Kubrick's View

A naked woman stands before a mirror, her back to the camera. She is swaying softly to the sounds of Chris Isaak singing, "Baby done a bad, bad thing." Her head with its tousled red curls is lilting to the twanging guitar, her eyes fixed on her long, curved body, which we see reflected in the mirror. As the camera moves in slowly, a man, naked, comes in from the right. He embraces her, holds her breasts, kisses her mouth, her neck, with mounting passion. Three names suddenly appear in rapid succession: CRUISE. KIDMAN. KUBRICK. Now her face is in tight close-up, watching herself, a modern Mona Lisa rapt by her own enigma. Again the three names race by, followed by EYES WIDE SHUT, and then a date: JULY 16.

These 90 seconds of intense sensuality are the last work of the legendary director Stanley Kubrick. This "teaser," shown last week at the ShoWest exhibitors' convention in Las Vegas, is the first public look at "Eyes Wide Shut," the long-awaited movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick, 70, had died with tragic suddenness three days before. "This is my best movie ever," the creator of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Dr. Strangelove," "Lolita" and "The Shining" told a colleague. Kubrick had sent his just-completed film to New York, where it was seen by Cruise and Kidman with Terry Semel and Robert Daly, cochairmen of Warner Brothers. It marked the end of the movie's three-year gestation period during which the notoriously secretive Kubrick had forbidden anyone to talk about the film.

"After we saw the movie in New York," says Semel, "I phoned him in London and told him we were blown away. The man was on cloud 98." Some observers weren't so sure the famously obsessive Kubrick had really finished editing. "It's Stanley's final cut for sure," says Semel. Another question had concerned a possible, financially disastrous NC-17 rating for the $65 million film. "I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it," says Semel. "It is a definite R rating. It's a very sexy picture, but there's also edge-of-your-seat suspense. And the nudity is done so beautifully, so tastefully. It is not NC-17."

"Eyes Wide Shut" is based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Novel"), which explores the sexual lives of a Viennese couple, a doctor and his wife. One writer whom Kubrick approached to work on the film is the celebrated English spy novelist John le Carre (David Cornwell). Schnitzler's story, he says, "is very erotic, very much about middle-class inhibition." Kubrick and Cornwell couldn't agree on how to adapt this tale. "Locking minds with him was very exciting," says Corn-well. "But mercifully, I never wrote for him. Every writer who did said they lost years of their lives. Stanley was very seductive, but he wanted writers to write what he saw in his own head. I suspect half a dozen writers went through the same sheep-dip on the movie."

Kubrick's eventual coscripter was Oscar winner ("Darling") Frederic Raphael. Schnitzler's doctor became a New York psychiatrist (Cruise) who's married to another psychiatrist (Kidman), both of whom become involved in their patients' sexual lives. Reports (denied by the stars) say that Cruise wears a dress in a scene filmed at Madame JoJo's, a well-known transvestite bar, and that Kubrick brought in a clinician to instruct Kidman on how to mainline heroin. As in the original story, there is a climactic masked orgy. In a rare comment, Kubrick said that the film "explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage and tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality."

As with every one of Kubrick's 13 movies in 46 years, he put his cast through scores of takes, using his camera like some Cyclopean predator relentlessly pursuing the soul of the actor. The 18-month shoot took its toll on some cast members. Harvey Keitel was replaced by director-actor Sydney Pollack, a Kubrick friend for 25 years. "Stanley said, 'If you're going to do a sexual thriller, both the sex and thrills have to be a fresh, new vision'," says Pollack. "He was the only true perfectionist I've ever known. Stanley came onto the set and said, 'Who touched the lights?' 'No one, Stanley, the dimmers are right on their marks.' He said, 'Get the meter out, it's a quarter of a stop off.' And it was a quarter of a stop off."

As a Bronx boy making his first feature, "Fear and Desire," in 1953, Kubrick aimed to master every element of cinema. Jack Nicholson, who played the homicidal husband in "The Shining" (1980), complained about his obsessiveness but admitted wryly: "Stanley's good on sound. Stanley's good on the color of the mike. Stanley's good about the merchant he bought the mike from. Stanley's good about the merchant's daughter who needs some dental work. Stanley's good." R. Lee Ermey, the ex-marine who played the sadistic drill sergeant in Kubrick's harrowing Vietnam epic, "Full Metal Jacket," clearly identified with Kubrick. "He was up before dawn, he goes 18-, 20-hour days. I think he just worked himself to death." Ermey recalls a day when Kubrick was driving an all-terrain vehicle crammed with crew. "Stanley starts blabbering, 'There it is, I want to bring the troops across this knoll.' Then he drives off the road into the f-----g ditch! This vehicle is on its side in an eight-foot ditch, and Stanley hasn't stopped talking! 'Put the base camp down here.' He opens his door, scrambles out and stands on top of the car, and he's still talking. We're still all scrunched up in the damned car. Stanley's still talking about the lens and the filters."

Kubrick was in love with lenses and filters, Steadicams and cranes, the way a poet is in love with words. On his sprawling 172-acre estate north of London, where he lived with his third wife, Christiane, a painter, he spent most of his time in the basement, surrounded by cameras, video machines, tapes, short-wave radios and film archives. Legends abound of Kubrick's communicating with his staff by code, of his fear of flying, even though he had once held a pilot's license. He had not been back to America in 31 years. "I like being away from the Hollywood phoniness," he said. "When I lived there people would ask, 'How's it going?' and you knew that what they hoped to hear was that you were behind schedule or had trouble with the star."

He was branded a recluse, but friends like Cornwell, Pollack, Kidman and Cruise saw other sides of a complex personality. "There was not the least obstacle getting through to him," says Cornwell. "He didn't like stupidity, razzmatazz, celebrity. Stanley refused to accept that drainage of his spirit." "He wouldn't travel," says Pollack. "He knew everything about the world in his compound. He traveled in his mind." The emotional color of Kubrick's work is primarily dark, but it's the darkness of a balked idealism. The brutal depiction of war in his 1957 "Paths of Glory" anticipated Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." "Dr. Strangelove" remains the most Swiftian, savagely funny treatment of the lethal absurdity of the nuclear age that any artist has given us. Jack Nicholson's character in "The Shining" may be Kubrick's portrait of the darker depths of his own psyche. And "2001: A Space Odyssey" moves from a chilling projection of a technical, emotionally sterile future to a vision of rebirth, the Star-Child growing in the womb of space. It was a great leap for a boy from the Bronx.