Book Review: Stanley Kubrick - A Biography, by John Baxter

This biography of Stanley Kubrick is by the Australian author John Baxter, who has also written books on other directors, including John Ford, Ken Russell, Steven Spielberg, Frederico Fellini and Luis Bunuel. 

And there's no question that Stanley Kubrick, with his acclaimed films, his famously secretive nature and the mass of strange myths and rumours that have accumulated around him, is an excellent choice of subject for a biographer. 

John Baxter follows Kubrick from his childhood as an unpromising schoolboy in New York to his early career as a photographer for Look magazine, and then to his attempts at breaking into making films. These were originally documentary shorts, including the well-received 1951 film Day of the Fight. There were also some uncredited paying-the-rent type assignments around this time, making undistinguished industrial documentaries like The Seafarers, that only came to light much later on.

Kubrick's fiction film debut, the semi-professional war film Fear and Desire in 1953, was not a notable success and neither was his follow-up, the crime thriller Killer's Kiss in 1955. He only began to make his mark as a director after going into partnership with the producer James B. Harris, at first with the heist thriller The Killing in 1956 and then with the World War I drama Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, a year later.


Work for hire, taking over from Anthony Mann as director of Kirk Douglas's 1960 epic Spartacus, was a way for Kubrick to get out of his contract with Douglas's Bryna Productions, and after that he escaped Hollywood for England. 

Kubrick first went there to make his final film with James Harris, Lolita (1962), despite the book's American setting, as funding was available to make it in England from Seven Arts. All of his subsequent films would be made in Britain and the next two in particular, Dr. Strangelove in 1963 and 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, would seal his reputation as one of the era's great film makers. 

Kubrick settled permanently in a rambling mansion in Hertfordshire, just north of London, where he had his own editing suite and offices. From the early 1970s onwards, he developed an advantageous relationship with Warner Bros. They financed and released his films, while he kept them and Hollywood at a safe distance, and burnished his reputation as a maverick and eccentric genius. 

After the book's early chapters, Kubrick's personal life fades into the background and John Baxter concentrates on the director's films, with one film covered in each chapter. Or almost, as the films do tend to overlap chapters, with the release of each film often being covered in the chapter covering the next. 

As the book progresses, Baxter accumulates a lot of details about Kubrick's working methods and idiosyncrasies. These include his obsession with safety - which is the reason why he stopped flying (after trying it himself and discovering how easy it was to make a mistake) and would apparently only drive or be driven at a maximum of 30 mph.

Fans will find some of their preconceptions about the director, and some of the stories that have done the rounds about him, being confirmed. Kubrick really did call up individual cinemas thousands of miles away in the US to ask them to re-paint the walls or fix their projection issues. 

The director was also clearly a hard taskmaster who drove some employees to distraction and could be unreasonably controlling. Some collaborators struggled to get payment or credit after working for him and it seems that he used the lure of working with such an esteemed director firmly to his own advantage when it came to drawing up contracts.

You certainly end the book feeling that Kubrick is not someone you would really want to work for or with, not only because of his excessive demands, but because of that controlling nature. More than one screenwriter was summarily dismissed after having the temerity to leave the country during a break in working on a Kubrick project. Presumably, Kubrick didn't see why anyone needed to go abroad, since he never did - not even to make a Vietnam War film. Nor, it seems, did he travel much further than London or Hertfordshire in his last couple of decades. His ideal film would probably have been made entirely at Elstree or Borehamwood studios, or else in his own back garden. 

John Baxter does state from the outset that he is a Kubrick fan, but the enthusiasm you would expect from a fan doesn't come across in this book. It's probably welcome that the author doesn't strain to declare every Kubrick film an unqualified masterpiece, but equally his enthusiasm is often muted. He is obviously not that impressed by some of Kubrick's films, including his 1975 Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon, probably unfairly in the case of that one.

Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining have also attracted quite a lot of speculation about their secret subtexts and hidden meanings - some fans even speculated that a piece of slab-shaped rubble seen in Full Metal Jacket was meant to refer back to the monolith of 2001 - but Baxter doesn't delve into these at all. 

In the internet era there has inevitably been much more discussion of this area and a whole film about supposed hidden meanings in The Shining - called Room 237 - was made and released in 2012. Admittedly, this kind of fan talk was much less widespread when the book was published, but there had been speculation about hidden meanings in The Shining as far back as the early 1980s, so it does seem a little strange not to find any mention of that here. 

Baxter doesn't quite get to the bottom of the mystery over the withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange from distribution in the UK, simply explaining the way that this came to light. This happened in the late seventies, when Adrian Turner requested a print for a Kubrick retrospective and was told that the film was no longer available. But there's little speculation on why this decision was made or why Kubrick decided to suppress A Clockwork Orange in the UK.

It's often been said that Kubrick received death threats because of the film, but according to John Baxter he also received death threats for filming Barry Lyndon in Ireland (and, apparently, for originally not filming it in Ireland as well), so it's difficult to know how seriously he would have taken these. The ban certainly went well beyond the necessary minimum, with Channel 4 even barred from showing clips from A Clockwork Orange in a television documentary on the film 20 years later. 

It's hard to escape the suspicion that Kubrick had second thoughts about the film and its sexual violence, because he now had two teenage daughters of his own. Is this why he ensured it was so comprehensively banned on his home turf in Britain, but not anywhere else? 

Kubrick was certainly very safety-conscious, which was one of the reasons why he became so obsessed with the question of nuclear war, as explored in Dr. Strangelove. Baxter also states that Kubrick was never particularly liberal or left-wing, and that his politics drifted rightwards as he aged. He was also something of a gun enthusiast and collector, who used to go shooting at his local gun club. So it seems that he was very defensively-minded and, on this evidence, perhaps more politically reactionary than is usually assumed.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few errors and some odd claims in the book. The author twice refers to the actor Leonard Rossiter, who appeared in 2001 and Barry Lyndon, as Norman Rossiter, which makes me think that he doesn't actually know who he is, while Michael Bates (of A Clockwork Orange) is twice called Michael Bryant, who is a different actor entirely. 

Baxter also calls Straw Dogs and Ken Russell's The Devils "American films" (hmm...) and states that Forbidden Planet in 1956 was "the first modern science fiction film to be made by a major studio" - which can't be true, given the existence of 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World and 1955's This Island Earth

He also states that Kubrick was offered The Exorcist to direct and notes that William Friedkin went on to win the Best Director Oscar for the film. This would be news to George Roy Hill, who won for The Sting that year.

Baxter is unimpressed by the other Oscar nominees in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, including Oliver!, Romeo and Juliet and The Lion in Winter, referring to them dismissively as "studio movies". But, in truth, these were no more "studio movies" than 2001 - in fact, rather less so, given that Kubrick's film was made through MGM and, ironically, filmed almost entirely in an MGM studio. 

He also describes Kubrick and Joseph Losey as being similar, because both directors worked outside the studio system. But the reality is that the studio system was dead by this time and, after his very earliest films, Kubrick was never entirely independent of the remaining Hollywood studios. Losey really did have to work independently of them and was forced to go to England because he was blacklisted. This is quite unlike Kubrick, who seems to have simply preferred the lifestyle in Britain, and who maintained an ongoing relationship with Warner Bros. until his death. 

It does feel as if John Baxter doesn't quite get a grip on Kubrick as either a man or an artist and, even by the end of the book, he remains somewhat elusive. Instead, the author builds up an accumulation of unusual details about Kubrick's life and his moderate eccentricities, from which the reader has to largely draw their own conclusions. 

Even the reasons for Kubrick's permanent move to England are not illuminated, with the author simply stating that Kubrick realised that it was possible, but not exploring why he would want to make such a drastic move. 

The author also states that Kubrick lived in England as if he were still in the US and lived his life on Los Angeles time. He would sleep in the day and work at night, so that he would still be working the same hours as any contacts in Los Angeles. 

This seems like an extraordinary arrangement and the practical implications of this are enormous, particularly as Kubrick was a family man with a wife and children. Did he really insist on living in a different time zone from his own family? Apart from the impact on his family life, it's hard to see how Kubrick could have been making films in England while working only at night, just so that he could call Los Angeles whenever he wanted. 

Baxter, though, doesn't explore this issue, but merely treats it as another odd piece of information, not questioning the practicalities or desirability of such a strange arrangement. That leaves the reader wondering if it can really be true, and it seems that it probably isn't. Kubrick's family have said that he was something of a night owl and that he would often be awake and working in the night, and so was able to call people in the US. That, though, is very different from living your whole life in England on LA time, as Baxter claims.

The book was originally published in 1998 and ends with the author speculating about the next phase of Kubrick's life and career as an elder statesman of cinema. He ponders the inevitable honorary awards, degrees and doctorates that were no doubt heading his way. This, of course, is quite poignant now, given that Kubrick died unexpectedly within a year or so, just as his final film Eyes Wide Shut was being readied for release. 

The fact that this book doesn't cover Kubrick's last film is a little disappointing. It would have been welcome if John Baxter had updated it after the film's release and Kubrick's death and taken the opportunity to fix some of the book's errors. Despite that, there is still much of interest here and it makes for a decent general introduction to Kubrick and his films, albeit with some important caveats about accuracy. 

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