“Eyes Wide Shut” Taught Me Everything I Know About Marriage

In 1999, Stanley Kubrick cast then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to play well-to-do Manhattan doctor Bill Hartford and his wife, Alice, in what would be his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The film’s cryptic title and mysterious, sexy trailer, set to Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” caught my eye, especially as I was a teenage Kubrick fanatic and closet Cruise admirer. After nearly three hours in a darkened theater, I wasn’t sure what I had seen, but I knew I liked it. Looking back almost twenty years later and after many repeat screenings, I’m not sure the film is as sexually liberated and transgressive as I once thought. Herein, then, I take a closer look at the film’s messages on marriage, fidelity and Tom Cruise’s mysterious on-screen sexuality.

The film opens with the couple attending a lavish holiday party at the home of one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Alice and Bill are separated shortly after they arrive, remaining apart for the rest of the party. At the bar, Alice is hit on by a suave Hungarian stranger, while two young models flirt with Bill across the room. Alice’s suitor, upon learning she is married, explains that “one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties.” Meanwhile, the two young models try and coax Bill to follow them to “the end of the rainbow,” but he is called away suddenly to attend to Victor. We cut to Victor dressing in an upstairs bathroom, and a woman, Mandy, (who is assuredly not the wife who met Alice and Bill at the door) sitting in a nearby lounge chair, naked and unresponsive. Victor asks Bill to attend to Mandy, who he says has overdosed on heroin and cocaine. Victor expresses little concern for her well-being and simply wants her gone, but Bill recommends she stay awhile to recover. The through-line of this opening sequence is marital infidelity, and with Victor, we see the dire consequences that can result from stepping outside the confines of matrimony. Victor’s actions leave him exposed to potential public humiliation (if not criminal negligence, assault, or even murder). Mandy, of course, is in a far more vulnerable and dangerous position. Throughout the film, in fact, women seem to be “collateral damage” in the sexual explorations of married men – the unmarried, “other women” of the film are exposed, exploited, assaulted, infected, drugged, and murdered.

The night following Victor’s party, Bill and Alice discuss their marriage and loyalty after she asks whether him slept with the models he was talking to at the party. We learn that Bill takes Alice’s fidelity for granted, and his sense of security as shaken when she laughs at him derisively. She relays a psychological affair she entertained the summer before in Cape Cod, fantasizing about a naval officer she saw at the hotel the couple visited, and this confession plagues Bill for the rest of the film. Immediately after Alice relays this fantasy, Bill is called away to the home of a patient. Over the course of the night, Bill is presented with a variety of scenarios that present alternatives to his humdrum heterosexual marriage, which he claims to never have questioned or violated. Kubrick presents each of these alternatives in a cold, foreboding, and potentially devastating light. In this sense, the film can be seen as an ultimately conservative parable about the dangers of exploring extramarital desires.

After leaving his wife at home, Bill is hit on five times – first by the grief-stricken daughter of a patient, then by a prostitute on the street and later, by her roommate, by the underage daughter of a costume shop owner, and then by a hotel desk clerk, played by Alan Cumming. Each flirtation is alternately tinged with melancholy, avarice and desperation. And each time, these flirtations are interrupted – by a devoted fiancé, a call from Alice, the news of an HIV diagnosis, an angry father, and by urgent concern for a missing friend, respectively.

In the film’s most memorable and terrifying example of “coitus interruptus,” Bill has gained admittance to an exclusive, orgiastic costume party, only to be literally unmasked as an interloper, before being driven out. Spurred on by his fantasies of his wife being ravaged by a naval officer, Bill spends the film exploring his own prurient desires, but is prevented from acting on any of them under an escalating series of either implied or explicit threats. Ultimately, Bill confesses “everything” to Alice, and the film ends with her concluding that there is one very important thing they must do immediately; re-consummate their marriage, or, as she puts it, “fuck.”

One of the most interesting dimensions to Eyes Wide Shut is the way in which it plays with Tom Cruise’s star persona and his off-screen sexuality. Towards the beginning of his odyssey, Cruise’s Dr. Bill Hartford is walking down a New York street alone, dressed in a black suit and trench coat. After he spots a heterosexual couple kissing in a nearby alcove, he fantasizes about his wife and the naval officer, a thought that prompts him to violently clap his gloved hands together in a classic Tom-Cruise-type gesticulation. Despite his neutral, if not masculine, comportment and dress, a group of men approach and harass him, implying repeatedly that he is homosexual. They throw him against a parked car and taunt him, yet he makes no protestations, nor does he fight back. He returns their gaze with a blank stare. Later, when he attends the costume party, Bill moves from room to room without expressing much favoritism or sexual preference; one of the final rooms he enters has same-sex couples waltzing together, but Bill is whisked away before he can comment or otherwise express fascination or revulsion. Indeed, Cruise’s Bill is masked throughout the party, keeping his reactions secret to the movie going audience. When Bill is discovered as an uninvited guest, he is forced to remove his mask, and is then asked to remove his clothes. This is a strange and sexualized threat – what will the masked men in the room do to him once he has disrobed? A scantily clad woman offers herself in Bill’s place and he is allowed to leave, so the men’s intentions with Bill are left to the audience’s imagination.

And consider the scene where Alan Cumming’s hotel clerk flirts shamelessly with Cruise’s character. The camera focuses on Cumming for most of the scene, and we are unable to see Cruise’s reaction. Cumming asks if he can address Dr. Hartford as “Bill,” to which he responds “Sure.” In an interview, Cumming acknowledges the gay subtext of the scene, and the fun he had flirting with Cruise – something he admits might have gotten him sued in any other context.

Throughout the film, Kubrick uses Cruise as a sexual cypher: a spectator or tourist exploring a panoply of sexual behaviors without expressing desire or endorsing any of his own proclivities. We never see Dr. Hartford engaged in sex, heterosexual or otherwise. In several scenes, Kubrick seems to acknowledge the speculation about Cruise’s homosexuality, but neither Kubrick nor Cruise offer any conclusive evidence “setting the record straight” either way. Dr. Bill Hartford ultimately finds the exploration of desire to be a terrifying experience, threatening his health, his family, his career. His odyssey leads him finally and tearfully back home to his wife, safest within the confines of his marriage.

Christian Gay holds a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Miami, and has taught courses on the American studio system, queer cinema, and Alfred Hitchcock. Some of his favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Zhang Yimou, and Mike Leigh.
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