Quote of the Week

Our quote for this week comes from John Baxter‘s biography of Stanley Kubrick. It may generate some discussion. Obviously, I don’t share his low opinion of Timothy’s acting skills. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

On Spartacus, Kubrick’s next film, stills cameraman William Read Woodfield asked him why he cast people like Timothy Carey, “who couldn’t act at all.”

Kubrick replied, “They bring a texture to the picture that a better actor wouldn’t.”

“Are you sure, Stanley?” Woodfield pressed. “Or is it that you don’t really like good actors?”

“That may be, ” Kubrick conceded.

What could Kubrick have against good actors? It’s Woodfield’s theory, borne out by Kubrick’s later work, that he prefers performances which remove the film from reality. Given capable actors like George C. Scott or Jack Nicholson, Kubrick forced them by repeated takes to abandon naturalism for mannerism and hysteria. A protean actor like Peter Sellers, who stuffed half a dozen characters into a single film, and an abysmal one like Carey, who always played himself, gave the same distancing effect.

Kubrick had a soft spot for Carey, a New York contemporary of his, though from Brooklyn, not the Bronx. The gangling Carey bluffed his way into the Marines at fifteen and, after demobilisation, joined the thousands of dissatisfied young men milling around New York in search of artistic fulfilment. He took advantage of the GI Bill to study drama, and agent Walter Kohner got him bit parts in Billy Wilder‘s The Big Carnival [aka Ace in the Hole] and Laslo Benedek‘s The Wild One. These led to a role for Carey as the brothel bouncer Joe in Elia Kazan‘s version of East of Eden opposite James Dean.

None of this experience refined Carey’s technique, which always hovered somewhere between Elvis Presley and Lon Chaney Jr. On Paths of Glory, he could never remember to tear into his last meal of roast duck the same way twice. “Every take required an untouched duck,” says Kubrick. “I think we used up sixty-eight or so ducks before we got it right.” Kirk Douglas despised such unprofessionalism, which may have been why Kubrick insisted on flying Carey to Germany for the film. During the court-martial scene, when Douglas was making his disgust at Carey’s bad acting obvious, Kubrick whispered, “Make this a good one, ’cause Kirk doesn’t like it.”

– from Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter (Carroll and Graf, 1997)

2 responses to “Quote of the Week

  1. Baxter’s quick summary of Carey’s early career doesn’t sound particularly accurate, so makes me doubt his statements that Carey “always played himself” and his technique always “hovered somewhere between Elvis Presley and Lon Chaney, Jr.” It is interesting that Baxter would even want to spend time talking about Carey.

    There is obviously something memorable about Carey, otherwise Baxter wouldn’t spend time referencing him. It is too bad he didn’t pursue the question of “why Carey” in terms of Kubrick’s approach a little more.

    When I think about Carey’s career it reminds me a lot of Ms. Pariah: Sean Young of today. She could have been a great Catwoman (In the Batman film franchise) and decided to demonstrate that to the Hollywood powers. She knew what she wanted and wanted to do it her way…but ran up against those who called the shots.

    I think Carey did things his own way and that rankled the Hollywood elite a bit too much. If it seemed like he was always playing the same characters it is at least the fault of the casting director as much as it was Carey’s.

    Although it wasn’t Baxter’s role, the same question should have been posed to John Cassavettes (or has it?) or to Francis Ford Coppola: “Why use Carey when he clearly bucked the Hollywood way?”

    Possibly the question itself is the answer.


    • Well argued, sweetie. And the comparison with Sean Young is apt. Hollywood just does not like independent thinkers. And yet there were certain filmmakers that liked and appreciated what Tim brought to a film. I think in this case, the question itself is most definitely the answer.


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