New York Magazine

An Oral History of an Orgy

Staging that scene from Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s divisive final film.

WHEN IT CAME OUT 20 years ago this July, Eyes Wide Shut proved to be one of Stanley Kubrick’s weirdest, most derided efforts—owing in part to a fully revved-up Hollywood hype machine that touted the sex appeal of stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and prepared audiences for a much different film. But look hard enough at this tale of an embittered husband seeking sex in the wake of his wife’s admission of adulterous longing, and you can sense a familiar structure. Cruise’s Bill Harford wanders a nocturnal landscape of potential transgressions, all of which serve to remind him of the warmth of domestic life. Or to put it another way: Eyes Wide Shut may have been based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle (Dream Story”), but it also plays like a sex-drenched variation on It’s a Wonderful Life, a warning to its protagonist to learn to appreciate his lot in life and love. Maybe that’s why it has since had a critical reappraisal and become a Christmastime staple, regularly screening at repertory houses during the holidays.

Crucial to Kubrick’s vision is the film’s notorious central sequence, a ritualistic masked ball and orgy that Harford infiltrates on a tip from his piano-playing pal, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). A sinister gathering attended by the rich and powerful, it’s a cavalcade of carnality filled with couplings and triplings and quadruplings that ends with Harford’s humiliation and a threat against his life. A mysterious woman intercedes and sacrifices herself in order to save him.

The sequence, which Kubrick and his team developed and rehearsed over months, has since passed into legend, being referenced in works from Moonrise Kingdom to Get Out to Men in Black: International. It has also fueled its share of conspiracy theories. Fashioning

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