In 1972, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange racked up a total of four Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. In the end, the film was trounced by William Friedkin's The French Connection in every one of those categories, and-- much like the victory of The Godfather Part II over The Conversation that I wrote about here last week-- I'm inclined to say, "Well, y'know, fair enough." Both films were top-shelf efforts that thrilled audiences upon release, both proved to be influential in the years that followed, and both are so dissimilar as to render any discussion of which is the "better" film moot.
But I feel the same way about A Clockwork Orange vs. The French Connection that I did about The Godfather Part II vs. The Conversation: give me the option to watch one or the other, I'm choosing Kubrick's film every time. Yeah, I'm going to be in the bag for Kubrick at every opportunity-- that's how Kubrick fanboys roll-- but there's far more substance to A Clockwork Orange, more to chew over once the credits roll.
Almost all of Kubrick's films were controversial in their owns ways, but it almost goes without saying that A Clockwork Orange was the most incendiary film he ever directed. Kubrick adapted the screenplay from Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel of the same name, and both versions of the story are famous for running afoul of censorship/nervous hysteria. The original cut of the film received an X-rating in the States for its graphic violence and sexuality (in typical fashion, the film was reclassified with an R-rating after Kubrick removed roughly 30 seconds' worth of nudity from the film in 1973*; the graphic violence and brutality remained A-OK), and over in the UK the public response was troubling enough that it convinced Kubrick to petition Warner Bros. to pull it from distribution (which they did). Burgess' novel, meanwhile, was banned from several school libraries in the years following the film's release, with parents and school officials clutching their pearls over its "objectionable" content.
It's interesting to hear how Kubrick and Burgess differed in their response to the backlash, specifically the claims that the film was to blame for several "copycat" acts of violence in the wake of its release. Upon Warner Bros. pulling the film from distribution in the UK, Kubrick offered the following statement:
To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.
Burgess, despite praising A Clockwork Orange upon completion, eventually settled on a more negative outlook on the film. He called it "didactic", and felt that Kubrick's version only made it easier for people to miss the point of the source material. Years later, he said:
The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation...
It's worth noting that, while in production, Kubrick is said to have referred to A Clockwork Orange as "a running lecture on free-will", so it's especially ironic that the outcry (which, beyond blaming the film for inciting violence, also resulted in Kubrick receiving death threats) would call into question that entire line of thinking. A Clockwork Orange didn't create criminals any more than Natural Born Killers did, or Call of Duty, or Marilyn Manson.
But hey, so it goes.
Did the controversy hurt A Clockwork Orange's chances at the 1972 Oscars? It seems unlikely: the film performed well in the States, critics loved it, and hey, it got nominated for four Oscars in the first place. Chances are, Kubrick's reluctance to play the Oscar campaigning game had more of an impact than any objection the Academy might have had to its content (remember, this is the same institution that handed the X-rated Midnight Cowboy a "Best Picture" trophy just three years prior). And even if it did, who cares? A Clockwork Orange didn't take the top prize, but, like so many other Oscar-snubbed films we've discussed here this month, history has shown that lacking a shiny trophy doesn't matter if the film's a true-blue classic. And there can be no doubt that A Clockwork Orange-- which is still being screened, debated, and inspiring artists decades after its release-- qualifies as one of the all-time greats.
* = Eventually, A Clockwork Orange was restored to its original version and reclassified with an R-rating; this is the version you're familiar with from DVD and Blu-ray.