The Movies Made Me Do It: Confessions of a Film Actor (Issue #7)
THE SHINING, 1980, R — Being a writer is tough. When you can channel ideas, it’s a blessing. But when you’re blocked, when you have no inspiration, coupled with sudden, multiple, unrelated responsibilities, it feels like failure. To try and control your muse is missing the point. You write when it comes to you. From within you. When the good energies charge through you and command you to write. To type. To share your story.
This reality is deeply explored in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film that I found disappointing when I first saw it. It was about the same time when I read the book by Stephen King. I had been a big fan of his work during my middle school years — just amazed at his track record. So many novels. So many short stories. And so much of his brand dealt with the horror of psychic abilities. I also knew a little about the 1980 film before I saw it. Most people complained about Jack Nicholson’s performance being way over the top, and the mere fact that the movie did hardly any justice to the book.
I watched the whole thing. It wasn’t shocking. It didn’t have the quick jolt thrills from slasher films, ghost stories, or even monster movies. Most of all, Jack was crazy right from the opening scene, so where was the tension? But something WAS working when I watched it. The opening drive up to the hotel felt dread-inducing. The classical music all throughout proved unsettling. The story was (and still is) really cold. Deliberate. Very existential. Especially with the twin girls in the hallway, the Native American decor, or the hedge maze replacing the topiary animals. And that damn blood spilling out of the elevator, in slo-mo, felt instantly iconic. Although it remains a pretty unfaithful adaptation to a thrilling book, I sort of figured that Kubrick was purposely reinventing the source material.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. His other work like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and his infamous A Clockwork Orange were all visually hypnotic films that frowned on humanity and seemed to observe the action from a distance, rather than get down in the trenches with its heroes and villains. Kubrick was a photographer first, so his attention to composition and detail was always present. Yet, he also made thematically challenging movies with no easy answers and far more questions. The vibe in The Shining was no different, yet felt even more frustrating in its lack of compassion for its characters. Plus, it’s relentlessly downbeat attitude concerning horror and family drama may have turned off audiences when it was first released.
So why does it stick with me today as an actor?
It starts with the production story. What happened on set was incredible. Kubrick had a unique vision and took nearly a year to film the project. He pushed and pulled the crazed, larger than life performances out of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. He ran countless shots, take after take, ad-nauseam, in an effort to completely strip artifice out of the entire enterprise, elevating the film from simple ‘boo’ horror to practically Grand Guignol, art-house terror. This wasn’t just about giving audiences a thrill. This was about messing with their heads, making them uncomfortable, and forcing them to inhabit a diseased state of mind.
There are scenes containing spellbinding monologues, not so much from the heart, but intellectually fascinating, especially with all the visual trickery:
- When Wendy shares a little backstory to a doctor and presents a normal facade, hiding some painful truths. Her words betray her demeanor. We know her son is gifted and her husband is abusive. It’s simple dialogue but the acting is so open-eyed and honest.
- When Jack meets the bartender Lloyd, and how he reveals everything about his character: his misogyny towards Wendy, his intolerance of Danny, and his willingness to sell his soul for a drink. The technical fact that he’s also talking opposite a mirror makes it all the more unnerving.
- When Wendy finds Jack’s manuscript, repeating the sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” then he mocks her by repeating what she says, only to explode and reveal his true colors. I would study this scene so much, just floored by its stark cruelty in the acting and writing.
- When Dick Halloran, the hotel chef, explains “the shining” to Danny: he starts calm, wise, and collected as he shares his experiences, yet grows fearful as he issues a warning. He may be the warmest character in the movie, which is all the more upsetting when you see his ultimate fate.
Complaints about the film today?
- I don’t appreciate that Wendy is reduced to a victim, even if it fits Kubrick’s vision of the story. It’s raw, depressing, and painful to watch, and perhaps that was intended, to make Jack all the more monstrous. But I do wish she were much stronger, or at least more resourceful, as in the novel, instead of just crying, screaming, and whimpering for the second half of the film.
- It’s not a happy ending, unlike the book, where at least Jack tried to do the right thing in the end. Then again, it is Kubrick. And if you follow his films closely enough, you’ll understand that despite his pessimism, he believed that we would all ascend somehow. Maybe it was a happy ending for him.
The film’s intense, labored production makes me wonder how I would have handled myself as an actor. How far is too far? What constitutes good acting when the director is merciless about perfecting every moment-by-moment? There’s a famous behind-the-scenes documentary, filmed by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, who caught all the gory details on set. Poor Shelley Duvall, who plays Wendy, was driven out of her skull by Kubrick’s demands and his constant irritability with her work ethic. Jack Nicholson demonstrates full method acting as he prepares to ax the door, while also seeming amused and confused about the ever changing shooting script. Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is on the verge of tears when interviewed about his experiences with the production.
I’m amazed at the film’s more positive critical assessment over the years. Audiences now see the incredibly complex and deceptive content woven into the film, beneath it’s simple surface. There’s amazing background stuff happening everywhere that you don’t notice at first, as well as numerous, intriguing theories surrounding the film’s meaning and purpose. It’s relentless in its depiction of telepathy, the failed writer/artist, how our minds are tied to the supernatural, how time is cyclical, and how negative energies prey upon the weak-minded — all within a spooky hotel. It’s the opposite of the hero’s journey in 2001. Whereas Bowman’s evolution led to a transcendence of the mind and a place in the stars, Jack’s journey is about devolving, overlooking the past (the hotel is named The Overlook), yet being haunted by its ethereal leftovers, only to become absorbed into a window of time, and ultimately destined to repeat history, forever and ever.
Aside from acting, it felt dangerous to be a writer, after seeing this movie. Experimenting with prose, playwriting, and screenwriting felt alternately exciting and frustrating. There were good days when the words came flying out. And there were bad days, when the cursor on your computer screen kept blinking, and you hadn’t even typed a single letter. When you can’t tell your story, it feels like the worst kind of failure. It’s when those voices in your head begin to sabotage your certainty. Those voices who say “You can’t write this without something.” Something that’s instantly gratifying. Something to take the edge off your assignment…
Word of advice: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.