My local theater recently ran a Stanley Kubrick mini-fest (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon). While watching Ryan O’Neal plod woodenly through the Seven Years' War, it hit me once again: why did Kubrick often choose such bland, terrible lead actors?
He didn’t cast that way all the time (think Peter Sellers in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and terrifically vibrant Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange), but he often did (O’Neal, Keir Dullea in 2001, Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut).
This question has always vexed me about Kubrick. Recently in Powell's film section, I was reading John Baxter’s Stanley Kubrick: A Biography and stumbled upon Baxter’s explanation. Kubrick, he opines, didn’t want his movies to look too real. He liked them to feel abstract, removed from normal experience. He felt that bad actors (or good actors exhausted and wigged out from 20-30 consecutive takes) gave an off-kilter performance that contributed to the feeling of abstraction.
I don’t know how I feel about this explanation. Nobody ever accused Kubrick of being sloppy or careless, so he obviously put a lot of thought into what lead actor he wanted, and the performance he wanted to get. To me, these bland-tacular performances pull me out of the movie, and I end up thinking about the terrible acting while the movie rolls on.
What do you think? Does anybody have a better explanation?