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Stanley Kubrick: Stars share secret history of legendary director

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In Hollywood, there is a cult of Kubrick.

More than any other director, Stanley Kubrick is worshiped among his fellow filmmakers, and that reputation has only grown since his death in 1999. Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket are revered as sacred texts among those who make movies.

Though Kubrick never won a best picture or best director Oscar (his only trophy was for visual effects on 2001), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to pay tribute to the filmmaker with a special showcase of his films and a reunion of four of his stars, who shared offbeat, funny, and often bizarre stories of the elusive filmmaker.

Malcolm McDowell, who famously played the cheery young psychopath Alex from A Clockwork Orange, was the irreverent host of An Academy Salute to Stanley Kubrick. ”What was he like to work with?” McDowell told the crowd. “Of course, as an actor, I can tell you he was absolutely extraordinary, if — and it’s a big ‘if’ — he trusted you.”

McDowell said the filmmaker tended to simply project a blank stare when he was unhappy, and almost everyone who spoke at the event recalled being fixed with “those black eyes.”

KUBRICK’S FEARS

McDowell said it was true the director was terrified of accidents, though Kubrick bristled at reports in the press that he wore a football helmet when riding in a car. “It’s a crash helmet!” McDowell recalled him clarifying.

Kubrick was also afraid to fly. “I remember once going into his study and he had his earphones on,” McDowell recalled. “He shushed me. I wanted to ask him something, and I thought, ‘What on Earth is he listening to? … Oh I know, he’s listening to the latest Herbert von Karajan recording of Beethoven’s 9th.’ And this went on for 20 minutes. Eventually he took them off and said, ‘Another near miss at Heathrow.’”

HIS MOST-HATED FILM

In his early years, Kubrick sold photographs to Look magazine and worked on documentaries before his first feature film, 1953’s Fear and Desire, about a fictional war in which a group of soldiers gets stuck behind enemy lines.

It co-starred a young Paul Mazursky, who would go on to become a well-regarded director in his own right with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Enemies: A Love Story.

Asked by McDowell if he thought Kubrick was “a genius” even in their mid-20s, Mazursky replied: “No, no, no … I thought he was a crazy guy with black eyes.”

McDowell said Kubrick reportedly raised money for Fear and Desire by hustling chess games in Central Park, but it turns out that wasn’t quite enough financing to finish the project.

“The movie cost $20,000, but he needed an extra week. He needed another $5,000,” Mazursky, now 82, told the crowd. They were outside Los Angeles, shooting at a Boy Scout camp in the San Gabriel mountains, when young Kubrick packed up his actors and drove back to town to pressure a pharmacist uncle into giving him the money.

“When we drove down the hill, he got so determined — ‘I’m going to get the five. I’m getting the five thousand’ — that he spat on the windshield. That kind of determination I’ve never seen,” Mazursky said. “I realized if I wanted to get anywhere in Hollywood, I’m going to have to spit my way through!”

Kubrick finished the film, but despite that drive to complete it, he later considered it an embarrassment and succeeded in having it pulled from circulation. For years, it was only available as a rough bootleg — although it was recently re-released.

“Stanley tried to have the negative burned. He hated the movie. Hated it,” Mazursky said. “Little did he know … how much we all hated it.’”

THE NAKED TRUTH

Everyone knows Kubrick was a notorious stickler for detail, but during the making of A Clockwork Orange he found himself with a very unusual problem to solve.

For a final sequence in the movie known as the “ascot fantasy,” a fair-haired young actress (Katya Wyeth) thrashes around naked on top of McDowell’s delinquent Alex while a crowd in formal Victorian dress applauds from the sidelines.

“Stanley came in and said, ‘Do you want to meet Katya?’” McDowell recalls, breaking into a Bronx accent for Kubrick’s voice. “I said, ‘I know her, Stanley. She’s the wife of a great friend of mine!’”

“Awkward” was the word McDowell used for that day of shooting. But before they got naked and sprawled in the fake snow, Kubrick and McDowell went to pay Wyeth a courtesy call to make sure all was well.

“So we go to the make-up trailer. It was all a bit embarrassing. He goes, ‘Okay, Katya, umm, can you drop the robe?’”

When the actress put out her cigarette and undid her covering, Kubrick’s black eyes narrowed.

“Stanley goes, ‘I thought you were a blonde.’” But it turns out, the hair on her head was just dyed.

“The make-up girl goes, ‘It’s alright, Stanley, I’ll fix it!’” McDowell recalls, breaking into a cockney accent and miming a small woman brushing hair coloring onto Wyeth’s nether regions.

“So she fixed it – and it went green!” McDowell says. “So … that was a bit of a hold-up for that day.”

MISERY OVER A HAPPY ENDING

When Ryan O’Neal visited Kubrick in England in 1973 to begin work on the period drama Barry Lyndon, he brought Kubrick a print of his upcoming film, Paper Moon, the con-artist-and-kid saga co-starring his daughter Tatum O’Neal (who won an Oscar for the part.)

“It’s a wonderful film,” McDowell said in his Q&A with O’Neal during the event.

“Well, he didn’t think so,” O’Neal replied. “He said, ‘There’s something wrong with the ending. There’s no reason on Earth that this little girl should leave with you. She has a chance at a real family!’

“So I immediately called [director] Peter Bogdanovich and said we need to change the ending: ‘That’s what Stanley said!’

“[Bogdanovich] was stunned by this,” O’Neal went on. “And [Kubrick] showed me a way we could shoot it in two days, where she doesn’t get in the car and go away with him, and instead she stays with her aunt. I explained all this to Peter and said ‘I’ll do it for free, and Tatum will show up. We’ll do it.’”

Plans for a reshoot were in motion, but Kubrick began to suspect that maybe even his film sense could be off. “Stanley asked if he could see the movie again, this time with some of the crew from Barry Lyndon,” O’Neal said. “He noticed during the course of the screening that people were laughing, and leaned over to me and said, ‘I was wrong. It’s a comedy. She can go with him.’”

A dejected O’Neal told him: “‘Will you call Peter and tell him …?’”

McDowell later asked O’Neal if he had “fun” making Barry Lyndon. “Fun is probably not the right word, is it?”

O’Neal shook his head. “It was a stunning experience. I’m still not recovered,” the actor joked. “He was magnificent. He was breath-taking. I had a man-love for him.”

“Was it returned?” McDowell asked.

“With his black eyes,” O’Neal said.

“Yeah, those black eyes, man,” McDowell agreed.

BONDING WITH OZ

“You’re never going to say one word against Kubrick because you worship the guy. See, I am totally irreverent about it!” McDowell taunted Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine, who actually nodded agreement.

Kubrick was such an iconic, mysterious, and fearsome presence in life that many who worked with him for the first time went to great lengths to ingratiate themselves.

When Modine was hired for the lead in Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam war saga Full Metal Jacket, he thought he had the perfect way to win Kubrick’s affection.

“A friend of mine told me about Stanley Kubrick’s photography background. He gave me an old Rolleiflex camera. He said, ‘You should learn how to use it, and show up on the set with it and it’ll break the ice. You can become friends with Stanley Kubrick!’

“I started teaching myself to use this beautiful old twin-lens reflex camera. It’s beautiful, and I showed up on set with it around my neck – wanting Stanley to say something about my camera. Finally he got really annoyed and said, ‘What are you doing with that old piece of s–t camera?’”

Kubrick tried to get him to pick up a state-of-the-art Minolta, but Modine stuck with his Rolleiflex, and recently published a book with his photos and memories from that long-ago set.

“He becomes like the Great and Powerful Oz,” Modine said of the filmmaker. “This image of Stanley Kubrick is projected onto our consciousness, but he was just a menschy Jewish kid from the Bronx who was hiding behind a curtain.”

The Academy event was coordinated in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Stanley Kubrick exhibit, which runs through next June. Another exhibit, Stanley Kubrick: The Ultimate Trip, can be seen by the public at the Academy’s headquarters through March 3.