Giving an acceptance speech as a writer can be stressful. Do you approach it as you would your work, or do you let pretenses fall away and just say what you’re thinking? Even then, by your umpteenth award, you may find that “Thank you to X and Y and how could I forget Z” starts to drag a little. Lifetime achievement awards especially seem to require a little profundity.
In 1997, less than two years before his death, Stanley Kubrick received a long overdue Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award. Speaking from London, where he’d been filming Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick uses the occasion to give a lovely reflection on the trials and joys of directing. “Like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park”. With his speech, as with his career, Stanley takes no half measures, and injects what should be an easy-going celebration dedicated to him, with effort and poeticism.
With only a third of his time expended, Kubrick shifts focus into examining the namesake of the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award: D.W. Griffith. Kubrick alludes to this towering figure’s complex legacy, his career being a simultaneous inspiration and cautionary tale. Griffith’s command over the medium helped remold the novelty of single-reel nickelodeons into a respected and compelling artform with a perceptible and invaluable syntax, but it also allowed him to produce virulently racist propaganda, which held sway over audiences as few works of mass media had before. Flying so close to the Sun, Griffith spent his retirement as an outcast.
Before long, Kubrick drifts farther still from the awards ceremony at hand, and begins to allude to the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus; not only to its applicability to Griffith’s life-story, but also, in true Kubrickian fashion, to the possibility that its moral implications have been minimized over the course of 2000 years of historical consensus. Kubrick proposes a second lesson, one that seems a great deal more practical: “Forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings”.
The director then reigns himself in and finishes his speech with a single sentence of thanks once again. Despite flying so very far off the rails prescribed for events like this one, Kubrick’s is, arguably, one of the greatest acceptance speeches of all time. There have been more profound speeches, shrewder ones, of course, but in three minutes? For a Hollywood industry ceremony? I think not. Besides, it’s only fair to let the most deserved recipient ever pontificate a little, and it gives us a greater insight into the sensibilities that afforded him this recognition then any “Thank you, and thank you, and thank you, and…” speech ever could.
If the Director’s Guild ever sees fit to rename, now that they’ve ditched D.W., they could do worse than to rename the award after Stanley Kubrick; he did send filmmaking beyond the infinite after all.