By Maia Venuti
“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” - Aristotle
While this quote may seem irrelevant to the topic at hand, I think it is the only proper way to introduce our first director of interest: Stanley Kubrick. There are no words that can be used to properly introduce a man like Stanley Kubrick. He has made some of the best films of the 20th century, with his most famous titles being “Spartacus,” “Full Metal Jacket,” "The Shining,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and my personal favorite, “A Clockwork Orange.” Throughout his career, Kubrick consistently made fantastic films, with all of them making their own mark on pop culture to this day. During Kubrick’s career, he received copious amounts of praise for the realism portrayed in his films, and even when the premise was entirely unrealistic, he managed to work with the actors, crew members, producers and most importantly, himself, to achieve this goal. But at what cost? While Stanley Kubrick has undoubtedly made some of the best, most iconic films, the methods he used to make his films so fantastic are unethical to say the least.
Stanley Kubrick often liked to make film adaptations of popular books, such as “Full Metal” “Jacket,” “Lolita,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Shining.” These books, while all being very different from one another, all focus on a male main character in a predicament that is a departure from their regular life, which is almost always extremely mentally taxing on the main character. There are very few to no women in Kubrick’s films, with any women who are in the films being secondary characters, and those who are main characters are either portrayed as submissive, passive and scared, or as sexually promiscuous and objectifiable. All of the above movies have these common identifying traits and show the main character having a slow descent into madness that is phenomenally portrayed through Kubrick’s unprecedented use of cinematography to enhance performances.
I would be remiss if I did not mention what Kubrick is best known for, as well as my favorite thing about his films: the Kubrick Stare. The Kubrick Stare is a shot only of the main character of the film, starting out as a wide-angled shot that slowly pans in on the main character. The actor’s face does not change or shift as the camera moves in, and he looks blankly out into the distance, almost looking into your eyes but in reality, he looks onward behind the camera.
The Kubrick Stare is used in nearly all of his films and is designed to show the main character’s departure from sanity, and their unavoidable and unpreventable descent into madness. The look creates an extremely intense and intimate moment between the actor and viewer and makes the viewer feel like the character is looking directly at them. The angle is meant to show the insanity of the main character in the form of a near fourth wall break as if he knows he is being filmed and you are watching him carry out his actions.
While there are many things praiseworthy of Kubrick’s career, in my opinion, there are even more things to criticize. Stanley Kubrick was notorious for grossly abusing his actors to the point of imparting irreparable damage upon their psyche. The best examples of this are actors Shelley Duvall and Malcolm McDowell.
Shelley Duvall co-starred in Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Steven King’s “The Shining,” alongside Jack Nicholson. Shelley played the role of Wendy, the wife of main character Jack, and a very timid, soft-spoken and passive person who is terrified of her husband. In order to prepare her for this role, Kubrick ordered that no one on set in cast or crew speak to her at any point, and if she spoke to anyone, they were instructed to pretend she did not exist. From sunrise to sunset for almost every day of filming, she would cry nonstop, when she wasn’t in a scene, she was alone and ignored.
Kubrick’s abuse of Duvall did not end there, however. He was well-known in the film world for constantly retaking shots, and would not even consider printing a take until at least the 35th take. Duvall discussed in an interview from 2021 her three-week experience of filming the scene in which she is chased with an ax.
Every single day, she had to recreate that horror, fear and terror and relive a deeply traumatic moment of genuine fear for her life. After filming, Duvall’s trauma from Kubrick’s abuse became too much to handle; he created wounds that she could not heal. Shelley left Hollywood in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been living a private life in Texas, trying to heal from incomprehensible trauma. While “The Shining” was arguably one of Kubrick’s best films, his abuse of Shelley Duvall to get her to give the performance he wanted is more horrifying than that film can ever be.
The psychological abuse of Shelley Duvall at the hands of Stanley Kubrick is not an isolated incident. Nine years prior to “The Shining,” Kubrick directed a film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novel, “A Clockwork Orange.” Kubrick chose actor Malcolm McDowell to play our humble narrator, Alexander DeLarge, in this bone-chilling story. For some context, Alex is an antagonist, going out every night with his “droogs” (friends) to commit heinous assaults, robberies and other unspeakable acts. Alex has an aversion towards violence, murder and crime. In order to prepare McDowell for this role, Kubrick spent nine months prior to filming with McDowell watching some of the most horrific, revolting videos of violence from assaults, violent crimes and even videos from the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Every single day, for nine months, McDowell was forced to watch mass genocide, snuff, death, disease, and so many other things that still scar him.
The psychological trauma endured by McDowell is only the tip of this massive iceberg of abuse. The most iconic scene in the film is a scene where McDowell is strapped in a chair, with large hooks going into his eyelids to forcibly pry them open. McDowell figured he would have prosthetics on his eyelids to prevent the hooks from causing damage to his eye, until Kubrick told him he had to do the scene with his real eyes. When McDowell refused, rather than do the ethical thing to avoid violating someone’s comfort levels, Kubrick gave McDowell anesthetic drops for his eyes so they would be entirely numb during the days that filming this scene took. But when the drops wore off, McDowell was in extreme pain. When discussing this pain, McDowell talked about how he would sit and scream, banging his head against the walls of his hotel room after filming from the pain of the hooks scratching his eyes and eyelids. This caused permanent damage to McDowell’s eyes, as well as psychological trauma from the physical abuse.
Kubrick is an amazing director. His movies have made a huge impact on pop culture, and his influences are still seen today in film and television. The films he directed have withstood the test of time, and I believe that they will continue to do so. However, the disgusting abuse of his actors makes me see his movies in a whole new light, as shallow and self-serving for his own sick desire for praise at any cost.