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Malcolm McDowell Recalls ‘Torture’ of Making ‘Clockwork Orange’: ‘It Was Worth It’

Kubrick put his actors in dangerous situations on the set, and his 1971 dystopian masterwork was no exception.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Malcolm McDowell, 1971.

“A Clockwork Orange”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Stanley Kubrick was notorious for his, well, exacting methods on set. (Look no further than Shelley Duvall’s hair falling out in chunks on the set of “The Shining,” as seen in his daughter Vivian’s making-of documentary.) And while Malcolm McDowell has never minced words about the toll making “A Clockwork Orange” took on his soul, the movie is getting renewed appraisal thanks to a re-release timed to the film’s 50th anniversary. In an expansive interview with NME, McDowell talked about the “torture” of making the movie, in which he stars as ultraviolent droog leader Alex DeLarge.

“One of the electricians said: ‘He’s tryin’ to kill you Malc, he’s tryin’ to kill you,’” McDowell said. “[Kubrick] was a control freak, without a doubt, on everything. [Kubrick] showed me a picture of this and I went, ‘Oh yeah? Wow’. He goes, ‘What do you think?’ ‘What do you mean what do I think? It’s an eye operation going on.’ He said: ‘I’d like you to do that.’ I went: ‘What? There’s no way! No, no, no.’ But he already had a doctor from Moorfields [Eye Hospital, in London] coming over to talk to me about it.’”

Talking about an actual injury he sustained on set, McDowell said, “And of course this doctor comes over and he’s the guy in the movie. ‘You’ll have no problem, your eyes will be anesthetized,’ he said. ‘You won’t feel a thing.’ Well, famous last words. That wasn’t exactly accurate. So they scratch my corneas and then a week later [Kubrick] says: ‘I’ve seen all the stuff, and it’s great, but I need a real close-up of the eye.’ And I went: ‘Well, why don’t you do it on the stunt double? That’s what he gets paid for.’ ‘Malcolm, your eyes are… I can’t do that.’ So I had to go back in and do it again! And of course, they scratch my corneas [again], nothing like originally, but I knew it was coming. That was torture because I knew what to expect… but, you know, it was worth it.”

McDowell also talked about the bitterness he felt toward the movie, and its huge popularity, after making it. “For the first 10 years after I made it, I resented it,” McDowell said. “I was sick of it. I didn’t want to talk about the fucking thing, I was over it. I said: ‘Look, I’m an actor, I got to play a great part, I’m moving on.’ Then I came to the realization that it was a masterwork, and I was very, very much part of it. You may as well just accept it and enjoy it.”

The film remains controversial for its explicit violence, though McDowell said he still isn’t so sure what the fuss was all about. “Of course, it’s psychologically disturbing, but I’d just seen Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch,’ the Wild West one where everything is mass shootings in slow motion. Brilliant. Compared to [that], it’s a Disney movie. The violence of the film was nothing, they kick an old man and that’s about it. I mean, even the rape of Bryce’s wife, Alex does ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ for Christ’s sake.”

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