It's hard to overstate the amount of hysterical rumormongering that took place online during the lead-up to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. This was all the way back in 1996, a period in which film blogs like Ain't It Cool News and Corona Coming Attractions were still taking form out of the primordial ooze of internet newsgroups. Everything about movie blogs (a term that didn't even exist at that point) was different then: the writing, the approach to reporting, the designs of the sites themselves. The biggest difference, of course, was that the studios hadn't yet taken film bloggers under their wing. There was a pronounced "us versus them" mentality back in those days, one that took years to settle into an uneasy alliance.
As such, there was very little official word to go on while Eyes Wide Shut was in production; per the director's wishes, the film - Kubrick's first in over a decade - was shrouded in secrecy. In the beginning, we knew it was set to star Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Harvey Keitel, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. We knew that it was shooting over in England, but that the film itself would take place in New York. We knew it was based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Traumnovelle. We knew it was supposed to be sexually-charged. Beyond that, it was pure speculation.
And holy shit, did we speculate. Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut over the course of 18 months (a feat that would later earn the film its own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records), and during that time rumors ran rampant. There were rumblings that Tom Cruise would go full-frontal for the movie, that the film would climax with a spectacularly X-rated orgy, that necrophilia would factor into the plot somehow. Later (when reshoots and a schedule conflict required that Harvey Keitel's role be recast with Sydney Pollack), word circulated that Keitel had been let go after ejaculating into Kidman's hair during the filming of a particularly graphic sex scene. Some people really believed that Stanley Kubrick was making an A-list porno.
Almost all of this turned out to be nonsense, of course. But the gossip - combined with the casting of superstars Cruise/Kidman, the studio's maddeningly tight-lipped ad campaign, and the tragic passing of Kubrick less than a week after completing the film - created a feverish sort of hype, the type I have rarely seen since.
And then it arrived. I remember everything about Eyes Wide Shut's opening night. I remember the theater I saw the film in. I remember who I was with. I remember that the theater was carding audience members at the ticket booth and at the theater door (my girlfriend had secured tickets earlier in the day, and when I showed up to the screening without my ID, I was forced to make a mad dash back across town to grab it so that I could gain entry). I remember the palpable tension in the theater as the film unspooled; no one knew where this thing was headed, but they were absolutely giddy to find out. I remember being mesmerized by it. And more than anything, I remember standing in the parking lot defending it when the majority of my friends gave it a resounding thumbs down. I didn't know it at the time, but this would be the first of many, many such defenses I'd end up mounting on Eyes Wide Shut's behalf.
My teenage friends weren't the only ones to dislike Kubrick's final film. Critics weren't in love, either (even today, it sits at an absurd 74% on Rotten Tomatoes), and they weren't shy about expressing their disappointment. Historically, this was a typical response to a new Kubrick release, but the impression I had at the time was that many viewers were let down by their own expectations. The orgy scene was famously toned down by Warner Bros. (via the shrewd addition of CGI elements, added to secure the film an R-rating). Nicole Kidman was not ejaculated upon. The film was about love and sex, but it wasn't what you might call "sexy". Most people at the time were like, "That's it? That's the scandalous movie we've been hearing about for the past two years?"
First of all: how fucking ungrateful do you have to be to blow off Stanley Kubrick's final film?
Secondly: there were other complaints, most of which I've never been able to wrap my head around. The majority of them ("It's too slow!", "For a 'sex movie', it sure is cold!", "It's pointless!") seemed to indicate, among other things, that the person lodging them had never seen a Kubrick film before. Every Kubrick film is deliberately paced. Every Kubrick film keeps us at a remove. Every Kubrick film requires you, the audience member, to put in a little work in order to understand the film, both textually and thematically. It would seem self-evident that this was by design. Kubrick was nothing if not meticulous, one of the greatest directors - if not the greatest director - ever to walk the planet, and there isn't a frame of film out there with his name on it that wasn't paintstakingly vetted before being put out into the world. Suggesting that Kubrick may have made a film without a "point" is, no shit, one of the most ignorant and arrogant things I can imagine someone saying. And yet, I remember hearing that frequently. Still do, in fact.
Quite frankly, I think these complaints are bullshit. I find it far likelier that people don't like Eyes Wide Shut because of how it makes them feel, not because of how it goes about telling its story. Here's a movie that digs deep into some very harsh truths about the way we are wired when it comes to love and sex and monogamy, and of course some people are going to feel uncomfortable in the face of those truths; the average moviegoer doesn't want to have his or her worst impulses and guiltiest secrets rubbed in their face by some high-minded artiste for two and a half hours. Watching Eyes Wide Shut compels an internal confrontation with every person who views it, and hey, some people don't handle confrontation well. Nothing wrong with that.
I, on the other hand, enjoy being challenged by a film, escorted out of my comfort zone. That's precisely the kind of movie I enjoy more than any other, the sort of thing I am most thankful for as a film lover. It's also the sort of thing Kubrick delivered time and time again. Eyes Wide Shut is absolutely of a piece with the rest of the director's filmography (right down to the similar complaints that were/are leveled against it), and it baffles me that anyone would claim to love the rest of Kubrick's work while writing off that one completely. I have never heard what I'd consider a legitimate reason to completely disregard Eyes Wide Shut. When someone tells me it's Kubrick's "worst" film, my response is always the same: "When's the last time you actually watched Eyes Wide Shut?"
Usually, it's been a while.
I've revisited Eyes Wide Shut frequently. Some of these rewatches follow the discovery that someone sitting in my living room has never seen the film, but I'm just as likely to revisit it for my own enjoyment. You can really wallow in the details of a Kubrick film, and Eyes Wide Shut is no exception: the incredible lighting (Kubrick set the film at Christmastime, which allowed him to incorporate strings of Christmas lights into many scenes; never have those cheap decorations looked so ethereal), the set design (with his infamous aversion to flying, Kubrick convincingly recreated a few square blocks of Greenwich Village at London's Pinewood Studios), the deliciously ominous turn the film takes in its second half (favorite shot: that creepy dude standing under the streetlamp as he follows Cruise through the streets of NYC). Eyes Wide Shut is an embarrassment of riches.
And let's take a moment to give a shout-out to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, without whom Eyes Wide Shut would not work (note: I am a known Tom Cruise apologist, so of course Eyes Wide Shut non-believers will say that I'm predisposed to enjoying the work he does here). I've heard it said that Cruise is wooden in the role, but I'd argue that that's part of the point: Dr. Bill Harford is not intended to be a street-wise, laid-back dudebro. He's a yuppie of the highest order, his sights set on nothing more than getting through the day...and maybe attaining the same level of wealth as his shady associate, Zeigler (Pollack). Of course he's going to be seem stiff and out of place once he's tossed into the irradiated, sexual underbelly of NYC: what he finds there is as alien to him as it would be to most of us. Cruise charts Harford's very long night with a subtle, dead-on performance that runs the spectrum from assured to "total meltdown" ("I'll tell you everything..."), and every time I watch the film I mark a new grace note in his work. If you don't think this is Cruise operating at the same level of quality he exhibited in Magnolia, I don't know what to tell you.
Kidman's equally great. Yes, she disappears for the bulk of the film, but she only does so after being given a jaw-dropping set piece monologue that sets the rest of the entire film in motion. She is absolutely devastating in the film's infamous "bedroom scene", and so of course that's what people tend to remember her for here. But I think her early work in the film - particularly where she's asked to play drunk opposite a lecherous party guest (Sky du Mont) at Zeigler's mansion - is just as strong, and she's also given a chance to shine in the film's final scene, set within a sprawling, FAO Schwartz-esque toy store (and by the way, if you don't think that ending's satisfying, you haven't been paying attention).
I submit to you that every Kubrick film is worth being thankful for, but I further submit to you that we should be particularly thankful for Eyes Wide Shut. The director famously passed away less than a week after turning in his final edit on the film, and it's unlikely that we ever would have seen it had that tragedy occurred before he were able to get through post-production (in another universe, there's probably a Kubrick filmography that ends after Full Metal Jacket). I don't think I need to point out that Kubrick's filmography is brief enough as it is. And on a personal note: I'm particularly thankful to have had the opportunity to see Kubrick's final film in a theater on its opening night...the one and only time I would have ever had the opportunity to do that. What an absolute gift that was. How could I not be thankful for that?