The celebrated actor behind ultraviolent anti-hero Alex DeLarge discusses the poignancy of Kubrick’s masterpiece today
“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening,” says Alex, the protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian 1962 book A Clockwork Orange, the ultimate, ultraviolent anti-hero. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1972 film, the young, murderous gang sit in the Milkbar, leaning against naked female mannequins after another vicious spree, the camera pulling slowly back – it’s a disturbing, iconic scene. They drink their glasses of drug-laced milk – ’milk-plus’ – a beverage that acts as a startling symbol of corrupted youth. This vignette captures briefly the film’s sinister themes of societal unrest, disaffected youth, the spectrum of good and evil, and ultimately, man’s freedom of choice.
48 years later, celebrated actor Malcolm McDowell is having a cup of tea as we speak in London. He lives in Los Angeles with his family, where he’s been settled for a large part of his life now. Has the LA distaste for dairy seen him switch to oat or almond? “It’s always full-fat for me!” he says. “That’ll never change.”
Kubrick chose McDowell for the role of Alex DeLarge after seeing him in the Lindsay Anderson movie If… (1968), a revolutionary satirical film about British school life, lauded as a counterculture gem. Clockwork, though, was McDowell’s breakout – a film that’s present on the runways and music videos as much as teenage bedroom walls. Kubrick’s masterful filmmaking and fervent questioning of society and its ills remains relevant today – now, the BFI and Design Museum have devoted a season of screenings, talks, events, and art to the director’s oeuvre, with Clockwork at its centre.
Below, we speak with McDowell – with a cameo from his teenage son – about the film’s cultural legacy, its place in today’s climate, and magic moments on set.
How did you prep with Stanley Kubrick?
Malcolm McDowell: Kubrick was trying to find enough violent movies to show me when I’m in character, for when we did the Ludovico technique scene. We got into the concentration camp stuff, snuff films, dead bodies – it was horrendous.
What’s your tolerance level for those kind of things?
Malcolm McDowell: I can watch it – one is detached enough – but you know, to watch true Nazi atrocities like that, it stays with you.
What movies can you not stand to watch?
Malcolm McDowell: The only thing I really don’t like are horror movies, I just don’t find them scary, cos I know they're movies. I’m a professional actor and I know all the work that goes into setting up the shot, it’s hard to be scared! I did Rob Zombie's Halloween, but Clockwork was and is scary in a different, more enduring way, because it’s psychological. Those huge questions about the freedom of man to choose, sympathising with what people call a monster, that’s scary.
I know Kubrick gave you limited direction on Alex’s personality, but he did describe Alex as evil. What was your concept of evil, and how did that come into play?
Malcolm McDowell: I never thought the character was evil. Listen, I love all the characters I play. Even the horrendous ones, even the ones who are so despicable – they all had mothers, they were all babies – but Alex, I don't know.
Alex is a dichotomy, isn't he? He's a guy who loves life. So you gotta love part of him, you gotta kinda love him because anyone who loves life like that – course, at the expense of others – but, he has sort of mitigating circumstances. He loves classical music, so he's not just a thug, there's more to him than that. I haven't seen it for a long time but I saw a clip last night, and thought, wow, it's still pretty modern, still affects me. It's wild.
Alex is a dichotomy, isn't he? He's a guy who loves life, you gotta kinda love him like anyone who loves life like that – of course, at the expense of others. He loves classical music, so he's not just a thug, there's more to him than that.
A nuanced thug.
Malcolm McDowell: A thug with some nuance and mitigating circumstances, yes.
How would you describe your relationship with Kubrick as an actor and filmmaker?
Malcolm McDowell: Kubrick was a very special kind of director. If you were playing the lead in his film you were a collaborator – he needed someone to feed off, with suggestions coming at him fast. I must have loved him. I couldn’t have done it on my own. If it had been another director I wouldn’t have been doing what I did for him. He knew what he didn’t want, and when he saw something he wanted, that's the way he went and everyone had to live with it.
“Young people (today) see it for what it is: a black comedy. They laugh all the way through. So finally, Clockwork has found the audience we thought we were making the movie for” – Malcolm McDowell
Did it feel like you were making something special?
Malcolm McDowell: I think we knew the work was something special. I did, anyway. We really had no time to go, ‘wow’, but pretty much every sequence he would say, ‘Malc – I need the magic’. The magic wasn't in the script – the script was a bare bones skeleton, I had to find it.
So what was your own magic moment?
Malcolm McDowell: Well, they’re all over the movie. ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ was a totally spontaneous thing, and became a driving focal point for the movie. It was the key to blocking the scene of a beating and rape that is ‘acceptable’, then an audience can live with. In a more naturalistic world, it would have been just horrendous. It had to be elevated, stylised, and blackly funny. Like murdering someone with a penis sculpture too – it’s all warped and sexual, psychotic.
How have you seen audiences evolve with each generation, in understanding those themes?
Malcolm McDowell: When it first came out people watched it in stony silence. They were shocked by these new kind of visuals. The newspapers were splashed with ‘Clockwork Orange copycat’ murders – such bull. In the last 20 years, especially young people, see it for what it is: a black comedy. They laugh all the way through. So finally, Clockwork has found the audience we thought we were making the movie for.
Do you think we’re more equipped now to understand the satire?
Malcolm McDowell: I think enough time has gone past that you know the violence on screen is saturated, you can’t go any further. I think when Sam Peckinpah was making really violent movies, that was a slow-motion violence, a ballet. Clockwork for this generation is like a Disney movie now.
It feels like this generation could find something new in the trauma and frustrated youth tone of the original film. In the years after Clockwork we had Thatcher and the Tory government, and look where we are again now.
Malcolm McDowell: That’s a good point. God, the mention of the Thatcher government... I just missed that, I left in 1979. I know people hated her. Is it any better now? Or worse?
I think worse.
Malcolm McDowell: Worse, way worse. British people deserve better than their politicians. The movie reflected what was going on in the time. It didn’t foretell gang violence or drugs, because we already had it. Of course, in Burgess’ world, all the old people stay indoors and watch TV, and that’s true. It's not futuristic anymore, but has the feel of a different dimension still. That's a mark of Kubrick's genius, better than anyone.
It’s easy to blame art and culture, despite it doing so much social good.
Malcolm McDowell: The politicians don’t get enough of the blame – they have completely fucked up the country. It’s staggering.
Malcolm McDowell: I can’t even read it anymore – it's like, ugh come or go, whatever you want to do.
The film ultimately is about one thing: the freedom of man to choose, but Burgess makes that difficult for us – the hero, an immoral man, why should he choose? But then, he’s got the right to choose to be immoral, or juiced up on drugs.
Who is your favourite anti-hero?
Malcolm McDowell: I’m particularly fond of Anthony Hopkins. And then the first movie I ever truly loved was Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood. It just captures something I cannot fathom as a human being. The Wild Bunch Peckinpah film, made true violence look like ballet. Our love of the anti-hero is all basic instinct – hunters, gatherers, animals. We’ve evolved, supposedly, but morally? I don't think so. Not since the Greeks – we’re just as corrupt and screwed up.
“It sparked a movement of colour, makeup, an element of punk’s aesthetic. I see Alex as a grandfather of the punk movement” – Malcolm McDowell
Have your kids seen Clockwork?
Malcolm McDowell: (He points to a teenage boy on the nearby sofa) The redhead's my son, he's never seen it, he's not even interested. (Speaking to him) Have you seen Clockwork? Never. Will I have to hold your hand tonight?
I never shove my work on my kids – I've got five of them. Charlie, my oldest, is a film director and he loves it, but I think he loves Lindsay Anderson more.
I’m sure they must have been confronted by it in some way – posters on friends wall of the promo poster, Halloween costumes.
Malcolm McDowell: I myself feel so divorced from it, even when I first saw it. A few months after the movie opened, I was driving around Hammersmith, on the roundabout where all those roads converge under the flyover. Four guys dressed like me came out of the tube station with bowlers, the white outfits. Like, wow! I thought, if there was any trouble, they'll know the idiots to pick up.
Alex has also heavily influenced music and fashion.
Malcolm McDowell: This is why I think it's such an important film. Music... David Bowie dressed like me, the language became part of the vernacular in pop: Heaven 17, the Rolling Stones used it. They wanted Mick Jagger in it! It sparked a movement of colour, makeup, an element of the punk movement’s aesthetic. I see Alex as a grandfather of the punk movement.
Do you think we’ll still be examining the film in years to come?
Malcolm McDowell: The intent is not to teach – if you try and shove a message down people's throat they go bleugh. It’s almost 48 – who is talking about a movie they did 50 years later? My son made a remark recently – ’I'll be the one talking about it on its 100th anniversary’. So you better listen!