By 1999, there was only one long-running movie property bigger than Star Wars: Tom Cruise. The thirty-six-year-old had spent the decade playing cocksure, self-redeeming charmers, turning films such as Jerry Maguire and Mission: Impossible into global hits. He’d also enjoyed one of the most meticulously stage-managed careers in Hollywood, presenting himself to the world as likable, striving, and diligently flaw free—“the most perfect man on the planet,” in the words of the crush-harboring talk show host Rosie O’Donnell.
Cruise’s career had been on an enviable ascent since he’d boogied in his briefs in 1982’s Risky Business. But his fame reached unimaginable heights in the nineties, a decade in which movie-stardom became a re- markably powerful pursuit. Film culture was popular culture, and ac- tors such as Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford, and Jim Carrey were its A-list demigods, their stardom anointed or maintained by a cozy cattle-shoot of magazine profiles, talk show appearances, and “news bulletins on shows like Extra and Entertainment Tonight. As a result, movie stars were often afforded an unquestioning reverence, one normally reserved for third-world despots.
But no actor quite instilled as much confidence as Cruise, who could seemingly turn any movie into a $100 million-plus hit. It was his quan that had convinced studios to finally commit to movies such as Born on the Fourth of July and Interview with the Vampire, both of which had been rotting in development for more than a decade before he came along. There was, of course, an unmistakable careerist streak to all of Cruise’s moves: he wanted to be number one. But he also loved movies and the people who made them. As a kid, he’d frequently switched hometowns. Yet no matter where his family wound up, the local theater had become one of Cruise’s few reliable hangouts. “In good times and poor times,” he said, “movies were my lifesaver.”
The film that loomed largest over Cruise’s youth was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s grandly cryptic science fiction tale that begins with the dawn of man and ends with a hypercolored head trip through time and space. Cruise had first seen 2001 in 1968, perched on his father’s shoulders in a packed-to-capacity theater in Ottawa, Canada. Afterward, he had found himself lying in the snow in his parents’ yard, staring at the stars and contemplating the film he’d just seen. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “What is life? What is space? What is existence?” He was six years old.
Around the time Cruise was mulling over the ramifications of 2001, Kubrick himself was musing over Traumnovelle or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, a 1926 novella by the Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler about a married couple who confess their sexual fantasies to each other and the fallout that ensues. Kubrick had been thinking of adapting it into a movie as far back as 1968. But he had ultimately let it slip away, instead going to work on such films as Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and the Vietnam-War-is-hell epic Full Metal Jacket. By the time of Jacket’s release in 1987, Kubrick had been living outside the United States for almost two decades and had largely stopped speaking to the press. As a result, word had spread that he was living the life of an eccentric, obsessive hermit, self-exiled in the prison of perfectionism, constantly re-editing his now decades-old movies. There were more random rumors, as well, such as the one claiming that he was afraid to be driven more than thirty miles an hour. “Part of my problem is that I cannot dispel the myths that have somehow accumulated over the years,” Kubrick said in one of his final interviews. For clarity’s sake, he added that he sometimes hit eighty miles an hour while cruising in his Porsche.
When it came to making films, however, Kubrick kept a slow speed. For decades, he’d toy with revisiting Schnitzler’s novella. But he didn’t fully make it his focus until 1994, when he summoned screenwriter Frederic Raphael — whose credits included the time-futzing 1967 marital comedy Two for the Road — to his home in England. The two would soon get to work adapting Traumnovelle, relocating the story in modern-day New York City. Kubrick would later revise the script during filming, sometimes faxing pages to his cast at 4:00 a.m. But the version of Eyes Wide Shut that wound up onscreen followed Bill Harford, a doctor who lives with his wife — a former art dealer named Alice — and their young daughter in Manhattan. After a night on the town that finds Bill and Alice flirting with fellow partygoers, the couple get stoned and begin to bicker, leading to a series of strange and potentially dangerous sexual run-ins, including a few ornate orgies. It wasn’t the kind of movie you’d want to watch with a six-year-old sitting on your shoulders.
One of the first to read the Eyes script was Warner Bros. co-CEO Terry Semel, who immediately knew which actor could justify Eyes’
$65 million budget: “I want Tom Cruise,” he told the director. By 1995, Cruise was coming off a run of $100 million–grossing recent hits that included The Firm, A Few Good Men, and Vampire. Kubrick, though, had soured on name performers after making The Shining with Jack Nicholson. Movie stars, he told Semel, “have too many opinions.”
Semel called Cruise and asked if he’d want to meet with Kubrick. “Tom said something like, ‘I’ll be there in the morning,’ ” Semel remembered. Soon enough, in late 1995, Cruise was in a helicopter, heading toward Kubrick’s estate, where the director had readied a landing pad. “He was just waiting, alone in a garden,” Cruise said. “He walked me around the grounds, and I just remember thinking, ‘This guy is kind of a magical, wonderful guy.’ ” They spent hours in Kubrick’s kitchen, discussing the ninety-five-page Eyes script, as well as the New York Yankees — one of the many obsessions the two men shared, along with cameras and airplanes.
Cruise also lobbied Kubrick to consider casting his wife, Nicole Kidman, whom he’d met on the set of the 1990 race car drama Days of Thunder. Kubrick likely didn’t need much convincing. Then in her late twenties, the Australian-raised Kidman had first established herself as a raw power in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm, and by the midnineties, she was on her way to winning a Golden Globe for the wicked murder comedy To Die For. Like her husband, Kidman had grown up with an eye on Kubrick’s work: As a teenager, she had skipped school to see Kubrick’s brutalist landmark A Clockwork Orange and had watched The Shining on a date (though she had spent part of the movie making out in the back row). Eyes Wide Shut presented the chance to be part of not just a movie, but a high-end event, one that would reunite audiences with one of the twentieth century’s most revered disappearing acts. She didn’t need to read the script in order to be persuaded. “I didn’t care what the story was,” Kidman said. “I wanted to work with Stanley.”
Kubrick seemed equally eager to get rolling. “He said, ‘Look, I need to start shooting this right away in summer, because I want to finish the movie by Christmas. Okay?’ ” remembered Cruise. The actor wasn’t so sure. He’d studied Kubrick’s filmmaking style. Making Eyes Wide Shut, he figured, would take at least a year.
Kidman and Cruise, along with their two young children, relocated to England in late 1996, living in a small house not far from London’s Pine- wood Studios, where filming would begin on Eyes Wide Shut that No- vember. The set was heavily secured yet sparsely populated. “Kubrick had a really small crew,” said Magnolia writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few visitors to the set. (Cruise, one of his Magnolia stars, had ushered him past security.) “I asked him, ‘Do you always work with so few people?’ He gave me a look and said, ‘Why? How many people do you need?’ I felt like such a Hollywood asshole.”
Kubrick’s team would watch as the shaggy-bearded director — often dressed in a dark jacket over a button-down shirt, his eyebrows arched like bat wings above his glasses — conferred with Cruise and Kidman, discussing a scene he might have just rewritten the night before. Kubrick would work late into the evening, with filming occasionally stretching past midnight. Sometimes he got what he needed after just two takes; other times he might require eighty. “It was just this strange, strange existence,” said Kidman, who spent hours hanging out in Kubrick’s messy office, playfully sparring with the director. “We just gave ourselves over to it.” At one point, she and Cruise spent weeks on a scene in which their characters argue in the couple’s bedroom, filmed on a set modeled after an apartment Kubrick had once owned in New York City. Kidman redecorated the space to resemble the actors’ real-life bedroom, leaving her makeup in the bathroom, tossing her clothes to the ground, and placing spare change by the bedside — just like Cruise did in their actual home. “By the end, we felt as if we lived on that set,” she said. “We even slept in the bed.”
The only person more deeply immersed in Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick himself. “It took a while to find the path to working with the man and not the legend,” says filmmaker and Eyes Wide Shut actor Todd Field. In the years since Kubrick had been away, a younger generation had become enthralled with his decades-long filmography, one that was filled with what Cruise once called “perfect visions”: Savage comedies like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; gorgeously infectious dramas like Paths of Glory and Barry Lyndon; and movies that fit somewhere in between, like Lolita. His followers tended to obsess over his movies frame by frame, and many of them had spent the decade assuming he might never return. Field had been driving one day when he got an out-of-nowhere call from an agent telling him that Kubrick was trying to track him down. “I was so startled,” says Field, “I ran into another car.”
Field was in his early thirties when he was cast as Eyes’ Nick Nightingale, a jazz pianist and old friend of Bill. The actor, who’d starred in both indies (Walking and Talking) and big-studio blockbusters (Twister), was hired without an audition, and on his first day of work, he was escorted to Luton Hoo, an English estate that would serve as one of Eyes’ filming locations. Field nervously wandered the building for hours, taking photographs of the estate, before finding a safe distance from which to watch Kubrick run some lighting tests. “After a few minutes,” Field says, “he turned, looked straight at me with that gaze of his, smiled, and said, ‘You’re here. Come inside and see what we’re doing.’ ” When Field introduced himself, Kubrick laughed and replied, “I know who the fuck you are. I hired you.”
According to Field, the director put coworkers at ease by screening dailies in his trailer and asking for feedback — and by showing off his sense of humor. “Stanley had a very dry one,” he says, “and he’d tease and provoke you in a way that actually demanded you get your back up a little and show some spine.” At one point during filming, Kubrick did an impression of Steve Martin’s dim-witted hero from The Jerk (decades earlier, he’d actually met with Martin to see if he’d be interested in starring in Eyes).
Field had been contracted to work on Eyes Wide Shut for just six weeks, but he’d wind up shooting on and off for seven months, even though Nightingale appears on screen in just a few scenes. He’s one of several cryptic characters that Bill — unraveling with jealousy after Alice’s confession — encounters during a late-night stroll through Greenwich Village. Consumed by visions of Alice having sex with another man, Bill walks head down through a fabricated New York City that Kubrick had reconstructed at Pinewood Studios. He’d labored over nearly every detail of this fake Gotham, reinventing the city in which he had been born and raised yet hadn’t visited in years. According to Warner Bros.’ marketing veteran Don Buckley — who’d first worked with the director on The Shining — the studio kept a cargo container on Man- hattan’s West Side, which it filled with items Kubrick had requested, such as a New York City taxicab. At one point, the director asked if a few local newspapers would supply him with “honor boxes,” the vending machines that populated New York’s streets. When one of the New York tabloids refused the request, a Warner Bros. publicity staffer used a bolt cutter to remove an honor box. “The guy worshipped Kubrick — we all did,” says Buckley. “So Stanley got his boxes.”
Kubrick also got actual footage of Manhattan city streets, having dispatched a team of camera operators to the city to shoot sidewalks and storefronts. When Cruise’s character is seen pacing around the Village in Eyes Wide Shut, the footage comes from a variety of sources: Sometimes, the actor is walking through the Pinewood set; other times he’s on a London street that doubled for New York; and for a few quick scenes, the actor is on a treadmill, keeping pace as the background footage of New York City is projected onto a screen behind him. When edited together, the various shots would add up to something alien and unsettling. Even to viewers who didn’t live in New York City, something about the Manhattan streets of Eyes Wide Shut seemed slightly off, as though Kubrick — for all of his love of verisimilitude — had been trying to conjure up memories of how the city had looked decades earlier. It was like being plunged into a dream: all the details were there, but not quite in the right places.
Bill’s walk eventually leads him to a jazz club where, over drinks, Nightingale tells him about a mysterious, semiregular job he’s landed: he plays piano blindfolded, while everyone else wears costumes and masks, including several women. Bill learns the password for entry— fidelio—and decides to check out the party for himself. After procuring a black robe and a gold-hued Venetian mask, he winds up inside a Long Island estate, where nude women participate in strange rituals and masked figures screw on couches and tables. Finally he’s taken to a high-ceilinged chamber, where his identity is revealed in front of dozens of grotesquely masked figures. All the while, an icy piano note strikes in the background: plink, plink, plink, plink … Bill finds his way home at dawn, visibly shaken and — much like the audience — not entirely sure what he’s just seen. “When you look at Eyes Wide Shut,” Cruise said, “there’s the sense of ‘Is this a dream, or is this a nightmare?’”
As the carefully guarded filming of Eyes carried on over months and months — with various holiday breaks and intermissions in between — it seemed to outsiders that the film’s production had become some sort of nightmare in itself. KUBRICK’S “EYES WIDE SHUT” STILL OPEN, noted the New York Times in April 1998. The story pointed out that cast members Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harvey Keitel — both of whom had brief supporting roles in Eyes — had left the movie midshoot.
“Sometimes it was very frustrating,” said Kidman, “because you were thinking, ‘Is this ever going to end?’” The planet’s best-known star couple had been out of commission for nearly two years. Remembered Cruise, “There were a lot of people in my life that were saying ‘When are you coming home?’”
Cruise’s indefinite Eyes Wide Shut stint not only upended the actor’s personal relationships; it threw entire segments of the film industry out of whack. Thanks to Cruise’s commitment to Kubrick, Paramount was forced to delay work on its new multimillion-dollar Mission: Impossible sequel, originally set to open in the summer of 1998 (it would finally be released two years later). Other big-budget films that Cruise had been developing were paused. About six months into the production of Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise gently asked Kubrick if there was an end date in sight. “People were waiting, and writers were waiting,” Cruise said. Hollywood would just have to be patient; there was, after all, only one Tom Cruise.
Work on Eyes Wide Shut had gone until day four hundred of filming, in June 1998. It was “a day that I had both looked forward to, and dreaded,” said Cruise. When they finally wrapped, it was late at night, and on the way out, Cruise gave Kubrick a hug and a kiss, and said, “I love you, Stanley.” The director turned to Cruise and replied, “You know. I love you too.”
Kubrick would keep going for nearly another year, editing the movie in relative peace away from the studio. He’d spent decades preparing Eyes Wide Shut. He wasn’t going to rush. “The most important thing to Stanley,” Cruise said, “was time.” Finally, in March 1999, Cruise and Kidman got a look at the movie that had swallowed the last few years of their lives. The location was a private screening room in Warner Bros.’ Manhattan headquarters. Kubrick wouldn’t be present for the film’s unveiling, but he did make his presence known by issuing a long-distance edict: as the nearly three-hour-long film unspooled, Warner Bros.’ in-house projectionist would have to look away from the screen. Kubrick didn’t want any stray eyes in the house.
By that point, no one quite knew what to expect of Eyes Wide Shut — including the people who’d paid for it. Kubrick and his cast members were so insulated from Warner Bros. that few executives even knew what the film was about. When Semel had first read the script, he’d stayed in a Kubrick-appointed hotel in London and waited for it to be delivered to his room. For years, movie fans and journalists had been forced to make do with a brief one-sentence teaser description, stating that Eyes was “a story of sexual jealousy and obsession.”
That single line had prompted the internet to go wild with speculation about the plot of Eyes Wide Shut — some of it only slightly less fantastical than the talk about The Phantom Menace. There were claims that Cruise and Kidman, who’d been married since 1990, were playing husband-and-wife psychiatrists sleeping with their patients. Others believed that Kidman’s character was a heroin addict or that Cruise would appear in a dress. But as the filming of Eyes Wide Shut had continued unabated, its release dates coming and going, the biggest mystery surrounding the movie became whether it would ever open at all.
Now, almost two and a half years after their odyssey had begun, Cruise and Kidman were the first people outside Kubrick’s inner circle to see the film. The screening ended shortly after midnight, after which the actors watched it again. “The first time, we were in shock,” Kidman said. “The second time, I thought, ‘Wow! It’s going to be controversial.’”
On that late night in New York City, after finally seeing the film, Cruise would eagerly call the director to share his and Kidman’s feedback (stricken with laryngitis, she’d jotted down her reactions on paper). “We were so excited and proud,” said Cruise, who had to leave to begin working on a Mission: Impossible sequel in Australia. The day after arriving, he picked up the phone, expecting to hear Kubrick, who had a penchant for late-night calls. Instead it was one of Kubrick’s associates, telling Cruise that the director was dead. He’d suffered a heart attack less than a week after delivering his movie — and with just four months to go until Eyes Wide Shut’s release. “Trying to define it, without Stanley here, is …” Kidman later said, her voice trailing off. “It’s tainted the
experience a bit for Tom and me.”
Though Kubrick didn’t live to discuss the film he’d been thinking about, off and on, for more than four decades, he did make a final semi-public statement before its release. It explained, in part, why it had taken so long to mount his final vision. In 1998, while still deep in production on Eyes, he had recorded a videotaped acceptance speech for the Directors Guild of America, which had given him a career achievement award. Wearing a dark blazer and blue button-up, his half-lidded gaze pointed straight at the camera, Kubrick described directing as being akin to “trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park.” He then invoked the myth of Icarus, whose artificially constructed wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be — as is generally accepted — ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’” he said, “or whether it might also be thought of as ‘Forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’ ”
Kubrick’s own mythos had only become larger — and all the more inscrutable — after his death. And with the director gone, the task of selling Eyes Wide Shut would fall on the film’s star couple.
“People think it’s going to be some huge sex romp,” Nicole Kidman said shortly before the July 1999 opening of Eyes Wide Shut. “They’re wrong.”
It was hard to blame moviegoers for thinking they were going to get something at least slightly pervy. The film’s trailer featured Cruise and Kidman bare-skinned in front of a mirror, devouring each other as the skittering riffs of Chris Isaak’s blues shuffle “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” played underneath. Combined with the years of rumors about Eyes’ supposedly sex-filled plot, there was a growing belief that Hollywood’s most genetically accomplished celebrity couple was about to go at it onscreen. “The whole world was so mesmerized by the idea that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were going to be having actual sex on film,” said Alan Cumming, who had a brief role in Eyes as a bellhop who attempts to flirt with Cruise’s character. “They had expectations of it being about something else — which I think Stanley engendered by that trailer.”
There were indeed plenty of sexually robust moments in Eyes: Alice stands nude in the couple’s bathroom and later appears in Bill’s jealous fantasy having sex with a stranger. The orgy sequence, meanwhile, was adorned with humps and thrusts. But the excess sex in Kubrick’s film posed a challenge for Warner Bros. When the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board threatened to slap the film with a commercially lethal NC-17 rating, the studio responded by digitally inserting black-robed figures that obscured some of the action. The faux figures appear only for about a minute, but they’d prove to be the year’s second-most controversial CGI creation, right after Jar Jar Binks. Film critic groups condemned the MPAA, and at the conclusion of an Eyes screening on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Roger Ebert stood up from his seat, faced the crowd, and railed against the studio’s decision with “religiosity,” remembers Todd Field. “His sense of possessiveness struck me as odd. In hindsight, I suppose I understand it. Stanley belonged to everyone.”
By the time Eyes Wide Shut was close to its July 16 release date, the years of curiosity and controversy had turned it into a genuine summer event. When the film’s poster appeared in theaters, the name of its three main draws were listed in attention-grabbing bold lettering: CRUISE, KIDMAN, KUBRICK. The film’s married-couple stars appeared on the cover of Time in a shirtless embrace; inside the magazine, in a photo spread by famed glamour grabber Herb Ritts, Cruise playfully licked his wife’s chin. At a press screening in New York City, lines formed around the block. “Once people were inside the theater, they were fighting over seats to get as close as possible to the screen,” notes Warner Bros. publicist Willa Clinton Joynes. “It was chaos.”
Although critics and Kubrick lovers were excited about Eyes Wide Shut, there was no easy way to prepare audiences for a movie that, like so many of Kubrick’s films, obscures as much as it reveals. In its final moments, after Bill and Alice reconcile, the couple take their young daughter to a toy store, where they attempt to process the events of the last few days:
ALICE: I do love you. And you know, there is something very im- portant that we need to do, as soon as possible.
BILL: What’s that?
After nearly three hours of sex-obsessed arguing and wandering, those who’d eagerly sought out Eyes Wide Shut in theaters had a similar thought: Fuuuuuck. What exactly was going on in Eyes Wide Shut? Were Dr. Bill’s nighttime adventures real or part of a dream? Was New York City supposed to look so fake? Were we really supposed to believe that a wife’s adulterous fantasy would make a married man so frustrated that he’d seek out an orgy? Also: Who gets worked up into that much of a rage while high on pot?
Cruise’s response to anyone seeking answers proved how much he’d studied Kubrick: You have to decide for yourself. “It’s a movie you can’t just see once,” he said. “To try to review it after one sitting? My hat is off to you. I do not know how an individual can do that.” Somehow the critics found a way. The initial responses included a few unadulterated raves but largely expressed polite disappointment. There was a sense that Kubrick’s film had come straight from the sixties, its lead character so conservative, its sex scenes so comically baroque, that it bore little relation to late-nineties realities. “I was happy that he had chosen to go after something very difficult: the idea of what should and shouldn’t remain unspoken in a marriage,” says Steven Soderbergh. “He was trying to get at something that was emotionally ambitious in a way that most of his films aren’t.” Still, he says, “the things that I had issues with were the result of him not being out in the world very much. Tom Cruise is out and about, and it doesn’t feel like he’s in any world that I’ve ever experienced.” Notes Christopher Nolan, “I was so excited to see it — and I was very, very disappointed.”
The film’s commercial verdict was rendered swiftly. Eyes debuted on July 16, 1999 — the same night a small plane carrying John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his new wife, Carolyn, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The news likely didn’t have a direct impact on Eyes, but it darkened the national mood, making Cruise and Kidman’s R-rated love-on-the-rocks fantasy an even tougher sell. The movie opened at number one at the box office with $21 million that weekend but departed from the top ten within weeks, becoming Cruise’s lowest-grossing leading-man movie of the decade. Eyes did have its defenders: Martin Scorsese later named it one of the best of the decade; the film’s last line, Scorsese said, was “a beauty.” And even some of those who’d initially been let down by Eyes Wide Shut would open up to it in later years. “Watching it with fresh eyes, it plays very differently to a middle-age man than it did to a young man,” says Nolan. “There’s a very real sense in which it is the 2001 of relationship movies.”
Decades later, though, some of Kubrick’s fans would still be debating whether audiences really saw the Eyes Wide Shut he wanted to make. The director was famously never at peace with his movies even after they were released, having gone back to reedit both The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the days after their initial premieres. If Kubrick hadn’t died that winter, what version of Eyes Wide Shut would audiences have been given? “What we have is Stanley’s first cut,” says Field. “If post-production on past films is taken into even modest consideration, it’s clear Eyes Wide Shut would have been a different film.”
Then again, moviegoers were lucky to have gotten their eyes on Kubrick’s final film in any form. If the years-long work on the movie hadn’t been forced to such an extreme end, Kidman said, “Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next twenty years.”
Copyright © 2019 by Brian Raftery. From the forthcoming book BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.