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Marriage in the Movies of Stanley Kubrick

David Mikics

We usually don’t remember that Stanley Kubrick made movies about marriage, but he did. Three of his films center on a married couple, and all of them are masterpieces: Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick had half a century of experience of married life, and it ranged from the hellish to the serene. Kubrick was happily married to his third wife, Christiane Harlan Kubrick, from 1958 until his death in 1999, over forty years. Before that, though, he had a brief and turbulent second marriage with the ballet dancer and designer Ruth Sobotka. Some script treatments that Kubrick wrote while he was in his tormented relationship with Sobotka have been newly discovered. They are desperate and Dostoyevskian, and they show Kubrick’s yearning to break free of Ruth Sobotka. It wasn’t just that she clung to him emotionally. She wanted them to make movies together, and he had to fend off her need to be his full collaborator.

Barry Lyndon and The Shining depict marriages in which one partner tries to control the other. This is no surprise, since a Kubrick movie is always a highly programmed world that controls the people in it. There’s the rigid military hierarchy in Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket, the unseen aliens in 2001, the haunted Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the rule-bound aristocracy in Barry Lyndon, and the behaviorist social planners in A Clockwork Orange. Usually the powers that be win out, though unruly upstart individuals sometimes throw a wrench in the works, sparking the chaotic energy that animates so many of Kubrick’s movies.

Eyes Wide Shut features a shadowy secret society that not only orchestrates orgies but also claims authority over life and death. But it’s the married couple that wins, not the occult network of powerful men. We get a portrait of an ordinary, intimate relationship that won’t be conquered by outside forces. The husband and wife accept each other, rather than playing power games.

Kubrick was convinced that Eyes Wide Shut would be his best film, the capstone of his career. It was the longest continuous shoot in film history, some sixteen months. Kubrick worked so closely with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who play Bill and Alice Harford, that Kidman said he knew her better than her parents. The movie was based on a book by the Viennese Jewish author Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story. Kubrick had been obsessed with Dream Story for forty years, ever since he met Christiane, but in the early years of their marriage she had warned him not to make a movie about it: we are still too young, she said. By the late ’90s Stanley and Christiane were no longer young. Kubrick died, at age seventy, just a few days after completing Eyes Wide Shut.   

In the end Kubrick answered the nightmare trope of the wrong marriage (Barry Lyndon, The Shining) with the satisfying ambivalence we see at the end of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick always needed the audience to take part in his films, most strongly in 2001, where we speculate about what Kubrick’s sublime outer space journey might mean. In Eyes Wide Shut we play a role, too, in the movie’s final moments, as we wonder what might come next for this couple. The film’s ending startles, reassures, and unsettles us: both a moving tribute to Kubrick’s marriage to Christiane Harlan and a fitting conclusion to his extraordinary life in movies.

David Mikics is Moores Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Houston, as well as a columnist for Tablet magazine. His most recent books are Bellow’s People and Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.

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