Stanley Kubrick was born on July 26, 1928, in the Bronx, New York, the first of two children of Jacques (Jacob) Leonard Kubrick (1901–85) and his wife Sadie Gertrude (née Perveler; 1903–85), both of whom were Jewish. His sister, Barbara Mary Kubrick, was born in 1934. Jacques Kubrick, whose parents and paternal grandparents were of Polish, Austrian, and Romanian origin, was a doctor. At Stanley’s birth, the Kubricks lived in an apartment at 2160 Clinton Avenue in the Bronx. Kubrick biographer Geoffrey Cocks writes that Kubrick’s family was not religious, although his parents had been married in a Jewish ceremony. When, in 1980, Michel Ciment asked Kubrick whether he had a religious upbringing, he replied “No, not at all.” A friend of Kubrick’s family notes that although his father was a prominent doctor, “Stanley and his mom were such regular people. They had no airs about them.” As a boy, he was considered “bookish” and generally uninterested in activities in his Bronx neighborhood. According to a friend, “When we were teenagers hanging around the Bronx, he was just another bright, neurotic, talented guy—just another guy trying to get into a game with my softball club and mess around with girls.” Many of his friends from his “close-knit neighborhood” would become involved with his early films, including writing music scores and scripts. When Kubrick was twelve, his father taught him chess. The game remained a lifelong obsession and appeared in many scenes in his films. Kubrick explained the value of playing chess to his career thus: If chess has any relationship to filmmaking, it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive. When he was thirteen, Kubrick’s father bought him a Graflex camera, triggering a fascination with still photography. As a teenager, Kubrick was interested in jazz, and briefly attempted a career as a drummer. His father was disappointed in his failure to achieve excellence in school,of which he felt Stanley fully capable. He encouraged him to read from his library at home while, at the same time, permitting him to take up photography as a serious hobby. Kubrick attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945 (one of his classmates was Edith Gormezano, later known as the singer Eydie Gorme). He was a poor student, with a meager 67 grade average. According to his English teacher, “the idea of literature and the reading of literature, from a non-academic, from a more human point of view, clearly was what interested him. He was a literary guy even as a young man”. Kubrick had a poor attendance record, and often skipped school to take in double-feature films. He graduated in 1945, but his poor grades, combined with the demand for college admissions from soldiers returning from the Second World War, eliminated hope of higher education. Later in life, Kubrick spoke disdainfully of his education and of education in general, maintaining that nothing about school interested him. His parents sent him to live with relatives for a year in Los Angeles in the hopes that it would help his academic growth. While still in high school, he was chosen as an official school photographer for a year. In 1946, since he was not able to gain admission to day session classes at colleges, he briefly attended evening classes at the City College of New York (CCNY). Eventually, he sought jobs as a freelance photographer, and by graduation, he had sold a photographic series to Look magazine. Kubrick supplemented his income by playing chess “for quarters” in Washington Square Park and various Manhattan chess clubs. In 1946, he became an apprentice photographer for Look and later a full-time staff photographer. (Many early [1945–50] photographs by Kubrick were published in the book Drama and Shadows [2005, Phaidon Press] and also appear as a special feature on the 2007 Special Edition DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In 2011, many of his photos for Look, previously available only for viewing in museum archives or books, were hand selected from thousands by curators at the Museum of the City of New York, and made available as limited edition prints.During his Look magazine years, Kubrick married his high-school sweetheart Toba Metz in May 1948. They lived together in Greenwich Village. During this time, Kubrick began frequenting film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and the cinemas of New York City. He was inspired by the complex, fluid camerawork of the director Max Ophüls, whose films influenced Kubrick’s later visual style, and by the director Elia Kazan, whom he described as America’s “best director” at that time, with his ability of “performing miracles” with his actors.
In 1962, Kubrick moved to England to film Lolita, his first attempt at black comedy. It was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov, the story of a middle-aged college professor becoming infatuated with a 12-year-old girl. It starred Peter Sellers, James Mason, Shelley Winters, and Sue Lyon. Lolita was Kubrick’s first film to generate controversy because of its provocative story. Kubrick toned down the screen adaptation to remove much of the eroticism in the novel and made it into “an epic comedy of frustration rather than lust”, writes film author Adrian Turner. Kubrick searched for nearly a year to find what Nabokov called “the perfect nymphet” to play the part. After interviewing Sue Lyon, he found her to be nearly perfect and recalls his reaction: From the first, she was interesting to watch—even in the way she walked in for her interview, casually sat down, walked out. She was cool and non-giggly. She was enigmatic without being dull. She could keep people guessing about how much Lolita knew about life. When she left us, we shouted to each other, ‘Now if she can only act!’ Kubrick was deeply impressed by the chameleon-like range of actor Peter Sellers and gave him one of his first opportunities to wildly improvise during shooting while filming him with three cameras. To best utilize Sellers’ talents, Kubrick, in consultation with him, vastly expanded the role of Clare Quilty and added new material in which Quilty impersonates various other characters. Stylistically, Lolita was a transitional film for Kubrick, “marking the turning point from a naturalistic cinema … to the surrealism of the later films”, notes film critic Gene Youngblood. The film received mixed reviews, with some critics praising it for its daring subject matter, while others, like Pauline Kael, describing it as the “first new American comedy” since the 1940s. “Lolita is black slapstick and at times it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh.” According to social historian Stephen E. Kercher, the film “demonstrated that its director possessed a keen, satiric insight into the social landscape and sexual hang-ups of cold war America”. Kubrick had shown an affinity for liberal satire when he approached others he hoped would become collaborators: he asked comedian Lenny Bruce to work with him on a film, and did the same with fellow Bronx native, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, whom he invited to Los Angeles to work with him on a screenplay titled Sick, Sick, Sick.
Kubrick’s next project was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), another satirical black comedy. Because Kubrick came of age after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War period, he, like many others, was worried about the possibilities of nuclear war. He became preoccupied with it in the late 1950s, fearing that New York, where he lived, could be a likely target, and even considered moving to Australia, particularly Sydney or Melbourne. He began consulting with others about the possibility of making the subject into a movie. The novel Red Alert was recommended to Kubrick, and after reading it he saw in it the makings of a good film story about nuclear war. Kubrick then began working on a screenplay along with his producer, James B. Harris, who had produced three of his previous films. During that writing period, Kubrick decided that turning the otherwise frightening and serious story into a satire would be the best way to make it into a film, although Harris felt otherwise, and chose not to produce it. Kubrick told Harris, “The only way this thing really works for me is as a satire. It’s the same point, but it’s just a better way of making the point.” Harris recalls that period: I said to myself, ‘I leave him alone for ten minutes and he’s going to blow his whole career.’ I was actually convinced he was out of control to do this as a comedy – as it turns out, it’s my favorite Kubrick picture. According to LoBrutto and others, “Kubrick was taking a bold and dangerous leap” in his decision to make Red Alert into a comedy, as the topic of nuclear war as a film subject at that time was “considered taboo” and “hardly socially acceptable”. Nevertheless, before writing the screenplay as a satire, Kubrick studied over forty military and political research books, including unclassified information on nuclear weapons and effects from Charles B.Yulish, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He decided that a “serious treatment” of the subject would not be believable, and that some of his most salient points would be fodder for comedy. He then decided to try to “treat the story as a nightmare comedy.” Kubrick found that the film would be impossible to make in the U.S. for various technical and political reasons, forcing him to move production to England. There, he developed what became the “first important visual effects crew in the world”. To help him write the screenplay, Kubrick hired noted black comedy and satirical writer Terry Southern. Together, they worked closely to transform Red Alert into “an outrageous black comedy” loaded with “outrageous dialogue”. LoBrutto notes that the final product is a “raucous satire” that merges Kubrick’s “devilishly dark sense of humor” from the New York streets and Southern’s “manic comedic mind.” From his collection of thousands of record albums, both classical and golden oldies, Kubrick also selected background songs and music which added to the satirical and sardonic effect: during the opening credits with B-52 bombers in flight, the song “Try a Little Tenderness” set the scene; the pilots proceeded to fly into hostile territory, knowing they would not return, to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”; scenes depicting nuclear explosions featured the song “We’ll Meet Again”. The “war room” set created for the film by set designer Ken Adam was considered a “classic of movie design.” Director Steven Spielberg told Adam at a later date that it was the “best set that’s ever been designed.” Because of perception that Peter Sellers had been pivotal to the success of Lolita, Sellers was again cast to employ his ability to mimic different characters, this time in three different roles. As he had in Lolita, Kubrick allowed Sellers to wildly improvise his dialogue. The film stirred up much controversy and mixed opinions. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther worried that it was a “discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment … the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across”. Whereas Time, the Nation, Newsweek and Life, among many, gave it “positive, often ecstatic reviews”. Historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford, decades later, “saluted” Kubrick for “having successfully utilized the only method capable of evading our national censor—relentless but hilarious satire”. Kubrick himself once stated: A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical view of human nature, but who still has the optimism to make some sort of a joke out of it. However brutal that joke might be.
Kubrick spent five years developing his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The film was adapted from the short story The Sentinel, by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, and the screenplay was written by Kubrick and Clarke in collaboration. The film’s theme, the birthing of one intelligence by another, is developed in two parallel intersecting stories on two very different times scales. One depicts transitions between various stages of man, from ape to “star child”, as man is reborn into a new existence, each step shepherded by an enigmatic alien intelligence seen only in its artifacts: a series of seemingly indestructible eons-old black monoliths. It also depicts human interaction with our own more directly created and controlled offspring intelligence. The film was conceived as a Cinerama spectacle and was photographed in Super Panavision 70. Upon its release in 1968, the film was said to defy genre convention and was claimed to be unlike any science-fiction movie before it, and different from any of Kubrick’s earlier films or stories. It contained ground-breaking special effects designed by Kubrick to give the viewer a “dazzling mix of imagination and science”, and winning Kubrick his only personal Oscar, an Academy Award for Visual Effects. Kubrick was very much interested in science and the possibilities that life existed beyond Earth. When Kubrick first contacted Clarke through his friend about helping him write the film, he assumed Clarke was a “recluse”, then living in Ceylon. Clarke replied to his friend, “Frightfully interested in working with Enfant Terrible … What makes Kubrick think I’m a recluse?” They first met in person in New York, although Kubrick did not offer Clarke the job of writing at that point, nor was the possible film discussed. LoBrutto notes that Clarke “emerged from the meeting impressed with Kubrick’s pure intelligence and his ability to comprehend new ideas and concepts instantaneously”. Subsequently, after they agreed to the story, Kubrick worked closely with Clarke for three months to produce a 130-page treatment for the film, and consulted with other experts and agencies while doing so. Initially, Clarke worked in Kubrick’s apartment office on Central Park West with an electric typewriter. Science writer Albert Rosenfeld explains Kubrick’s method of learning about subjects: “When a subject interested Kubrick, he never let it get away until he was through with it. He probed with a ruthless tenacity, asking the right questions, comprehending all he was told, never getting enough details to satisfy him.” Clarke later commented on this period: “Every time I get through a session with Stanley, I have to go lie down.” Kubrick describes the movie as “a nonverbal experience”, but would not elaborate on the film’s meaning during a Playboy magazine interview in 1968: tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeon-holing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content … just as music does … You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning. In an interesting contrast within a film infused with allegory and symbolism, the film was also noted for its groundbreaking scientific realism in depicting space flight, for example in its depiction of various strategies to deal with zero-gravity, the absence of sound in outer space, artificial intelligence, and the fact that interplanetary space travel will require different kinds of vehicles engineered for different stages of the journey. Co-star Gary Lockwood, who played one of the astronauts, notes that “there are no computer graphics, it’s all models of different sizes. It’s a handmade movie.” 2001 was the first of several Kubrick films in which classical music played an important role. At the suggestion of Jan Harlan, Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss was included, used for the opening credits, in the “The Dawn of Man” sequence and again in the ending scene which astronaut David Bowman, as the “star child”, gazes at Earth. Kubrick also used music by avant-garde Hungarian composer György Ligeti, his work’s first wide commercial exposure, along with Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. The film was not an immediate hit among many critics, however, who faulted its lack of dialogue, slow pacing, and seemingly impenetrable storyline. Others, like Penelope Gilliatt, called it “a great film”, and numerous directors were inspired by it. Many today consider it among the greatest science fiction films ever made, as well as one of the most influential. After it was shown at a private screening at the Vatican, producer Jan Harlan recalls that a cardinal stood up and said to the audience, “Here is a film made by an agnostic who hit the bullseye.” Today, many film critics and moviemakers regard it “as the most significant Hollywood breakthrough since Citizen Kane (1941), with some, such as Spielberg, calling it his generation’s “big bang”. Lockwood considers 2001 a “life-changer” in terms of technology and the possibilities of film, realizing it would be even during the filming: “When you’ve got the best moviemaker of all time, Stanley Kubrick, with one of the best sci-fi writers of all time, Arthur C. Clarke, combining, well, I kinda knew.” It is a staple on All Time Top 10 lists.
The Shining, released in 1980, was adapted from the novel of the same name by bestselling horror writer Stephen King. The film stars Jack Nicholson as a writer who takes a job as a winter caretaker of a large and isolated hotel in the Rocky Mountains. He spends the winter there with his wife, played by Shelley Duvall, and their young son, who displays paranormal abilities. During their stay, they confront both Jack’s descent into madness and apparent supernatural horrors lurking in the hotel. Kubrick, who was noted for giving his actors freedom to extend the script, and even improvise on occasion, did so with the film’s two main stars. Nicholson notes that actors were given new script pages or revisions on almost a daily basis. According to LoBrutto, Kubrick made it clear that the printed script was to be used as a guide “to use to find the real scene with the actors”. On the set, Nicholson always appeared in character, and if Kubrick felt confident, after they considered how a scene could be shot, that he knew his lines well enough, he might encourage him, as he did Peter Sellers, to improvise. As a result, writes LoBrutto, “one of Nicholson’s inspired improvisations was the now legendary ‘Here’s Johnny!’ line after he has axed in the bathroom door to get to the frightened Wendy”. Vivian Kubrick’s film, The Making of The Shining, shows Nicholson and Duvall rehearsing the scene and revising the script along with Kubrick. Kubrick allowed his daughter Vivian to film the documentary, an unusual move as he kept access to the set closed to all others. Kubrick made extensive use of the newly invented Steadicam, a weight-balanced camera support, which allowed for smooth hand-held camera movement in scenes where a conventional camera track was impractical. According to Garrett Brown, Steadicam’s inventor, it was the first picture to utilize its full potential. Kubrick’s perfectionist style required dozens of takes of certain scenes. Nicholson’s scene with the ghostly bartender was shot thirty-six times, for example. The film opened to mixed reviews, but proved a commercial success. As with most Kubrick films, subsequent critical reaction has treated the film more favorably. Among horror movie fans, The Shining is a cult classic. The film’s financial success renewed Warner Brothers’ faith in Kubrick’s ability to make profitable films after the commercial failure in the US of Barry Lyndon. While Kubrick admitted he had always been interested in the subject of ESP and paranormal experiences, he first became interested in doing the film only after he read King’s novel, calling it “one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read”. Kubrick added that he believed that such “fantasy stories at their best serve the same function for us that fairy tales and mythology formerly did … The nineteenth century was the golden age of realistic fiction. The twentieth century may be the golden age of fantasy.” King was surprised when Kubrick told him he thought stories of the supernatural “were always optimistic” because they “suggest we survive death”. Kubrick concluded, “If we survive death, that’s optimistic”. In a subsequent interview, Kubrick expanded on this idea and its relevance to The Shining’s story: I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.
Seven years later, Kubrick made his next film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), an adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s Vietnam War novel The Short-Timers. Kubrick said to film critic Steven Hall that his attraction to Hasford’s book was because it was “neither antiwar or prowar”, held “no moral or political position”, and was primarily concerned with “the way things are.” It was filmed in a derelict gasworks in the London Docklands area that was adapted as a ruined-city set, which makes the film visually very different from other Vietnam War films. Instead of a tropical jungle, the second half of the picture unfolds in a city undergoing urban warfare. Reviewers and commentators thought this contributed to the bleakness and seriousness of the film. According to Ciment, the film contained some of Kubrick’s trademark characteristics, such as his selection of ironic music, portrayals of men being dehumanized, and attention to extreme detail to achieve realism. At the beginning of the film, as new and expressionless recruits have their hair cut down to their scalp, the song “Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam” is playing in the background; in a later scene where United States Marines patrol the ruins of an abandoned and totally destroyed city, the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Club is heard as a sardonic counterpoint. The film is split into halves. The recruits in boot camp are also subjected to what Ciment calls “a form of lobotomy, a barrage of physical and verbal aggression”. Ciment writes, “In the transition from man to weapon, Kubrick underlines the process of dehumanization … the same contradiction between the mechanical and the living that is manifest in A Clockwork Orange.” According to one review, notes co-star Matthew Modine, “The first half of FMJ is brilliant. Then the film degenerates into a masterpiece.” Ciment also recognizes aspects of this war film with Paths of Glory, which Kubrick directed thirty years earlier. There are similarities in both films, such as the use of natural lighting, an off-screen narrator, attention to detail, a sense of chaos, and the exploration of panoramic spaces. As a result, both films “accentuate the impression of reality … and photographic hyper-realism”. A few of the methods for achieving this realistic look were explained by Kubrick: I try to photograph things realistically. I try to light them as they really would be lit. On interiors I used natural light and windows and no supplemental lights. I was after a realistic, documentary look in the film, especially in the combat footage. Even the Steadicam shots were deliberately made less steady to get a newsreel effect.
Kubrick married his high-school sweetheart Toba Metz in May 1948, when he was nineteen years of age. They lived together in Greenwich Village and divorced three years later in 1951. He met his second wife, the Austrian-born dancer and theatrical designer Ruth Sobotka, in 1952. They lived together in New York’s East Village from 1952 until their marriage in January 1955. They moved to Hollywood six months afterwards, where she played a brief part as a ballet dancer in Kubrick’s film, Killer’s Kiss (1955). The following year she was art director for his film, The Killing (1956). They divorced in 1957. During the production of Paths of Glory (1957) in Munich, Kubrick met and romanced young German actress Christiane Harlan, who played a small though memorable role. She was his girlfriend at the time, and Kubrick created a new ending to the film which he felt was too grim. Kubrick married Harlan in 1958, and in 1959 they settled into a home in Beverly Hills with Harlan’s daughter, Katherina, age six. They also lived in New York, during which time Christiane studied art at the Art Students League of New York, later becoming an independent artist. Like Kubrick, she wanted “solace to think, study, and practice her craft,” writes LoBrutto. They remained together 40 years, until his death in 1999. Besides his stepdaughter, they had two daughters together. Shortly after his death, Christiane assembled a personal collection of never-before-seen photographs and commentary into a book, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Included among the photos was only one of Kubrick’s family together, taken in 1960. In 2010, she gave a videotaped interview with U.K.’s Guardian, where she discussed his personality, his love of editing films, and some reasons why he chose to not make Aryan Papers. Actor Jack Nicholson, who starred in The Shining (1980), observed that “Stanley was very much a family man.” Similarly, Nicole Kidman, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), adds that Christiane “was the love of his life. He would talk about her, he adored her, something that people didn’t know. His daughters adored them … I would see that, and he would talk about them very proudly.” The opinion was shared by Malcolm McDowell, who starred in A Clockwork Orange: “He was happily married. I remember his daughters, Vivian and Anya, running around the room. It was good to see such a close-knit family.”
On March 7, 1999, four days after screening a final cut of Eyes Wide Shut for his family and the stars, Kubrick died in his sleep of natural causes at the age of 70. His funeral was held on March 12 at his home estate with only close friends and family in attendance, totaling approximately 100 people. The media was kept a mile away outside the entrance gate. Alexander Walker, who attended the funeral, describes it as a “family farewell, … almost like an English picnic,” with cellists, clarinetists and singers providing song and music from many of his favorite classical compositions. Although Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, was recited, the funeral had no religious overtones, and few of his obituaries mentioned his Jewish background. Among those who gave eulogies were Terry Semel, Jan Harlan, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. He was buried next to his favorite tree in Childwickbury Manor, Hertfordshire, England. In her book dedicated to Kubrick, his wife Christiane included one of his favorite quotes by Oscar Wilde: The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.
- July, 26, 1928
- The Bronx, New York, New York
- March, 07, 1999
- St Albans, United Kingdom
Cause of Death
- after suffering a massive heart attack
- Childwickbury Manor
- Hertfordshire, England