Inside LACMA's Stanley Kubrick Retrospective: Director's Obsession With Detail on Vivid Display

Stanley Kubrick on the set of "2001: A Space Odyssey"

At a preview of the exhibit, which opens Nov. 1, the filmmaker's widow described his fetish and revealed why he never went on talk shows.

As famed for his filmmaking as he was for obsessive perfectionism, it should come as little surprise that master director Stanley Kubrick carried out painstaking research, all catalogued on an elaborately detailed paper trail, before the camera ever rolled.

This relentless devotion to detail and his craft is showcased in Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Stanley Kubrick,” the first retrospective of the late filmmaker's work in the U.S., an exhaustive collection of photography, costumes, artifacts, technical equipment and personal ephemera that provides fascinating insight into the mind and machinations of one of the greatest — and arguably the most influential — directors of our time.

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Speaking at the press preview Wednesday, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and film producer Jan Harlan described the exhibit — which was compiled by a team of archivists who scoured the director’s trunks and personal letters for years — as an enduring personal record. “With Stanley, as with all great artists, the genius doesn’t disappear,” he said. And being a true artist — one described by Steven Spielberg as his generation’s “the big bang” — it makes sense that Kubrick’s work also should be seen in a museum. 

Also visiting from London as a LACMA special guest was Kubrick’s widow, German actress and singer Christiane Kubrick. “Here are the remnants of somebody who didn’t have a computer,” she said. “Even though he was one of the first people to have one, this was just before.

“The things that are left are on paper and hand-touched. You put them in a glass box and you go all gooey — that’s what a fan is,” said Kubrick, who fell in love with the director after he cast her in his 1957 film Paths of Glory.

A talented artist, Christiane Kubrick’s paintings were featured throughout the apartment of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Kubrick’s highly controversial last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

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“Stanley needed a New York flat for a couple with a good income, and our flat was one of those," she recalled. "And he hated inventing something that everybody knows — you make mistakes so easily — so he said, ‘Why don’t we just copy our flat?’ The version in the film is slightly more posh than ours, but he took my paintings and my jewelry and my clothes … it was a sort of a fetish of his to make night tables and kitchens and darker corners of households look real. And he was also lazy, so he used my stuff!”

The director’s talent for realism and visual storytelling can be viewed in the exhibit’s collection of images from his first job as a staff photographer for Look magazine. Having never gone to college, Kubrick started work as a photojournalist at 16, and the early black-and-white images of boxers, showgirls, housewives in a Laundromat and street kids (alongside his 1947 on-set press pass for Jules Dassin’s crime drama The Naked City) are worthy additions to his oeuvre, highlighting a young Kubrick’s empathy for subjects and their struggles.

Kubrick maintains that it’s a common and crazy misconception that her husband was cold and did not like being around people. “He was the opposite of a recluse, he was all over the place,” she said. “He was just not into so-called showbiz watering holes. He talked a great deal -- his intensity was what made him very special, more interesting than most people -- and he knew that gave away a lot. If you can’t shut up because you get so carried away, people can milk you -- you are far more vulnerable.

“He didn’t go on chat shows, he was like, ‘I see all these other bastards doing this, but I’m so afraid, I’d be too nervous to function properly. I don’t have the talent to sell myself well. Good directors are not actors.’ And he had such a sense of humor; I could no longer watch the news after he died, because I had this wonderful political cabaret going on. People fell in love with him because he was very funny -- and nice. Nice is good! And love goes a long way.”

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Each of Kubrick’s cinema masterpieces, including A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and The Shining, is honored with an assemblage of original costumes, props, set pieces and hand-scribbled storyboards and scripts.

But perhaps the most telling of his unnerving devotion to research are the materials gathered from the masterwork that was never made: his Napoleon biopic, which Kubrick was forced to abandon in the '70s because of budget and production challenges.

Years of extensive research into the minutiae of the French emperor’s life is glimpsed in glass cases bearing multiple draft scripts; Napoleon handwriting facsimiles and an elaborate color-coded filing system cataloging his known acquaintances; Kubrick’s 1971 draft letter to studio execs, telling them, “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made’; his offer letter to Oskar Werner for the title role; and a very polite hand-written inability letter from actress Audrey Hepburn, stating that she had decided not to work for a while, but “will you please think of me again someday?” Sadly, it was all not to be.

The exhibit runs Nov. 1 through June 30 and will be paired with a retrospective of Kubrick's work at LACMA's Bing Theater from Nov. 9 to Dec. 15. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will stage a "Salute to Stanley Kubrick," hosted by Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 7.