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The Nation | EDUCATION : Personal Perspective

Present at the Creation With Kubrick

March 14, 1999|Chris Chase | Chris Chase is the coauthor of "Josephine: The Hungry Heart," a biography of Josephine Baker. She used the name Irene Kane when she starred in "Killer's Kiss."

NEW YORK — The movie director Stanley Kubrick died last Sunday, March 7, 1999. For someone who had known him in the '50s, it was strange to see his picture in a newspaper, wearing a long black beard and looking like some Old Testament prophet of doom. Though, considering the darkness of his visions, you could make the case that a prophet of doom is exactly the role he lived.

When I met him, he wasn't even 30. Some of us weren't even 20. You had to be young to think you could do a feature film--it was called "Killer's Kiss"--with no money, no names, no Harvey Weinstein in the wings.

Mostly, Stanley wanted to do "Killer's Kiss" because he loved the idea of shooting a chase scene in a mannequin factory. He convinced me to play the girl by explaining that I was going to be a very important movie star, and I thought that might be better than getting a real job at Dunkin' Donuts.

Before we signed a contract, he showed me "Fear and Desire," his first full-length picture. Paul Mazursky, now a writer-director, was one of the actors in "Fear and Desire," and he hammed up his part something fierce. I told Stanley I thought Mazursky's performance was the teeniest bit overwrought, and Stanley said sweetly, "It wasn't his fault. I made him do that." (Years after, in "The Shining," he made the ordinarily contained Jack Nicholson "do that." Sometimes he just wanted an actor to tear a cat.)

If you believe, because of his legend, that he was a highbrow who yearned to grow up and make art movies, to be Sergei M. Eisenstein or Friedrich W. Murnau, think again. His hero, he told me, was Mickey Spillane. "Sex and sadism," he said. "That's what sells." I don't think he ever changed his mind about that, though at the end he could do whatever he liked, and he didn't have to worry about whether or not it sold.

In those early days, Stanley was endlessly agreeable, no trace of the difficult recluse he is said to have become as he grew more famous. (He was engaged to ballet dancer Ruth Sobotka, so she had a nice little scene en pointe in "Killer's Kiss"; never mind that it didn't make a whole lot of sense.) His ways of working were ingenious. Once he asked an actor to sit down and multiply 47 by 152 in his head. I asked him why. "It's the only way I can get him to look like he's thinking," Stanley said.

Stanley wrote "Killer's Kiss," he directed it, he shot it, he borrowed the camera equipment. You--by which I mean I--had to figure this guy was going to be a huge success. The company that loaned him the camera equipment had never loaned anyone anything before, yet he was able to convince them they wouldn't be sorry if they extended him credit. I don't know how he did it. He couldn't have promised to put them on the map; they were already on the map. He was the one who needed help, but focused on the future, he was blessedly unaware of this.

His uncle--I think he was a dentist--also invested in Stanley's future--that investment was in cold cash. But Stanley didn't waste the windfall on his actors. He paid everybody on deferral. Which was illegal. I was making $650 a week on paper, and taking home $65. And I went to work every day, whether I was called or not, because I had a crush on a guy in the crew. I used to help lug gear up to this or that roof where they were shooting, as Stanley watched approvingly. "Chris is a good actress," he said. "She carries a lot."

Cosmically speaking, he carried more. Even a pick-up shot in the subway got his full attention. Nothing was random. I remember one such shot: It was of a very beautiful girl. When Stanley edited her out of the scene, I asked him why. "Well," he said, "somebody--not me, but somebody--might think she was prettier than you, and I don't want that."

Already, he was patient with himself--he shot 50 feet of film for every one he used--but back then he was patient with everybody. In Greenwich Village one morning, when the entire company seemed to have turned cranky--Frank Silvera, who played the villain, was complaining, "I could be uptown right now, reading for Gadge," and the crew was making union noises--Stanley dismissed us. "Let's take the afternoon off," he said.

On the way uptown--he used to drive me home--I asked him why he never got angry or fought back. "Because," he said, "nobody but me is going to get anything out of this picture."

It was a straight answer, and he was right. "Killer's Kiss" was a silly movie--a long time afterward, a press agent told me that Stanley, always a control freak, had tried to buy back all the prints and burn them. But on the strength of "Killer's Kiss," he got "The Killing," which was not a silly movie, and he was off and running.

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