The years 1968 to 1973 saw the release of such seminal taboo-busting films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Barbarella,” “If…,” “Women in Love,” “The Damned,” “Trash,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Performance,” “The Devils,” “Straw Dogs,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “Deep Throat” and, of course, “A Clockwork Orange.” In this excerpt, Malcolm McDowell confronts a skittish Anthony Burgess while the two men do press chores for “A Clockwork Orange” — and Stanley Kubrick stays behind in England “controlling everything.”
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Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” harbored doubts about Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of his 1962 novel. Despite having much admired the director’s “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Burgess was not a fan of Kubrick’s “Lolita,” and he feared what would happen to his “A Clockwork Orange” when all the sex and violence had to be visualized on the big screen. ” ‘Lolita’ could not work well,” Burgess had written, “because Kubrick had found no cinematic equivalent to Nabokov’s literary extravagance. Nabokov’s script, I knew, had been rejected; all the scripts for ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ above all my own, had been rejected too, and I feared that the cutting to the narrative bone which harmed the filmed ‘Lolita’ would turn the filmed ‘A Clockwork Orange’ into a complimentary pornograph.”
Initially, Burgess liked what he saw – or, at least, he said he liked what he saw – when Kubrick eventually deigned to meet and give him a private screening of the completed film. During production, Malcolm McDowell had asked Kubrick if he ever met with Burgess to discuss the project.
“Oh good God, no!” exclaimed Kubrick. “Why would I want to do that?”
Watching the completed film, Burgess didn’t hold it against Kubrick when his wife, repulsed by its choreographed sex and violence, asked to leave the screening room after a mere ten minutes. Initially, he even managed to tell the press, “This is one of the great books that has been made into a great film.”
Maybe he meant what he said. Or maybe he simply wanted to persuade Kubrick to direct his screenplay “Napoleon Symphony.” In the following weeks, as well as years, Burgess would radically reassess his opinion of “A Clockwork Orange” the movie.
Back in January 1972, Burgess even consented to join McDowell for a one-week publicity tour of New York City to promote the film. The travel-phobic Kubrick remained behind in England, “controlling everything,” said McDowell. The two men’s press day began with a limousine pickup, which invariably kicked off with Burgess asking McDowell, “Have you shit today?” McDowell told him yes, at which Burgess launched into a scatological dissertation until their first interview of the morning. That was Monday.
By Wednesday, however, McDowell noticed a distinct change in his publicity date’s attitude toward Kubrick and the film. “Burgess realized he’d been cheated because he wasn’t paid anything for ‘A Clockwork Orange’,” said the actor. Years earlier, Burgess had sold the film rights “for a few hundred dollars,” he groused. Regardless of how the film version performed at the box office, Burgess would see no profit points. Worse, “Kubrick went on paring his nails in Borehamwood,” complained Burgess, leaving the publicity chores to McDowell and the novelist, who was even called upon to attend the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards on Kubrick’s behalf. There at Sardi’s restaurant, Burgess got his revenge, since he quickly won the hearts and laughter of the assembled film reviewers when he declared, “I have been sent by God – Stanley Kubrick – to accept his award!”
It had been, by all accounts, a very rough few days of interviews for Burgess and McDowell. On the “Today” show, Barbara Walters took yet another ride on her moral high horse and attacked the film’s graphic sex and violence. Four teenagers had recently raped a nun in Poughkeepsie, New York, and it was inaccurately reported that they were dressed a la the droogs. Unbeknownst to Walters, the Poughkeepsie culprits hadn’t even seen “A Clockwork Orange.” Burgess recalled, “I was not quite sure what I was defending – the book that had been called ‘a nasty little shock’ or the film about which Kubrick remained silent. I realized, not for the first time, how little impact even a shocking book can make in comparison with a film. Kubrick’s achievement swallowed mine, whole, and yet I was responsible for what some called its malign influence on the young.”
During his press chores, Burgess took time to attend a screening of “A Clockwork Orange” with a paying audience. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He wanted to see how Americans were responding, and found that “the theology passed over their coiffures.” He was especially dismayed by “the blacks” in the audience who shouted, “Right on!” at the thug-hero Alex.
Even so, he defended the film, the novel, and himself. In between interviews, he wrote a defense of the film: “Neither cinema nor literature can be blamed for original sin. A man who kills his uncle cannot justifiably blame a performance of ‘Hamlet.’ On the other hand, if literature is to be held responsible for mayhem and murder, then the most damnable book of them all is the Bible, the most vindictive piece of literature in existence.”
From England, Kubrick said pretty much the same thing when the MPAA and the BBFC gave the film their respective X ratings, which in America had provoked a boycott. The one-two punch of “A Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs,” which later cut a few seconds of footage to be reclassified R, alarmed several newspaper editors and publishers, who instituted a policy of refusing to carry advertisements for X-rated films. Of these newspapers, the “Detroit News” boasted the most readers, and its editorial page declared, “In our view, a sick motion picture industry is using pornography and an appeal to prurience to bolster theater attendance: quite simply, we do not want to assist them in the process.”
The editorial didn’t mention Kubrick, but that didn’t stop him from attacking the editors of the “Detroit News.” His letter to the newspaper quoted Adolf Hitler’s response to a Munich art exhibition in 1937: “Works of art which cannot be understood and need a set of instructions to justify their existence, and which find their way to neurotics receptive to such harmful rubbish, will no longer reach the public. Let us have no illusions: we have set out to rid the nation and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character.”
Kubrick went on to condemn the newspaper’s policy: “In this day and age, the ‘Detroit News’ censors may feel better equipped to make such fine distinctions – thought I do not envy them their task. But what they are doing is, in essence, the same.
The Bible and Adolf Hitler. Burgess and Kubrick weren’t afraid of going after the big guns.
However, two years after the film’s release, Kubrick took “A Clockwork Orange” out of circulation in the United Kingdom due to accusation that it inspired copycat rapes and other violent acts. “We received hate mail and death threats,” said the director’s wife, Christiane.
Burgess, for his part, grew to hate the film. Or Kubrick. Or both. A decade later when he adapted his novel for the stage, he made sure to include the following stage direction: “A man bearded like Stanley Kubrick comes on playing, in exquisite counterpoint, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ on a trumpet. He is kicked off the stage.”
From the book “SEXPLOSION” by TheWrap contributor Robert Hofler, copyright 2014. It is reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.