Ten Years Later: Eyes Wide Shut
It’s common assumption these days that 1999 was a formidable year for movies. The summer of ’99 was equally hefty. There was a new Austin Powers, a new Spike Lee joint, a South Park movie, the surprise hits American Pie, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, and, oh yeah, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Out of all these movies, though, the one I was jonesing for the most was made by a dead man. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut arrived on the heels of months of hype, rumor, speculation, and all-around buzz. It was also, of course, posthumous: Kubrick had permanently excused himself from the editing room on March 7, 1999. It was an ugly shock for someone like me, who’d anointed Kubrick his favorite director. So the imminent release of what had turned out to be the master’s swan song, on July 16, 1999, was now bittersweet.
The pre-release news was not encouraging. To secure an R rating, Warner Brothers stuck CGI people all over the orgy scene to obscure the background libertines doing the Humpty Dance. There were questions, beyond this obvious digital bowdlerization, whether the cut that was about to open on 2,411 screens nationwide reflected Kubrick’s true, final intentions. Advance word was shaky. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice opined that the film “feels like a rough draft at best” and that “the ponderous Temple of Doom orgy, crassly matched location inserts, overreliance on cross-cutting, and atrocious mixing (most obvious in the orgy’s dreadful dubbing and oscillating hubbub level) all suggest the movie was quite far from completion when its notoriously perfectionist author passed away.”
Regardless, I was there, first show, opening day. The first theater I tried was the local Flagship Cinemas, a relatively new location which had opened its doors just in time to host the May 19 premiere of Star Wars Episode I. I would soon boycott this theater in disgust for about a year: it had ruined a print of the South Park film and would go on to project The Blair Witch Project in a squashed aspect ratio instead of its intended TV-square ratio. Those two fuck-ups were bad, but it was Eyes Wide Shut — Kubrick’s final film! his first in 12 years! I’ve only been waiting for this for years! Come the fuck on! — that really landed Flagship on my shit list. Somewhere around the scene where Tom Cruise’s character goes to the costume shop, the print was suddenly running upside down and backward. For a few awful seconds, I tried to justify this as intentional: Ah, Kubrick, that great perverse prankster! And then rationality set in. A manager came in and offered free passes, but wasn’t sure when the print would be fixed. I said fuckit and went to a competing local theater, which showed the entire film right side up and forwards, for which small competence, at this point, I was grateful.
Exiting the theater, a little dazed and unsure of my responses, I ran into some friends who were waiting to get into the next show. They of course asked how it was. I didn’t have a good glib answer for them — I usually don’t, right after seeing a film, but especially not right after this one. I think I said something like “I liked it…not sure if you will…” Because I’d heard the audience around me, and I knew the film had gradually lost many or most of them. They were expecting a super-erotic thriller starring then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. What they got was, well, Eyes Wide Shut. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably seen the film, and you know what it actually is.
It didn’t take long for the rest of America to find out what it was. After a decent $21 million opening weekend at #1 (your other choices on July 16 were Lake Placid and The Wood, if you’ve forgotten), Eyes Wide Shut began its nosedive. It fell off 53% in its second weekend — coming in fourth behind The Haunting (!), Inspector Gadget (!!), and American Pie (which had been out three weeks) — and by week four had fallen completely out of the top ten. At a reported budget of $65 million, Kubrick’s final gift to cinema finished with a domestic gross of $55 million, with an additional $106 million from the rest of the world (which, maybe not coincidentally, got to see the unobscured orgy scene). It was the first Tom Cruise film since 1992’s Far and Away not to pass the $100 million mark in America. That, of course, was Cruise’s previous film with Nicole Kidman; there would be no others.
The critics didn’t help. Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars. Todd McCarthy of Variety deemed it “a riveting, thematically probing, richly atmospheric and just occasionally troublesome work.” Many others on the film beat weren’t so generous. Our own roster here on the site was decidedly mixed. Still, Eyes Wide Shut has ended up — probably with the help of retrospective evaluation — with a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Appreciation in hindsight, though, didn’t give the film a leg up at the box office against such thematically probing works as the Haunting remake.
Eventually the film’s rep started to improve. People found their way to it on video, or gave it a second chance there. (A movie like this might play better at home, where you can always pause to hit the bathroom or the fridge.) The unimpressive DVD, its orgy-thrusting still digitally blocked to protect the innocent, was later replaced with a shiny new Blu-ray that banished the unwelcome party guests. (After years of Warner’s waffling that their policy was not to release unrated or NC-17 cuts of their films, they finally caved and let American home viewers see what the rest of the world had been enjoying on DVD, and guess what? The universe somehow did not die screaming.) Interesting, if sometimes batshit, interpretations and appreciations of Eyes Wide Shut dot the internet. Did you know that Eyes Wide Shut spoke uncomfortable truths about the Illuminati, and that Kubrick was probably assassinated as a result? I didn’t. I still don’t.
Today, as I write and edit this, is the tenth anniversary of the day Kubrick’s last film hit theaters. Ten years to the day since I sat in Flagship Cinemas, all jazzed for what I was about to watch, and left in disgust after an hour due to projectionist ineptitude. (I could almost hear Kubrick — who routinely sent spies out to check the light levels and sound systems of the theaters playing his films — spinning in his fresh grave.) Despite the temporary frustration, it was a magical day. It was my equivalent of what May 19 was for so many Star Warsfans.
Though, of course, the reputation of Episode I has dimmed more than somewhat in the intervening decade, with even many Star Wars die-hards allowing that the entire prequel trilogy was misbegotten; while Eyes Wide Shut, away from the hype and buzz and unrealistic expectations (something all Kubrick films since at least 2001 had suffered from), emerges as a difficult but worthy coda, of a piece with the man’s other work.
And the final word spoken in the final shot of Kubrick’s final film, communicating not only hope for the story’s troubled couple but for humanity in general, is “Fuck.” I loved that at the time, on July 16, 1999. I still do.