Winter, 1978. In a film studio to the north of London, Jack Nicholson sits on a bar stool in a cavernous ballroom as Stanley Kubrick films the first ‘Gold Room’ set-up in The Shining, Kubrick’s adaptation of Steven King’s bestselling novel. In this scene Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance encounters the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly but immaculate bartender Lloyd, played by the immaculate Joe Turkel. They are the only two performers, marooned amidst the empty, glittering vastness of the Gold Room set. Kubrick films take after take after take of Nicholson’s self-pitying drinker’s monologue. In a lull between takes, as the Panavision camera is re-loaded, Nicholson leans across the bar and mutters to Turkel: ‘Right, for this next one I’m going to go waaaaaaaay over the edge; let’s see what he does.’ Nicholson is as good as his word; and cinematic history is made. (Disclaimer: I read this somewhere, the source being Turkel himself. I’m paraphrasing Nicholson’s reported comment as best I can remember.)
As the lockdown gradually lifts and pubs tentatively re-open for business, your correspondent has lurched from joyous anticipation to beady suspicion. God knows it is a relief to see watering holes opening up again, if only for the reassurance that those bars are still in business; but I am hardly the only one suspicious of glad-handing boosterism. You only have to look at Trump’s America to see the car-crash consequences of premature re-opening. But let’s go back to Nicholson, Kubrick and The Shining. In case you think that I am straying from my brief, let me remind you that practically the entire film was shot on huge soundstages at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, a short drive from Kubrick’s palatial Hertfordshire mansion. For our purposes, I’m going to class this as London. And although you hardly need me to tell you how significant the film is in cinematic or pop cultural terms, please bear with me: I want to discuss the film as a drinker.
Stephen King – who famously hated Kubrick’s film of his novel – wrote The Shining as a recovering alcoholic, and made the character of Jack Torrance a struggling writer with a drink problem; thus, the bottles of Jack Daniels that appear by supernatural agency embody Jack Torrance’s hellish temptation. In his conception, the hotel was the ultimate evil and Torrance was a flawed but essentially decent man sucked unwillingly into its maw. Kubrick had a more oblique, sardonic view of the possibilities offered by the novel, and his treatment of Torrance, as embodied by Jack Nicholson at his most unhinged, is far bleaker than King’s original character. No room for redemption here; Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is a man whose soul is dirt cheap. This point is explicitly, even clumsily, made: when Jack says to himself, alone in the echoing emptiness of The Gold Room, that he’d ‘give his goddamn soul just for a glass of beer’, Lloyd the barkeep appears, ready to serve him anything he’d like. And what follows is one of the best drinking scenes in all cinema. Lloyd pours Jack a JD on the rocks – the rocks being only slightly runny from the studio lights – and Jack sips his first glass of whisky in God knows how long. Nicholson might be on his way to self-parodic iconography, but the moment eloquently conveys the narcotic hit of addiction. And Lloyd patiently indulges Jack’s tedious drinker’s conversation with the smiling contempt of any smooth, real-world bartender; those of us who have sat on too many bar stools, spending the facts of our lives ‘like small change on strangers‘, know the type all too well.
The shoot was famously long and fraught, as Kubrick drove principals Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to physical and nervous exhaustion, a process documented by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian in a very interesting ‘making of’ film. Kubrick’s direction of Nicholson into ham territory seems to have been a conscious choice: a collection of twitchy mannerisms set against the understated chill of Turkel’s bartender or The Shining‘s other catering spectre, waiter Delbert Grady, icily played by Philip Stone. It seems to me that Nicholson was forced over the top in this film and never quite came back: The Shining marks the great divide in his career, between the nuanced actor of Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail, etc., and the leering gargoyle he has been in almost everything since. To that extent, Jack Nicholson is Jack Torrance, unable to leave The Overlook Hotel. And as for poor Shelley Duvall … well, that is a genuine tragedy.
So why am I talking about this now? Well, The Shining came to mind by way of an old drink-driving awareness ad that shamelessly ripped it off, but which could easily be adapted to the age of Covid-19. Social drinking as existential threat. Jack Torrance might have been assailed by murderous phantoms, but at least he didn’t have to worry about a contagious pathogen; in fact, The Overlook strikes me as the perfect place to self-isolate, assuming the bar is well stocked and you don’t mind a vengeful wraith or two. A crowded Soho bar in July 2020 is another matter. I am not alone in my anxiety. I did an informal poll of my friends today: I asked them how they felt about public drinking Covid-stlye and even the toughest livers recoiled at the prospect. It’s not that I’m expecting to walk into, say, the Lamb and Flag to find Joe Turkel behind the bar or Philip Stone loitering in the gents’ (‘I’ve always been here’), but I certainly don’t want to encounter this chancer: that would be worse than meeting Jack Torrance and all The Overlook’s spooks put together. I want my visit to the pub to be a solace, a refuge from the cares of the world, not a game of Russian roulette. I resent the gung-ho appeals to ‘patriotic drinking’ adduced by self-serving politicians: I have my own reasons for drinking and they have nothing to do with saving someone else’s face. For now, I will continue to drink alone, summoning my own ghosts, in my own Overlook Hotel. Cheers.