'A Clockwork Orange' at 50: Malcolm McDowell separates fact from fiction about the infamous movie
Adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 cult novel, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial classic A Clockwork Orange has become iconic in the five decades since its release, whether that’s because of its transgressive storyline, its production and costume design, or its legendary aftermath, in which the director himself pulled the film from release.
To celebrate the film's golden anniversary, we sat down with star Malcolm McDowell to sort through some of the more celebrated myths about the movie.
McDowell, now 78, had broken through on-screen in Lindsay Anderson’s subversive 1968 school pic if… Kubrick was already known as a visionary director thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his long-in-development biopic of Napoleon had recently fallen through. He had seen Anderson’s film at least five times and was a huge fan of its lead actor.
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“I just got a call to go and meet with Stanley in my lunch hour,” says McDowell. “I was doing a movie at Elstree and Kubrick lived in Borehamwood, so he was right there. I went to see him, but I had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. We were just chitchatting for most of it. And at the end of the hour, I said, ‘look, I’ve got to get back, was there anything particular you wanted to talk to me about?’ I could see he didn’t really want to tell me the title of the book, but what the hell was I there for? That was just his paranoia.”
Kubrick gave McDowell the Burgess novel and asked him to read it.
“He wanted a quick, small-budget movie to prove to the world that he could make and bring in a movie on-budget, which he hadn’t done with 2001 because it was all new technology,” says the actor. “I took a week to read it. I read it three times. It’s quite difficult to understand the first time you read it. I thought, how’s he going to make this? On the third go, I thought, holy God I’ve got to do this. So I called him back and as only a young, complete naïve actor would say, [I asked] ‘are you offering me the part?’ Put him on the spot.”
Kubrick said yes and McDowell was on board to play lead ‘droog’ Alex DeLarge, a violent teenage rebel in a near-future society who speaks in idiosyncratic lingo.
Myth #1: Kubrick ghosted McDowell afterwards
McDowell had heard from fellow actor Ian Holm — who was in line to play Napoleon for the director — that Kubrick was difficult.
“I’d heard things, bad things, from my dear friend Ian Holm who’d spent 18 months out there preparing Napoleon and suddenly he couldn’t get Stanley on the phone,” says McDowell. “No explanation, just silence…he was still really bitter about it obviously.”
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Did the director do the same to him? “He wanted something from me and he made sure he got it…Then the friendship that I thought that I had basically came to an end. But for many reasons. He was onto the next thing. He puts 100% of his mind and body in the next project.”
Myth #2: The actor was scared of Alex’s pet snake
“I wasn’t,” says McDowell. “It was a boa constrictor. Basil the boa. They don’t bite and they’re not poisonous. But it was a bit of a shock because it was put in the drawer under the bed and when I opened the drawer, there was no snake. And I went, ‘Jesus, the snake’s escaped!’ and half the crew leaped out of the room. That was quite funny.”
Myth #3: McDowell came up with a lot of his character’s look himself
The style of Alex and his fellow droogs is one of the most celebrated things about A Clockwork Orange, which has endured and influenced many stars during the intervening years.
“It’s been copied so many times,” admits McDowell. “My God, Jean-Paul Gaultier came up to me at some festival and said, ‘I did a whole range of stuff on you, on that whole look.’ And of course, Madonna, David Bowie, they’ve all copied it. But that’s fine. It’s sort of amusing to me, the power of it.”
It came about during pre-production when the pair were discussing what Alex should wear.
“I was a cricketer,” says McDowell. “[Kubrick] said, ‘what are you going to wear?’ and I said, ‘Stanley, what do you mean? It’s a futuristic thing, I’ve got jeans, a T-shirt and I’ve got my cricket gear in the car. And he goes, ‘put it on’.”
Aside from the white cricket clothes themselves, the director was particularly fascinated by the actor’s jockstrap and box: a plastic cup designed to protect your genitals from a hard cricket ball.
“[Kubrick said] ‘put it on the outside’,” remember McDowell. “That’s it, that’s how the iconic look [came to be]. I used a bowler hat as a finger up to the City of London and the toffs and all that. I found in [famous fashion shop] Biba a yard of eyelash and gave it to him as a sort of gimmicky gift and he said, ‘put it on’. He took photographs of everything and then he called me the next day and said, ‘use one eyelash, because when you look at your face you know there’s something off and you can’t quite figure it out.’ And of course, it’s a great look.
Myth #4: Original author Anthony Burgess hated the adaptation
“He wasn’t allowed anywhere near the set,” says McDowell. “But I saw him afterwards and he said he’d seen the film and he told me that he loved it. Now, I’ve heard subsequently that he changed his mind. He probably changed his mind because he didn’t have a piece of it. And of course, people only wanted to talk about the film, not about his book. But I think it’s a very faithful adaptation of his book. It’s all in the spirit of his book.”
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The star remembers a particular incident where he and Burgess were invited to the New York Critics’ Awards show. “[Burgess] was picking up Kubrick’s award for Best Director, he said, ‘well, I’ve been sent by God-, I mean Stanley Kubrick’ and that really said it all. That’s what he thought. I’m thrilled that because of the film, generations of new readers are reading [the novel]. So really, he can be pissed all he wants, but actually [we] did him a great favour.”
Verdict: True and False
Myth #5: McDowell refused to film because his eyes got damaged during the torture sequence
“The rumour about the eyes, it’s all bull****,” says McDowell. “Yes, I scratched the corneas, the eye takes 24 hours to repair itself and I was basically back after a day. I called [Kubrick] and said, ‘it’s a bit like sand in my eyes, they’re a bit rough.’ He said, ‘well don’t come back, we’ll get an insurance thing, I need to look at a few more locations.’
So he kept me out, not me particularly.
Myth #6: The actor wasn’t aware that Kubrick was planning to withdraw the film
Following its release, A Clockwork Orange came under intense press scrutiny for its transgressive themes and explicit violence. It was blamed for some copycat attacks in which young people supposedly re-enacted scenes from the movie, raping and in some cases killing people, even if those claims didn’t really hold up.
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Frustrated and angry at the way it was being received, Stanley Kubrick convinced the production company to withdraw the film from release (it was never banned).
“I wasn’t really privy to it, I didn’t know why he’d done it until I met with Christiana his widow,” says McDowell.
“It had already played a year. Let’s get things into proportion. The movie had played out its time in release. It was a huge hit, yes, but you can only sustain it for so long. There was a small cinema on the Champs-Élysées where I heard it played for 12 or 15 years, something insane.”
But did he get any of the negative press attention?
“You know, a bit. I think I got more death threats when I killed [Captain] Kirk [in Star Trek: Generations].”
To mark its 50th anniversary, A Clockwork Orange Ultimate Collector's Edition is now available to own here and includes the feature film on a Ultra HD Blu-ray™ disc in 4K with HDR and a Blu-ray™ disc with the feature film and special features.
Fans can also own A Clockwork Orange in 4K Ultra HD via purchase from select digital retailers.
Watch a trailer below.