The F-Word(s): Kubrick's Women


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The F-Word(s): Kubrick's Women

"Of all the critical brickbats hurled at Kubrick over the years... the ones that left a mark had to do with his films’ portrayal of women." How did Stanley Kubrick portray women in his films? And what might those portrayals mean? Adam Nayman looks into the great filmmaker's work for answers.

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition and the accompanying film retrospective, Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey, both start at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday, October 31.  Find out more and get tickets at

“Now we get the fucking laughing fit, right?” 

Approximately thirty minutes into Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) is seized by a serious case of the giggles—so much so that she doubles over at the waist, scissoring her statuesque body and then sinking to the floor, the camera doubling over with her. The wobbly handheld cinematography by Larry Smith is meant to evoke the characters’ drug-addled perceptions—Alice and her husband, Bill (Tom Cruise), have spent the evening getting stoned together in their bedroom—but when Alice starts laughing, it’s as if the onscreen world has become contorted, bent out of shape. Considering that the majority of Eyes Wide Shut, like the majority of Kubrick’s work over the half-century that preceded it, is predicated on rigorously stabilized perspectives (no filmmaker more readily embraced the invention of the Steadicam), this moment must be more than a stylistic fillip; it seems, somehow, strangely significant.

This is not to go all Room 237 on Eyes Wide Shut, a movie that, like The Shining (1980), takes a comically rueful perspective on marriage and the more ghoulish aspects of high society. (One can easily imagine the film’s infamous orgy scenes taking place in the Gold Room of the Overlook Hotel.) But the rupture that this scene represents in Kubrick’s usual cinematic language is worth noting, as it prefigures a discombobulating revelation: a five-minute monologue by Alice in which she confesses her recent and frighteningly all-consuming desire for a young naval officer whom she glimpsed only briefly during a vacation to Cape Cod with Bill and their daughter Helena in tow. 

This wry, wounding rejoinder to Bill’s arrogance—namely his assertion that he never feels jealous when Alice is around other men because he’s “sure” of her—is also the longest sustained passage of dialogue delivered by a female actor in any of Kubrick’s movies. Of all the critical brickbats hurled at Kubrick over the years (and it’s always worth bearing in mind that the director, for all his fame, got just as many bad reviews as good ones), the ones that left a mark had to do with his films’ portrayal of women. The controversy over Lolita (1962) aside, the charge that Kubrick was a particularly bad gender politician was launched around the time of A Clockwork Orange (1971), with its strangely sprightly scenes of gang rape and grimly parodic money shot of a housewife beaten savagely across the face with a porcelain dildo. From there, Shelley Duvall’s limp-dishrag hausfrau in The Shining and the terrifyingly photographed distaff sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987) fit squarely into the case for the prosecution. 

Filled as it was with topless women (Kidman included) in all sorts of compromising positions, Eyes Wide Shut didn’t exactly rebuke these charges. And yet Alice’s speech, which emerges slowly out of a series of inchoate vocalizations (precise enunciation giving way to slurred speech is something of a Kubrickian fetish, from HAL 9000’s breakdown to Gomer Pyle’s pre-suicide growls), seems to challenge not only her husband’s assumptions, but those of the film’s auteur-aware audience as well. Bill accuses her of trying to pick a fight, but it’s more correct to say that she’s fighting back, and against one idea in particular: that it’s impossible to know what’s on a woman’s mind. Coming after so many Sphinx-like female countenances in Kubrick’s work, Alice’s sudden transparency is shocking, not least because of how it collapses the distance between the sexes. Unable to respond, staring dazedly straight ahead (some of the best acting of Cruise’s career), Bill in his confusion nevertheless achieves an epiphany: the realization that his wife has an inner life and fantasies to rival his own. 

It might be going too far to call Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick’s first feminist movie, especially since Alice mostly vanishes after that revelatory moment: she’s reduced to a mostly mute symbol of the domestic sphere that Bill abandons in order to have a series of erotically charged adventures, culminating in the massive country-mansion orgy sequence that provides the film with its most iconic visual (and musical) moments. And yet Alice’s laughing fit, coupled with her reappearance at the film’s conclusion—including her literally having the final (f-)word of the film, and by extension of Kubrick’s career—makes Eyes Wide Shut perhaps the most crystalline expression of one of its director’s most deeply embedded themes: male self-absorption, and its dire consequences. If Kubrick’s films are mostly bereft of fully defined female characters, his men are scarcely paragons of virtue, more often defined in terms of their moral and emotional deficiencies—in which case, the dearth of women can be viewed less as a byproduct of a director’s masculinist prejudices than as strategic structuring absences.

Tracy Reed and George C. Scott in a scene from Dr. Strangelove 

This tendency is very legible in Kubrick’s “war films” Fear and Desire (1953), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Full Metal Jacket, each of which features exactly one female character of any significance. In Fear and Desire, a platoon of American soldiers in an unnamed war happen upon a girl wandering in the woods and take her prisoner, lashing her to a tree. In the short feature’s centrepiece scene, one of the soldiers (feverishly played by future film director Paul Mazursky) tries to ravish her, after which she breaks free and he shoots her dead. The implication seems to be that the woman’s presence has coaxed out some latent madness from the untried warrior, the soldier’s symptoms reflecting the film’s title. In Paths of Glory, Kubrick rings a variation on this same scenario: in the final scene, a bar full of French soldiers drunkenly urge a local girl (Christiane Harlan, later to become Kubrick’s wife) to sing a folk song, which she does so beautifully that their mockery melts away into a mixture of awe and shame. This scene is perversely mirrored at the end of Full Metal Jacket, where a group of soldiers are once again silenced by a woman—except in this case she is a wounded Vietcong sniper who, instead of placating the men with song, begs to be put out of her misery. (Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker hesistatingly obliges, winning a round of applause from his comrades.) In all three films, the entry of a woman into the cloistered male world of the military has a destabilizing effect, as if some basic equilibrium has been violated.

This same feeling is relegated to the level of subtext in Dr. Strangelove, whose lone female character is Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), the mistress of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and, it’s implied, the catalyst for the film’s explosive trajectory. It’s Buck’s sexual frustration that underwrites his desire to attack the Soviet Union—a manic energy shared by all the other alpha-male types populating his government’s War Room—and in case the satire of pent-up male desire wasn’t clear enough, Reed is also glimpsed briefly as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” the Playboy centrefold ogled by Slim Pickens’ Major T.J. “King” Kong before he rides that famous nuclear warhead into the ground. The only time the film’s characters talk about women is to debate what the exact ratio of females to males should be in the underground caves where America’s power brokers will wait out the toxic fallout of mutually assured destruction; Peter Sellers’ Strangelove suggests that 10 to 1 would be about right, moments before he (and everyone else in the film) are obliterated, accompanied, fittingly, by the sound of a female voice (Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again”).

Shelley Duvall in a scene from The Shining

The grotesque fantasy spun by Strangelove is of a kind of prehistoric cave society where men are put out to stud, but it’s also about cheating death—about finding a way to outlive everybody else. That lusting for immortality—for some kind of “forever”—is always tied to male characters in Kubrick’s films, whether it’s Barry Lyndon yearning for an aristocratic title that he can pass on to his son, or Jack Torrance in The Shining telling his son that he wants to stay at the Overlook “forever and ever and ever” (presumably all by himself, after he’s done butchering his wife and son). 

The Shining predates Eyes Wide Shut as Kubrick’s other late film with a truly significant female character, and she’s surely a problematic one. In contrast to the cool, resourceful blonde of Stephen King’s source novel, Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance is a meek, cowed, stringy-haired simpleton. It’s certainly not a very flattering character, and this seems deliberate. Whereas the lone women in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove radiate a kind of power (even if it’s a power derived from the myopic perspectives of male fear and desire), Wendy initially seems defined by her weakness and vulnerability, as well as her annoyingness—which, combined with the seductive mania of Jack Nicholson’s performance, threatens to turn the film into a complicitous comedy about spousal homicide. And yet as the film goes on, Wendy proves strong, brave and capable, managing to escape the Overlook (along with her son) while her homicidal hubby succumbs to the hotel’s hedgerow labyrinth—where he remains literally frozen in place, a visual joke on his yearning for a secure, stable role as the head of an old-fashioned household. 

Tom Cruise is embraced in Eyes Wide Shut 

While Kubrick never allows Wendy to laugh at her husband—even as Nicholson’s expressionist-cum-clownish performance suggests that this might be the sanest course of action—by the time of Eyes Wide Shut the director was obviously more willing to reveal the satiric core of his ongoing project. Critics have pointed out that Eyes Wide Shut proceeds via a rhythm of interruptions: every time Bill looks like he’s about to make good on his urge for a revenge fuck (cheating on Alice to get back at her for thinking about cheating on him) he’s foiled, making the film a kind of cock-blocked erotic picaresque. In the absence of sexual fulfillment, Bill’s masculine authority (as well as Cruise’s) begins to erode; the good doctor is notably slow on the uptake, dumbly parroting the dialogue of virtually everyone he meets and proving unable to act on any impulses (physical or intellectual) until his humbled reconciliation with Alice, who is no longer giggling—we see her red-eyed in the aftermath of his confession to her about his nocturnal peregrinations. But the memory of her smile aligns with Kubrick’s own implicit smirk in the film’s very last scene. As the reunited family unit wanders through a Yuletide shopping-mall display, Bill, like so many of Kubrick’s desperate men, Bill utters the f-word—“Forever”—as he clings to the renewed promise of domestic bliss; Alice counters with an f-word of her own, a more provisional solution to the problem at hand. In the end, Alice wants exactly the same thing as her husband, and in giving him a piece of her (dirty) mind, she also rescues Eyes Wide Shut from the sort of ambiguous, apocalyptic ending that is usually Kubrick’s stock in trade. And so they lived happily ever after. 

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