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The Academy Takes Kubrick Fans on the Ultimate Trip

One of the most influential and groundbreaking directors of the modern era, Stanley Kubrick was honored by the Academy on November 7, 2012 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with an evening of stories and cinematic highlights hosted by Malcolm McDowell, with a trio of guests who were also members of an exclusive club: actors fortunate enough to star in a Kubrick film.

The Kubrick Salute was part of the Academy's ongoing collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to jointly present the expansive exhibition "Stanley Kubrick" at LACMA through June 30, 2013. The major exhibition is accompanied by “2012: A Kubrick Odyssey,” a two-month retrospective of all of his feature films. The Academy’s Grand Lobby Gallery on the floor below the Goldwyn also offers “Stanley Kubrick: The Ultimate Trip,” a companion exhibition of Kubrick materials.

The celebration began with a dazzling combat scene from Kubrick’s breakthrough film, the 1957 war drama “Paths of Glory” starring Kirk Douglas, and an introduction by Academy President Hawk Koch, who praised Kubrick’s genius and prepared the crowd for their host. An actor with over three decades of credits under his belt, Malcolm McDowell became a movie icon with his role as the hell-raising “droog” Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of the dystopian Anthony Burgess novel.  That film marked Kubrick’s second foray into science fiction after his previous film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), which also earned him an Academy Award for its special effects. McDowell began by sharing memories of working with Kubrick, frequently referencing his piercing and intelligent black eyes and recalling many games of ping pong (which led to him losing a week’s pay for his voiceover work), the director’s fondness for listening to air traffic reports, and a crew strike during the demanding production.  An actor used to working with nurturing directors like Lindsay Anderson on films like “If…,” McDowell received the following philosophy from Kubrick on getting a good performance: “Gee, Malc, I don’t know what I want… but I do know what I don’t want.”

McDowell then introduced the first clips of the evening, a trio of selections from Kubrick’s initial features in black and white. “Fear and Desire,” a 1953 study of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, was Kubrick’s debut and one the director famously attempted to pull from circulation during his lifetime. However, the scene shown here was a dynamic early look at the director’s visual sense, a sparse scene of violence with the soldiers bursting their way into a farmhouse. The stylish mannequin-filled showdown from the urban noir thriller “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) came next, followed by the ironic airport finale from the innovative heist film “The Killing” (1956), starring Sterling Hayden.

As the lights came back up, McDowell welcomed Paul Mazursky to the stage. The Brooklyn-born actor made his film debut in “Fear and Desire” after Kubrick spotted the young thespian in a stage production of “He Who Gets Slapped,” and while Mazursky continued acting for years to come, he is now perhaps better known as the director of such films as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “An Unmarried Woman,” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Mazursky’s hilarious anecdotes about working as a youth for the first-time director included his recollections of trying to get four weeks off from college just before graduation, convincing the dean that he had been called away to work on a big Hollywood movie.

McDowell continued to appear in between clips for the next five Kubrick films, all of them in wildly different genres but each featuring the filmmaker’s strong artistic imprint. The startling forced combat between gladiators Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode from the widescreen epic “Spartacus” (1960) represented Kubrick’s last director-for-hire role in Hollywood; he then relocated to England permanently and courted controversy with his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous “Lolita” (1962), represented here with James Mason’s unforgettable first glimpse of the title nymphet (Sue Lyon) lounging in the backyard belonging to her gauche mother, Shelley Winters. Peter Sellers also appeared in that film but will always be remembered most for another Kubrick collaboration, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), a trailblazing black comedy about the folly of nuclear arms and international diplomacy (or lack thereof). The clip of Sellers as U.S. President Merkin Muffley (one of his three roles in the film) making an awkward phone call to the Soviet Prime Minister had the audience in stitches, reinforcing the film’s potent satire even now decades later.

McDowell’s signature role as Alex came next, with his final scene in “A Clockwork Orange” accompanied by stories about how he decided to punctuate his performance with an inspired bit of physical comedy, mimicking a bird demanding to be fed, which had Kubrick cracking up behind the camera. The film was considered shocking and even dangerous upon its release, even being withdrawn for many years in the U.K. after its first year of release.  From a dose of future shock the audience was then taken into the distant past for “Barry Lyndon” (1975), a sumptuous period epic starring Ryan O’Neal as an Irishman climbing up the social ladder of 18th-century Europe. The film’s Oscar-winning cinematography remains striking today, using NASA-developed lenses to shoot only by candlelight and other natural light sources. This technique was demonstrated in the clip chosen here, a montage spanning from O’Neal’s tart carriage ride with new wife Marisa Berenson to the birth of their son.

O’Neal himself took to the stage after the clip to join McDowell for a spirited discussion of the making of the film, including tales about finding a proper stunt double for O’Neal after his character is supposed to become an amputee (which also involved strapping the actor’s leg all the way back behind his head). They also discussed Kubrick’s initial dislike of the ending of O’Neal’s acclaimed previous film, “Paper Moon” (which he didn’t view as a comedy at first), the IRA disturbances that forced the production to relocate to England, and the banana-induced methods used to quiet hordes of noisy monkeys during shooting.

Though Kubrick passed on directing “The Exorcist,” he later decided to mount another horror film based on a popular literary property. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining” (1980) became famous for its striking Steadicam work and raw, terrifying lead performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, shown here in a chilling scene in which she discovers the manuscript he’s been working on for the past several months alone in the forbidding, snowbound Overlook Hotel.  It took seven years for Kubrick to release his next film, the blistering Vietnam saga “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), shown here with the elaborate Battle of Huế sequence and its aftermath, complete with startling use of the rock standard “Surfin’ Bird.”

The final guest of the evening, Matthew Modine, joined McDowell to discuss his own experiences with Kubrick as he played Private (and later Sergeant) Joker in “Full Metal Jacket.” The film’s production was once again a colorful one, with England standing in for Vietnam (including the use of Beckton Gas Works to stand in for the bombed-out Huế) and costar R. Lee Ermey (a real-life drill sergeant recruited to act in the film) breaking his ribs in a car accident. Modine even published a photo-filled diary about his experiences on the set, and he closed out on a high note by recalling one of his biggest acting challenges: delivering his lines opposite Ermey’s powerful bad breath!

McDowell once again guided the audience to Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), a dreamlike study of marriage and jealousy which the director had wanted to make in various forms for many years. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s powerful performances in the film were highlighted here with the dramatic scene in which she awakens from a nightmare and tells her husband far more about it than he probably wanted to know. However, that wasn’t quite the end of the evening, as McDowell closed things out with a bang by introducing one final clip: a glorious 70mm presentation of the legendary transition from caveman to space age in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” His final words to the audience said it all: “Ape! Bone! Ship! Thank you. Good night!”  

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