David Mikics on Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick and Tom Cruise on the set of Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Since Yale University Press launched its Jewish Lives series of compact biographies, we’ve seen volumes on such giants as Freud, Marx, and Einstein, but also books on filmmakers such as Molly Haskell’s on Steven Spielberg and David Thomson’s on the Warner Brothers. David Mikics’s Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker is the latest addition, and it’s “a cool, cerebral book about a cool, cerebral talent,” writes Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “This is not a full-dress biography—there have been several of Kubrick—but a brisk study of his films, with enough of the life tucked in to add context as well as brightness and bite.” Mikics, who teaches English at the University of Houston, is the author of books on Saul Bellow and Jacques Derrida and a columnist for Tablet, which is running an excerpt from the chapter on Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

That excerpt has drawn considerable attention due to Mikics’s mentions of some of the names Kubrick considered at one time or another for the role of Bill Harford, a New York doctor so rattled by his wife’s confession to being tempted to sleep with a naval officer that he “tries to outplay her,” as Mikics puts it, “to get rid of his obsession with her fantasy by actually doing what she only dreamed of.” Kubrick had evidently been thinking about adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story since the early 1960s, and in the ’70s, he toyed with the idea of casting someone with “a comedian’s resilience”—Steve Martin maybe, or Woody Allen. In the ’80s, that list expanded to include Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Alan Alda, Albert Brooks, Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, and Sam Shepard.

The roles of Bill and Alice ultimately went to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, of course, “and in some measure,” writes Mikics, “Eyes Wide Shut is covertly about the publicity-haunted life of these two stars.” Kubrick was “galvanized” by Schnitzler’s story, “but also afraid of it, as was Christiane Kubrick,” Stanley’s wife. Mikics quotes Cruise recalling that Christiane told him that when Stanley was first planning to tackle the adaptation after completing Lolita (1962), she begged him, “Don’t . . . oh, please don’t . . . not now. We’re so young. Let’s not go through this right now.”

Kubrick has been the subject of two of Mikics’s columns for Tablet. Two years ago, when 2001: A Space Odyssey turned fifty, he wrote that, given the state of the art at the time, it was “probably the most technically daunting movie ever made.” Referring to Michael Benson’s book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, Mikics noted that “Kubrick and his crew were patient problem-solvers, and Benson, a superb storyteller, makes their work sound thrilling—which it was.”

In the same column, Mikics also writes briefly about Nathan Abrams’s “pathbreaking” 2018 book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual. Abrams has recently contributed an essay to the robust dossier on The Shining (1980) in the current issue of Senses of Cinema. Because The Shining is the “most susceptible” to critical exegesis, argues Abrams, it is “Kubrick’s most ‘Jewish’ film, and this may be the reason why it has attracted the obsessive attention of conspiratorial fantasists.”

For his second column on Kubrick, Mikics got Abrams on the phone to discuss a then-recently rediscovered screenplay Kubrick had cowritten with novelist Calder Willingham, an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1913 novella Burning Secret. “Kubrick did with Burning Secret what he did decades later with Schnitzler’s book,” writes Mikics. “He took a European-Jewish story, relocated it to America, and removed all traces of Jewishness.” Or, as Abrams puts it, “He takes a Jewish story and turns them all into goys.”

Abrams found that traces of dialogue from Burning Secret had made their way into Eyes Wide Shut. “Not word for word,” he told Mikics, “but the essence.” To return to the excerpt from the new book, Mikics points out that, while making Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick was “intimately present with Tom and Nicole for all sixteen months of the strangely prolonged shooting. This intensity declares the crucial role that Eyes Wide Shut played in Kubrick’s psyche, as if the movie were the enfolded meaning of his life.” This “slow ritual of a movie” was “designed to free Kubrick from the obsession with control that it also embodies, to provide a release into renewed relationship with the wife who had been at his side for four decades, with Tom and Nicole standing in for Stanley and Christiane.”

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