Malcolm McDowell on Stanley Kubrick: An all-too-human artistic genius
Malcolm McDowell is part of an increasingly exclusive club: He starred in a movie for Stanley Kubrick.
The film, of course, was A Clockwork Orange, the controversial 1971 movie about a young Beethoven-obsessed thug who becomes the government’s guinea pig for a Pavlovian mind-control technique to cure him of his criminal impulses.
McDowell was only 27 when he got the role of Alex DeLarge, the narrator and chief droog in Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel. And though he would go on to create many other memorable characters during his career, Alex remains the one that is burned on the back of the eyeballs of many fans and cinephiles. That he worked with Kubrick only adds to the fascination. After all, the revered and enigmatic director made only 13 films during his illustrious five-decade career, and no matter how huge the movie star—Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut—a close creative encounter with Kubrick is inevitably the subject of infinite curiosity. “I don’t think there’s a question I have not answered about Clockwork and Stanley Kubrick,” McDowell says amiably. “But listen, I’m happy to try.”
McDowell is graciously reminiscing about Clockwork because there’s a new Kubrick box set, The Masterpiece Collection, out on Blu-ray on Dec. 2. (Amazon actually has it available now as an exclusive offer.) The new set includes his final eight films, from Lolita to Eyes Wide Shut, the movie he was putting the finishing touches on at the time of his death in 1999. Kubrick was an enigma to the end, a quality he mischievously perpetuated by veiling much of his creative process in secret. An all-new documentary, Kubrick Remembered, looks behind the curtain of his life and art; in the exclusive clip below, you can see the beginnings of his life’s work in his days as a teenage photography prodigy.
McDowell is currently starring in the Amazon series, Mozart in the Jungle, opposite Gael Garcia Bernal and Bernadette Peters. (It’s tagline is one that Alex himself would approve: “Sex, drugs, and classical music.”) And though he warned that 40-odd years of Clockwork obsession had slightly exhausted the subject, McDowell was fun, sentimental, and delightfully blunt in discussing his complicated relationship with Kubrick.
EW: I watched Clockwork again last night for the first time in years, and boy, did I go to bed unsettled. It’s still a movie that grabs you by the balls, and so much of that is the collaboration between you and Stanley. Who was Stanley Kubrick to you at that time, before you even heard of Clockwork. Obviously, he had done Strangelove and 2001.
MALCOLM McDOWELL: Well, before that, he’d also done Lolita and Spartacus and Paths of Glory. He’d come off some of the greatest movies ever made. So this is the next one. As it turned out, he was forced into making a small-budget little film, because people didn’t think he could. Because 2001 had so spiraled out of control costwise, simply because he was breaking new ground. He was inventing the science-fiction movie. He moved that genre a millennial leap. I mean, before Stanley did 2001, science fiction was basically Flash Gordon and cardboard sets. It was a joke. And he made this philosophical extraordinary thing. For a major studio movie, you know, to put out a film where nobody spoke for the first 45 minutes, I mean, they were ripping their hair out. I think that was totally brilliant. It got terrible reviews [at first]. People were walking out of screenings in droves. And if it hadn’t been for the counter-culture papers and the youth of America that really got on the bandwagon—they really saved it. And they eventually made it into a hit.
You saw 2001 before Stanley and Clockwork entered your life?
I went to see the film when I knew that I’d been cast. I remember sitting there, just being absolutely overwhelmed by this technical genius. Just watching this stuff, going, “HOW DID HE DO IT?” There’s no computerized stuff, thank God actually, because it’s so much better the way he did it, with models and stuff. And the whole explosion of the black-hole thing at the end was shot on Stanley’s kitchen stove, in a pan with an inch of water on it and with eye droppers of different colored dyes. It looks extraordinary when you see it, like it’s the heavens and space and the whole thing. Well, it took some kind of genius to do that, and that’s what he was. So when I came to him, he had to prove that he could do something on a small budget and bring it in on time and on budget, which he did, with Clockwork.
It must have been an ego boost that he handpicked you. But did you kind of have to brace yourself to look the great Kubrick in the eye the first time or were you at the age where you were brash and confident and could take on the world?
That’s exactly what it was: brash, confident, young, and can take on the world. I thought, “Well, if he’s picked me, then he’s seen something that he wants. So I shouldn’t worry too much about anything.” I was ready to do it. I also had a lot of help from a friend of mine, Lindsay Anderson, who directed my first movie, If. Stanley’s widow, Christiane, later told me that he had heard about this film and he really wanted to see it, because it was a real big hit in England. Stanley had a screening of it at his house and when I made my first entrance, he hit the intercom button, he said, “Re-lace that, let’s see that again.” And he did it four times. Four times he stopped it and watched. Then he turned to Christiane and said, “I found my Alex.”
I think the quote was, “A thug with great intelligence.”
Yeah, exactly. I think that’s exactly what it was. Because I asked him why he cast me, and he didn’t really want to answer. But he said, “Well, you can play intelligence.” And he left it at that. I mean, I did suddenly get cold feet there. I think we were in pre-production for nine months, so we were doing costume and the eyelash and the look and all that stuff, and it seemed all to be surface stuff. So eventually, I actually said to him, “Oh, by the way, what can you tell me about the character?” I remember we’d had dinner at his house and he walked me to my car. And he looked at me and he just went, “Well, gee, Malc, that’s why I hired you.” And he just turned around and walked off. And then driving back to London I realized he’d just given me an incredible gift. He’d said to me, “Show me. You do it.” I’d come from the theater and I’d been used to collaborating with a director and talking about, you know, the psychological blah-blah this, that, the other other. But there was none of that with Stanley. He did not understand the way to build a dramatic piece. He knew of course how to edit a movie in that way, but in terms of a scene getting to a place, and the moment in the scene, he wasn’t interested. That was always something I had to figure out myself.
So basically, the nearer we got to the start date, I began to lose a little confidence because I wasn’t really quite sure how the hell I was going to dive into this character. I was used to the stage, of course, but on film, from the moment they say “Action,” you have to have that character. So I asked Lindsay Anderson to read the script. He reluctantly read it, and then he called me up and said, “There’s a shot of you in If, a close up, when you open the gymnasium doors to be beaten by the prefects, and you look at them, and you smile. That’s how you play Alex.” And I went, “Yeeessss.” A genius piece of direction. So simple. Not cluttered with any psychological bullshit. Just a very simple image to have in mind. And you know, the first day, I hung onto that image. And then I never thought about it ever again.
Alex is a pretty vile character, and Clockwork was subsequently banned in England for several years. Did you have any concerns about playing a character like Alex in how it might be perceived?
No. God no. You don’t care how it’s perceived. That’s the very last thing. You could care less. Because it’s the creation that you are concerned with. Not how other people think of it. You could care less about that. And also, if you’re thinking about that, you’re dead in the water before you start.
The first image of Alex in the film is at the Milk Bar.
Yes, that fantastic shot. And that was Stanley’s brilliance, to use a zoom lens on a track so he’s tracking and zooming. He’d obviously thought about this. He knew exactly what he was doing.
That’s sort of the iconic Kubrick pose: head tilted down, hooded eyes aimed slightly up.
And no blinking.
In some ways, that became a Kubrick touchstone, for future films as well, like The Shining. Were there conversations about that specific pose?
No. It came up because he said, “I need some kind of look for when you hear the music.” Actually, we shot me in my bedroom, first, listening to it. So he said, “I’m going to play the Beethoven Choral Symphony real loud. See what happens.” So I was doing various things, like—don’t forget I’m also supposed to be a little high. And so kind of this look came, and he suddenly started to laugh. And he was laughing because the eyes were kind of up and glazed over and the mouth kind of took on a weird look. And when he started to laugh, we knew we had it. We knew that that’s what it was going to be. Because we were making a comedy, let’s face it. And all I had to do was repeat it for that beginning shot.
There’s almost a little bit of the droog in Stanley, and it’s almost impossible not to notice that the filmmaker is kind of obsessed with breasts in Clockwork: artwork, thematic elements. Was he kind of a little naughty teenager deep down?
Absolutely. Absolutely. On that level, it wasn’t even lewd. It wasn’t even pornographic. He was just like a little kid. “Come out to the house,” he’d say, “I’m going to let you choose the handmaidens.” So when these girls came in and they’re reading, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven…,” the camera would zoom in on their tits, not their face. [Laughs]. They thought they were doing a Shakespeare piece, and then he’d stop the tape and photograph the tits. Right? And we’d look the next day and he’d go, “Okay, Malcolm, you choose.” I’d go, “Well… here. This set here looks pretty cool.” So we choose a few, and then I say to him, “Okay, who are these girls?” And he turns the photograph over and he goes, “Oh my god, I have no idea.” He’d forgotten to write down their names.
Clockwork is a film with so many iconic scenes, but perhaps none so much as the “Singin’ in the Rain” beating. Oddly enough, that grew out of one of your suggestions, yes?
Yeah, we were sitting around trying to figure out how to do this sequence. Stanley had it written it as “The Boys come in and start throwing bottles though a window.” We knew that that was not going to hack it. By this time, we’d found the style of the movie. It wasn’t realism. It wasn’t realistic, but it was real. It was a certain heightened style. So this thing of coming in just attacking the guy, it was too realistic. It was not in sync with what we’d shot. But nobody knew how to do anything about it. And we sat there for five days. He changed the furniture umpteen times, because I guess, he was looking for anything. I was just sitting there, and he came up to me and he said, “Can you dance?” By this time, I had had a few days off, so I was ready and energized. I jumped up and started singing “Singin’ in the Rain” as an improv, on the beats, slapping, kicking, boom. And why did I do that? Because [that song is] Hollywood’s gift to the world of euphoria. And that’s what the character is feeling at the time. So Stanley shoved me in the car, we drove back to his house, and he bought the rights to “Singin’ in the Rain.” We came back, he constructed what happened in the rehearsal and for the next week, we shot it. And it’s sort of the key moment in the film, really. And then he was brilliant because he worked it into the plot that that’s how the writer knows it’s me because I’m singing it in the bathtub [later]. That was very clever.
Gene Kelly wasn’t especially pleased, was he?
No. Because when I came out to Hollywood a year later, he completely cut me dead [when we met at a party]. His widow, though, gave a talk about this to the Academy, I think, maybe three years ago, when it was the 40th anniversary. She was very sweet and she came up to me afterwards, and said, “Malcolm, just to let you know, Gene was not pissed off with you. He was pissed off with Stanley… because he never paid him.” [Laughs]
That seems to be a recurring theme with Stanley.
Oh, yeah. He was cheap. And of course, I roared with laughter. Of course, he never paid him. He thought it was enough that “Stanley Kubrick” was going to use the song. That’s what he thought.
Stanley had a few actors who appeared in more than one of his films, but Peter Sellers might be the only one who starred in multiple films. Why do you think that was? Because some directors love to work with the same actors over and over. He didn’t.
Peter was a standup comic more than an actor really. He’s given great performances, but as an actor, no, he could never hold his own on the stage. But he was a great performer, and he could do these amazing things. I said to Stanley as a joke once, “You know, Stan, I know why you love Peter Sellers now. Because you just wanted to hear 40 different voices and 40 different characters and 40 different ways of doing a scene, so you just sit back there picking one.” He goes, “Yeah, yeah, I love that about it.” Because he used to say to me, “What else can you do [in this scene]?” I’m going, “I’m playing the truth here! I’m not doing that. Why would I do that?”
The novel has lots of classical music, but the film really isolates Beethoven to great effect. Did you live and breathe Beethoven during the production?
No. To be honest with you, I didn’t really know that much Beethoven before the movie but I certainly did after. He had me learn the damn choral thing. I still know it. How does it go…? [singing softly] “Freude, Schöener Götterfunken, totter aux Elysium.” I learned all this. Of course, he never used it.
Stanley loved music, classical music especially. But he also loved things like Pink Floyd. In fact, his first idea of music [for the film], he gave me an LP of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. He said, “This is the music I think I’m going to use.”
Totally a different movie then.
Totally. But what he did was absolutely brilliant in using Walter Carlos and just using the classical with the Moog synthesizer and just making it strange enough. That was fantastic. And even his use of the song on the transistor radio, that awful song but it’s so perfect: “I want to marry a lighthouse keeper and keep him company…” [Laughs] I have no idea where he found that. Hilarious. That was so great. But he loved the music.
I was watching a clip of Stanley from the set of The Shining, and he’s kind of going at it—
He had a mean side.
That was an interesting moment.
The only reason that we have that is because that was shot be Vivian; Stanley adored his daughter. He adored his kids. Vivian was making that [documentary], so she could get away with it. Nobody else could do that. You know, he did these covers for Time and Newsweek and you’d look on the inside flap: “Photography: S. Kubrick.” He took it himself in a mirror. He was that controlling; he wouldn’t even trust somebody to take his picture. He was incredibly controlling about information about him or his work.
He didn’t seem overly sentimental, particularly in his personal relationships. I remember Matthew Modine told me once how after Full Metal Jacket, he thought they were pals for life, but then… it was over. I think that echoes something that you’ve expressed over the years.
I’ve always said that over the years, yeah.
That’s got to hurt a little bit, I would think.
It was a shocking hurt. I’d been used to Lindsey Anderson, who was my best friend. And then with Stanley, I gave him absolutely everything I had—everything I had—and he barely called me after that. So it was like a total rejection of you as a person. Sure, he’d call when he wanted me to go to America to sell the bloody movie, but it really hurt. It was shocking. In fact, I couldn’t talk to him. There were other things, which I really don’t want to rehash, but you know, I had my issues with him. I thought that he had betrayed me in such a way. He was supposed to pass on 2.5 percent of the movie, which he never did. When I was told this by the head people at Warner Bros. when it was a huge hit, and they said, “Well, you’re going to be a very rich young man.” I said, “Really? Why’s that?” They went, “Well, with the 2.5 percent we passed on to Stanley for you.” And I went, “Well, I never got it.” And they looked at each other and they laughed and they went, “Ohhh, that’s just like Stanley.” And I’m thinking, “My God, you only do one of these movies in a lifetime. Why would he do that to a young actor? Why would he do that? It’s so ungenerous and so mean, when he’s had every f–king fiber of my being.” So that sort of really hurt so much that I couldn’t talk to him again.
Did it taint the experience?
No, I’ve let that go. And seriously, even though I wasn’t paid any more that I was paid, I’ve been paid a million times over. Because the fact is that I did it, so it doesn’t really matter. But it was sad because it meant that I never really got to talk to him again, to hang with him. And we were so close, you know. When you look at that film, how could I not be really close to the man. And not love him also.
It’s been about 15 years since he died. When it happened, I remember thinking how old he seemed, but he was only 70.
70, I know.
He could still be making films today. You didn’t keep in touch with him, but was it a shock when you heard that he passed away or were there whispers that he was not doing well.
No, no. My God. I was on location in Ireland, and [a reporter called and] said, “What do you have to say about it?” I went, “Say about what?” It was a complete shock, because it had come out of nowhere. Then of course I regretted like mad not having just picked up the phone, you know. I should’ve just done it and swallowed it. My wife tried to get me to do it, and I kept saying no. But I really should’ve done it, and I sort of regret that now.