If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1975 film “Barry Lyndon,” you probably remember the dreadful Lord Bullingdon. Even if you want to forget him.
Badly treated by his stepfather — the film’s title character — Bullingdon is pompous, sniveling and snobbish. He practically invites a slap in the face just by standing there.
The performer who perfectly embodied Lord Bullingdon, Leon Vitali, didn’t do much acting after that. But, as we learn in the new documentary “Filmworker,” he had quite a life anyway.
Shortly after “Barry Lyndon,” Vitali became Kubrick’s full-time assistant, and continued in that role until Kubrick’s death in 1999.
And by “full-time,” we mean being on call 24 hours a day to answer to the inspirations of the genius. Vitali worked on contracts, quality control, casting and probably made coffee.
He found Danny Lloyd, the little boy in “The Shining,” and then operated as both acting coach and surrogate uncle through the arduous filming. When you hear footsteps in “Full Metal Jacket,” it’s probably Vitali, who stomped around in the post-production studio to dub the sound of boots on the ground.
Director Tony Zierra interviews the now-septuagenarian Vitali at length, and the portrait that emerges is a fascinating study in movie lore and human psychology. Vitali looks as though he’s stepped from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” set, all head scarves and scraggly hair and raspy voice.
On the set of “Barry Lyndon,” he became curious about how everything worked: how cameras and lights created effects, what happened in the editing room. Kubrick offered to provide an education, and before long Vitali had learned as much as anybody in the business.
Vitali’s colleagues and friends wonder why a person would give up an acting career to serve at someone else’s beck and call. Isn’t this a sad story, a kind of master-slave scenario?
But Vitali himself appears seems to have fulfilled his goal of learning about film, and his respect for Kubrick remains strong.
“Filmworker” interviews various Kubrick associates, including “Barry Lyndon” star Ryan O’Neal, who regretfully remembers beating up Vitali during a scene (at the director’s request).
We get tidbits of behind-the-scenes material. Zierra talks to Tim Colceri, the actor cast as the unforgettable “Metal Jacket” drill sergeant, who was later relegated to a minor role when he lost the part to R. Lee Ermey, a real-life Marine originally hired as a technical consultant. Ermey recalls his career-making break with joy; Colceri, as you can imagine, does not.
There’s not much new on Kubrick himself, but the focus here is refreshingly on the foot soldier, not the general. And I like the film’s non-judgmental approach to the subject. You can decide for yourself: Did Leon Vitali sacrifice his life for the sake of someone else? Or did he, in a curious way, get what he wanted?
“Filmworker” (3 stars)
Fascinating documentary about Leon Vitali, who played a key role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and then spent the rest of his career as Kubrick’s personal assistant. Although the film raises the possibility of a master-slave relationship, Vitali seems to have enjoyed his life, and he certainly accomplished his goal of knowing everything about how movies are made.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Opening Saturday: Grand Illusion