If you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick films (and who isn’t?) you’ll want to see this. If you’re curious as to how the filmmaking process works, you’ll also want to see this. If you enjoy seeing documentaries about interesting people you knew nothing about, this is also for you.
Leon Vitali is an interesting character. He was a successful young actor. He was making a name for himself, and got cast in the Kubrick classic Barry Lyndon. That performance lea to a lot of praise, most notably from Kubrick, who was a hard man to please. He was impressed with how Vitali was always studying his lines, and he wrote a few extra scenes for him. When lots of other acting jobs came in for Vitali, he decided he’d rather work for the master filmmaker. After he had seen 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, he knew he wanted to work with him. He asked Kubrick for advice, and Kubrick told him what to do to learn about filmmaking. That lead him to taking the lead in a German production of Frankenstein, but only if they’d let him into the editing room and learn other aspects on filmmaking. After he did that, he contacted Kubrick again, who brought him on board to start working for him. Not as an actor, but as an….assistant, casting director, editor, secretary, color coder, location manager, acting coach, and many other things. He was very instrumental in both casting the boy in The Shining (Danny Lloyd, who appears here talking about his experience), and the late R. Lee Ermey, the menacing drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, who was merely a consultant on the film, until Vitali started working with him. And it’s nice to see Ermey one last time on screen, slyly smiling as he talks about how he had planned all along to get that part in the film and how it led to his career in Hollywood.
The director gives us an uneven picture, that never really tells us anything we didn’t know about Kubrick — he could be difficult. It never tells us why an actor that had it all, gave it all up to be an assistant for someone this difficult. I felt worse for Vitali than I did Joan Crawford’s daughter. You think about his good looks in the early days, to him sitting here in this documentary looking like Keith Richards, with a bandana on his head, sunglasses on, cigarette in hand, and fidgeting around uncomfortably.
And how heartbreaking is it, as we hear from Vitali’s kids, that he was relatively distant in their lives. How could he be a good father, when he’s spending 16 hour days, and phone calls at all hours, dealing with Kubrick’s maddening perfectionism (at one point they mention his weight being down to 65 pounds). It’s even sadder when we hear later in the documentary, about how Vitali needs to borrow money from his kids to live. How in the world did he not make a fortune doing all this for Kubrick, and why would he have given up such a promising career for a small paycheck? Who cares that you’re in the presence of a genius? And also, if Kubrick is such a genius, how is this documentary not touching on those last few Kubrick movies that weren’t so warmly received? I’m also curious as to how we don’t hear from the wives in this. Sure, it’s amusing to hear Ryan O’Neal talk about how Kubrick insisted that he really punch Vitali in their scenes, but I want to hear what the women involved with these driven men had to put up with.
On the subject of talking heads, it was nice to see former Chula Vista resident and Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine share some stories.
Stellan Skarsgard, one of my favorite character actors, shows up with a few funny anecdotes.
In acting classes they ask, “What’s my motivation?” I wish the director had dug into what Vitali’s was for choosing to spend 30 years of his life in obscurity, for the abuse he took. We do find out about the abuse he took from his father, and perhaps that has something to do with it. More pertinent questions needed to be asked of the people that appeared on screen. Yet all those complaints I have about this documentary don’t mean it’s not fascinating.
3 stars out of 5.