NOVEMBER 2, 2016
STANLEY KUBRICK was a man ever careful to remain two steps ahead of his own demise. Terrified of flying, he arrived in England in his early 30s and never again left its borders, not even to attend the funerals of his parents. He forced his drivers to stay under the speed limit and famously decamped to a manor house that predated the Great Fire of London from which he could accomplish all his pre- and post-production work without ever stepping outside. His paranoia was legendary, even as it forms the backbone of some of his greatest films, including 2001, which was inspired as much by Kubrick’s fear of the unknown as it was by the ongoing proliferation of nuclear weapons. Kubrick would tell the rare interviewer he was merely shy; anything to excuse his stubborn unwillingness to talk with real people. The closest he came to an admission was telling Time in 1975 that it was “helpful not to be constantly exposed to the fear and anxiety that prevail in the film world.”
The obsessive consistency he maintained in his private life turned out to be in vain. Kubrick didn’t perish in a car accident or a mushroom cloud. Death stalked him within the walls of Childwickbury and claimed him in the midst of his only true refuge. He had just completed and delivered the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut when he retired to the master bedroom on the second floor of his home. He never came back down.
Even in death, Kubrick never left the house. The funeral was held at Childwickbury and Kubrick’s body remains interred there today. Christiane contributed a bright orange portrait she’d painted of her husband in earlier years, with a benighted Stanley at the center of it resembling Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining by way of Francis Bacon. Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and the executive producer of his later work, gave a short eulogy describing him as a kind man of boundless energy. “If you want to know more,” he said, “you’ll have to ask Emilio.”
That would be Emilio D’Alessandro, who was hired by Kubrick in 1970 to serve as his driver and rapidly rose to the level of his personal assistant. He also frequently played the roles of mechanic and handyman, prepared Kubrick more than a handful of meals, and took care of what grew to be a vast menagerie of cats and dogs. Toward the end of his tenure, he even got to sell a newspaper to Tom Cruise — his only cinematic cameo. The subtitle of the latest pseudobiography of Stanley Kubrick, written with help from Filippo Ulivieri and translated by Simon Marsh, is “Thirty Years at His Side,” and it is meant to suggest an intimate relationship between its author and the great film director who employed him. For all we believe we know about Kubrick, the chilly recluse, that is a tantalizing prospect, and D’Alessandro’s promise of such a portrait threatens to undermine the secondhand reports we have of Kubrick generally seen terrorizing Shelley Duvall or neglecting his family.
D’Alessandro meets Kubrick during the preproduction of A Clockwork Orange. He is poached from a taxi service by Jan Harlan and agrees to become Kubrick’s driver without ever having heard of the man. (He had seen Dr. Strangelove in 1964 but failed to remember the director’s name.) One of his first responsibilities is the delivery of the enormous porcelain phallus employed by Alex to bludgeon a woman to death in Clockwork. Whether out of curiosity or because Kubrick figured a champion motor sportsman would make for a safer driver, D’Alessandro was selected because Kubrick had discovered a 1968 news article about his former career as a Formula Ford driver. Eventually, Kubrick let him go the speed limit.
Very quickly, D’Alessandro begins to suspect that he is more than just on the Kubrick payroll. He speaks of Kubrick not as a tough but fair boss, but with the fawning tones of a semi-requited romance. “I loved him,” D’Alessandro writes. “The mechanism of our relationship worked perfectly.” All this to explain the feeling he gets whenever Kubrick smiles at him at the end of the workday. “My job was to see to it that he didn’t have to waste time. I was there to spare him the small, and sometimes not so small, burdens of life, so that every day he could quite simply be Stanley Kubrick.” And like any good infatuation, D’Alessandro allows his heart to do the seeing for his eyes. He finds he admires the man even when Kubrick is only tossing him chum — “Don’t call me sir. […] Call me Stanley.” — and takes it for granted when Kubrick tells him, “All I need is a desk, a chair, a pen, and a coffee machine; nothing else.” Wait a minute — hadn’t D’Alessandro just spent the preceding chapter expounding on the army of assistants and helpers enlisted to the cause of Kubrick, Inc.?
When The Shining enters preproduction, D’Alessandro is rightfully impressed by Kubrick’s craft. A scale model of the Overlook is built; it isn’t long before the real thing is constructed, based entirely on photographs of grand American hotels taken and compiled by the set designer and another assistant. D’Alessandro’s awe is real, but it doesn’t lead to new insight about Kubrick. If they ever discussed the film, it is not recorded here. We learn that Kubrick endeavored to replicate a hotel in one of the photographs down to incredible detail, but D’Alessandro, his assistant at this point for nearly 10 years, doesn’t think to pick his brain about it. Instead, he’s on daughter duty with Vivian, Katharina, and Anya.
D’Alessandro drops off documents to Kubrick’s office on a morning when he’s meeting with Jack Nicholson. Kubrick introduces D’Alessandro to Nicholson, saying, “This is Emilio. […] He’s my private driver. He looks after my things.” D’Alessandro, who by then was practically managing Kubrick’s life, doesn’t allow himself to feel slighted. (It also appears to be how Kubrick referred to D’Alessandro in general. When he makes the rare appearance in other biographies, as in Michael Herr’s and John Baxter’s, he is also understood to be little more than a gofer.) When D’Alessandro’s business is complete, when he’s driven the actors where they need to go and made the necessary phone calls and run Kubrick’s endlessly scheduled errands, Kubrick seems to forget about him. D’Alessandro spends very little time reporting from the set.
Kubrick eventually has D’Alessandro working 12-hour days, and D’Alessandro’s marriage sags under the weight. Kubrick promises him days off, and reneges; D’Alessandro goes on about his work without further complaint. When he finally finds his nerve, it’s not for the long hours he’s compelled to work without overtime. Kubrick asks him to build a fence that would prevent his beloved cats from escaping, a task even the “carpenters from Barry Lyndon couldn’t manage” and D’Alessandro doesn’t think he’s up to it. When he tells Kubrick so, it’s the first time he raises his voice. Kubrick makes him do it anyway. It isn’t until D’Alessandro receives an offer from Alitalia, which he pursued in secret rather than risk a confrontation, that he raises the question of work-life balance again. Kubrick plies him with a raise; D’Alessandro would rather be able to have dinner with his wife. But Kubrick barely hears him: he can hardly say more than, “No, no, no,” which becomes his trademark plea the more D’Alessandro talks about resigning. Nevertheless, it works, and Kubrick talks him out of the Alitalia gig, but it is more accurate to say he cons him out of it: the long hours don’t change; in fact, they’re soon about to grow even longer, and the promise of time off evaporates. And we’re still only a third of the way into his tenure.
At the Overlook, D’Alessandro’s opinion of Jack Nicholson sours. “He was always making vulgar remarks full of sexual innuendo,” complains the employee of the man who made A Clockwork Orange. He’s suitably impressed by Nicholson’s acting chops, however, and less so by those of Shelley Duvall, whom he doesn’t seem to regard much at all. Duvall’s driver later confides to D’Alessandro that Duvall was crying in the back of his minicab, and D’Alessandro has to reassure him that all is well back on set. He may not have personally witnessed the hundred-plus takes to which Kubrick infamously subjected his co-star, but when the question of Kubrick’s ruthless perfectionism does come up it’s in a context that omits Duvall:
What made things difficult on the set of The Shining was that Stanley wanted everything to be exactly as he had conceived it, even if that meant filming the same scene hundreds and hundreds of times. Stanley filmed a scene and when he’d finished the take, he said it was fine and that he had to do it again. Then he said that the new take was fine and that he had to do it yet again. Even if that one was fine, he still had to do a third one.
Either out of loyalty or incuriosity, D’Alessandro doesn’t press Kubrick to explain his method, although surely at this stage in his career he must’ve felt comfortable enough to do so. It’s a terrible missed opportunity for Kubrick fans, but D’Alessandro either doesn’t care or doesn’t realize it. By his own admission, he had never sat for a Kubrick film all the way through. A proper biographer with D’Alessandro’s level of access would’ve asked; such a person would already be a lover of cinema, especially Kubrick’s cinema. D’Alessandro writes it off as the cost of doing business.
D’Alessandro is recalcitrant about culture, but the worst that can be said is it only serves to make things a little awkward around Childwickbury. What a welcome surprise to learn that Kubrick had planned to collaborate with John le Carré on A.I., but how telling it is whenever D’Alessandro refers to le Carré (né Cornwell) as “David,” his long-moribund Christian name. I would have liked to learn, as one does from Michael Herr’s short but valuable text and which is fleshed out by le Carré’s own recent memoir, that Kubrick had befriended le Carré as early as 1980 — which D’Alessandro would have known but doesn’t choose to relate. When he finally sits down with copies of Kubrick’s films, he reports back to Kubrick that his favorite was Spartacus. I was smacking my forehead even before reading that Kubrick whispered, in reply, “Um … I don’t think much of that.” One film he never gets around to seeing is A Clockwork Orange — and, my god, man! — you’d think after transporting the big, white murdercock to the set that D’Alessandro might be a little curious what it had been used for.
D’Alessandro’s colleague, a bawdy production assistant named Andros Epaminondas, tells him he’s planning on leaving. The grueling work had worn him down. “I’d like to get out of here occasionally,” he tells D’Alessandro. “I’m always here; I’m always on the phone. I never get to see anyone, and as soon as I get home I collapse on the bed. I haven’t got the energy to do anything else, to go out with a friend, nothing.” D’Alessandro should’ve understood Epaminondas better than anyone. Certainly D’Alessandro’s long-suffering wife would empathize. But instead we get an almost perfect imitation of Kubrick. “Andros, I understand what you’re saying,” D’Alessandro says. “But it’s as if you were stabbing me in the back. I hate to tell you this to your face, but you’re hurting me.”
Epaminondas’s resignation leaves Kubrick surprisingly dumbfounded. “Didn’t I pay him enough?” he asks of D’Alessandro, missing the point. As D’Alessandro tries to explain, Kubrick butts in: “I’ve never made demands on anyone!” It is a testament to D’Alessandro’s growing impatience with his employer that he’s as surprised by Kubrick’s outburst as we are. But his shock doesn’t outlast ours. He goes home angry, but he’s back at work the next day.
There are few genuine revelations in the book to challenge our perception of Kubrick. Nothing is so muscular as that revealed in Jeremy Bernstein’s great 1966 profile of Kubrick in The New Yorker, where Bernstein uncovers a shortwave radio that Kubrick was using to listen in on Moscow’s opinions of Vietnam. (Christiane tells Bernstein that “Stanley would be happy with eight tape recorders and one pair of pants.”) That Kubrick, in what would become his final hours on Earth, was very anxious about the state of anti-Semitism in New York City is an incredible moment that we learn of not from D’Alessandro but from Michael Herr, who received such a phone call while driving on the Friday before Kubrick’s death. A scene in which D’Alessandro walks in on an incapacitated Kubrick — D’Alessandro doesn’t say he was having a stroke, but it could certainly be interpreted that way — was news to me. But it also makes me wonder why more wasn’t done to get the clearly ill Kubrick to a doctor.
D’Alessandro makes certain to highlight Kubrick’s benevolence. At one point, Kubrick provides an aspiring film school applicant with a letter of recommendation after the kid appears as a background actor in Full Metal Jacket. And D’Alessandro’s story picks up steam when he’s witnessing Kubrick interact with other filmmakers. “How the fuck can you make a film in such a short time?” Kubrick screams at Steven Spielberg over the phone. Later, D’Alessandro recounts Kubrick’s profound joy at having none other than Danny DeVito wish him happy birthday over the radio, although D’Alessandro spends very little time contemplating Kubrick’s surreal insistence that he make the introduction. D’Alessandro had never met DeVito; Kubrick had merely assumed all Italians were acquainted.
Kubrick and D’Alessandro make a call to Federico Fellini, with D’Alessandro acting as interpreter. The conversation is a warm one, and Fellini asks D’Alessandro to tell Kubrick goodbye “in the most sincere and affectionate way possible.” But before hanging up, Fellini asks about Kubrick’s next film, and Kubrick, remembering the way Platoon cut the legs out from underneath Full Metal Jacket in 1987, is startled.
“The new film?” said Stanley suddenly. “Don’t tell him anything! Say good-bye, say good-bye quickly!” and he tried to grab the phone out of my hands.
D’Alessandro wants every moment to resonate like this one. But he reads too much into Good Kubrick while making too little of Bad Kubrick. Genuine tragedy strikes the D’Alessandro family when his son is maimed in a car accident. The son’s leg is amputated after a harrowing eight days spent in a coma. Kubrick passes on kind words and offers to do everything he can. So why is D’Alessandro reduced to passing updates on his son’s condition under Kubrick’s shuttered doorway? And why is this presented as goodwill on Kubrick’s part, rather than practiced indifference? If this was a perfect relationship, Kubrick doesn’t seem to have noticed.
It isn’t until D’Alessandro starts suffering heart palpitations that the spell begins to lift. Kubrick catches him enjoying a much-needed breather while on the clock and comes downstairs to ask him what he’s up to. When D’Alessandro explains, Good Kubrick tenderly examines his chest. But Bad Kubrick doesn’t appreciate the irony of telling D’Alessandro, “You know that’s the first time I’ve seen you sit down in twenty years,” and neither does D’Alessandro, who feels somehow consoled by it. He’s getting on in age, and he can no longer work the excessively long days required of him. He rarely gets back to see his elderly parents in Cassino. Still, D’Alessandro is forced to beg until he’s practically blue in the face for Kubrick to let him quit. Kubrick does. D’Alessandro submits his two-week notice and lives happily ever after.
Or so it would be in any other employer-employee context. But D’Alessandro feels the need to stay on for three more years, and Kubrick extends even that murderous length of time by an additional 18 months. It isn’t until D’Alessandro’s father dies that he begins to comprehend the gravity of the situation. It’s the closest D’Alessandro comes to blaming Kubrick for his misery:
I called Stanley to tell him I wouldn’t be coming to work the next day. “See what’s happened?” I said to him in tears. “I’d been afraid for months that this was going to happen.”
But he stops just short. He writes it off as the vicissitudes of life rather than the unfortunate consequence of working for a megalomaniac. And when he returns to Cassino to attend the funeral, he brings something of Kubrick with him. He can barely stand to be around people, the mourners at his father’s wake, and he catches a flight back to England less than 48 hours later. D’Alessandro’s father died on a Thursday, and by Monday he’s clocking back in at Childwickbury. The transformation is nearly complete: Kubrick would’ve skipped the funeral entirely.
It is possible for Kubrick to be equally an insufferable tyrant who traumatized his actors and employees; a neurotic, restless monk of a man; a beloved friend, husband and father; and the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. On that last count, a BBC poll last year tallying the greatest American films of all time placed five of Kubrick’s on the list, more than any director save the two with whom he tied: his friend Steven Spielberg, and Alfred Hitchcock, another filmmaker not exactly known for being pleasant to work with. Kubrick’s films have inspired generations of filmmakers, from David Lynch to Terrence Malick, and countless numbers of cut-rate imitators. He earned that level of esteem by wrenching exactly what he wanted out of those who chose to serve him, but not for nothing does D’Alessandro continue to love the man. Even Shelley Duvall had only praise for him, and not after the fog of years distorted the memory of her time on set, but as early as 1981, in a brief interview with Michel Ciment.
One of the most frustrating things about this book are D’Alessandro’s frequent lapses into the kind of sentimental dross Kubrick himself was so allergic to in his own work. The worst offense is a Return of the Jedi–like sequence toward the end. Kubrick has died, dissolving the energy of his household like a dying star, and it’s as if a light has gone out in D’Alessandro’s life. But his sorrow doesn’t last long, because no sooner has he returned to Italy than he has a vision of Kubrick and his own late father driving a tractor together out in the fields, laughing heartily and reassuring D’Alessandro of life after death. The elder D’Alessandro even gets to tell his son that “everything will be alright” before he and Kubrick literally disappear into the fog. All we need is “Yub Nub” and a dancing Ewok or two to complete the scene.
I would have preferred the book to end a few pages before. In Rome, D’Alessandro visits a museum exhibition of Kubrick’s personal effects and finds that every item signifies a fleeting moment shared with the late master: handwriting he had recopied, a string he had tied to Kubrick’s Eyemo camera. It’s as much Stanley’s gallery as Emilio’s. He can’t resist reaching out to grasp the past, his past, these artifacts from a distant age. A museum attendant stops him. “Come on,” he tells the attendant. “I must have already touched it millions of times! If you had any idea how much cat’s pee I’ve cleaned away from under there, you wouldn’t stand so close!” At the end of the exhibition are a series of photographs from Kubrick’s days as a young filmmaker. If D’Alessandro regrets anything about his time spent with Kubrick, it would be that he hadn’t known him in those days. He recognizes the photographs, he tells us, from his housekeeping duties. “I never had time to go through them,” he says. “And now, there they were: framed and hanging on the wall. They really were beautiful pictures.”