The Last Word

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Nathan Abrams reflects on what he has learned about Stanley Kubrick from a new book of letters.

Among Stanley Kubrick fans and scholars, author and screenwriter Frederic Raphael is well-known for having collaborated on the screenplay for that director’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which was released in 1999. He is also famous among them for the memoir, Eyes Wide Open, which he wrote after Kubrick’s death recalling their time working together.

This book received a great deal of attention and flak, particularly from those close to the late director. His friend and collaborator, Michael Herr, felt moved to pen his own recollections in response. I was among those detractors, writing in my own book how Raphael was ‘self-serving’ and ‘unreliable’ in his accounts of his working and personal relationship with Stanley. Raphael was, unsurprisingly, annoyed, especially at what he saw as my insinuation that he had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than he pretended and that Kubrick regretted his involvement. In a hatchet job put up by Commentary magazine, he objected to the way I characterised his memoir. I responded in kind and also co-wrote a much more detailed account of his work on the film but, as you will see, Frederic Raphael has, so far, had the last word.

And here he again has a last word in the form of a letter to Kubrick in the recently published volume Last Post. Once again, I get mentioned, albeit not by name. ‘You just might have smiled, or not, at the claim of some academic thruster who divined, not long ago, how deeply you delved for Jewish antecedents in your work that you named our Ziegler in memory of some thirteenth-century Hasid. In fact, that dull trader, you could confirm that the name was my choice for a character whose part in the piece supplied A payoff that you, and Arthur, had no time for, until you did’ (my italics).

That’s not exactly what I said but hey ho.

Later he writes, ‘Another claims that you always and everywhere avoided overt allusion to Jews, the better to lard everything you did with sly Semitic significance. You can’t see them, but he can prove they’re there. Remember the old story about how to recognise members of a Jewish firing squad? They stand in a circle.’

That one did make me smile.

Raphael’s comments have already received some media attention when the Daily Mail reported on how he wrote ‘The Harlans and Master Cruise have managed to insert some derogatory stuff in my Wikipedia entry’ and ‘I have never been called a liar by anyone as I have been by the Harlan clan and by Tom Cruise, egocentric control freak to whom I have never spoken’.

The sensationalist stuff that caught the media’s eye aside, there are some really interesting nuggets in here, one that should guide future Kubrick research (some of which is already being done). ‘Has anyone yet composed that scholarly essay on females in Mr Kubrick’s opera omnia?’ he asks.

At another point, he observes how Kubrick’s 1945 photograph of a newspaper kiosk vendor on the day of FDR’s death would have been so much more powerful and against the stream had he asked the guy to grin. But then no editor of any magazine would ever have bought anything that seemed to make light of the president’s death.

Raphael writes:

‘You seem to have regular parents, your father a doctor, but they scarcely figure in your resumé or in your biographers’ spiel. Something was broken in the very early; the fracture made you whole, and alone. Am I right? Does it matter? The camera licences a kind of larceny; You got your own back by taking other people’s. Sure you know what I mean…. behind whatever street guy you made yourself are those middle-class parents, the bodies you never quite trusted. You concealed being a Jew by looking like a nobody. Disguise yourself as what you really are, there’s a singular form of duplicity.’

On the last pages of his letter to Stanley, Raphael leaves us with an intriguing thought. He notes how he insisted, before he signed, that an adjacent clause be deleted from his contract, in which Kubrick had arrogated to himself the right to decide who had written any part of the script and hence who, if anyone, apart from himself, should receive credit. And in his eagerness or desperation, since he’d been trying to adapt Traumnovelle for some five decades, Kubrick gave in and instructed his lawyer to remove the whole clause. But, as Raphael points out, ‘The whole clause you told your lawyer to cut out of the contract contained another item, denying me the right to publish any account of our working together. You conceded more than you realised, unless a Freudian error allowed one writer the chance to publish the truth.’

So, when Kubrick instructed his lawyer to remove the whole clause, was it because he was keen on getting Raphael to work with him? Or was it because he was getting old? He was in his mid-sixties and the making of Eyes Wide Shut would kill him. Or was it, as Raphael suspects, a ‘Freudian error’ that ‘allowed one writer the chance to publish the truth’?

Kubrick was famous for his close and fastidious reading of legal documentation. When, in June 1964, he began shopping his new project around, he entered contract negotiations with Columbia Pictures. Kubrick scrutinized the text with the assiduousness of a Talmudic scholar and responded with a 23-page critique rejecting their offer. ‘I do not accept this under any circumstances to be required to make any changes or revisions of the script, the picture or my style of combing my hair when ordered by Columbia’, he wrote.

‘I remain innocent enough to hope that you just might be amused, a couple of times by what I have to say about you’, Raphael adds. And Raphael is funny. One recollection made me laugh out loud. He recalls how Patrick McGoohan, star of The Prisoner, wrote to Kubrick but never got a response. Tony Frewin, Kubrick’s assistant, responded, ‘Did you enclose a stamp?’ He can also write.

Maybe, just maybe, Kubrick knew what he was doing and deleted that clause so Raphael could have the last word.

Last Post by Frederic Raphael is published by Carcanet Press, priced £30.


I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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