20 Years Ago Stanley Kubrick Tormented Tom Cruise to Create a Strange Classic
They don't make 'em like this anymore... Why?
1999 was a big year for movies, something we discuss elsewhere on this site as well. But we wanted to take particular note of the Independent's recent write up of Stanley Kubrick's final film.
It's hard to turn the cultural clock back to the late 1990s. There was no streaming yet. As writer Ed Power reminds us, Tom Cruise had yet to jump on Oprah's couch and none of us had seen Going Clear. Stanley Kubrick wasn't just a legend of cinema, he was a working director still making movies.
But as different as 1999 was from 2019, this situation seems like it would be weird at any time:
Idiosyncratic/hermit/creative genius filmmaker pairs with Hollywood's most bankable star and his real-life wife for a movie whose centerpiece is a creepy masked orgy's effects on a marriage.
"the 2001 of relationship movies" - Christopher Nolan
Oh, and it was released on July 16. Like some kind of summer blockbuster.
We have questions!
How Did Eyes Wide Shut Happen?
Kubrick had "long been obsessed" with the source, 'Traumnovelle' or 'Dream Story' which was a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. The plot is much the same, though it takes place in Vienna in the 20th century. It's a story about adultery or the desire to commit adultery. Having the movie star a Hollywood power-couple at the peak of the tabloid fame was a stroke of pure genius. Or maybe luck.
Or maybe both...
Tom Cruise signed on to work with Kubrick instantly, being a fan of Kubrick's work. Having his wife Nicole Kidman play his wife in the movie was Cruise's idea. Who were Kubrick's first picks for the leading role?
Well in 1973 he'd wanted Woody Allen for the part. You know, Woody Allen and Tom Cruise are always up for the same roles.
There was also the consideration of Steve Martin and later Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Okay, now it's starting to feel familiar to the movie we got.
With Cruise and Kidman in, the budget could balloon and Kubrick could deliver.
It Took a Long Time to Make
"Hey Tom, stick with me, I'll make you a star."
Cruise and Kidman gave Kubrick the ability to be as particular as he likes to be. He recreated Manhattan in the UK because he refused to travel to shoot anywhere else. He was extremely afraid to fly, and this limited the location options for many of his movies.
More from Power's Independent post:
"The movie was a boundary-breaker long before its release. It holds the record for longest ever continuous film shoot. The 400 days Kubrick required his cast and crew to toil at Pinewood Studios was laborious even by his painstaking standards."
Cruise was stressed because Mission Impossible 2 was waiting on him. Kubrick, apparently, never gave anyone much of an idea of how much longer he'd need to finish the movie. Another indicator of how much things have changed in Hollywood: a major franchise sequel sat and waited while an auteur worked out every last detail on a movie about a married couple's sex life.
Yeah, that wouldn't happen in 2019.
There are reports that Kubrick was up to his usual tormenting of stars to get the best out of them. Stories suggest he mined Kidman for information about her deeper psychology and found as many ways as possible to minimize Cruise through his character.
Cruise developed ulcers during the seemingly endless shoot but told no-one for fear it might affect the process. The set was also on constant lockdown and Kubrick worked with a small tight crew. Allegedly Kubrick made Cruise walk through a door for 95 takes joking to Cruise, "Hey Tom, stick with me, I'll make you a star."
Paul Thomas Anderson made it to the set to visit with Tom Cruise (and perhaps get him onboard for Magnolia) and he commented on how few people Kubrick worked with to which Kubrick replied: "How many do you need?"
The movie is long considering it's based on something so short. It covers one night, and at the end [Spoiler Alert] not much has fundamentally changed. Of course, you could also say "everything has changed" on some deeper level for this couple.
The Eyes Wide Shut Orgy Scene
Vulture did an oral history of the famous Eyes Wide Shut orgy scene, that gets insights from the many people working on the crew that helped create it. As with all things, Kubrick had a lot of specifics in mind. One story says when he noticed a single lightbulb was out somewhere on set he insisted everyone wait until it was replaced. The body types of the nude figures had to fit certain parameters (nothing surgically altered), and they had to find a way to shoot it so it was 'lyrical' and 'ballet or yoga-like'.
There was also some research involving watching Red Shoe Diaries.
The Eyes Wide Shut party scene is one of the most enduring elements of the movie, but it's worth thinking back on the fact that a movie with this massively strange orgy at its center was, again, a major mid-summer release with Hollywood's top stars.
1999 was different.
The Eyes Wide Shut Meaning
This is certainly one of those movies that critics and fans will reexamine and discuss often, with no clearly obvious meaning. We will all likely continue to do some Eyes Wide Shut analysis every once in a while. There has certainly been plenty written on theories, proposing to be 'Eyes Wide Shut explained'.
The reality is the movie may hold different meanings for different people, and even more so at different times in their lives. That's part of what Christopher Nolan thinks, "Watching it with fresh eyes, it plays very differently to a middle-age man than it did to a young man...it is the 2001 of relationship movies."
On a surface level, it could be about a bourgeoisie couple having a sort of interlude with the world of the super-elite, while also providing commentary on their dynamic with the lower class. Ideas of class and status run throughout the entire movie. Perhaps since it is about a marriage and "ownership" of a spouse and their sexuality, there are other depths to mine meaning-wise.
We can save the Marxist reading of Eyes Wide Shut for another day. Or maybe another website.
The point remains that Kubrick's movies all take big swings at some big ideas. The dynamics at the core of his plots are between humanity and God, society and base nature, heaven and hell... things get DEEP. Which is one reason film-goers and filmmakers alike keep coming back to his work.
Maybe what Eyes Wide Shut means is less critical to understand right now than why we don't see Eyes Wide Shut movies anymore. It wasn't that long ago that movies were about ideas like this, without providing readily available answers, and they could still make money. It was Kubrick's last film, and his most successful (Cruise and Kidman helped...)
So What Happened?
Why don't these kinds of probing odd movies get made on the largest scale anymore? Did the audience for them dry up? Did the existence of the streaming market and a seemingly infinite ocean of 'content' create too much competition?
Did creatives like Kubrick just cease to exist? Did stars like Cruise stop trying to make those kinds of movies because they didn't want to get ulcers?
There are honestly lots of ways to answer these questions. There are also, to be fair, plenty of movies and shows that do probe where creatives like Kubrick wanted to. They just don't get center stage as often.
We're interested in your takes on it.