Eyes Wide Shut: 20 years on, Stanley Kubrick’s most notorious film is still shrouded in mystery

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Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut: Getty
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut: Getty

It was the fastest “yes” Tom Cruise ever uttered. Late in 1995, the world’s biggest movie star travelled by helicopter to Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire. Waiting on the expansive lawn was director Stanley Kubrick, who’d lived semi-reclusively in the 18th-century pile since 1978. So began their great adventure together making Eyes Wide Shut, the eternally divisive psycho-sexual meditation released 20 years ago in the UK this week.

A still potent mystique hangs over Eyes Wide Shut. That’s partly down to the subject matter. When the glamorous wife (Nicole Kidman) of a successful doctor (Cruise) confesses the desire she felt for a stranger months previously, he plunges down a whirlpool of jealousy.

Over the course of a single hallucinatory evening, Dr Harford embarks on a tour of the murkiest recesses of the human heart. He fends off the daughter of a patient only just passed away, almost hires a manic pixie dream girl prostitute and then blunders upon a masked orgy. It’s nightmarish. The audience is never entirely clear whether what’s happening is real or a dive into Harford’s green-eyed dream-life.

All of that would be enough to ensure its notoriety. Yet the allure of Eyes Wide Shut also surely flows from the degree to which death intrudes on a film about sex. Kubrick suffered a fatal coronary before its release. Just six days previously, he had screened his final cut for Cruise and Kidman.

Eyes Wide Shut, along with all that, appeared to foreshadow the unravelling of Cruise and his co-star Kidman’s outwardly luminous marriage. They divorced in August 2001 – almost exactly two years since the project’s release.It seemed ominous and more than a coincidence. Had Kubrick’s caper put a stake through the heart of their relationship?

Such were the questions lurking in the future as Cruise, grinning like the matinee idol he was, sat down to a long lunch with Kubrick at Childwickbury in 1995. The conversation was mostly trivial. They discussed their shared passions: vintage cameras, planes, the New York Yankees. Cruise told Kubrick how seeing the director’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at age six had blown his mind. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What is life? What is space? What is existence?” (Some of us will have had the same experience watching Top Gun.)

“He was just waiting, alone in a garden,” Cruise remembered of meeting Kubrick. “He walked me around the grounds, and I just remember thinking, ‘This guy is kind of a magical, wonderful guy.’”

Still, they did eventually get around to the matter at hand. Kubrick wanted the star of Top Gun and Cocktail to play the lead in his sexually frank adaptation of an Austrian avant-garde novel from the 1920s. The film was to lay a seemingly solid marriage out on the figurative slab. Like a pathologist peeling back waxy layers of skin, Kubrick would coldly scrutinise what festered beneath.

Cruise was all in. And he had a suggestion of his own. He wondered if Kubrick might consider casting his real-life spouse, Nicole Kidman, as the wife. Two decades on, this unlikely teaming-up of hermit director, cocksure actor and screen siren can be considered one of Hollywood’s most fascinating anomalies. How on earth did this movie ever come to exist?

Eyes Wide Shut would cast a long shadow. It added to the background noise as Cruise’s public image underwent a post-Kidman meltdown. In 2005, he went on Oprah Winfrey and proclaimed his love of Katie Holmes. He did so in the traditional fashion of bouncing on a couch and baying like a labrador. The maniacal side he had first hinted at when going through the grinder with Kubrick had blossomed into something awe-inducing and frightening.

It’s impossible to watch Eyes Wide Shut today without all of that – Kubrick’s coronary, the Hollywood divorce, the couch-bouncing – playing on a continuous loop in your head. The effect is to amp up the already lurid weirdness. It is a deeply dissonant film. Even for Kubrick, certainly for Kidman and Cruise. But it’s also unflinching in its insights into sexuality and brusque about matters of the heart – and other body parts – to a degree unthinkable in mainstream entertainment today. Even in 1999, it felt slightly like something from another era. Eyes Wide Shut harked back to the chilliness and stylised nihilism of Seventies cinema.

On top of all that, it claims the Blue Riband for most famous on-screen orgy in Hollywood history. In the unlikely event of Kubrick and his stars ever being forgotten, it will reign in perpetuity as the group sex fandango to rule them all. Say “screen orgy” and what most people think of is Cruise gawping in pervy incredulity as revellers in Venetian masks get jiggy with it (and with each other).

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. And it played havoc with Cruise, forced to push back Mission: Impossible 2 again and again. As an entire production sat on its hands and waited on the actor in America, Kubrick rubbed his chin and tinkered.

Eye’s Wide Shut had been a lifeline obsession for the director. Its origins stretched back to the earliest years of his career. As a hotshot younger photographer in New York, he’d been spellbound by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (“Dream Story”). He felt it confronted one of the last taboos in society: how to deal with “forbidden” desire within a marriage?

“The book opposes the real adventures of a husband and the fantasy adventures of his wife,” Kubrick commented. “[It] asks the question: is there a serious difference between dreaming a sexual adventure, and actually having one?”

Kubrick had made several previous attempts to adapt Traumnovelle. In 1973, he had the idea of changing the setting from turn of the century Vienna to contemporary Dublin. His plan was to cast Woody Allen in the Cruise role of happily married husband sexually unmoored when his wife confesses her secret desires. Somewhere along the way he concluded, moreover, that the time-frame should be changed from Schnitzler’s Mardi Gras to Christmas – giving us the least seasonal Yuletide movie ever.

Steve Martin was also considered by Kubrick after the director had decided the adaptation should be set in New York. By the early Nineties he was eyeing A-list Mr and Mrs Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger as his emotionally diseased power-couple. And then Cruise’s name came up.

It was suggested not by Kubrick but by his producer at Warner Brothers, Terry Semel. The director wanted Warner to stump up a $65m budget for Eyes Wide Shot. Kubrick refused to film outside the UK and much of the production costs would go towards recreating Manhattan in England. Semel was amenable – but only with a knock-out star in the Dr Harford role. Who was more knock-out than the magnetic lead from Top Gun and Mission: Impossible?

Kubrick wasn’t sure. The last big name he’d worked with had been Jack Nicholson on The Shining in 1980. The film was eventually hailed a masterpiece. But the shoot had been hell. Kubrick had been particularly unappreciative of Nicholson’s tendency to speak his mind rather than do as instructed. “Stars,” he told Semel, “have too many opinions.”

Semel persevered. And Cruise said “yes” without hesitation. Once that was settled, Kubrick was amenable to casting Kidman as Mrs Harford. “Tom and Nicole” were one of the most recognisable couples in the world. Their marriage had been subject to the traditional tabloid tittle-tattle. A real-life husband and wife portraying unravelling spouses introduced a new layer of psychosexual subtext. Kubrick loved it.

Kidman and Cruise on the red carpet at the 69th Academy Awards, 1997 (AFP/Getty)
Kidman and Cruise on the red carpet at the 69th Academy Awards, 1997 (AFP/Getty)

Kubrick appeared to, additionally, get a kick out of exploring fissures in Cruise and Kidman’s real marriage. He had Kidman disclose her inner-most feelings in extensive therapy sessions, the contents of which were not revealed to Cruise. And he forbade the actor from the set when Kidman was shooting her fantasy trysts with the naval officer who had awoken something in Alice.

He retained his enthusiasm through the gruelling shoot. Cruise and Kidman found it harder to stay positive. It wasn’t the intensity of the material, nor the semi-nudity required of Kidman (who’d been strict from the outset as to what she would and would not do). It was that it went on and on, seemingly without end. On one occasion, Kubrick had Cruise walk through the same door 95 times. “Hey, Tom, stick with me, I’ll make you a star,” he is reported to have joked. Cruise tried to laugh but couldn’t quite bring himself to.

“We shot for 10-and-a-half months but we were there for a year and a half,” Kidman later lamented. “Sometimes it as very frustrating because you were thinking, is this ever going to end?

Cruise was meanwhile coming under pressure from Paramount Pictures over Mission: Impossible 2, already put back twice for Eyes Wide Shut. More than once he’d politely taken Kubrick aside and wondered if the director might possibly have an idea when he might done. Kubrick never had a straight answer. Cruise soon had ulcers – a fact he kept from Kubrick. He didn’t want more complications.

“I didn’t want to tell Stanley,” Cruise told Time. “He panicked. I wanted this to work, but you’re playing with dynamite when you act. Emotions kick up. You try not to kick things up, but you go through things you can’t help.”

It’s astonishing that scheduling was Cruise’s biggest issue. Kubrick made full use of the opportunity to strip away the actor’s movie star aura. Again and again through the 159 minutes, Kubrick went out of his way to paint him unflatteringly.

The fly-boy glibness central to the actor’s persona was openly ridiculed by the director. In an early scene, Harford flirts with two models at a party. Kubrick has Cruise unleash his trademark boyishness. But he frames it in such way as to make Cruise come across callow and charmless. Being chatted up by Tom Cruise, the film more or less says out loud, is the least seductive experience under the sun.

There were also winks towards unfounded rumours about Cruise’s sexuality. Navigating New York by night, Harford has a run-in with fratboys who taunt him with homophobic slurs. Kubrick used the same scene to mock Cruise’s “diminutive” 5ft 7in stature. “I got dumps bigger than you,” one of the aggressors laughs, swatting Harford aside.

“Kubrick seems to take immense delight in subverting Cruise’s virile man-of-action image – Bill is almost pathologically passive, unable to acknowledge, let alone explore, his sexuality,” went a BFI essay marking Eyes Wide Shut’s anniversary. “He’s also cringe-inducingly bourgeois, introducing himself as a doctor to everyone he meets, as if this automatically grants him moral authority in any situation.

And yet, both Cruise and Kidman proclaimed themselves delighted with the finished movie. Kubrick was so anxious that details might leak that when he arranged a screening for them in Los Angeles the projectionist was ordered to look away from the screen.

Their director’s paranoia notwithstanding they were proud of what their hard work had yielded. Here was an avant-grade film with a message everybody could understand: you can never fully know the person next to you in bed.

“I don’t think it’s a morality tale,” said Kidman. “It’s different for every person who watches it.”

Cruise agreed. Kubrick had made a masterpiece of ambivalence. “The movie is whatever the audience takes from it,” he said. “Wherever you are in life you’re going to take away something different.”

Twenty years on, Eyes Wide Shut is an acknowledged classic. But it is also notorious – largely on account of the masked orgy. It is in every sense the centre piece, and it was the sequence with which Kubrick struggled the most. He was never a prudish director.

But nor was he one for pressing his audiences’ noses in debauchery. As time came to shoot Eye Wide Shut’s carnival of flesh, assistant director Brian Cook joked that they should have hired Tony Scott to help out. The subject at hand far better suited his flashy style.

Kubrick’s way of getting his head into the orgy was via the soundscapes of composer Jocelyn Pook. One of his producers had introduced him to her piece “Backward Priests”, which features Romanian Orthodox Divine Liturgy played in reverse. Kubrick was struck by the dark, dissonant quality.

“He looked at me right in the eyes and said ‘Let’s make sex music!’ I thought to myself, what the hell is sex music? Is it Barry White?” Pook would tell Dazed and Confused. “Stanley didn’t really care to elaborate, he just trusted me to answer the question.”

She composed 24 minutes of roiling chants and percussion, using the same back-to-front technique pioneered with “Backwards Priests”. “And God told to his apprentices,” go the lyrics (when played right way around). “I gave you a command ... to pray to the Lord for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, the search, the leave and the forgiveness of the sins of God’s children.”

Kubrick and his crew were meanwhile immersed in softcore pornography, in particular David Duchovny’s Red Shoe Diaries. They wanted a sense of how far they should be prepared to push the material. And to settle on a line they would not cross.

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The orgy was shot at Mentmore Towers, a rural estate in Buckinghamshire built by the Rothschilds (known to hold mysterious masked balls). Initially, Kubrick wanted the models participating in the sequence to simulate sex at length. They were even asked to peruse the Kama Sutra. The response that came back was that they hadn’t signed up for that level of explicitness.

So the sequence was instead reimagined as a choreographic piece suggestive of bacchanalia. As Cruises takes it all in, you can’t quite focus on what’s going on. It’s mostly dark, suggestive blurs. The imagination is left to do the heavy lifting.

Cruise and Kidman may have adored Eyes Wide Shut but critics were slower coming around to it, even after Kubrick’s sudden death at 70 made this his accidental swan song. That wasn’t unusual with the director. Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining had been greeted with bafflement. And A Clockwork Orange had sparked a full-on moral panic. The reaction to Eyes Wide Shut was somewhere between these two poles. Many simply found it distant and a bit dull (it did make back its budget nearly three times over and is Kubrick’s highest grosser).

“It’s empty of ideas which is fine,” said The Washington Post. “But it’s also empty of heat.” “This is a film about sex that isn’t sexy,” agreed Total Film. “A movie about love with a cold heart.”

Kubrick, though, was always about the slow burn. And so it is only with the decades that the true genius of Eyes Wide Shut has been revealed. Christopher Nolan, a self-confessed Kubrick acolyte, is among the many who have confessed to misunderstanding it on first viewing. Only later, older and slightly wiser, did he begin to grasp what Kubrick was reaching for.

“Watching it with fresh eyes, it plays very differently to a middle-age man than it did to a young man,” Nolan said. “There’s a very real sense in which it is the 2001 of relationship movies.”

“I was happy that he had chosen to go after something very difficult: the idea of what should and shouldn’t remain unspoken in a marriage,” agreed Steven Soderbergh. “He was trying to get at something that was emotionally ambitious in a way that most of his films aren’t.”

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