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Studio turns blind eye to Kubrick's film

LOS ANGELES -- Sixty-five seconds of Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," will be digitally masked so that the film can qualify for an R rating.

Saturday night on its Burbank lot, Warner Brothers screened both Kubrick's original version and a rough draft of a studio-censored sequence. It wasn't a pretty sight.

In the film, a doctor played by Tom Cruise gate-crashes a costumed sex orgy in a mansion outside New York. Wearing a mask like the other participants, he is led by a nude woman through rooms where various sex acts are taking place before small groups of onlookers.

In the Kubrick version, the sex acts, mostly seen at a distance of several feet, are clear but not detailed (no genitalia are visible). In the R-rated version, additional digitized characters have been placed between the participants and the camera. Instead of seeing two orgy participants full length, for example, we see their heads and feet, with the back of a cloaked figure blotting out everything in between.

The two versions were introduced by Jan Harlan, Kubrick's executive producer, who said the digital changes had been approved by Kubrick, while agreeing that both he and the late director would have preferred the original.

The reaction of the invited audience of critics and film people ranged from silence to outrage. My own feeling was that the altered version is a travesty. (I called it "the Austin Powers version," in honor of the famous sequence where teapots and cushions block the view of Austin's private part.) It results from the failure of the MPAA's rating system to provide a viable adult rating, and the unwillingness of the studio to bite the bullet and release the film that Kubrick gave them.

Loud objections were voiced by several Canadian critics, because the American R-rated version will be released all over North America, even though Canada has a workable adult rating that would have accommodated Kubrick's cut.

The movie as a whole is a strong and important work, a worthy final chapter to a great director's career. (My review will appear when it opens Friday.) It stars Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, as a Manhattan married couple whose argument over imagined infidelity leads to a long night during which the wandering Cruise encounters a prostitute, witnesses assorted sexual situations, and eventually ends up at the secret orgy. In form if not style or content, it resembles Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985), in which a character wanders for a night through the sexual underworld.

The movie is an adult film in every atom of its being. Kubrick, Cruise, Kidman and the other participants intended it that way. In its original version, as the producer Harlan readily stated on Saturday, it would have qualified for the NC-17 rating ("no one under 17 admitted"). But the NC-17 rating is so rarely applied that it exists in limbo. Besmirched by associations with hard-core pornography, it is a kiss of death because many theaters will not show NC-17 films, and some newspapers and broadcast outlets will not accept advertising for it.

If only Warner Brothers had taken the occasion of this final Kubrick film to confront the system. A Cruise film directed by Kubrick, with reams of advance publicity, could have been successfully released rated NC-17, or even "unrated, for adults only." But the studio's contract with Kubrick required an R-rated film.

The studio cites the contract in its defense, but of course it is a contract with itself, and can be waived. The only pragmatic reason for securing an R rating is to maximize profits by making the film available in more theaters, and to younger viewers.

"When he shot that scene, Stanley was absolutely convinced it was R-rated," Harlan said. "In post-production, it became clear that it was not. Working with the MPAA, we devised the idea of using digital figures in the foreground to qualify for an R rating." He implied that this was done with Kubrick's knowledge, before the director's death in March, although final post-production on the digital changes is still under way, and only a rough approximation was shown Saturday night.

The result is likely to please no one. The "Austin Powers version" will distract from Kubrick's work as a whole, because audiences will be trying to spot the digital effects just at the moment when, in Kubrick's original cut, a sense of erotic dread is building. It will produce an R-rated film which is not, in fact, appropriate for most viewers under 17 - with or without adult guardians. It will have the result of making the film more, not less, accessible to younger audiences, while denying adult audiences the power of Kubrick's original vision.

As a result of what it learned at Saturday's screening, Warner Brothers should do the right thing, and release Kubrick's original cut - either as NC-17, or as "unrated." At the very least, it should make that version available on separate screens for adult-only audiences in major American markets, and throughout Canada.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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