Leon Vitali was a rising young actor on stage and in television when he unexpectedly landed the part of the foppish Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975). No one who has seen the film will forget the famous duel scene in which the timorous young aristocrat accidentally triumphs over the movie’s swaggering anti-hero, played by Ryan O’Neal. It was a marvellous performance, but fated to be one of his final roles as an actor. For during the lengthy period of the movie’s production, Vitali had become fascinated by the filmmaking process in all its particulars. When shooting was finished,he successfully campaigned to be taken on as Kubrick’s assistant.
For the next 25 years or so, until Kubrick’s unexpectedly early death at the age of 70 in 1999, Vitali strove day and night to fulfil the tasks set him by this most demanding of film directors – in the process picking up an unparalleled scholarly knowledge of the Kubrick oeuvre, and of the technicalities of film production in general.
It was an apprenticeship that came at great spiritual cost, as can be seen in the gaunt, haunted features of the man we meet in this documentary, still alive, and perhaps more extraordinary, still overwhelmingly loyal to the memory of a “master” who worked him ruthlessly and who left him, at the end, with comparatively little financial recompense.
Zierra’s film goes into the whole extraordinary story with exemplary patience and intelligence. The director has found a variety of witnesses who are prepared to speak candidly about Kubrick’s human failings, while not ignoring his genius as a filmmaker. The centre of the documentary, however, remains Vitali himself, who comes across as a truly remarkable human being. Dressed in the outfit of an ageing hippy, and possessed of a beautiful deep, gravelly, speaking voice, the ex-actor generously unspools his memories of Kubrick in a series of face-to-face interviews unspoiled by bitterness or self-pity.
Director Tony Zierra has been fascinated by the power of storytelling and cinema since he was a child. His first documentary, Carving Out Our Name, follows the lives of four actors hoping to find success in Hollywood. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to much ac-claim. Next, Zierra went on the road to capture America’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th. The film that emerged, titled USA The Movie, explores the cyclical nature of violence and retaliation. Zierra’s award-winning documentary, My Big Break, is a cautionary tale about the dark-er side of celebrity and the consequences of fame that also includes his struggle to make his first film.