Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]

Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick
By Frederic Raphael
Ballantine, 1999

Reviewed by Scott Von Doviak

When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999, the curtain of secrecy and silence that had cloaked his life's work rang down once and for all. Or so he might have hoped. In fact, the director's death opened the floodgates, unleashing a torrent of words in newspapers, magazine articles and on the Internet. It was as if Kubrick's former associates couldn't wait to be the first to rip down the curtain and reveal the great and terrible Oz for all to behold.

Frederic Raphael's Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick was the first postmortem to reach bookstores. A veteran screenwriter and Oscar winner for Darling, Raphael was contacted in 1994 by the reclusive filmmaker, who had not made a movie in seven years. Kubrick (whose classic films include Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange) sent Raphael an unidentified manuscript, later revealed to be a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Dreamnovelle. Five years later, this virtually unknown story had been transformed into a motion picture event starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; the final film by Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut.

Raphael's slim volume details the year and a half period he spent working on the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut. It incorporates diary excerpts and telephone conversation transcripts into a roughly chronological reminiscence that allows for digressions into other areas of Raphael's professional life, as well as no small amount of armchair psychoanalysis of the notoriously obsessive director. For Kubrick aficionados, as well as anyone interested in the often tortuous collaborative screenwriting process, Eyes Wide Open proves at least as frustrating as it is rewarding.

There is a kind of unpleasant aura about the book and the motivations behind it. The timing of the publication, a scant three months after Kubrick's death, calls into question the sincerity of such a "memoir," capitalizing as it does on the scheduled release date of Eyes Wide Shut. And much of the content does little to dispel such suspicions. At times, it smacks of a revenge ploy of a particularly cowardly sort. At his worst, Raphael comes off as a disgruntled former employee sounding off against the boss who can longer respond in kind.

It doesn't take very many pages for Raphael to firmly establish his monumental self-regard. He treats us to recollections of projects he has turned down for other directors, all of which naturally met with failure. He deigns to meet with a pair of buffoonish television executives and reluctantly agrees to write a miniseries for them. He then shunts them aside to make time to work for Kubrick, only after receiving assurances that the proposed assignment is not (sniff) science fiction.

Though Kubrick at first makes pains to conceal the source of the material, Raphael guesses that it is most likely the Austrian writer and Freud contemporary Arthur Schnitzler (and delights in telling us that he has so guessed). Raphael is presented with the challenge of updating the story from 19th century Vienna to contemporary Manhattan. Though he finds Schnitzler's themes a bit "dusty," he agrees to take a crack at it.

Kubrick initially pronounces himself "thrilled" with Raphael's efforts, a reaction that sets off an inexplicable emotional response in Raphael. He is at first delighted to meet with the auteur's approval, then angry with himself for feeling such delight. His displeasure deepens when the honeymoon phase comes to an end and Kubrick begins to demand revisions. Slowly, Raphael realizes that his actual role in the project is not what he had envisioned:
[Kubrick] never explains why he doesn't like a scene, especially when he has to concede that it is pretty funny. I have come to see that he distrusts my jokes -- any jokes -- probably because a well-scripted passage of dialogue which presages a climactic laugh demands that the scene be shot precisely to that end. Joe "All About Eve" Mankiewicz used to say that a good script had, in some sense, been directed already. That is not the kind of script Kubrick will ever want. Anything too finished leaves him with an obligation to obedience. He did not want the scenes to carry any authorial mark but his. If I was preparing the way for him to do his stuff, anything that was markedly mine was never the stuff he was going to do.

And so, Raphael finds himself stripping the screenplay down to its bare essence. Any variation from the original Schnitzler text is met with Kubrick's disapproval: "Let's stick with Arthur's beats." Any attempts at jazzing up the dialogue are likewise rebuffed. "I don't like the scene with the hooker. I mean, she sounds like she's Barbra Streisand, you know what I mean? Doing the New York hooker. The dialogue kinda goes boom boom and a boom boom, which I don't...I don't want that. How about we just follow Arthur?"

Eventually, Raphael delivers his putative final draft of what has come to be known as Eyes Wide Shut. Months later, he is summoned back to Castle Kubrick by the director, who has completely rewritten the screenplay. Raphael reads the new version with a heavy heart. While many of his contributions remain, the script's pages have become "a blueprint for a movie. They contain only enough words to remind the director of what he means to do or have people say."

One of the most exasperating aspects of the book is that we are forced to take Raphael at his word regarding the superiority of his original draft. This is not entirely his fault, of course, since the work-for-hire provisions of the Hollywood studio system dictate that the script is the intellectual property of Warner Bros. It would therefore be impossible for him to provide side-by-side comparisons of the respective drafts without the studio's permission, a highly unlikely prospect at best. Nevertheless, one of the few concrete examples given of Raphael's contribution to the finished film does not necessarily bear out his thesis.

All along Raphael had insisted that the screenplay required an overall shape, something to tie the beginning in with the end (a quality he felt Kubrick's previous film, Full Metal Jacket, lacked). After much prodding, the director agreed to a penultimate scene that would provide a certain amount of narrative closure, yet still leave a hint of ambiguity. Unfortunately, the scene as written proves to be a clumsy and prosaic wrap-up spiel in the tradition of the psychiatrist's speech that concludes Psycho; it serves to dissipate the atmosphere of mystery and dread that has suffused the film to this point. Though one can't be certain to what extent Raphael is to blame for the dialogue's plodding rhythms, his desire for such an expository denouement is curiously at odds with his and Kubrick's mutually expressed distaste for 2010, the overly-literal sequel to the director's most visually driven film.

All of this is not to say that Eyes Wide Open is without its merits and small pleasures. Anyone familiar with Kubrick's notorious perfectionism and protracted shooting schedules will get a chuckle out of this exchange regarding the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part film Decalogue:
S.K.: So what do you think of the Kieslowski?
F.R.: Amazing.
S.K.: I'll tell you what's amazing, he did all ten of those things in one year... Ten movies in one year, can you imagine?
F.R.: Sure. Do you want to do something like that? Because I'm sure you could.
S.K.: Think so?

These conversational transcripts provide the book's most rewarding moments. Raphael deftly renders Kubrick's Bronx-bred speech patterns and chatty style, and we are treated to his insights on such subjects as his fellow filmmakers (Woody Allen is a favorite, and he admires Pulp Fiction for "the way it was told...the pace."), the game of chess, the O.J. Simpson trial (one of the book's least surprising revelations -- Kubrick thinks he's guilty) and, most controversially, the Holocaust.

Eyes Wide Open received some notoriety upon its release due to an excerpt published in the New York Post under the headline, "Stanley Kubrick -- Self-Hating Jew." Though this phrase is used nowhere in Raphael's book, the author (himself Jewish) does wrestle with the director's ambiguous relationship with his own Jewishness. Kubrick insisted that the Jewish characters in Schnitzler's novella be transformed into WASPy "Harrison Ford-ish" types. An incident wherein the main character is assaulted by an anti-Semitic gang is transformed into a gay-bashing in the film (a change, incidentally, that ties the scene thematically to the character's other sexually-charged encounters). Raphael goes along with these changes reluctantly, suspecting that Kubrick is making them primarily as a sop to the box office. The finished film suggests another reading, however. The Upper West Side setting, with its lushly appointed trappings, as well as the relationship-centered subject matter, evoke at times the work of Woody Allen (as does the presence of Sydney Pollack, who also appears in Allen's Husbands and Wives). Kubrick may have recognized this similarity, and not wished to push further onto Allen's turf by making the characters Jewish.

Ultimately, Raphael reveals far more of himself than he does of his book's ostensible subject, and the resultant self-portrait is less than flattering. The author certainly hasn't been at the top of anyone's list of hot screenwriters for several decades, and one can't shake the feeling that this enterprise is a thinly-veiled attempt to elevate his stature through the (partial, at least) denigration of a far more recognized artist. The arrogance on display here is most unseemly coming from a writer whose most recent screen credit prior to Eyes Wide Shut was a 1990 TV movie called Women and Men: Stories of Seduction. And while the telephone conversation transcripts provide the most delightful reading, suspicion about their origin lingers. Does Raphael have a home taping system on his phone line -- or is this perhaps more of the author's "pretty good dialogue" Kubrick so often praises herein? There is no way of knowing for sure.

It would seem the definitive Kubrick volume has yet to be written (see -- or rather, don't see --Vincent LoBrutto's massive 1995 biography Stanley Kubrick, a stultifying compendium of second-hand anecdotes that, for all its girth, sheds precious little light on its subject). However, even within the narrow sub-genre of collaborator-penned reminiscences, Raphael has been beaten at his own game. Michael Herr, author of the nonfiction classic Dispatches and co-screenwriter of Kubrick's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket, contributed a similar account to the August 1999 issue of Vanity Fair. The lengthy article proves to be a much richer, more insightful and above all, more human portrait of the director than Eyes Wide Open, without ever succumbing to hagiography.

In the end, the most dismaying aspect of any such memoir may be the circumstance that allowed it to be written at all. In a better world, Stanley Kubrick would still be out there, hunkered down in his compound in the English countryside, picking the brain of yet another collaborator and laying the groundwork for another powerful and unique cinematic experience. His untimely death leaves a void that will not be easily filled anytime soon.

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Scott Von Doviak is a screenwriter living in Austin, Texas. He co-wrote and co-stars in the indie comedyWhat I Like About You. He has also written for Very Vicky comics and starred in the film Apocalypse Bop, now available on video.

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