Whenever people leave their house and go out in public, they put on both an outfit and an act to keep up appearances. However, we are all flawed humans at the core, and there is no state of being completely natural and vulnerable, and at our most animalistic and rawest state, as when you are naked. People are undressed in bathrooms as they bathe or relieve themselves, showing that no matter how much society tries to appear perfect, we are all animals with unflattering bodily functions.
Stanley Kubrick was one of the best and most innovative film directors of the 20th century. Whether his films were set in ancient Rome or the technologically advanced future, Kubrick’s characters would always end up returning to the bathroom, regardless of how far mankind has supposedly come in the interim. Bathrooms are both a facility and a social construct that represents the contradiction of people trying to be civilised by going to a private room to do some of their most animalistic acts.
Kubrick was aware of this, and used this fact to show his characters in their most intimate and unflattering form, and to advance the plot. Between his 1960 historical epic Spartacus and his exploration of lust with Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, Kubrick spent nearly 40 years utilising bathrooms in his films to show that despite the appearances people put on in public, humans will never be the perfect beings they strive to be.
1. Spartacus (1960)
Whenever people discuss the Roman and Greek empires that thrived in the late BC and early AD time period, often the subject of the free and rampant sexuality of that era will come up. Homosexuality and bisexuality were considered just as acceptable as heterosexuality in those days, but they were certainly considered taboo for audiences watching the film in either 1960 or today.
The scene where the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) has a bath and is washed by his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) is a perfect example of this. Crassus attempts to seduce Antoninus by asking him if he likes “eating oysters” or “eating snails”, which are obvious allegories for vaginas and penises.
The fact Crassus is saying this to Antoninus while in the bath when no one else is around shows, even back in the days of the Roman Empire, what a personal act bathing is, and allows Crassus to try to be intimate with Antoninus as he has allowed Antoninus to be with him during such an act by saying what “food” you like to eat is a matter of taste and not about morality.
It also shows that even a grand public figure like a Roman general has basic human needs like keeping clean and satisfying his sexual urges, just like the many faceless soldiers he commands.
This scene has been noted by many for its unsubtle homosexual undertones, which is particularly jarring since Crassus is a Roman general and the leader of rugged and manly warriors, yet he is doing something that many cultures would consider to be very unmanly and homosexual. Crassus is also trying to abuse his power as a general to make Antoninus have sex with him, which would have been common in those days, although Antoninus leaves the room before he can be abused.
This intimate and sleazy bath scene was originally cut from the film’s original 1960 release, assumingly because its subtext was taboo for audiences at the time. The scene was added into the film again upon its re-release in 1991, and it gives the film a whole new feel of the underbelly of forbidden sexuality.
2. Lolita (1962)
After Humbert (James Mason) marries Charlotte (Shelley Winters), the mother of the teenage nymphet Lolita (Sue Lyon) whom he lusts after, Humbert locks himself in the bathroom to write in his diary and to hide in there to avoid having to have sex with his wife. She cannot intrude on the privacy he needs for both his thoughts and for when nature calls.
On the other side of the bathroom door, Charlotte is worried and says she does not want any secrets between them, but the door is both literally and figuratively a barrier between them. She even asks Humbert if there is another woman in his life; little does she know that it is her own daughter.
This is contrasted shortly after when he does not want to have sex with Charlotte in bed and when she finds and reads Humbert’s diary out in the open, away from the bathroom, revealing his true thoughts and his lust for Lolita.
Moments later, Humbert relaxes in the bath, having a drink to celebrate his wife’s death with some cheery music playing in the background, but is interrupted by his neighbours John (Jerry Stovin) and Jean Farlow (Diana Decker), making the bathroom no longer the safe and private place it used to be for him.
Jean looks away and covers her eyes when she sees that Humbert is naked in the bath, knowing that she has intruded on Humbert’s private time in the bathroom. They see the gun on the basin and think they have interrupted Humbert’s attempt at committing suicide, which is of course another very personal act.
Then the father of the driver that ran over Charlotte comes in to try to weasel his son out of trouble, and provides Humbert with the financial assistance that allows Humbert to pursue Lolita further.
Throughout these peoples’ interruption of his bathtime, Humbert shows very little sadness nor concern about his wife’s death that only happened a scene earlier, showing that he never truly loved her anyway, and now he has one less obstacle in seducing Lolita.
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr. Strangelove is a dark comedy about Cold War era paranoia and the threat of nuclear apocalypse started by either the American or Russian armies. While the film covers some very serious subject matter through the lens of an absurdist comedy, even the military men with the fate of the world in their hands retreat to the bathroom to get away from their troubles.
When General Turgidson (George C. Scott) is using the toilet, he is interrupted by his secretary and mistress Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), and by his tone of voice, he is clearly infuriated when his personal time is interrupted by the outside world, specifically work.
Miss Scott admits to the caller that Turgidson is in the “powder room”, one of the many expressions for using the toilet, showing that the fact the Turgidson is doing a natural act that everyone in the world does is too embarrassing to say without using a euphemism.
Later on in the film, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is fighting against soldiers trying to capture him with only Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) by his side. Ripper confesses that he launched the missiles because of his theory that the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans was compromised by Russians, as he is sexually impotent and could not ejaculate, which is akin to the other bodily functions that society tries to hide by concealing them in bathrooms.
Ripper locks himself in his private bathroom and shoots himself without giving the CRM code to Mandrake to stop the nuclear missiles from destroying the world. As Ripper was delusional, it is fitting that he killed himself in the bathroom, as the sacredness of the bathroom within society provided him a way out of both his immediate problems and his life.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Although the real year 2001 has passed and was nowhere near as futuristic as this film predicted, the depiction of technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey that allows people to work in space is still a marvel to look at nearly 50 years after being made. However, despite the millions of years that passed between the opening scenes in prehistoric times and the society with technological advances, one thing that did not change in all that time was people’s need to relieve themselves.
A very brief but amusing moment in the film is when astronaut Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) has to study the long and complicated list of instructions to use the zero gravity toilet. The look on Floyd’s face is both of feeling overwhelmed and busting to go to the toilet. This moment takes place after the audience is shown around the impressive space station and how it defies gravity, but one thing it cannot defy is the body’s need to expel human waste.
But a more serious bathroom scene toward the end of the film occurs after astronaut Dave (Keir Dullea) has travelled through the vortex of strange and colourful visuals and ends up in a fancy apartment and enters the bathroom. He looks into the mirror and sees that he is now rapidly aging, which he continues to do throughout the scene. This depicts the ultimate form of despair in humanity and nature, in that we all inevitably get older and slowly age towards death.
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
One aspect of having a bath that people enjoy is how relaxing it is, letting people sometimes nod off or daydream. Despite having gone to prison for hurting innocent people and receiving the Ludovico Technique that messed up his psychology, this relaxation was young criminal Alex deLarge’s (Malcolm McDowell) undoing.
After being assaulted by his former victims and accomplices, Alex is taken in by Mr. Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), who Alex had crippled and whose wife he joyfully raped at the start of the film. Mr. Alexander does not recognise Alex and only knows of him through the newspapers for undergoing the Ludovico Technique. However, Alex does recognise Mr. Alexander and naturally keeps his mouth shut.
But when Alex gets too comfortable while taking a bath, he thoughtlessly sings “Singin’ in the Rain”, which was the same song he sung while assaulting Mr. Alexander and his wife years earlier. This reveals Alex’s identity as the thug who ruined Mr. Alexander’s life, and the look on Mr. Alexander’s face upon realising this is unforgettable. In this instance, the bathroom is not the safe space that Kubrick’s characters think it is.
6. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Although Kubrick’s 1700’s epic Barry Lyndon is three hours long, the film only has one brief bathroom scene. Throughout the film, Irish rogue and opportunist Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) schemes his way through Europe to climb to the top of the social hierarchy and marries the wealthy Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).
Despite its brief inclusion in the film, the bathroom is an intimate space for Redmond to display some of his more sincere feelings toward his wife, as he seems to be legitimately apologising to her for his reckless gambling and constant philandering that is public knowledge among their upper class contemporaries. They share a tender kiss, although Redmond soon goes back to his wicked ways.
Considering the characters are all about keeping up appearances among the wealthy and the elite, here these characters, especially Lady Lyndon in the bathtub, are just people with basic human needs and desires, namely needing to bathe and have romantic love.
With this and how Redmond and Lady Lyndon pretend to be happy in public, this scene furthers Kubrick’s use of the bathroom in that, in the privacy of the bathroom, these characters are unseen by their judgmental peers and can be honest with each other and be genuinely affectionate.
7. The Shining (1980)
Out of all of Kubrick’s films, The Shining utilises bathrooms the most as a way of displaying the vulnerability and fragility of each member of the Torrance family, and how both the literal and figurative ghosts of the past can come back to haunt you.
Early in the film, five-year-old Danny (Danny Lloyd) looks into the bathroom mirror in the family’s apartment as he has a vision of the famous shot of the wave of blood coming out of the elevator and all the terror that awaits his family at the Overlook Hotel that causes him to faint. Danny is alone the bathroom where he sees something truly horrible; an ugly side of life that is raw, that is akin to what normally goes on in bathrooms.
Later in the film, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) investigates room 237 at the Overlook and upon entering the room’s bathroom, he sees a naked young woman in the bathtub. The look on Jack’s face when he sees this nude young woman shows man’s never ending desire to have sex with attractive women, even if they are married and do not know these women.
Jack does not even ask this strange woman who she is and why she is in the hotel, which is an effect of being isolated at the Overlook, before embracing and kissing her. She then turns into an old woman with a grossly decaying body, showing that like the previous tenants of the Overlook, the Torrances will go from being among the living to become part of the ugly and sinister ghosts that continue to haunt the hotel.
Jack experiencing these sexual desires in the bathroom is fitting as, like needing to bathe and use the toilet, it is a subject many people are uncomfortable with and is something that should be hidden away.
When Jack later goes to the Overlook’s ballroom, he is led to the bathroom by the butler, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). Besides going there to wash off the spilt drink on Jack’s clothes, this was obviously done deliberately for Grady to talk to Jack alone in the privacy of the men’s toilets, where only men are allowed, so they can talk about how Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), a woman who is not supposed to enter a room designated for men only, as she has been causing them problems.
Grady is very cordial at first as a butler, but Jack bluntly says he knows that Grady killed his family, revealing the ugly truth, which parallels with the other ugly truth that the bathroom they are in is used for urination and defecation. Grady then reveals his true sinister nature and a harsher tone of voice by using a racial slur against the African-American chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), and suggesting that Jack “correct” his wife and son, as Grady himself “corrected” his family years earlier.
The last bathroom scene is where Wendy and Danny lock themselves in when Jack chops through the door with an axe. Besides Jack saying the famous line “Here’s Johnny!”, he is also violating the social norm of not intruding on someone using the bathroom. People feel vulnerable when in the bathroom, because they are naked or doing private things in there. In this case, Jack is invading the safe space that bathrooms normally provide, and Wendy’s life is at risk because of his intrusion.
8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Like the military setting of Full Metal Jacket, the platoon’s bathroom is always kept in orderly and pristine fashion, and nothing less than perfect is acceptable. However, by the end of the Parris Island segment of the film, the illusion of the perfect soldier and the perfect bathroom are shattered.
The overweight and slow-witted recruit nicknamed Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) loses his sanity after constant torment from his drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and being outcast by his fellow recruits. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) finds Pyle sitting on a toilet in the bathroom, known as the head in the military, being crazy with loading a rifle. It is clear that Pyle is intending to shoot up the barracks and kill his fellow recruits, and Joker knows everyone is in danger.
When Hartman is awoken by Pyle’s loud recital of the Rifleman’s Creed, he storms into the head and yells: “What in the name of Jesus H. Christ are you animals doing in my head?” It could be argued that the word ‘head’ could mean both the bathroom and his mind, as the noise is disrupting his sleep. Although up to this point Hartman has had all the power over the recruits, it is now Pyle who has the power over everyone as he holds the rifle.
Despite his life being on the line, Hartman does not let up on his authority and demands Pyle put the rifle down while demeaning him, before Pyle shoots Hartman. Then like Ripper, another military man in Dr. Strangelove, Pyle also commits suicide in the bathroom and is victorious in not letting the other characters have any power over them, even if it means having to end their own lives.
The bathroom is the perfect place for Pyle to reveal his psychotic state and for this confronting scene to occur, just as what normally happens in bathrooms is confronting. Pyle has finally lost his innocence and his mind to the military, and now the consequences of such harsh treatment will be felt on Pyle’s peers.
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Considering this article has discussed how bathrooms are used to hide bodily functions and animalistic tendencies, it is fitting that the subject of Kubrick’s final film is the ultimate unflattering human need – sex.
In the opening scene, Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) uses the toilet in front of her husband Bill (Tom Cruise), showing she is comfortable enough to urinate in his presence. However, Alice asks Bill how she looks and he says she looks beautiful without even looking at her. This detached answer to her question shows they are not close and that their relationship is troubled, and that Bill takes his wife for granted.
This is juxtaposed with how Bill and Alice act like a normal happy couple when they go to Victor Ziegler’s (Sydney Pollack) party, and they even dance closely together. When arriving at the party, the Harfords and Zieglers are very cordial and formal with each other and both couples appear to be in perfect relationships. However, this act falls apart shortly after when Alice dances sensually with another man and Bill flirts with two women, who is interrupted when Victor urgently requests Bill’s help.
In Victor’s fancy bathroom that includes furniture, lamps, paintings, and other items not needed in a bathroom, Victor and a naked young woman he was having sex with are hiding. The girl has overdosed on a mix of heroin and cocaine and Victor needs Bill to use his medical expertise to revive her.
This scene reveals the real goings-on in Victor’s life, shattering the illusion of a sophisticated middle-aged rich man who, like men of any background, sexually lusts after young women and commits adultery against his wife.
Back at the Harfords’ home, Alice hides marijuana in the bathroom cabinet, again as a way of hiding her true nature that she would want to hide from her young daughter, in that her and Bill use illegal drugs.
When a stoned Bill and Alice are arguing over the fidelity of men and women, Alice is standing in front of the bathroom door in her underwear, foreshadowing a shocking truth she is about to reveal about herself. After Bill’s comment that he does not believe Alice would ever cheat on him because of his misplaced belief that women are less inclined to cheat than men, Alice then reveals her deep dark sexual fantasy about a Naval officer she saw on a family vacation.
Although she merely just saw the man and never spoke to him, she admits she could barely move because of how attracted she was to this mysterious and handsome man. Once she admits that she would have given up her marriage and family for one night of passion with the Naval officer, Bill is stunned and furious, shattering the strong foundation that he thought his marriage had.
It should be noted that Cruise and Kidman were still married in real life when Eyes Wide Shut was filmed, so this openness about one baring all in front of the other would have been much like their real marriage. They divorced shortly after the film’s release, so perhaps this contributed to their great performances as a couple in a troubled marriage being so believable.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Thursday 18 May 2017