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Kubrick's Clockwork Orange Celebrates 40th Anniversary

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In 1968 I was production head of a New York-based film company, Palomar/ABC Pictures. One afternoon I took a pitch meeting from a producer friend named Si Litvinoff. He told me that in 1964 he had read an English novel called A Clockwork Orange, written by the well-known author Anthony Burgess, and a year later he had ponied up the thousand dollars needed to option the film rights. He enlisted screenwriter Terry Southern as his partner, and they had interested director Nick Roeg and, yes, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, to play the lead. He avidly pitched me the movie he wanted to make, knowing I was a big Burgess fan. (Later I optioned the film rights to Burgess' novel, Tremor of Intent... and still remember with awe a screenplay he had written on the love life of William Shakespeare based upon his novel, Nothing But the Sun.) Si left me a copy of the Clockwork novel to read and I did so the next evening. It was brutal and mostly incomprehensible, much of it written in a made-up language I could hardly understand. So of course I passed... and Si went on to make it a few years later with Malcolm McDowell starring as the charismatic, evil Alex DeLarge.

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Star Malcolm McDowell and Producer Si Litvinoff at the Friday Academy Screening!

There had been a young director named Stanley Kubrick whom I met in the early '60s through friend Jimmy Harris, his producing partner. Stanley lived up the avenue from me on Central Park West and occasionally shambled down to my home office to chat intensely about many things and to take pictures of my two pet squirrel monkeys. The former Look Magazine photographer always had a Nikon camera around his neck. After directing his initial film, The Killing, Kubrick went on to enormous fame as the for-hire studio director of Spartacus and then to the London-based filming of the Nabikoff novel, Lolita and a subsequent string of enormous hits, ending with 2001, A Space Odyssey. Terry Southern had once slipped Stanley a copy of the novel of A Clockwork Orange and one night in the late '60s, after his Napoleon movie had crashed, Stanley read it and immediately decided it would be his next film. By then, Terry had sold his interest to a film financier named Max Raab (and Southern went on to the glory of writing the edgy film, Candy.) With Kubrick aboard as writer/director, Si Litvinoff made a phone call to John Calley, then film head of Warner Bros, Studios (who died just last week), and sold him a pay-or-play production deal for A Clockwork Orange over the phone. In his inimitable ego-driven fashion, Stanley Kubrick then eased out of all active participation the players who had stuck with it for years... assuming the writing, directing, producing credits (and most of the financial proceeds) for himself. Fortunately, Producer Si Litvinoff has kept his financial participation in the film intact to this day.

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Malcolm poses for me in front of the poster for the film.

On Friday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), I attended a 40th anniversary screening of the film, with Malcolm and Si Litvinoff in attendance. Yes, Malcolm has gone on to better things (sic!) as Ari Gold's agency owner in HBO's Entourage, but he will always be remembered best for his idiocyncratic portrayal of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Friday's Los Angeles Times paid tribute to the 67-year old Malcolm with the headline, "Stylish and shockingly resilient." In a give-and-take stage interview before the screening, Malcolm told Geoff Boucher of the newspaper that he had a financial dispute with Kubrick, who was notoriously stingy with money and credit, and they had not talked in more than 30 years. But his film character, the violently charismatic Alex, with his blooded cane with hidden knife and black bowler hat, has become a symbol of the violent youth of the time. (Still resounding in the recent U.K. riots of this month.) The actual 40th anniversary of the 1971 world premiere will occur shortly, but Warners has rolled out its big promotional guns for the past several months, showing the new digitally-restored version at the recent Cannes Flm Festival. A new boxed Blue-Ray presentation is now available, and it is spectacular.

At Friday's Academy screening, Malcolm was introduced by the engaging actor Ed Begley, Jr. (who was featured in my Billy Wilder comedy, Buddy, Buddy). The film still shocked us all with its portrayal of those sociopathic brutal youths and their journey of murder, rape and senseless violence. Malcolm talked about the scenes where his character Alex, a prisoner of the state, is subjected to a misguided experimental treatment where his eyes are clamped open while he views screen shots of violent behavior. "I scratched my corneas, and then Stanley asked for retakes. So painful." The actor went on to tell the rapt audience how he had come up with idea of using the song, "Singin' in the Rain," during the awful rape scene, and he acknowledged Gene Kelly's widow, who was sitting in the audience. But Kubrick's incredible cinematic genius bursts forth on the screen in all its untethered splendor. The film's brilliance and horror remains undiminished after 40 years. Si told me that the initial rating was X, but Stanley made a few small cuts in the explicit sex scenes to then get an R rating. (Stanley withdrew the film from exhibition in England because of the controversy, and it was illegal to show it until his recent death freed it up.) Interestingly, the year after my production of Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture (and we lost to Cabaret), "Clockwork" was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but lost to The French Connection.

For an exciting, interesting, even controversial movie evening, may I suggest that you get a copy of the new DVD version of A Clockwork Orange, and view the genius of Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell once again.

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