Among hard-core Stanley Kubrick fans, the name Leon Vitali holds a kind of magic. He was the young British actor who made such an impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon and then turned around and became Kubrick’s assistant for the rest of the director's career — the kind of job that would be considered a demotion on most other film sets. But as you can see in Filmworker, Tony Zierra’s new documentary about Vitali, he did everything for the filmmaker. He scoured the United States looking for a young child to play Danny in The Shining and coached the boy he eventually found, Danny Lloyd, during the shoot. He scouted and rehearsed actors, and conducted extensive research for Full Metal Jacket. He served as a liaison to studios. He oversaw restorations and home-video releases. He played bit parts, including the red-cloaked ritual leader in Eyes Wide Shut. He did production inventories. And my favorite: Nearly all of the foleyed-in footsteps in Full Metal Jacket are his footsteps.
Vitali allowed his life and work to be consumed by Kubrick. A remarkable choice, when you think about it: The young actor was at the height of his career during Barry Lyndon, and yet he abandoned the spotlight to join the armies of uncelebrated “filmworkers” behind the camera. Zierra’s entertaining and informative documentary playfully uses scenes from Vitali’s many film and TV appearances to tell the story of his career with Kubrick. But Filmworker also makes clear the enormous personal toll his work took on the actor-turned-assistant: Halfway through the movie, we’re introduced to Vitali’s now-grown children, and it’s a genuine shock to realize that he had a family the whole time he was on call for Kubrick — and was often unable to give attention to them.
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Filmworker walks a fine line tonally, as it reflects both Vitali's admiration and awe of Kubrick while also calling into question the way the director allowed his many projects to devour the lives of those who worked for him. (There was a similar tension at work in last year's S is for Stanley, Alex Infascelli's documentary about Emilio D'Alessandro, Kubrick's longtime driver.) But in many ways, this dilemma is at the heart of Kubrick's cinema: The director's obsessions not only consumed those around him, but also leapt off the screen and consumed his fans. And perhaps if Kubrick himself wasn't obsessed, if his films weren't so thoroughly overwhelming in real life, then they wouldn't have exploded in our minds the way they did. Filmworker is both a cautionary tale and a tribute to this kind of compulsion.