Thursday, September 15, 2005

Love's Uneaten Bread

My Jewru Jack, in one of his talks, quotes some mystic or spiritual maven, who says "The trouble is, we think that we have Time." Patience has always been my short suit, and as I was early in the creative game, I was in a great hurry to have my musical open on Broadway, my great novel published and recognized, my movie made, my song sung, my poem published in The New Yorker, whatever. When I was little more than twenty, I met Stanley Kubrick, and because of his obvious dark brilliance and the desperate shadows in his eyes, he became my closest friend.

Billy Wilder was already referring to him, somewhat ironically, as “twenty-nine-year-old” Stanley Kubrick, so the appellation of boy genius was in the air. He had not yet become famous, though anyone who’d seen his 1958 film, The Killing, was dazzled by his work. He was at the party where I met him in Hollywood with his wife, Christiane, who was wearing a white dress, slightly glamorized with beads and crystal, and a splendidly distended belly. I told him she was the most beautiful pregnant woman I had ever seen, and he said “What did you expect?” as though we were very old friends, and I should have known he would come up with nothing less.

We became friends, very quickly. I was part of a small band who often ate dinner at their house, where Christiane cooked wonderful meals, and the conversation was heady and intense. I was on my way to Stanford for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Others at the table were John Gavin, who was later to become our ambassador to Mexico, and had just finished acting (rather stiffly) in ‘Spartacus,’ which Stanley was editing at the time, John’s wife Cecily, Jimmy Hill, partner with Stanley on his early films, and various people who were technically innovative. It was Stanley’s intention to change the way movies were made, along with becoming rich and beating taxes.

He had met Christiane while making ‘Paths of Glory.’ She played the singer, the quietly disconsolate young woman so moving in the cabaret scene. In life Christiane was the daughter of a former German army officer, very high in the ranks of Hitler’s elite, and Stanley was a Jew. For their first date, while making ‘Glory’ in Germany, he made her take him on a tour of Dachau. That should have told me everything I needed to know about him.

But I was truly an innocent, infatuated with all that was the movie industry, captivated by talent and beauty, bulldozed by brilliance and bright eccentricity. He and Christiane came to visit me in Northern California where I was at school. I took them on a tour of San Francisco, and the boat that went around Alcatraz. I figured that in spite of the sunlit day and the dazzle on the water, the nature of the excursion would make it dark enough for him. He was sneak-previewing ‘Spartacus’ at a theater in Oakland, where he let me go over the audience reaction sheets with him. ‘Get rid of the dwarf,’ a number of them said. ‘Cut the dwarf.’

“People are very threatened by dwarfs,” he told me, “because they have enormous genitals.” I didn’t ask if that were true. I assumed if he said so, it was.

I was by then in the midst of my second novel, which I was dedicating to him and Christiane, so they were reading it as I went along. “You’re the best writer of dialogue in America,” he said to me on that ride around the bay, flattery so inflating I was almost parasailing. “I’m in big trouble,” he went on after a moment. “I just bought ‘Lolita,’ and Dwight McDonald (movie reviewer at Esquire at the time) is going to give me a good review because Nabokov is a literary genius. But he can’t write a line of dialogue. Would you do me an enormous favor?”

So I played hooky from Stanford, and went down to L.A. Ensconced in the Park Sunset, a semi-seedy hotel in West Hollywood, I proceeded to go to work on the screenplay of ‘Lolita.’ I was not to let anyone know I was in town, or contact my friends, as Stanley was sure if they knew I was there, they would know what I was doing. The paranoia that was to characterize many of his films did not come out of nowhere.

Every day I wrote reams of pages, every night I delivered them to him, rewarded like an eager puppy with a fine meal from Christiane. I did not ask what else was in it for me at the time. I loved them both, considered it a privilege just to be in their company. I understood I was involved in the Hollywood version of espionage. But he assured me I would write his next picture in the open, where he could give me credit.

Then a day came when he asked for a scene where Lolita makes a face when Humbert speaks of another eleven-year-old. Humbert had been supposed to be employed by her family, but it hadn’t panned out. “Oh, you’re so lucky you didn’t have to work with her,” Lolita says. “She’s a creep. She had polio.”

“Stanley,” I argued. “You can’t have Lolita putting down another little girl for having polio. The audience will hate her.”

“No, don’t you get it?” he said, grinning. “Humbert is thinking he’s never fucked a kid with polio before.”

Dismayed, I asked him “How do you see this movie?”

“It’s a love story,” he said.

Huh? I’d thought it was a comedy. As little as I knew about sex—I was young and inexperienced, and, I confess, a bit prudish—I knew enough, or thought I did, not to take pleasure from what was clearly perversion. Stanley’s finding delight in a man’s humping a crippled child was repellent to me. I quit.

He gave me $1600 to cover expenses, and I slunk back to Stanford. He stopped speaking to me after that for a few years.

Then the time came when I was about to be married, and I heard Stanley was in New York. I told Don,my about-to-be husband, “I’d really like Stanley Kubrick to be at our wedding.”

Don said, “How do you expect to find him?”

“We’ll go to the first showing of ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ and he’ll be there counting the house.

“Stop being a writer,” Don said.

But we went to the four o’clock screening. As we came down from the loge, I heard ‘Click, click, click, click, click.’ And standing at the rear of the orchestra, with a busman’s counter, was Stanley.

“We just broke the house record for the Criterion,” he said.

So he came to the wedding. At the time Don was producing the first of the Jets games for WOR-TV. Stanley cornered him, and held him hostage with his heavy-lidded charisma for most of the reception, telling him how to shoot the game. “Keep the camera on the line,” he instructed him. “Don’t follow the ball. Hold the camera on the line. That’s the most interesting part of football.”

And Don said “Stanley, if you’ll let me run a credit at the end of the game, ‘Directed by Stanley Kubrick,’ I’ll put the camera anywhere you want me to.”

After that, I saw the Kubricks rarely. They moved to England, where they went by boat—Stanley wouldn’t fly. They came back for ‘2001, A Space Odyssey.’ Christiane called me and said the critical reaction was half idolization, half cries for crucifixion.

At one point I visited them in England, in the compound he was building for himself in Boreham Wood. He sat in his screening room with Christiane, her brother Jan Haarlan, with whom he worked, and me, studying the films of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s propagandist, in preparation for making ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ That we were there in one room, Stanley, the Bronx Jew, with his beautiful wife, the daughter of a high-level Nazi, and her brother, against the grainy black and white specter of Riefenstahl’s brilliance on the screen, was beyond a fiction writer’s gift of invention. I remember particularly a shot of the ankle of a Hitler Jungen, straining so hard to see his Fuhrer, that you could see the calf muscles bulging, as he stood on tiptoe, edging out of his sock. “What a genius she was!” Stanley exclaimed. “You never even had to see Hitler to get how powerful he was.”

After that, I saw them hardly at all. He withdrew further and further into the private realm he’d created for himself, closing the world out, and his filmmaking in. Cutting himself off from the society that posed such a threat to him, much as it seemed to revere him, he appeared to have lost his sense of what the world really was, and with it, his timing. Feasting his bulging onyx eyes on what he saw as the center of the universe,-- the picture in each frame-- he didn’t notice how sloooowly they passed, how static and unmoving his movies became.

I remember best the last time I saw him, or almost saw him. My family and I went to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of American friends who lived next door to him at Elstree. My children were four and two, beautiful and bright, and I wanted so much for him to see them, to see how full my life had become, even absent his formidable presence. So I took them next door.

I knocked on the great wooden door, thick and heavy as Mel Brooks' Frankenstein take-off. Characteristically, it moaned and creaked, as slowly it opened. Two great, snarling Dobermans on the end of a chain growled and barked from inside the entryway, leapt into the darkness, snapping at the air.

“Stanley?” I said into the darkness. “Stanley?”

He recognized my voice. “Gwen?” he said.


“I’d let you in,” he said. “But the dogs will go for the children.”

He wrote me a letter of apology for his behavior some weeks later, a long, squiggly, handwritten thing, the script cramped and running up the page and sides and over the top. The handwriting seemed evidence of what had happened to him as much as his having the dogs. It upset me too much for me to have the sense to keep it, and sell it at Christie’s.

The last thing I saw of his, the last movie he was to make, was‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ I couldn’t believe how arduous it was, how boring. As saddened as I was by what had happened to the early indisputable filmic genius of Stanley, I was astounded at the non-flow of the words, by Frederic Raphael, whom I’d long considered the best screenwriter in the world.

The following winter, back in New York, I saw Elliott Kastner, once on top of the producer pile, a man who had made over seventy pictures. I asked him how Raphael could have written such lifeless, awful dialogue. “I’ll send you his book,” Elliott said. “’Eyes Wide Open.’ That’ll explain it.”

“Nothing can explain how bloated it was,” I said. “How turgid and overblown. It was like nobody knew what to do.”

“Stanley did,” said Elliott. “Stanley knew what to do. He died.”

Sad as that loss seemed, and was,today for me is even sadder. There's an editorial in The New York Times about this being the fiftieth anniversary of Lolita's being published,so without even having to drown, my life is passing in front of my eyes. I have never had the sensation of time passing. My energy was always fresh, and renewed. Even the loss of my husband at a very young age, his and mine, was bounceable-back from, because I went back to Bryn Mawr to write a play, so thought, once again, when it was finished, that I was just out of school.
But to add insult to obituary, I went today with a friend to a seminar of the American Theater Wing about musicals. Present on the panel were the writers of the coming musicals Dr. Zhivago and The Color Purple. Line me up and shoot me with bad ideas. And if that's not enough, the writer of Purple was a woman who looked like Bruce Valanch, only not as pretty. She had never known a Broadway musical before getting involved in this project, whereas I, as close friends know, have loved and aspired to the musical theater since I was a little girl, which I now realize, finally, was a reallllllllllllllllllly long time ago. My musical comedy has been ready and optioned and passed by for more years than there are UN officials in town. And, to make it worse, I have recently read The Motherland, my novel that came out at the same moment Richard Nixon fell, and all anyone wanted to read was All the President's Men. Lost lost. The time is out of synch. I was born too late, and bright too early.
The best sentence in Wuthering Heights, lamenting about Cathy and Heathcliffe's failure to get together is "Love's Uneaten Bread." What about Song's Unheard Melody? Word's Unread Insight?
Oh,God, I wish I had the energy to start all over. The trouble is, we think that we have time.

No comments: