By Elizabeth Toohey.
Do we really need another Stanley Kubrick documentary? There’s the comprehensive Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), with its reverent celebrity talking-heads – Tom Cruise and Woody Allen! Spielberg and Scorsese! – praising Kubrick’s technical genius, and Kubrick’s adoring wife pooh-poohing rumors that he was controlling or hard on women. Then there are quirkier fan-favorites like Room 237, which collects conspiracy theories on The Shining, including one that Kubrick filmed a U.S. government staged moon-landing, or Kubrick’s Boxes, which revels in his obsessiveness by mining his enormous collection of memorabilia from 2001.
What all share is an adulatory tone, such that I approached director Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, a documentary billed as focusing on Kubrick’s personal assistant, Leon Vitali, with, I’ll confess, a degree of dread. Did I really want to sit through another round of talking heads fawning over 2001? And what more could anyone have to say about Kubrick?
It turns out, quite a bit. Filmworker is a very different sort of animal, and not just because its star is Leon Vitali, rather than the master himself. You can be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Kubrick’s assistant of thirty-plus years – in fact, that’s kind of the point. Centering Vitali is not meant primarily to offer another angle on Kubrick, but instead to paint a nuanced portrait of a man who was instrumental in enabling Kubrick to realize his vision for his last three films – The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – but has gone totally unrecognized. An earlier film by Zierra, My Big Break (2012), documents the day-to-day lives of four rising actors over several years, measuring the cost of climbing the Hollywood ladder. This question of what toll the world of moviemaking can take on its supporting players resonates throughout Filmworker.
Early on, Zierra features an animated drawing of a moth, while an as yet unidentified voice (who turns out to be Ryan O’Neal) compares Vitali’s attraction to Kubrick to a moth-to-the-flame, one that started with a common enough idolization, but transformed into unwavering loyalty through years of a relationship marked by abuse and exploitation. Vitali, himself, would likely object to those terms – I’m hesitant to use them, myself – but Kubrick’s treatment of him fits the bill, at least as reported by people involved in the films’ production and Vitali’s own rueful admissions.
Yet, paradoxically, Vitali was no dull, witless, moth-like creature, but himself a rising star, who was handsome and talented, and, as rapidly became evident in his work for Kubrick, extraordinarily intelligent, with an acumen for any and all kinds of filmic work. A more apt and disturbing analogy may be Leon Vitali as punching-bag: In Barry Lyndon, he was pummeled by the now contrite Ryan O’Neal and later fed raw chicken so he would throw up on cue. O’Neal, with visible distress, recalls Kubrick egging him on to go harder at Vitali, in a scene they shot upwards of thirty times.
What does it say about Leon Vitali that he went back for more?
Matthew Modine, while working on Full Metal Jacket (1987), at first saw Leon as a slave and then a spy. Later, he concluded that Vitali’s work for Kubrick was a “selfless act, a kind of crucifixion of himself.” As melodramatic as that may sound, Zierra makes a convincing case by documenting the hours and intensity of the labor Leon put in for Kubrick, and the way he sacrificed his own not inconsiderable talent, along with his personal and professional life, to the cause of Kubrick’s films.
When asked how he “handled” Stanley, Vitali replied that he didn’t. Instead, he muses, “I handled myself, so I could exist in Stanley’s world.”
Vitali first encountered Kubrick’s work as a recent graduate of drama school when he went to see 2001. As a young actor, he hightailed it to Kubrick’s next film, A Clockwork Orange (1971) where at the end of the film, as Vitali tells it, he declared, “I want to work for that man.” That moment came when Kubrick cast him as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon (1975), his adaptation of William Makepeace Thakeray’s novel. One could call it his big break, except that Vitali was already an accomplished actor performing in theater, film, and television – his list of roles is too long to list, but Zierra sketches his rising stardom in an entertaining montage of clips from sit-coms and police dramas, along with obligatory close-ups of his name featured in movie magazines, and the testimony of his cohort of fellow actors.
Vitali’s performance in Barry Lyndon only burnished his reputation further. After appearing in Kubrick’s film, he could have done anything. Yet something about working on Barry Lyndon had opened Vitali’s eyes to the world of filmmaking and determined him to do more. He was intent on working with Kubrick again, this time behind the scenes, such that he began studying editing techniques in the cutting room of the film version of Frankenstein in which he was starring. After getting some basic filmmaking chops, he presented himself to Kubrick, who was only too happy to scoop up Leon as his new adoring and (Kubrick must have realized) wildly overqualified assistant. The Royal Shakespeare Company came calling, as did the National Theatre. Instead, at this pinnacle of his acting career, he turned down roles to go to the U.S. to find a little boy to play the Danny in The Shining.
What a journey. Along the way he absorbed everything from the banal tasks of shipping, timesheets, and inventory lists, to the sophisticated ones of cinematography and mastering sound. He created Kubrick’s trailers. He was his archivist and the link between the reclusive director and Warner Brothers. Vitali had a natural bent for casting, having found not just Danny Lloyd for The Shining, but also R. Lee Ermey who delivered a remarkable performance as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, replacing the understandably still slightly bitter Tim Colceri, who nonetheless shelved his disappointment to perform in the much smaller role of the door gunner – this, after Leon delivered Kubrick’s letter of rejection, and later housed him, coaching him through the role.
For a young man enamored with Kubrick, it could sound like a dream come true. Yet Vitali was never credited for his work, remaining perpetually an “assistant” in name and whipping boy in practice, and, it later becomes painfully clear, being paid as such. When Leon wasn’t performing pivotal roles on set or in the editing room, he was ordered to reorganize file cabinets Kubrick never bothered to check or ran around looking at Warner Brothers’ displays to ensure they were promoting Full Metal Jacket (they weren’t, at least until Vitali called them on it). This is not to mention caring for Stanley’s dogs and cats, who when they were dying, Stanley could never bring himself to put down. It’s a small, but telling detail, because it speaks to Kubrick’s lack of empathy – the animals were suffering – and to Vitali’s role in mediating it.
What rapidly becomes clear is that Vitali’s talent lay, significantly, in empathic human connection, as much as in his ability to master an extraordinary range of filmic skills. For The Shining, he took Danny under his wing, coaching him through the shoots. For Full Metal Jacket, he and Lee Ermey stitched together Lee’s role from takes they had made that Lee, a former Marine Corps drill instructor, had improvised with Leon’s help. “If it wasn’t for Leon Vitali, I doubt I would have done half the job that I ended up doing,” Ermey remarks. Vitali was also responsible for the film’s sound.
In other words, Leon Vitali did for Kubrick what it normally took a small army of production managers and assistants to do for any other director by working sixteen-hour days, and then going home to work some more. And it shows in photos Zierra inserts: Leon looks exhausted in every shot and ages rapidly during this period – it’s almost like when you watch the president’s hair go grey, except here it’s distressing to watch because it seems so unnecessary.
An accurate accounting would have at minimum credited Vitali for casting in The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and for cinematography and sound in the latter, but Vitali didn’t seem to care about credit. He himself preferred the term “filmworker.”
Yet the role Vitali played, in the grander scheme of things, should also make critics rethink our tendency to default to auteur theory in speaking of a film’s big ideas. Consider, for one, James Naremore’s reading of Kubrick’s oeuvre as hinging on a fascination with the “grotesque,” using art historian John Ruskin’s sense that it blends the ludicrous and the fearful. Naremore supports this reading primarily – almost solely – with Ermey’s famous scatological diatribes as Full Metal Jacket’s drill sergeant.
How does it affect that reading, then, to learn the scatological abuse the sergeant heaps on his cadets was created not by Kubrick, but by Vitali and Ermey in tandem?
Zierra’s take is to intercut clips of Ermey chewing out his cadets on Christmas day with footage in which Vitali recounts how Kubrick kept him working late on Christmas Eve and hounded him on Christmas every ten minutes with phone calls – in other words, ironically the abusive drill sergeant comments on Kubrick’s own abusive masculinity, or at least, Zierra, plays with that possible irony.
Through all this, I kept thinking of Vitali, wow, the guy must never even have had a romantic partner or family – he had no time. But halfway through, we learn that, yes, Leon Vitali did have a family, as suddenly his three grown children appear looking not very happy. Old video footage showing them as children playing around a desk stacked with papers while their father took calls, ignoring them. Their interviews are telling, but abrupt, leaving some gaping holes. Where is (was?) their mother? Who is (was?) their mother? And how did she feel about the fact that Leon ate, slept, and breathed Stanley Kubrick, falling into a fitful sleep on a mat on his floor for a few hours, only to awaken to the never-ending stack of work Vitali’s son describes as Kafka-esque?
Perhaps unsurprisingly for the film world, female voices are here still in the minority, as in the other documentaries. Lisa Leone, for one, who was a crew member for Eyes Wide Shut and is now a filmmaker, is particularly critical of Kubrick, who, she says essentially ate Vitali alive and was “always waiting for you to fuck up.” That candor is refreshing. But I longed to hear from Shelley Duvall, who in A Life in Pictures, remarks that “for a person so charming and likable,” Kubrick could “do some pretty cruel things when you’re filming because, it seemed […] that the end justified the means.” Kubrick, according to Jack Nicolson, was “like a different director” with Duvall, in that where Kubrick was unfailingly kind to Nicolson, he was consistently heaping abuse on Duvall.
The unspoken question that both unsettles and fuels Filmworker, then, is, what might Vitali have accomplished had he not chosen to immolate himself at the altar of Stanley Kubrick? It’s a question some of us may be used to wondering about women of a certain generation who hitched their own star to a powerful husband, in lieu of other options, but it’s bewildering to encounter in a man who appears to have all the freedom in the world to hew his own path and reap the rewards.
The closest the film comes to an answer as to why Leon Vitali stayed with Kubrick, discarding his own brilliant prospects for an acting career (or later one in filmmaking) appears in an interview with Leon’s siblings, who speak of their father’s abuse and explosive temper. Was it that foundational relationship that drew Leon so inexorably to Kubrick? So much of Kubrick’s work is about masculinity and power, and his brilliance lies in the absurdity he draws out of the class structures and political hierarchies, with their attendant patterns of exploitation, that underlie relationships between men – it’s what’s timeless in the best of his films. How ironic then that a director so immersed in exploring the abuse of power among men on a grand scale –one thinks in particular of Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange (however flawed), Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket – served as the petty dictator of his own fiefdom, torturing his underpaid underlings with absurd demands.
Clearly for Zierra, Filmworker is meant primarily to do Vitali a solid. Though it nods to all the “workers” who make movies like these possible, it ultimately shies away from a larger critique of the idea of genius, auteur theory, and economic exploitation. In telling Vitali’s story, Zierra nonetheless accomplishes something important by shedding new light on Kubrick, however unflattering, and his processes as a director, and more importantly, by raising the profile of Leon Vitali, in all his brilliance and pathos.
Naremore, James. On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute, 2007. See 24-42 for his take on Kubrick’s work as grotesque.
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.