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Revisiting Stanley Kubrick's bizarre 1997 acceptance speech

Stanley Kubrick, one of cinema’s greatest and most influential auteurs, has been the subject of close study for more than five decades where cinephiles, film critics and scholars go crazy deciphering his cinematographic brilliance. The auteur’s works are scathing and idiosyncratic socio-political commentaries that are terrifying yet aesthetically pleasing. Having had an everlasting impact on a train of filmmakers, namely Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and more, he continues to be a trailblazing pioneer in the landscape of cinema. 

As filmmakers try to achieve his excellence and courage in terms of craftsmanship, skill and ideas, Kubrick’s genius remains unrivalled and unparalleled. 

In 1997, Kubrick was awarded the prestigious D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement by the Director’s Guild of America. He joined the names of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Sidney Lumet yet could not accept the award in person as he was in London, busy shooting with Tom Crusie and Nicole Kidman for his upcoming film Eyes Wide Shut. However, Kubrick provided a rehearsed video of himself accepting and acknowledging the receipt of the award and sincerely expressing his gratitude. Although he appears stiff, stoic and somewhat uncomfortable, his speech was insightful and bizarre. 

Kubrick looked like a wizened Greek philosopher clad in a suit, made to sit through a three-minute speech where he interestingly drew the parallels between Icarus’ vaulting ambition and that of D.W. Griffith, whose brilliant contribution to cinema was acknowledged by Kubrick in the same speech. 

Kubrick began his speech by talking about the “most difficult and challenging that about directing a film”. Turns out, it is something as simple as “getting out of the car”. 

He said, “I believe Steven [Spielberg] summed it up about as profoundly as you can. He thought the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film was getting out of the car. I’m sure you all know the feeling.”

Kubrick expressed his passion and the thrill of filmmaking by comparing it to writing “War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park”, stating: “When you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.” However, his allusions to Icarus with respect to Griffith’s career remains one of the most bizarre and strangely profound areas in his acceptance speech. 

The director spoke of how ironic it was to name a lifetime achievement award after D.W. Griffith whose “career was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale”. Kubrick detailed of how he was “instrumental in transforming movies from the nickelodeon novelty to an art form” and “was always ready to take tremendous risks in his films and in his business affairs. He was always ready to fly too high.”

However, as Kubrick rightly pointed out, “And in the end, the wings of fortune proved for him, like those of Icarus, to be made of nothing more substantial than wax and feathers, and like Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun, they melted,” said Kubrick, paralleling his fall to the myth of Icarus. “And the man whose fame exceeded the most illustrious filmmakers of today spent the last 17 years of his life shunned by the film industry he had created.”

Kubrick ended his speech with a thought-provoking anecdote. “I’ve compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth, but at the same time I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high’. or whether it might also be thought of as, ‘Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings’.”

Kubrick, who definitely always paid a lot of attention to the wings and created brilliant masterpieces, definitely nailed that analogy. Watch his acceptance speech below.

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