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Take a good, hard look at the Kubrick Stare: a fixture of the films of Stanley Kubrick, and one of cinema’s most recognisable shots. How does it work?
Well, for a topical example, consult the recently released police mugshot of Fulton County Jail inmate number P01135809, AKA former US President Donald J Trump.
Donald Trump’s Georgia mugshot.Credit: Reuters
The face is angled downwards rather than up, emphasising the brow, and the eyeline not directed at something far out of shot, but angled uncomfortably close to the viewer’s own.
It’s Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, just before he shoots R. Lee Ermey, then himself. It’s Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, smirking from under the brim of his bowler hat. It’s Jack Nicholson in virtually every scene in The Shining – and, in all honesty, the rest of the time too.
Like the Spielberg Gaze – an upturned face aglow with wonder – the Kubrick Stare is also implicatory. Perhaps incriminating is a better word, since the onlooker is being made party to the subject’s bubbling derangement.
“You know what’s going on here,” it seems to say. “And I know you know. And I know you don’t like it. And I like that you don’t.” So as expressions you might choose for your police mugshot go, it’s quite the flex.
Malcolm McDowell in the film Clockwork Orange.
Versions of the stare have appeared in Kubrick’s work since at least 1964’s Dr Strangelove, and in other directors’ oeuvres even before that.
(Anthony Perkins’s climactic leer to the camera in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, from 1960, is as Kubrick Stare-y as close-ups get.)
But it was McDowell’s unhinged chief droog, Alex DeLarge, in Kubrick’s own A Clockwork Orange from 1971, who definitively pinned down the look.
Vincent d’Onofrio in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
In a 2014 interview, McDowell revealed that Kubrick had asked him to come up with an expression he could use as the character’s reaction to a deafening blast of Beethoven’s 9th.
“So I was doing various things,” he recalled. “[My] eyes were kind of up and glazed over, and [my] mouth kind of took on a weird look. And when he started to laugh, we knew we had it.”
Actors and filmmakers have been deploying it with skin-crawling success ever since.
Anthony Hopkins smiling in his cell in The Silence of the Lambs might be the most chilling Kubrick Stare that Kubrick didn’t direct.
Joaquin Phoenix delivered a particularly upsetting one as the young Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, with flecks of blood on his face. And for Heath Ledger, it was understandably the go-to expression for the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Stanley Kubrick in action in 1971.
Given the highly constructed nature of the shot, it’s always especially fun when a Kubrick Stare is spotted out in the wild.
Trump’s mugshot now seems likely to dominate this lively sub-genre, though other recent notable examples include a number of Madonna’s recent Instagram selfies, including an eyebrow-twisting corker from February 2020, and a January 2022 appearance by Elmo from Sesame Street, in which the fluffy red Muppet listens to his friend Zoe sing a song about Rocco, her pet rock. The brink of madness is closer than we might like to think.
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