Stanley Kubrick’s Most Iconic Characters Ranked
Stanley Kubrick had an incredibly impactful career. Despite working in the film industry for over 50 years, he only directed 13 feature films. His work was known for the amount of preparation it demanded, with Kubrick taking an average of four years to prepare each movie. As his career progressed, he took longer and longer between each project -- there was a 12-year gap between "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut," his last movie. Kubrick's work is associated with a variety of things, but for me, it's the drama of his films and how they embody the meaning of the word "cinematic" that makes Kubrick such a unique director. His films promise an intelligent and intriguing experience, with visuals unlike any other.
Kubrick was a perfectionist, sometimes to a problematic degree. He wrote or co-wrote the majority of his scripts, imbuing them with irony, detachment, and curious outlook on life. Kubrick and his collaborators developed characters with iconic looks and ambiguous morals who were capable of great atrocities and hilarious quips in equal measure. Here are 10 of Stanley Kubrick's most iconic characters, ranked.
William Harford — Eyes Wide Shut
Played by Tom Cruise with his usual determination and all-American squareness, William Harford is the lead of "Eyes Wide Shut." Perhaps, for this reason, he is also the most muted character in the film, the only one who can't ever see the full picture. Cruise plays William as a man who has everything going for him until his wife reveal a sexual fantasy that leaves him unmoored. To cope, William goes on a strange journey of sexual discovery, surrounding himself with women that can't help but remind him of his wife.
"Eyes Wide Shut" is my favorite Kubrick film. Shot in the style of a horror movie, it's is filled with a sense of unease and dread, but the viewer is unable to pinpoint the source or cause. The film probes marriage, fidelity, sex, and masculinity in ways that make us squirm. Much like William, we enter the world of the film with no understanding of it. By the time we're through with it, we may not see where all the pieces of the puzzle fit, but we've gained some clarity.
Lionel Mandrake — Dr. Strangelove
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is one of Kubrick's collaborations with the legendary Peter Sellers. It's a strange film for Kubrick, made early in his career when he still hadn't developed the look and style that is now associated with him. While Kubrick's sense of humor is always present in his films, in "Dr. Strangelove" it's the leading impulse. The movie satirizes the Cold War, how ridiculous war planning is as a concept, and the fear that permeated that time period, pushing people to do stupid things. It also boasts one of Kubrick's sharpest scripts, one that continues to escalate in nightmarish and hilarious directions.
In "Doctor Strangelove," Sellers gives Mandrake -- one of three characters he plays in the movie -- a crisp English accent and a nervous and energy as the Captain struggles to prevent a nuclear attack. While the character of Dr. Strangelove is arguably the most memorable one in the movie, in playing the sane man of the film Sellers gets to show off his comedic and chameleonic skills and his ability to hit different dramatic notes, showing the growth that Mandrake fumbles through.
PVT. Pyle — Full Metal Jacket
In a film filled with impactful characters and sequences, few stand out as much as Vincent D'Onofrio as Private Leonard Lawson, cruelly nicknamed Gomer Pyle by Sergeant Hartmann. "Full Metal Jacket" is a film about the cost of meaningless war, and no character better illuminates this than Private Pyle. He is mocked and made fun of, with only Private Joker as his friend.
Once he's assigned to Joker's platoon, Pyle's clumsiness gets the better of him, resulting in the entire platoon beating him up in order to teach him a lesson. Pyle's mental breakdown is one of the most horrific scenes in the film. It marks a turning point for the story and for D'Onofrio's career; aside from maybe the Kingpin, Private Pyle is still D'Onofrio's best-known role, showing how capable he is as a character actor who can emote danger, pity, and sensitivity in equal parts.
Wendy Torrance — The Shining
Shelley Duvall's performance as Wendy Torrance is one that has been re-evaluated over the years. It was loathed at first sight. Stephen King, who wrote the novel the film is based on, famously despised Kubrick's adaptation, largely because of Wendy, who, in the film version, is crying and screaming throughout most of her scenes.
This is true. Still, it's unbelievable that people weren't able to appreciate Duvall's work. As the wife of Jack, who grows increasingly more distant and dangerous, Wendy represents the one sane character in the hotel. Jack Nicholson shines because his character is contrasted with Duvall; she gives him the room to be as terrifying as the film needs him to be. The sequence in which Jack breaks down the bathroom door wouldn't be half as effective if Duvall weren't around to scream, cry, and hobble away in exhausted fear. There's not one performance without the other (that Kubrick seemed more interested in fleshing out the male lead, as opposed to the far more sympathetic Wendy, is a different story).
Lady Lyndon — Barry Lyndon
Kubrick is known for many things, but his ability to cast the right actors is sometimes hidden under his more eye-popping skills. Before Marisa Berenson starred in films like "Cabaret" and "Barry Lyndon," she was on the covers of Vogue and Time magazine. Berenson's allure, which could be expressed with a single glance, is one of the reasons why her role as Lady Lyndon remains iconic decades later (although the fact that she is the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli and was considered the "it" girl of the '70s, classily posing nude in several magazines, certainly helps, too).
Lady Lyndon's introduction scene, in a gambling salon in Paris, has basically no dialogue. Like the rest of the film, the scene is beautifully shot, with the camera focusing on the way Barry and Lady Lyndon look at and analyze each other. It's one of the quickest examples of a character falling in love onscreen: She simply looks at Ryan O'Neal, and he begins chasing after her.
Alex DeLarge — A Clockwork Orange
Based on Anthony Burgess' novel, "A Clockwork Orange" is one of Kubrick's most famous films, and one that encapsulates much of Kubrick's outlook on the world, at least on the surface. It's also the film that best shows off Kubrick's talent at creating believable and striking settings -- in this case, a world that feels like our own, only tilted. The set designs, the outfits, and the mansions, while made in the '70s, feel as fresh today as they did when "A Clockwork Orange" debuted.
"A Clockwork Orange" follows Alex, a troubled 15-year-old living in a dystopian version of England. He's the leader of a gang and likes to steal, rape, and murder people in his spare time. When he's captured by the police, they attempt to rehabilitate him with aversion therapy, preventing him from acting on his worst impulses, yet robbing him of free will and the possibility of redemption.
Malcolm McDowell plays Alex as if the world is his stage, with endless theatricality and fearlessness. His performance is on the same wavelength as the film itself, a blend of the classical and the modern, with tilted angles and plenty of gruesomeness. As an older version of today's revered Joker, it's easy to see why people, especially young men, would be hypnotized by this character and performance. Still, no matter which way you look at it, McDowell earns the hype.
Alice Harford — Eyes Wide Shut
As the instigator of conflict in "Eyes Wide Shut," Alice's role is pivotal. In yet another great flourish of casting, Kubrick selected Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise's then-wife, to play his on-screen spouse as well. The fact that Kidman and Cruise were married as they shot this film, one that's explicitly about infidelity and the complexities of marriage, makes the whole thing feel almost voyeuristic, as if the audience is somehow complicit in the events that follow.
Kidman plays Alice as a classic movie wife -- a little bit bored, and concerned with the fate of her marriage. After a night spent smoking marijuana, Alice resents William's certainty that she'd never cheat on him, and informs him that she considered leaving her husband, her daughter, and her life for a sailor that she once made eye contact with.
Kidman's performance worms into your brain, nailing a reality that couples like to avoid thinking about: Marriages are made out of two individuals, and there's no way to completely know another person. Kidman shows that we can feel several emotions at once and that, even when they represent opposite things, they can all be true. Women in Kubrick films rarely have the last word, but Alice does -- and she makes it count.
HAL — 2001: A Space Odyssey
Four decades after its release, "2001: A Spacey Odyssey" remains one of the most intriguing films ever made. Tracking human evolution over thousands of years, the film features a very charming and very evil computer. HAL is in charge of running Discovery One, the spaceship that serves as the setting of the middle section of the film. HAL is the kind of computer we'd love to see nowadays, capable of speech and facial recognition, with the ever-elusive additives of being able to interpret art, voice inflection, and facial expressions. HAL is what Alexa wishes it could be.
However, once HAL starts malfunctioning, things take a turn for the worse. Kubrick crafts great characters by fleshing them out; Instead of simply being an evil computer, HAL, voiced precisely by Douglas Rain, is capable of producing fear and empathy through voice acting and script alone. HAL's way of speaking is terrifying when compared to the humans on the ship, but most striking are the computer's closing moments, when it reaches its most human place and calmly begs to not be disconnected. "2001" doesn't give HAL a body like the Star Wars films, which make their robots worthy of empathy. HAL has one red eye and a voice. That's enough to make it one of the most iconic figures in cinema.
Barry Lyndon — Barry Lyndon
"Barry Lyndon" is a strange film. It's a miracle that it was made in the first place. Tracking the highs and lows of an Irish opportunist, "Barry Lyndon" fires on all cylinders, with Kubrick's signature meticulousness applied to every aspect. Made with an obsessive faithfulness to the time period in which it's set, including specially designed lenses that captures natural lighting, the film is a pivot following "A Clockwork Orange" although it's still undeniably a Kubrick movie. It's a period piece, a comedy, and a tragedy all at once.
The character of Barry, played by former soap opera star Ryan O'Neal, is a dumb yet incredibly lucky guy. He goes through his life, achieves fame, and loses it, all based on his looks and his luck. Still, after losing a son, a leg, and a fortune, the film ends with Barry traveling through Europe, with a closing shot of Lady Lyndon signing his annuity check.
Jack Torrance — The Shining
"The Shining" changed significantly when adapted from novel to film. While Kubrick kept the haunted hotel, the process by which Jack loses his mind is much less explained. With the book, Stephen King took pains to ensure that Jack retained some humanity, making his story into one about alcoholism and family. Kubrick is not concerned with this, making Jack a guy who is minutes away from boiling over. His temper is short and his cabin fever sets in quickly.
Jack Nicholson is an expert at this, creating a menacing character who seems to be having a good time as the world falls apart around him. Kubrick has never been interested in why characters do things and behave in certain ways; in his stories, even the most righteous of characters are seconds away from throwing away their morals. The hotel might be Jack's excuse, but really, his arc could easily appear in any one of Kubrick's films.