O’Neal, Ryan

O’Neal, Ryan
(1941– )
   Patrick Ryan O’Neal was born in Los Angeles on April 20, 1941, the son of screenwriter Charles O’Neal and actress Patricia O’Neal. An amateur boxer, he competed in the Los Angeles Golden Gloves championship in Los Angeles in 1956 and 1957. He got into show business as a television stuntman in the 1960s. He gained popularity as an actor, playing a spoiled rich boy in the prime time soap opera Peyton Place (1964–1969), appearing in 514 episodes. He found stardom in pictures in the tearjerker Love Story (1970) and enjoyed more success in two films directed by Peter Bogdanovich which were toasts to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), with Barbara Streisand, and Paper Moon (1973), opposite his young daughter Tatum, who got an Academy Award for her performance in the movie. STANLEY KUBRICK picked him for the lead in BARRY LYNDON (1975), from WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY’s novel about an 18th-century adventurer and Lothario. (See THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON. ) The press expressed doubts about O’Neal’s suitability for the part, since his screen image up to that point was as a lightweight romantic actor. “He was the best actor for the part,”Kubrick later explained to writer MICHEL CIMENT; he looked right and possessed a greater talent as an actor than he had been able to demonstrate in several of his previous films. “In retrospect, I think my confidence in him was fully justified, and I still can’t think of anyone who would have been better for the part. ” O’Neal spent a year prior to filming taking lessons in fencing and dancing.
   In filming Barry Lyndon, Kubrick had selected a tale that departed significantly from the portrayal of romantic adventurous heroes so common in earlier screen swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), both Errol Flynn vehicles. By contrast, Barry Lyndon is a Casanova who degenerates into a sly fortune hunter and a first-class scoundrel. Nevertheless, Barry never completely loses the engaging qualities of his youth, even as he gradually becomes more corrupt and dissipated with age. In fact, watching Barry slide from good to bad in the course of the movie makes his character all the more interesting. Because Barry is constantly battling people who are as wicked as he is, he never ceases to fascinate us, in much the same way that Shakespeare’s Richard III does. Moreover, Kubrick elicits some compassion for Barry early in the movie when he is portrayed as a disadvantaged young Irishman, whose simple sincerity is reflected in the ingenuous, innocent face of Ryan O’Neal. Barry is then exploited by clever, calculating individuals in whom he naively places his trust. Thus Barry’s first love, Nora Brady, shamelessly takes advantage of his feelings for her. Even the person whom Barry respects most, Captain Jack Grogan Godfrey Quigley), participates in the Brady family’s plot to force Barry to leave Ireland by making him believe that he has killed his rival for Nora’s hand in marriage in a duel. Grogan’s later offer to share with Barry the hush money which he received from the Bradys does not really alter his disloyalty to Barry. Ironically, when Grogan is later killed in the war against the French, we are told by the film’s narrator that one of the last positive influences on Barry’s character is now gone.
   Next, Barry falls into the clutches of a con artist masquerading as an aristocrat, the Chevalier de Balibari (PATRICK MAGEE), who teaches Barry how to make a bundle by cheating at cards in posh European gambling salons. When Barry swiftly marries Lady Lyndon (MARISA BERENSON) a rich widow, for her money, his moral deterioration is complete. Moreover, when his only son, Brian, is killed in a riding accident, it seems that the last spark of real warmth and human love is extinguished in Barry’s nature. Yet, as we learn in the celebrated duel scene between Barry and his estranged stepson, Lord Bullingdon (LEON VITALI), that is not the case. Bullingdon despises Barry as an interloper and social climber who has squandered his mother’s wealth. In fact, Barry allows the estate to fall into ruin while he becomes a drunk and womanizer.
   In William Stephenson’s essay on the film, he writes, “Lord Bullingdon challenges his stepfather to a duel with pistols. ” By the time the duel takes place, Barry has acquired enough self-knowledge to realize that the lad has suffered a good deal because of Barry’s own selfishness. Therefore, Barry “goes through the ritual of firing a shot, but fires into the ground. ” Refusing to acknowledge Barry’s act of contrition, “Bullingdon takes his shot with deliberation and manages to shatter Barry’s leg. He has crippled his stepfather for life, an act of savagery done with exquisite decorum,” as befits an English gentleman. Hans Feldmann adds that, in the duel between Bullingdon and his stepfather,“Barry is the true victor. ” O’Neal’s performance in the scene implies that Barry, in standing his ground to receive Bullingdon’s shot, which permanently disables his leg, “achieves a dignity that Bullingdon betrays with the joyful expression of gratified rage, when he hears Barry’s cry of pain. ”The film concludes with Barry “boarding a stagecoach to oblivion. ”
   There is no doubt, then, that Kubrick wants us at this late point in the film to feel some degree of sympathy for Barry. Kubrick explained to Ciment: “Thackeray referred to Barry Lyndon as ‘a novel without a hero. ’ Barry is naive and uneducated. He is driven by a relentless ambition for wealth and social position. . . . This leads to great misfortune and unhappiness for himself and those around him. Your feelings about Barry are mixed, but he has charm and courage and it’s impossible not to like him, despite his vanity, his insensitivity, and his wickedness. ” After all,Kubrick concluded, Barry is not very bright; he is an overreacher, who gets in over his head in situations he cannot fully understand or cope with. In short, “He is a very real character who is neither a conventional hero nor a conventional villain. ” Even though Barry Lyndon’s running time of just over three hours makes it one of the longest movies Kubrick made (only SPARTACUS is longer), it still reflects the kind of cinematic economy that we expect from his work. Frequently, a single telling image can communicate more to the film viewer than several lines of dialogue or narration, and Kubrick proved himself a master at creating such visual symbolism. He shoots the scene in which Barry discovers Nora Brady flirting with his rival in the late afternoon, so that the dying sunlight can signal the demise of Barry’s hopes for ever winning Nora for himself. Later, in the scene in which Barry is engaged in flirting, ever so discreetly, with Lady Lyndon across a gaming table, a candelabra stands in the foreground of the shot. In this manner Kubrick emphasizes the flame that has been kindled in the lady for Barry’s youth and beauty, and the flame that has been kindled in Barry for her wealth and status. In photographing a scene lit solely by candles Kubrick marked an advance in cinematography, since no scene in a motion picture had ever been lit with so little illumination. He accomplished this by using an extremely sensitive lens, which originally had been developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for photographing the instrument panel of a space ship. Director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, 1959) was not impressed. He told writer Cameron Crowe that Kubrick “worked like six months trying to find a way to photograph somebody by candlelight, not artificial light. And nobody really gives a damn whether it is by candlelight or not. ” For his part, Kubrick was gratified that, even when making a costume picture, he was able to adapt the latest technical developments in other fields to cinema. Kubrick’s vision is not a pleasant one. He sees the superficially civilized world of the 18th-century as a selfish place where the people who win the battle of survival do so because they are stronger or more crafty, not more noble. Hence, when we contemplate how the promise-filled young Irishman Barry Lyndon, as played by O’Neal, turned into a disillusioned and vindictive older man by succumbing to this corrupt and violent world, and became old before his time through his dissolute living,we pity him almost in spite of ourselves. Kubrick adds a printed epilogue at film’s end which reminds us that the story took place long ago and that the characters “are all equal now. ”“The equality,” comments Stephenson, “is that of dusty death. ”
   Critic Pauline Kael complained when the film was released that Ryan O’Neal’s bland good looks were all wrong for the wastrel Barry Lyndon. By contrast, Dana Polan agreed with Kubrick that O’Neal was perfectly cast:“Barry Lyndon puts former Peyton Place and Love Story lover boy Ryan O’Neal into the role of a rough-cut Irish lad who will never really be assimilated into the aristocracy, and whose very un-English accent signals his inability to cross rigorously drawn social lines. ” Alan Spiegel concurs that O’Neal undoubtedly looks the part: “Certainly the body is right—sloping shoulder blades, hefty torso, and splay feet—a rustic even in a castle, and the face is emotionally apt”: soft, bland features “with a spoiled boy’s pout. ”
   The critics Martha Duffy and Richard Schickel likewise endorsed O’Neal’s performance, noting, “It is mainly by the look in O’Neal’s eyes, a sharp glint when he spies the main chance, a gaze of hurt befuddlement when things go awry,” that we understand what he is thinking.
   In discussing the film in later years, O’Neal told Jill Bernstein that, while Kubrick was shooting on location in Ireland, Kubrick received threats from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It seems that one morning, two men arrived at Kubrick’s rented house, pretending to be house painters. The cook ruefully informed CHRISTIANE KUBRICK, the director’s wife,“I know these lads. They’re not painters. Don’t let them in. ” The IRA was irate, O’Neal explained, because “we had a lot of British people on the picture. ”The following day O’Neal was in the makeup department and was told by one of the hairdressers,“Did you hear that there was an IRA threat today? Somebody called and asked for Mr. Kubrick, and they said, ‘You tell him he has twenty-four hours to get out of Ireland. ’” O’Neal ran to his dressing room, where he found Kubrick waiting for him. As he walked by a window, Kubrick snapped,“Duck down. They could shoot you through the window. Let’s go back to England. Today. ”To quote the old adage, when Kubrick’s unit departed,“They couldn’t see us for dust. ” O’Neal was not pleased that Kubrick did not have him narrate the film, since Barry tells his own story in Thackeray’s novel. Instead of Barry, Kubrick had an anonymous narrator tell Barry’s story in voiceover. “In the book Barry Lyndon narrates his own deranged view of things,” said O’Neal, and having him tell his own tale “was what made the story work. He was an eighteenth century crackpot. I was supposed to narrate the movie”; but then Kubrick decided to get an English character actor, MICHAEL HORDERN, who sounded to O’Neal like a tour guide in a museum. More than one critic stated that Kubrick’s using a nameless narrator was less effective than having Barry narrate the film.
   O’Neal recalled the number of takes that Kubrick required to get a scene right, as many as 25, and said that it drove him to exhaustion at times. But he told Duffy and Schickel that, nevertheless, he had some pleasant memories of the shoot. Once, after considerable effort, he finally managed to deliver what Kubrick was looking for in a particular scene. “He found a way to walk past me, giving instructions to the crew,” O’Neal remembered;“but as he passed me, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. It was the most beautiful and appreciated gesture in my life. It was the greatest moment of my career. ”
   After finishing Barry Lyndon, O’Neal opined that it was the most serious picture he had ever made-or that he ever would make. His prediction proved all too accurate. In The Main Event (1979) he played a boxer, hearkening back to his Golden Gloves days. He was directed by Norman Mailer in Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), a film which proved that, as a movie director, Mailer was a good novelist. O’Neal virtually dropped out of films soon after and made only two films in the 1990s, the last of which was Zero Effect (1998), a private eye yarn with Bill Pullman.
   O’Neal was married to Joann Moore (1963–1966) and had two children, Tatum O’Neal and Griffin O’Neal, both of whom had brief acting careers. Ryan O’Neal’s second marriage, in 1967, to actress Leigh Taylor-Young, ended in divorce, as did his third marriage, to Farrah Fawcett (in 1997). Withal, Barry Lyndon fixed a place for Ryan O’Neal in film history.
   ■ Bernstein, Jill, et al. ,“Stanley Kubrick:A Cinematic Odyssey,” Premiere 12, no. 7 (August 1999): 85–93, 98–100;
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 166–179;
   ■ Crowe, Cameron, Conversations with Wilder (New York: Knopf, 1999), pp. 23–24;
   ■ Duffy, Martha, and Richard Schickel, “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble: Barry Lyndon,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 159–170;
   ■ Falsetto, Mario, Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 191–200;
   ■ Kael, Pauline,“Kubrick’s Gilded Age,” in When the Lights Go Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980), pp. 101–107;
   ■ Scott, A. O. , “Opening Eyes to a Kubrick Masterpiece: Barry Lyndon,New York Times, April 16, 2000, sec. 2, p. 9;
   ■ Stephenson, William, “The Perception of History in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon,Literature/Film Quarterly 9, no. 4 (fall 1981): 251–259.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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