Stanley Kubrick once asked his assistant to help kill his cat
As assistant to the great director Stanley Kubrick, Leon Vitali nearly always did whatever his boss requested. But even he has to admit that the prospect of helping to kill a cat went beyond the pale.
The request came after Vitali set up cameras for remote viewing within Kubrick’s house, so the director could keep an eye on his beloved cat, Jessica, in its last, suffering days. “Finally,” Vitali tells The Post, “Stanley said, ‘I can’t bear this. Put the cat in a sack, hold her steady and I will put her down with a shotgun.’” Luckily, Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, stepped in with a cooler head before the cockeyed idea could have become a reality. “The vet came and gave the cat an injection,” he says, to put it to sleep.
As chronicled in the biographical documentary “Filmworker,” out Friday, Vitali spent 23 years holding a job technically described as assistant. But, in reality, he was more like Kubrick’s right hand. He put in 36-hour stints in editing rooms (with occasional breaks) and coached actors. On “The Shining” set, he was the link between the creepy child performers and Kubrick. He even broke bad news that Kubrick avoided (Vitali told actor Tim Colceri, at the last minute, that he was being replaced by Marine Corps sergeant R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.”)
Cannily, Kubrick made sure that those sort of interactions happened via telephone. He wanted the suits to believe that his lanky, shaggy-haired factotum was a powerhouse in a double-breasted jacket. Such was Vitali’s reputation as a faithful advocate, while staying out of the studio executives’ sight, that Kubrick sometimes signed angry letters with Vitali’s name rather than his own.
Vitali took to calling himself a “filmworker.” Documentary director Tony Zierra appropriately lifted the title for his movie. “People can’t understand why he took that job,” Zierra, 49, says of his subject. “I think Leon wanted the chance to stay close to Kubrick and get his hands dirty. It was 24/7 creativity, and Leon was a creativity junky.”
The pair’s relationship had its own rhythm: “I’ve heard them described as an odd couple, an old married couple, and master and servant,” says Zierra.
But it didn’t start out that way. Back in 1975 Vitali, now 69, was a dashing, 26-year-old British actor on the rise. His breakout movie role was that of angry heir Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s period drama “Barry Lyndon.” Vitali, who quickly forged a friendship with the director, received accolades for his portrayal.
His career seemed poised to blast off. Then Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange” and many others) called and asked the mop-haired actor to read Stephen King’s “The Shining,” wondering if it would make a good movie. When Vitali said yes, Kubrick invited him to America to help with casting.
Vitali forsook a shot at stardom to sign up with the brilliant director, who could be as emotionally abusive as he was famously reclusive. “I never thought of it as giving up acting,” Vitali says. “I saw this as a new door to a vast world. I was not interested in the glitz and glamour. I was interested in the nuts and bolts.”
The job was far from glamorous. In fact, there were days when Kubrick treated Vitali no better than his cat in need of life-support. “If Stanley was mad, you thought the whole f – – king world was caving in around your ears,” says Vitali. “I kind of learned to step back instead of letting [the vitriol] hit me. He never called me an idiot, but he did say, ‘This is so f – – king bad. You really let me down.’ ” Other times, says Vitali, “he would become incandescent with a sulfurous glow.”
Vitali did act again for Kubrick. In “Eyes Wide Shut,” the last film Kubrick directed before his fatal heart attack in 1999, Vitali played the imposingly masked orgy leader called Red Cloak. He describes the work as “just another task for me.”
But even the self-effacing Vitali could not shrug off “Filmworker,” especially after it premiered at Cannes last year and the audience responded with a five-minute standing ovation. “He needed to wear a tuxedo for the premiere and he wore one of Tom Cruise’s from ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ He happened to have it at home,” says Zierra. “He stood up” — front and center in the theater — “and began crying. We had the spotlight on him, and it should have been the last scene of the movie.”
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