“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.” – Stanley Kubrick
Despite having passed away back in 1999, Stanley Kubrick remains one of cinema’s most influential and discussed filmmakers, having a pertinent impact on the history of film. Whilst the grandiose of his stories may make his films memorable, it is the characters who inhabit each of these worlds that make such stories so continuously relevant, with each one reflecting a certain fragment of human identity.
Often exploring the border between human behaviour and insanity, many of Stanley Kubrick’s characters elicit exaggerated features of human behaviour, in Alex’s fascination with artistic violence in A Clockwork Orange or Dr. William Harford’s ceaseless curiosity in Eyes Wide Shut. Of course, such characters require fantastic actors to fill such grand shoes, with many of Kubrick’s actors being the very best professionals of 20th-century filmmaking. As the director once stated, “Actors are essentially emotion-producing instruments, and some are always tuned and ready while others will reach a fantastic pitch on one take and never equal it again, no matter how hard they try”.
If you gave the director your all, he would return the favour, with Ryan O’Neal, actor of 1962s Lolita once commenting: “God, he works you hard. He moves you, pushes you, helps you, gets cross with you, but above all he teaches you the value of a good director. Stanley brought out aspects of my personality and acting instincts that had been dormant”.
From ambitious historical figures to fantastical purveyors of discovery, let’s look into Stanley Kubrick’s top ten characters:
The 10 best Stanley Kubrick characters:
10. Spartacus – Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
Depicted by the great Kirk Douglas, the titular character of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Spartacus was a threatening, ambitious rebel, fighting against the oppressive Roman Empire.
Since the release of the film ‘I’m Spartacus’ has become a liberal phrase ubiquitous with the support of a cause greater than the sum of its parts. Written by Dalton Trumbo and of course directed by Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus brings to life the iconic character with faith and genuine triumph.
9. Col. Dax – Paths Of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
From Spartacus to Colonel Dax, Kirk Douglas remained a favourite of Stanley Kubrick for good reason, with his steely demeanour proving perfect for Paths of Glory’s lead character.
A sympathetic army officer, Dax stands up for his soldiers when they are put on trial for desertion, challenging the authority of the institution whilst maintaining a nuanced approach to his duty. Dax is a carefully constructed character, brought to life by Kirk Douglas, demonstrating the folly of war and the multiple human lives that are lost due to its futility.
8. Gny. Sgt. Hartman – Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
A film of two halves, Ronald Lee Ermey’s Gny. Sgt. Hartman provides the firepower of Full Metal Jacket’s opening act. The authoritative boot on the backs of soldiers and the obnoxious voice barking in their faces.
Being a former Gunnery Sergeant himself helped Ronald Lee Ermey become all the more terrifyingly believable as Sgt. Hartman, with many of his lines being improvised and inspired by his previous time in the army. In fact, Emery was only ever supposed to be the military consultant, but Kubrick liked the actor so much he decided that he would play the Sergeant. It’s perhaps the best example in a Kubrick film of an actor surpassing the quality of their character.
7. Dr. William Harford – Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Tom Cruise’s Dr. William Harford is Stanley Kubrick’s pawn in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic, mysterious trip through the sleazy side-streets of New York.
Harford becomes lost in the erotic underbelly of new york and spat out the other side, unsure of what he just experienced really happened at all, a victim of his own dogged curiosity. Cruise’s Dr. William Harford is the vehicle in which to explore this underworld, a ‘successful’ man, wounded by the realisation that he is in fact a very small part of an unintelligible higher power.
There’s a dreamy detachment to his character, a certain intoxicating dizziness that makes him one of Kubrick’s very best characters.
6. HAL 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The only non-human character on the list of Kubrick’s greatest ever characters, Hal 9000 has been copied and mimicked throughout the history of sci-fi filmmaking, with no copy as impactful as the original in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The psychotic robot, originally built to assist the astronauts aboard Discovery One, begins to turn on his crew, obstructing them from safety and sometimes just killing them off. Though there are certainly far more complicated characters than Hal 9000, the suggestion that Stanley Kubrick makes toward a more intelligent consciousness inherent in the character is a terrifying prospect that immediately gives further gravity to its existence.
5. Jack Torrence – The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Though Jack Torrence may originate from Stephen King’s classic horror novel, Stanley Kubrick worked with Jack Nicholson to rip the character from the page and perfectly depict a man gone mad.
A haunting representation of insanity, Jack Nicholson seems to be in a trance throughout the 1980 film, intent on terrifying his co-stars and carrying the weight of the horror on his shoulders. A rabid Jack Torrence bursting through the bathroom door to sadistically jeer, “Here’s Johnny” has since become an iconic scene of horror cinema.
4. Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Whilst we may not think he’s Stanley Kubrick’s greatest ever character, he may well be the directors most complicated one, with a psyche noisy with the desires of sex, violence and indulgence.
Though in the bleak world depicted in A Clockwork Orange, Alex is a strangely sympathetic character, despite his vile acts of violence. Being oppressed by a government incessant on removing his free will, Alex becomes deprived of his basic human rights, eliciting pity as he screams through his brutal rehabilitation. Alex is a character you can pick apart piece by piece and deconstruct with meticulous joy.
3. Barry Lyndon – Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
In tough competition with 2001: A Space Odyssey when it comes to Stanley Kubrick’s most beautiful film, Barry Lyndon also happens to depict one of the director’s very best characters.
An ambitious chancer, the titular Barry Lyndon is a civilised and affable individual despite his persistent deception of those that surround him. An absurd depiction of humanity, Barry Lyndon expresses the true contradictions of life and of the human condition, life is a game and Lyndon can’t seem to decide between winning and losing. Though it may be one of Kubrick’s most far-fetched stories, Barry Lyndon is one of his most relatable characters.
2. Dave Bowman – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The human, our representative, in an existential story of life, death and rebirth, we cling to the coattails of Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey as we desperately try to interpret its spectacle.
Human futility is explored perfectly in the character of Bowman who engages in an existential crisis, fighting with onboard computer programme Hal 9000 who begins to challenge humanity’s intentions, providing a fascinating battle between two consciousnesses of being. It’s a role that Keir Dullea deftly captures both physically and emotionally, embodying the typical human devoid of grand cliche whilst his pasty, wondrous facial expression reflects the awe of monumental discovery.
1. Dr. Strangelove – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Brought to life with emphatic energy from Peter Sellers, the titular Dr. Strangelove is the lynchpin to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic WWII satire, bringing the true farce of war to the forefront of the film.
Playing three roles in total throughout the film, Kubrick noted that he wanted Sellers to be prevalent so that, “everywhere you turn there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands”. An ex-nazi scientist and genuine madman, Dr. Strangelove laughs in the face of the apocalypse with gleeful, maniacal joy. He represents Kubrick’s appreciation for life’s absurd nihilism, a character so wild, strange and compelling that he could only be human.