Comfortable and Furious

Colour me Kubrick (2005)

There’s a mad brilliance to Brian Cook’s Colour Me Kubrick, and although I’m not sure if what I’ve seen constitutes great art, it sure as hell stands as fine entertainment; a movie so true to its insane vision that it achieves a defiant nobility. In many ways, it’s a ridiculous exercise in sleazy camp destined to perplex a good portion of those brave enough to see it, but it is for this very reason that it’s impossible to resist. Based on a true story, the film considers the bizarre life of Englishman Alan Conway (John Malkovich), a sad — and very gay — con artist who, for reasons never made clear — decides that he is Stanley Kubrick, despite having no real knowledge of (or resemblance to) the world-famous director.

Perhaps there’s a bit of cunning in Conway’s selection of a near-fanatical recluse (no recent photos, after all), but the choice could just as easily have come out of a hat, as Alan has no familiarity whatsoever with Kubrick’s work. What’s more, he doesn’t care. Unlike the wannabe son of Sidney Poitier in Six Degrees of Separation, who researched every possible detail about his “father” so as to appear authentic, Conway merely uses the name, as if it alone is enough to fool an unsuspecting populace. And so it is.

The key to Conway’s ruse is that while just about everybody has heard of Kubrick, no one has bothered to learn anything about him. This is quite fortunate indeed for the man who portrays his subject as a mincing queen; a foolish fop, who, depending on the mood, may be wearing eye shadow, lipstick, or appropriating any number of accents. Kubrick’s voice is not exactly recognizable (even now, it could play on the radio and be lost in the din), so why not adopt the mannerisms of a fey Englishman? Or perhaps a constipated Charlton Heston? A pompous, eccentric Texan?

And for good measure, a Brooklyn Jew channeling a hybrid of Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis? Each and every affectation is preposterous on its face, but no one seems to doubt what is before his or her eyes, as if dumbfounded by breathing the same air as a cinematic genius. I’d say that gays don’t come off very well in this movie (all seem to sweat unfiltered vanity), but then again, neither does anyone else. They all want undeserved access.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that the story is little more than a series of cons — introduction, followed by starry-eyed double take, followed by a plea for money, empty promises, etc. — but as played by Malkovich, the result is sheer bliss. Unleashed like never before, he inhales the screen; so overwrought and maniacal that I couldn’t help but giggle with delight. And the surprisingly decent crowd seemed to agree. Bad acting is usually cringe-worthy and in need of punishment, but when such explosions are deliberate, a certain level of forgiveness sets in, as if we want them to venture places no actor has dared go before.

At bottom, Malkovich willingly, enthusiastically, goes over the line. After he’s through, we forget such a line ever existed. His character is not unlike John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe in the unforgettable Twentieth Century. If he’s overbearing and psychotic, please forgive him, for he has no other way to survive. It’s not so much overacting as about overacting.

I’d argue that Malkovich delivers one of the best performances of the year, but I risk having little in my corner to defend such a claim (though a drunk, melancholy scene along the beach, spiked with cruel hilarity, comes close). The character is hollow, ill-defined, and has all the quality of a bad vaudevillian executing a series of costume changes before a hostile crowd, but as he is in fact a character without any real sense of self, the emptiness makes sense. We have no real idea who this Alan Conway is before or after the movie, but I imagine that’s the best anyone could ever do in the face of a true cipher.

If there is a subtext, one could argue that all impersonation is based upon a high degree of self-loathing, but I’d rather not push depth too far, lest we forget the essential comic nature of the piece. The true humor, in fact, lies in Conway’s ability to swindle, lie, and deceive — always successfully — with very little at his disposal. It’s as if an uneducated, untalented, booze-swilling, drug-addicted man smooth-talked and finagled his way into the White House, convincing a good segment of the population that not only was he to be entrusted with your money, but that, by the very nature of his incompetence, was the very man to solve the problems of the day. Thank the stars we’re not as gullible as those crazy Brits, after all.

Cook, by virtue of having worked for Kubrick at some point in his life, peppers the film with knowing allusions, including a comeuppance (wherein Mr. Conway is thrown into the water) straight from A Clockwork Orange. We are also treated to numerous pieces of music from Kubrick’s films, which serve to underscore the absurdity of the con, as well as pay homage to the great one himself. I especially liked the piece at the end, where the closing music of The Shining played over Conway’s slow waltz through the alcohol treatment center to which he is assigned after being studied and diagnosed in a mental hospital. The scene works, of course, because Malkovich means every moment of it, even if he’s a preening, narcissistic clown every step of the way.

Still, he’s managed to convince reputable doctors and therapists that he’s “troubled,” rather than a simple crook, so he has every reason to quietly strut. Malkovich’s wardrobe, complete with coats seemingly made from shag carpet, head scarves, robes, and ruffled shirts (rarely buttoned enough to cover his chest), add to the thrill of potential exposure, as surely someone in all of England would question a loner’s choice to remain so laughably conspicuous. And even when Conway brings back a mark to his hovel, he is able to explain it away as an “escape” from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Needless to say, no one seems to know that a famously airplane-phobic Kubrick would not exactly be up to the level of jet-setting claimed by Conway.

The best — and most involved — con of all involves a pathetic lounge singer named Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson), a fiendishly untalented man who seems to have found a way to be both William Shatner and Tom Jones in a single sagging shell. At the time he meets Conway, he is reduced to performing at isolated hotels and hospice dedications, and as such is exceedingly vulnerable to a famous man’s pitch to make him more palatable to a wider audience. Conway promises to make the man a star in Las Vegas, dropping names with such a flourish that no one seems to notice the odd mix of has-beens and characters from The Godfather. By feeding Pratt’s oversized ego, Conway is able to rot away in his luxurious hotel room, ordering room service and drinking endless bottles of whiskey. That a man of Kubrick’s wealth and fame is never encouraged to pick up the tab is odd indeed, but asking him would be rude, would it not? And why risk the deal he’s cutting at this very moment?

Again, why would anyone — at least those who know Kubrick’s style and subject matter — believe that he would take time away from an involved movie shoot to promote a tragically untalented museum relic? Still, Pratt’s delusions are no less tragic than the young men who believed the director of Barry Lyndon to be exactly the right sort to ride along in a dirty van and secure gigs for a heavy metal band. Or the type to waste away in dark pubs, waiting for the very person to come along with a sketch book full of garish costumes, who is, coincidentally, in desperate need of employment. But that’s what makes Conway so fascinating, even if every bit of charm dances along the surface.

His own sense of insecurity allows him to spot the same attributes in others, and he, like all liars and opportunists, knows that flattery, above all, is the quickest way to eliminate social barriers. Sure, he knew that once people were convinced that he was important, they were putty in his hands, but it’s more than battering people over the skull with name-dropping. We assume the rich and famous have insights the rest of us mere mortals do not possess, but we also gravitate toward those who give us permission to erase the nagging doubts that plague our quieter moments. A man like Conway may not believe he is worthy of success, or love, or even friendship, but who’s to say that he doesn’t simply enjoy the hunt? Rather than pathetic and deranged, why can’t he be the sort who lives life as if in a constant state of daring; where every waking second affords the opportunity for yet another risk?

Even a moment where Conway’s facade crumbles (a would-be rube tricks him into saying that he directed Judgment at Nuremberg) fails to embarrass; he simply walks out, moves on, and gets into character once again. His sheer audacity is, on its own terms, absurdly heroic. And let’s never forget: checks were signed, rooms were provided, drinks were poured, and bills were paid in full. By the end, you damn near hope he doesn’t get caught. But alas, he does in fact play his final hand (exposed by Frank Rich, of all people), and though fat and happy in his own way, he drops dead of a heart attack in late 1998 (though only in the epilogue, preserving that last image as a glamorous, hot tub diva), mere months before Kubrick himself. Conway’s life was no doubt pathetic and, in the scheme of things, grossly inconsequential, but here he is, the subject of his very own movie — a winner at last.