Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese and Fincher have all gone over to the streaming services, knowing their films are, essentially, advertisements for subscription-based algorithms, and the chances of a young, hungry director being able to make their mark on cinema the way a twentysomething Kubrick did are virtually nil.

Twenty-five years on, Kubrick remains the most influential director in English-language cinema, dwarfing the likes of Spielberg, Hitchcock and Lean. The tragedy for the art form that this great director loved is that, if matters continue as they are, this influence will be felt less and less as the industry declines inexorably. Had he known that, then this non-religious man, whose only god was that of celluloid, would undoubtedly have turned in his grave.


Alexander Larman