ThereÂs a mad brilliance to Brian CookÂs Colour Me Kubrick, and although IÂm not sure if what IÂve 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, itÂs 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 itÂs 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 thereÂs a bit of cunning in ConwayÂs 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 KubrickÂs work. What’s more, he doesn’t care.Â Unlike the wannabe son of Sidney Poitier in Six Degrees of Separation, who researched every possible detail about his ÂfatherÂ so as to appear authentic, Conway merely uses the name, as if it alone isÂ enough to fool an unsuspecting populace. And so it is.
The key to ConwayÂs ruse is that while just about everybody has heard of Kubrick, no one has bothered to learn anything about him.Â This is quite fortunate indeed for the man who portrays his subject as a mincing queen; a foolish fop, who, depending onÂ the mood, may be wearing eye shadow, lipstick, or appropriating any number of accents. KubrickÂs 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, asÂ if dumbfounded by breathing the same air as aÂ 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 thatÂ the storyÂ 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 couldnÂt 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 heÂs 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.
IÂd argue that Malkovich delivers one of the best performances of the year,Â but IÂ risk having littleÂ in my cornerÂ to defend such a claimÂ (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 badÂ 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,Â but I imagine thatÂs 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 IÂd rather not push depth too far, lest we forget the essential comic nature of the piece. The true humor, in fact, lies in ConwayÂs ability to swindle, lie, and deceive — always successfully — with very little at his disposal. ItÂs 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 weÂre 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 KubrickÂs 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 ConwayÂs slow waltz through the alcohol treatment centerÂ to whichÂ he is assigned after beingÂ studied and diagnosedÂ in a mental hospital. The scene works, of course, because Malkovich means every moment of it, even if heÂs a preening, narcissistic clown every step of the way.
Still, heÂs managed to convince reputable doctors and therapists that heÂs Âtroubled,Â rather than a simple crook, so he has every reason to quietly strut. MalkovichÂs 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 lonerÂs 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 ÂescapeÂ 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,Â and as suchÂ is exceedingly vulnerable to a famous manÂs 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 PrattÂs 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 KubrickÂs wealth and fame is neverÂ encouraged to pick up the tab is odd indeed, but asking him would be rude, would it not? And why risk the deal heÂs cutting at this very moment?
Again, why would anyone — at least those who know KubrickÂs style and subject matter — believe that he would take time away from an involved movie shoot to promote a tragically untalented museum relic? Still, PrattÂs 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 thatÂs 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 itÂs 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 whoÂs to say that he doesnÂt simply enjoy the hunt? Rather than pathetic and deranged, why canÂt he be the sort who lives life as if in a constant state of daring; where every waking secondÂ affords the opportunity for yet another risk?
Even a moment where ConwayÂs faÃ§ade 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 letÂs 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 doesnÂt 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. ConwayÂs life was no doubt pathetic and, in the scheme of things, grossly inconsequential, but here he is, the subject of his very own movie — aÂ winner at last.