Sunday, June 13, 2010

Robert Ryan: Reading Was Always Fundamental

As part of an ongoing series on reading in this blog, this offering is a nod to one more person whose life was shaped in part by the ideas between the covers of a book...

Words were something precious to the introspective actor whose long career in the most pictorial medium of storytelling depended on his ability to blend his visually arresting persona with a character. A man on horseback, a bitter soldier, a worn fighter, a gunslinger, a violent protector, avenger, malcontent or seducer--Robert Ryan's many roles often seemed tailor-made for his imposing, taciturn form, but were so at odds with the spark that illuminated his performances from within.

I guess most people think of Robert Ryan as a somber, even menacing presence on-screen. Yet this rare mid-1950s photo captures the actor looking at peace and quite happy to have a book in his hands, while a well-worn script lies behind him. I like this image since it seems to reflect Ryan's lifelong interest in words, and reveals a bit of his shyness and a gentler nature than is generally known. Typecasting being a Hollywood fact of life for the big, dark man with the intensely penetrating gaze and a gift for plumbing the depths of self-knowledge in a character's soul, this civilized moment was one that he rarely had a chance to display in his many film roles.

The actor tended to pursue solitary activities off the set while immersed in filming, according to those who knew him. At home, he might practice pool in his family's game room while listening to music. Books by Hemingway, Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brecht were among those writers whose company the diffident man kept in his time alone. An annual habit of reading James Joyce's richly complex Ulysses engaged his mind and imagination while on several remote locations. "I'm fated to work in faraway, desolate places," he once observed, "I envy Cary Grant because he makes all his pictures in Monte Carlo, or the Riviera, while I make mine in deserts with a dirty shirt, a two-day growth of beard and bad food." While part of him may have longed for more stylish, light-hearted roles, he once wondered if the dearth of such parts might be because "maybe this isn't the time for people to think about love, what with the war, the atom bombs and other things to worry's movies are concerned with crime, prejudice, greed, valor and almost everything but love." Ryan observed in the early '50s that "you never hear the simple words 'I love you' spoken on screen anymore. They have disappeared. Instead, the guy just takes the girl for granted or slugs her for good measure."

While Robert Ryan apparently believed that sound played a role in the demise of on-screen love, he seemed a bit wistful that "when lovers began to talk, they became unbelievable. I don't think people talk much when they make love and it looks silly to see lovers on the screen tossing endearing phrases at each other."

Perhaps one of the few times that Ryan found a film role that allowed him to play a credible, bittersweet romantic figure was when he played opposite Shirley Booth in About Mrs. Leslie (1954-Daniel Mann). This film, long out of circulation, will be screened on TCM on Sept. 8, 2010 at 10:00 PM Eastern Time and should finally allow a new generation of classic film buffs to see what this peculiarly engaging movie is like.

When given a chance to delve into well-chosen words in the course of his work, he found a way to elicit the most from his lines, investing terse cinematic dialogue with enormous depth of feeling and often a pained self-awareness. As the weary, contradictory Deke Thornton in pursuit of The Wild Bunch (1969-Sam Peckinpah) he revealed his true loyalties with the words "We're after men - and I wish to God I was with them." As a menacing, burned-out cop being devoured by his spiritually corrosive job in On Dangerous Ground (1952-Nicholas Ray), he plaintively demanded of one of his victims, "Why do you make me do it? You know you're gonna talk! I'm gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?" When his adulterous lover in Clash By Night (1952-Fritz Lang) asked his character "How could I walk out?," Ryan's impulsive Earl Pfeiffer dismissed her hesitancy, claiming that "If you have a dream, live it. If you have a hope, chase it." As a conflicted Melville character in Billy Budd (1962-Peter Ustinov), his only explanation of his character's stoniness was the clipped, eloquent line, "I am what I am and what the world has made me."

The heights of elation and depths of despair that accompany most lives in the arts were something that he seemed to be aware of, stoically accepting the inevitability of some aspects of an actor's life, but never seemingly satisfied with the range of roles that the movies offered him, regarding only "four or five of some 80 motion pictures to be any good." Perhaps his greatest professional solace may have been when less remunerative but challenging stage plays piqued his interest, allowing him to play Coriolanus, Marc Antony and even appear in a rare comedic role as Walter Burns in The Front Page over the years. A chance to appear in a West Coast theatrical production of Jean Giraudoux's Tiger at the Gates (inspired by The Iliad and translated by Christopher Fry), once prompted the veteran actor to effuse like a novice to the director, "Now you're talking my language. I would pay you for the privilege of reading beautiful words such as these. When do we start rehearsals?"

Once, in an effort to raise funds for a progressive school he helped to foster, he eagerly participated gratis in a dramatic reading of Shaw's Major Barbara, playing Undershaft to Marsha Hunt's Barbara and James Whitmore's Bill Walker in a production that was described by a witness as much more than a dry reading for the actors, as well as the audience. "...[T]he sparks really flew once the audiences sat down," remembered director Lamont Johnson. "It was bloody exciting."

Right: Marsha Hunt & Robert Ryan during rehearsals of a play in the late-1950s

Best of all for those of us who never had a chance to see Ryan stretch his gifts on stage, is the film of The Iceman Cometh (1973-John Frankenheimer), as well as an aural recording he made at the time of a 1971 stage production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which can still be had in libraries and found online.

Language, which he revered and wrote rather well, was something that the actor reportedly used sparingly in private life. Not a man for small talk, he was said to weigh his words carefully. The actor's biographer wrote that the "discomfort Ryan felt initiating conversations seemed to concern whether he thought the subject in discourse was important enough to talk if he rigidly interpreted the maxim 'Better to say nothing than something unimportant."

Often cast in films that explored crime, war or conquering a frontier, Robert Ryan seemed to ride point on the ragged boundaries of human nature, exposing the conflicts and contradictions within him and us, and engaging audiences in a decades-long philosophical meditation on the thorniest questions of life.

Please Note: On Aug. 13th, 2010, TCM will feature 24 hours of Robert Ryan movies as part of their annual Summer Under the Stars celebration. The full schedule for that month's worth of programming can be seen here.

Jarlett, Franklin, Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography (McFarland, 1997). Lanken, Dane, "Robert Ryan: A Chase, A Struggle on a River Embankment," Oct. 16, 1971. The Montreal Gazette, "The Full Text of Ryan's Letter" The Chicago Reader, Oct. 29, 2009. Thomas, Bob, "Robert Ryan Says Love is Dead on Screen," Tri-City Herald, Jan. 24, 1951.


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