Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick’s Final Masterpiece
Eyes Wide Shut is one of Stanley Kubrick’s last great masterpiece, and personally one of my favorite Kubrick films. Many critics and Kubrick fans considered it one of his lesser works when it was released. But as the years have gone by Eyes Wide Shut has aged extremely well. Even legendary director Martin Scorsese considers the film not only one of Kubrick’s best but on of the best films of the 90’s.
The film is an erotic drama film released in 1999 deriving its roots from a 1926 novella – Traumnovelle (Dream Story) written by Arthur Schnitzler. It was the last film to be directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick as the famous producer died four days after he showed his final cut of the movie to Warner Bros Pictures and four months before the eventual release of the film.
Kubrick’s record-breaking production schedule for Eyes Wide Shut (400 production days) garnered the Guinness World Records award for the longest continuous film shoot in history. It earned over $30 million during its first week of release, and that made it take the box office’s number one spot. Eyes Wide Shut won the Best DVD Collection for Warner Bros at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, Saturn Award in 2012.
Twelve years before that, in 2000, one of the key stars in Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman had won the Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actress (Drama/Romance) for her role in the movie. In that same year, the movie bagged the Csapnivalo Awards for Best Art Movie and the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award for Best Foreign Film. It occupied the 9th place amongst the top ten films of the Year 2000, an award from the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
In the very year, Eyes Wide Shut was released, it made headlines when Stanley Kubrick was awarded the Filmcritica ‘Bastone Blanco’ Award at the Venice Film Festival. That year also saw the movie winning the Most Intrusive Musical Score Award at the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards.
The Plot: Dream or Reality?
The two main characters Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice typifies the journey of a young couple living in New York. When the couple attends a lavish Christmas party hosted by a wealthy patient, Victor Ziegler, Bill hooks up with an old friend who he met at medical school, Nick Nightingale. Nick was a professional player of the Piano and was at his best at entertaining guests.
At the party, Sandor Szavost, a Hungarian man tries to pick up Alice; two young models go for Bill. While at it, Bill is interrupted by his host Victor who had been having sexual intercourse with a lady, Mandy, overdosed on a speedball. The call takes Bill upstairs where he aids Mandy to recover.
While at home with Alice the next evening, Bill entertains a strange question from his wife. Alice asks Bill if he had sex with the two girls at the party. Bill who was smoking cannabis at that time, does a good job at reassuring his wife but asks her if he has ever been jealous of men who are attracted to her. Bill’s assertion that women are more faithful than men seems not to go down well with his wife who suddenly tells him of her fantasy with a naval officer they had met during a vacation.
Disturbed by the revelation, a troubled Bill responds to the call of the daughter of one of his patients who just died. On getting there, the lady, Marion attempts to kiss him claiming to love him more than her fiancé Carl. Bill does not succumb to the temptation but from there heads to the apartment of a prostitute named Domino, but calls off the awkward encounter with the prostitute after he receives a call from his wife.
He visits a nightclub where his pianist friend Nick was playing, and there he learns about a secret sexual group and decides to attend one of their assemblies. He, however, realizes that it was a risky action to take and this earns him threats both for himself and his family.
One of the greatest opening shots in film history
The crux of the dark side of the movie shows forth when Bill takes a taxi to a country mansion mentioned by Nick. He can gain access with the password only to discover a quasi-religious sexual ritual held there. Even though he was masked, a woman quickly pulls him aside and intimates him that he does not belong there. She out rightly warns him of the danger he is exposed to by being at that place at that particular time.
But when the woman is whisked away by someone else, Bill has the opportunity of taking a walk around the house and seeing several masked people engaging in all manners of sexual acts.
A porter interrupts Bill and takes him to a ritual room where a disguised master of ceremonies asks him a question about a second password which Bill did not have. Bill is asked to remove his mask and his clothes. At that point, the masked woman who had earlier warned Bill stepped in and offered to redeem Bill. So Bill is ushered out of the building and advised not to speak to anyone about what he saw.
She out rightly warns him of the danger he is exposed to by being at that place at that particular time. But when the woman is whisked away by someone else, Bill has the opportunity of taking a walk around the house and seeing several masked people engaging in all manners of sexual acts.
A porter interrupts Bill and takes him to a ritual room where a disguised master of ceremonies asks him a question about a second password which Bill did not have.
Bill is asked to remove his mask and his clothes. At that point, the masked woman who had earlier warned Bill stepped in and offered to redeem Bill. So Bill is ushered out of the building and advised not to speak to anyone about what he saw.
At that point, the masked woman who had earlier warned Bill stepped in and offered to redeem Bill. So Bill is ushered out of the building and advised not to speak to anyone about what he saw.
Then matters became more complicated when Bill arrives home feeling guilty and confused then notices his wife laughing wildly in her sleep. She tells him amid tears of a troubling dream where she was having sex with the naval officer and many other men and when this was happening she was laughing at the fact that Bill was there to watch them.
By the time Bill got to Nick Nightingale’s hotel the next morning, he was told by the desk clerk that a frightened and confused Nick was taken away from the hotel by two dangerous-looking men. The envelope Nick tried to pass to the desk clerk was intercepted by the men who drove him away.
Bill’s encounter with Marion is to surface again after a series of events. He calls Marion after considering the sexual offers he had the previous night but hangs up when the latter’s fiancé answers the phone. He heads straight again to Domino’s home where he receives the news from her roommate that Domino has just tested positive for HIV.
Bill is later invited to Ziegler’s house and told about his intrusion at the ritual sexual orgy the previous night and day. Bill is told not to divulge information about the ritual orgy for any reason or risk the anger of the secret society. When Bill cannot ascertain if the claims on Mandy’s death and Nick’s disappearance as made by Ziegler were true, he decides to speak no further on the matter and to let it drop.
He returns home to find a rented mask beside his wife who was fast asleep. He is broken and in tears narrates the events of the past two days to his wife. The next morning they go Christmas shopping with their daughter, and Alice insists that they should be grateful they survived the whole drama of those days. She professed her love for him and called him out for some sex.
Going Down the Rabbit Hole of Eyes Wide Shut
There are many messages embedded in this enigmatic and suspenseful film that requires a second look. Firstly, the story reveals the travails of the modern couple, who instead of being enmeshed in the hot flames of love and romance is profoundly unsatisfied and seem tied together by factors like convenience and appearances rather than pure love. While the couple can be seen as being modern and belonging to the upper strata of society, the tie that binds them together are the result of basic, primal and sometimes animalistic behavior.
Secondly, mingling with the elite may be desirable and even enjoyable, but it may somehow have some negatives attached. So Bill and Alice attend the party of Victor Ziegler (whose last name means Freemason in German, read into that as you like all you conspiracy theorists out there), a super-rich patient of Bill’s. While there is much to cherish about at the party concerning glamor or elegance, the events that take place after that made matters worse for Bill and Alice. There is also a veiled connection between the party and the occult dimension that runs through the movie.
Thirdly, Eyes Wide Shut re-echoes the notion that beyond elitist glamor, in most cases there are dark, horrific truths about the wealthy. Even though throughout the film there is the depiction of the rainbow and many colors used as a symbol of elegance and glamor, when Bill is interrupted by Victor who goes to see Mandy overdosed in the bathroom, the dark sides began to be revealed.
Fourthly, the practicability of marriage was also questioned by the movie. Even though Alice rejected Sandor’s advances, she was enticed, nevertheless. Her comments give her out as completing unbelieving that Bill loves and trusts her. This behavior triggers the feelings of jealousy in her husband who ends up in a strange situation that totally contradicts the principle of monogamy. The movie also echoes the dilemma of good versus right.
The Real Message: In making Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick had one primary intention in mind; prompt his audience not to be carried away by the flamboyant exhibition of wealth. Because behind the ‘rainbow world’ exists a dark and troubling reality which Kubrick exhibits subtly and sometimes not so subtly in every aspect of the film.
Kubrick helps the audience rethink the institution of marriage, the strength of real commitment, faith and temptation. It’s a film that has layers and makes you ponder more deeply about life. Eyes Wide Shut is a complex look at our society today and it makes the audience look beyond what’s on the surface.
So firstly, he portrays the lifestyle of the typical New York wealthy elite and shows that on that scale alone, that lifestyle is beautiful and enjoyable. But he quickly reveals that behind the rainbows lie some hidden secrets that most people would not want to be associated with.
Making Eyes Wide Shut
Information available shows that Stanley Kubrick was interested in making a film about sexual relations as far back as 1962. But that desire never saw the light of day until he read Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Dream Story’ in 1968. He got interested in adapting the story and with the help of a journalist, Jay Cocks, bought the filming rights to the book.
Over a decade, Kubrick considered making the ‘Dream Story’ adaptation a sex comedy, but that did not materialize immediately. He, however, revived the project in 1994 when he hired Frederic Raphael to work on the script. He further invited his friend, Michael Herr to help write a script for revisions, but Herr declined because he would not commit to a lengthy production and thought he might be underpaid.
The film began production in 1996. Kubrick had been planning to make Eyes Wide Shut after completing work on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ but then got the opportunity to adapt ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ Stanley Kubrick ran into several challenges in the course of making the movie.
For instance, the studio pushed him back to cast major A-list stars. The head of Warner Bros at the time, Terry Semel told Kubrick:
“What I would love you to consider is a movie star in the lead role; you haven’t done that since Jack Nicholson in The Shining.”
Stanley Kubrick had always planned to feature a real-life couple in the movie, and his first option was to go for Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger. But he later settled for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who were married between 1990 and 2001.
The movie was filmed in London even though it was set in New York. In reviewing the film, Vanity Fair noted that Kubrick sent a particular designer to New York to take real measurements to determine the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines.
Another strange event in the making of Eyes Wide Shut is the fact that the script kept changing. One of the characters Todd Field who played the part of Nick Nightingale, they would rehearse a scene a crazy number of times and the scene would change within an hour.
They would get back to the script supervisor for amendments, and that would lead to a complete change of content. And in the middle of the production, Tom Cruise, the lead actor developed an ulcer. He was able to handle the occasion and work with Kubrick to get the production going successfully.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Tom Cruise also reported that Cruise wanted to re-enact his personal story as part of the movie, and thus he recreated his New York apartment for the film. He used the same furniture in his house and ensured that his wife, Christianne’s paintings were used on the walls. According to Cruise ‘it was as personal a story as he’s ever done.’
To reiterate Kubrick’s attention to detail and accuracy, he banned Cruise from the set on the days Kidman would shoot the scene with a male model. Six days were spent filming the scene which lasted for just one minute, and Kidman was forbidden from telling Cruise about the scene. This was to make the movie depict real-life jealousy among couples in as clear cut away as possible.
Kubrick’s penchant for accuracy was also revealed when he got Cruise to do a simple walking through the door scene 95 times.
On trying to re-enact reality as clearly as possible, Kubrick got Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to live like real characters when the cameras were not focused on them. They slept in their characters’ bedroom together, were made to choose their curtains and left their clothes on the floor just as they would do in normal life.
Kubrick even discussed the couple’s anxieties in private conversations so that the actors could tap into some emotional intrigues while acting.
A sad part of the whole production is that Stanley Kubrick passed away just a few days after showing Warner Bros studio his cut. It is therefore not known how much he would have kept editing the film. After his death, the promoters of the movie decided to digitally alter the bodies in the orgy scene so the movie could be released with an R rating rather than an NC-17.
Some analysts have claimed that Stanley Kubrick would have done the same if he was alive. Nicole Kidman even suggests that he would have kept tinkering with the movie for the next 20 years.
By the time Eyes Wide Shut was released, twelve years had passed when he had released his last film, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ which came out in 1987. But Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s only film to top the box office’s earnings chat, amassing over $30 million in its first week of release.
This movie made tons of headlines before and after its release. Even its main character; Tom Cruise did not like the role of Dr. Bill Harford. Cruise revealed a year after the movie was released that he ‘didn’t like playing Dr. Bill…It was unpleasant. But I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t done this.’
Eyes Wide Shut’s Impact on the Film Industry
Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Jan Harlan posits that Stanley Kubrick was undoubtedly happy with the film and even considered it his greatest contribution to cinema. Even though one of Kubrick’s actors in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ R. Lee Ermey disputed the claim by saying that Kubrick called him two weeks before his death to express his despondency about the movie claiming that critics would ‘have him for lunch.’
However, Stanley Kubrick has been praised for his distinct style, attention to detail, a knack for accuracy and ability to bring out real-life meanings from symbolisms.
The movie, just as its producer was very controversial from the very beginning. Firstly, the Warner Bros, citing contractual obligations to deliver an R rating, had to digitally alter the orgy scene for the American release-blocking out the graphic sexual activity by including some figures to obscure the view. This onset direction was done to avoid the dreaded “adults only rating” of NC-17 which would have led to its limited distribution.
This alteration did not go down well with analysts and critics who thought that Stanley Kubrick would never have shied away from ratings for his movies as long as they passed his intended messages.
However, the versions released in South America, Europe, and Australia featured the orgy scene in its original form with ratings suitable for people 18 and above. There have been some controversies in New Zealand and some parts of Europe where people considered the explicit sexual content of the movie unacceptable.
Analysts like Roger Ebert have put up strong objections against the blurring of the orgy scenes claiming that it only buttressed the hypocrisy associated with movie ratings.
Other critics have described the film as being better at mood than at substance. They think that the film is empty of ideas and does not inspire any audience to watch the film. Many of these critics have described this act as a ‘minor Kubrick.’
But overall, the reviews for Eyes Wide Shot were positive. It had 7.5 out of 10 from 146 reviews, and the general consensus was that Stanley Kubrick’s intense study of the human psyche was able to yield outstanding cinematic work.
Stanley Kubrick delivered Eyes Wide Shut with a budget estimated to be $65 million. In marketing the movie, Warner Bros followed Kubrick’s secrecy campaign to the point that the film’s press kits contained no production notes. However, Warner Bros promoted the film heavily and used initiatives like putting it on the cover of Time Magazine and show film business programs like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood.
In conclusion, this is a movie worth the time of the audience. Stanley Kubrick did a fantastic job at passing his message even though with knocks from critics.
Eyes Wide Shut: Creating the Masks
(Turn on Closed Captioning for English Subtitles)
Many highly-rated movie stars were involved in the making of Eyes Wide Shut. The main cast of the movie includes:
- Tom Cruise (Dr. William ‘Bill’ Harford)
- Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford)
- Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler)
- Marie Richardson (Marion Nathanson)
- Todd Field (Nick Nightingale)
- Sky du Mont (Sandor Szavost)
- Rade Serbedzija (Mr. Milich)
- Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Fay Masterson (Sally)
- Leelee Sobiesky (Milich’s Daughter)
- Alan Cumming (Hotel Desk Clerk)
- Leon Vitali (Red Cloak)
- Julienne Davis (Amanda ‘Mandy’ Curran)
- Thomas Gibson (Carl Thomas)
- Madison Eginton (Helena Harford)
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If you are a filmmaker watching Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is mandatory:
- FEAR & DESIRE (1953)
- KILLER’S KISS (1955)
- THE KILLING (1956)
- PATHS OF GLORY (1957)
- SPARTACUS (1960)
- LOLITA (1962)
- DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
- 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
- A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
- BARRY LYNDON (1975)
- THE SHINING (1980)
- FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
- EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
If you liked Eyes Wide Shut: Sex, Masks, Betrayal – Stanley Kubrick’s Final Masterpiece, check out
Stanley Kubrick – Breaking Down the Master’s Directing Style
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