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The 10 Greatest Performances in a Stanley Kubrick Film

07 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Mark Krasselt

5. R. Lee Ermy as Gny. Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket”

R.-Lee-Ermey-Full-Metal-Jacket

The former Marine-turned-consultant-turned actor gives “Full Metal Jacket” an urgency no other civilian actor could have accomplished. A fortuitous rib injury during shooting limited Ermy’s movement to an imposing marble-statue-like stasis, so his assaulting, insulting invectives seemed even more cruel, more destructive.

Sparingly seen in “Boys of Company C” and “Apocalypse Now,” his turn on “Full Metal Jacket” made him a star and his life was never the same after, appearing in 125 films 35 years – that’s a prodigious output for any actor. Not bad considering his artful form of swearing would make longshoremen blush.

Here is the first scene and dialog in the film:

“Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir.” Do you maggots understand that?

Recruits: [In unison in a normal speaking tone] Sir, yes Sir.

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Bullshit I can’t hear you. Sound off like you got a pair!

Recruits: [In unison, much louder] SIR, YES SIR!

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit! Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”

His delivery is almost sung and his speech patterning and inflections are elegant and beautiful and designed for maximum impact like anarchic ‘Singspiel’ or a malevolent recitative. For audiences expecting to see another “Platoon” (it premiered the year before) this opening salvo was unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Many were shocked and maybe even appalled, certainly thunderstruck. “Platoon” went on to Oscar glory and $150 million in box office receipts. “Full Metal Jacket” couldn’t even break $50 million and received no Oscar nominations.

No one on earth could swear better than Ermy. No one on earth could deconstruct the individual and rebuild them into a collective better than Ermy. His titanic performance anchored and elevated the bicameral halves of the film to a degree that the Viet Nam portion would not make any sense without the Parris Island preamble. He is #3 when he could easily be #1.

 

4. Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax in “Paths of Glory”

Paths Of Glory

Kirk Douglas is a man’s man. There is no mistaking his intent in any role he takes.

His turn in two Kubrick films – one by design, the other by intervention – is an interesting career intersection (I hesitate to use the word “blip”) for both parties.

“Paths of Glory” is by far the best of the pair. His stoicism and angular features make for a striking image, and the lean production doesn’t leave much room for chewing scenery, something Douglas was known for. In “Spartacus” – a vanity project if there ever was – the tapestry may have been larger but the performance less honed. His character had to contend with a lot more competition, and the Brits employed in the film ‘acted’ circles around him. It was all pretty ponderous in any respect.

In “Paths of Glory,” Douglas’ Dax faces obstacles at every turn and tries hard to do right by his men. At that time, infantrymen were considered very expendable. Gen. Mireau’s disdain of the lives of his troops is not an exaggeration, nor was this behavior confined only to the French (although they, as a Nation, took special umbrage to their portrayal and banned the film in France for decades.) The British were equally inclined to sacrifice many with little regard to human life.

Dax endeavors to maintain dignity and honesty, and Douglas knows how to deliver. His reserved performance is one of the best of his storied career.

 

3. Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in “Dr. Strangelove”

mwbw-drstrangelove

In a veritable sea of exceptional performances in a single film, each one is perfection personified. It is hard to choose as everyone was at the top of their game in this blackest of black comedy. Dr. Strangelove, as conceived by Peter Sellers, perhaps, is the ultimate embodiment of actor, role, and film. Never again in a Kubrick film will so many stars align in such a perfect confluence where story, structure, and direction create one of the most perfect films ever made.

Just like the rest of the major characters of this film who are the epitome of their name: Turgidson (swollen or distended, bombastic); Merkin (a pubic wig); Ripper (death by ideology); Guano (bat excrement); and Mandrake (roots that resemble humans that reportedly have powers of fertility) – Strangelove’s suggestive imagery is also a pun but one that is uniquely separate from all the rest. His is not so much a literary pun than physical one.

His twisted, corpse of a man suggests one too many evil experiments gone wrong performed for “Mein Führer.” He is locked into a sphincter-like, wheelchair-bound cocoon, with limbs popping out of place madly, uttering nonsense and truth in a clipped, nasaly German accent. Turgidson may be “Dr. Strangelove’s” conscience, but Dr. Strangelove is the film’s cool but weird uncle who makes meth on the side and gets everybody to feel good again.

Kubrick and fellow screenwriter Terry Southern must have had a hell-of-a-time writing in between all the guffaws and high jinks. Struggling with a serious treatment of nuclear Armageddon, their ideas were falling flat. In jest, perhaps feeling less inhibited after drinking, they switched the story and history was born.

Strangelove – who changed from ‘Merkwurdichliebe’ when he became a U.S. Citizen! – should well have been named ‘Liebestod’ instead (German for ‘love-death’) with the strains of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ music from ‘Tristan und Isolde’ wafting through the war room, for he is locked in peripatetic love embrace of the final paradoxical beauty, of it all. It is he who reveals the details of the Doomsday Device that spells the end. It is he who revels in its designed perfection while at the same time aware of its bitterest irony. And it is he who smartly guesses the only way to outsmart it, to the dismay and relief of the War Room generals and politicians.

Dr. Strangelove, once seen, is an absolutely unforgettable character.

 

2. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange”

alex-clockwork-orange-1

Everything about Alex DeLarge’s was a life lived large – and few actors have embodied their role with as much reckless abandon as Malcolm McDowell, whose real name is Malcolm John Taylor, did in “A Clockwork Orange.”

The role became the film and the film became the controversy that nearly derailed Kubrick’s career.

A case can be made Kubrick never recovered and his films were quieter, more reserved after that. When a director feels he made a film that actually hurt people, it changes them in ways often undetected without close analysis. What is certain is violence was never portrayed as realistically and aggressively again.

Malcolm McDowell was a relative unknown (to the world) who had been working reasonably steady when Kubrick cast him after screening “If…” He career signature moment remains the rape scene sung to “Singing in the Rain” and it is the one thing he can call his own.

Superstardom ensued, and 200+ films later, McDowell shows no signs of slowing down. It is unfortunate that McDowell’s career choices following “A Clockwork Orange” were, shall we say, suspect. McDowell never again sparked the imagination as much and most of the films he did following are workmanlike, some even good, but most forgettable except for, perhaps, “Caligula,” Bob “Penthouse” Guccione’s peon to porn and the eponymous Roman Emperor. He and Eric Roberts are almost interchangeable and that is not a good thing.

McDowell himself has suggested he was his own worst enemy and that he never fully appreciated the film or the work he did on “A Clockwork Orange” and miscalculated its effect.

Understandable, considering his youth. Regretful, considering his current age.

O, wasted youth.

 

1. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in “The Shining”

the shining bar scene

One suspects in a movie that was known for 100s of takes for each scene, Kubrick had a number of choices to make. That he chose an over-the-top, reactionary style similar to Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove” for a horror film is a source of much controversy. It can be viewed as both genius or as a head-scratcher, depending on a variety of factors. For a variety of reasons, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with acting style, I feel it’s a work of genius and works in a special, if not always accessible, way.

Perhaps Kubrick needed a way to accentuate and visualize Jack Torrance’s increasing insanity and malevolent behavior and thought this attention grabbing over-reach was the only way it would work? Perhaps he wanted a way to break the tension and injected humorous grimaces as a way of ameliorating very frightening moments. Perhaps the use of Brechtian distancing devices finally got the better of Kubrick? In either case, the viewer has to struggle with a lot of off-kilter performances that just seem out of place. Everyone appears to be acting in a different kind of film. In a real way, that could be part of the point.

Kubrick is famous for not telling his actors what to do, or even if he likes what they are doing. He mostly just calls for take after take. As a result, most actors find this experience very frustrating and few talk about it afterwards. Some have been even hostile once their guard is ever-so-briefly let down. Eventually all remain mum.

“The Shining” is a film where the sum is greater than the parts and exists in a netherworld of internal, not external schematics. Not all of it coheres meaningfully if you try to look at the film conventionally, but that’s mostly a minor complaint if you are a Kubrick fan devoted to his works. If you are John Q. Public, you might have greater concern and worry – you might even dislike it, certainly you’ll misunderstand it.

But looking at it as an internal manifestation of Jack Torrance’s increasing paranoia, some latitude should be allowed. “The Shining” was never meant to play a straight horror film, but one twisted by strains of German expressionism and Theatre of Cruelty. It plays as much into the hands of the personality of Jack Nicholson as much as it does against it. There is a part of Kubrick and the casting that ‘wants’ the audience to bring with it all of the films Nicholson ever acted in – it plays on those preconceptions like a skate on ice, as much as the gimmick casting of Tom and Nicole Cruise’s casting was for “Eyes Wide Shut.”

 

Honorable Mention: Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry in “Barry Lyndon”

barry-lyndon-1975

“Barry Lyndon” is an exquisite, beautifully crafted film that unfurls in long, languid takes, rather than rush to any quick conclusion. And Ryan O’Neal’s studied, stately performance of the rise and fall of a man out of his class lends both elegance and pathos, rugged physicality and convincing country charm in equal doses. By films end, broken and demasted in Ahab-like repose, we are awed by O’Neal’s evolution throughout the film as his ability to display an impressive array of emotions from shallow opportunism and grand manipulator to true love and, finally, the tragic lessons of loss and isolation.

Critics have accused O’Neal’s portrayal as “passive,” “distant,” or “as still life.” Perhaps even some of that is true. It’s hard – if not outright wrong – to measure a Kubrick film solely on parts. His eye is always on a bigger prize harder to glean.

Like Mozart, whose special brand of perfectionism and genius ONLY works under the Maestro’s own terms – change the concept, the key, the pacing, a note or two – and the whole thing comes crashing down. Kubrick exerts – and expects – this same treatment.

 

Smaller Roles That Almost Stole The Show:

Murray Melvin as Reverend Samuel Runt in “Barry Lyndon”

Susanne Christian Harlan as the Café singer in “Paths of Glory”

William Sylvester as Dr. Heywood Floyd in “2001: a Space Odyssey”

Philip Stone as Delbert Grady in “The Shining”

Peter Ustinov as Batiatus in “Spartacus”

 

Special Note:

Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian Kubrick makes appearances in FOUR Kubrick films, more than any other actor. Joe Turkel and Philip Stone, with 3 appearances each, are the next highest.

vivian kubrick

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
News Camera Operator at Mass Grave (uncredited)

The Shining (1980)
Smoking Guest on Ballroom Couch (uncredited)

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Magic Show Spectator (uncredited)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Squirt – Floyd’s Daughter (uncredited)

Author Bio: Mark Krasselt is a writer, designer, and all-around creative who reads too much and has seen too many movies. He has been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick since his first saw 2001: a space odyssey at age 8, and this fascination has never abated. He has even written a long thesis on the famous director, titled “Stanley Kubrick: lessons of a Sentient,” which he hopes to expand into an even longer book.

 

 

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