Robert Ryan, in your film editor’s opinion the greatest actor in the history of cinema, was born 100 years ago today, in Chicago. The Chicago Reader is all over the occasion, offering the expected rundown of his iconic performances (well, some of them, there were a lot), alongside Reader film editor J.R. Jones’s feature about his life, which draws from a rather fascinating primary source. In the 50s, Ryan wrote a letter to his three children: “The time might come someday to one of you—or all of you—when you become curious about my early life. If that should ever happen, you will have this record to tell you.” The Reader has the full letter; both it and Jones’s article offer a rich history of Chicago life and politics in the early twentieth century, and paint a revealing picture of the eloquent, introspective, guarded actor. Which should come as no surprise, really.
In life Ryan was a loving husband and devoted if distant father (and a staunch supporter of progressive causes), but in his best performances (personal favorites are an embittered sellout ex-outlaw in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, an insecure tyrannical Howard Hughes a clef in Ophuls’s Caught, and a repressed homosexual crime boss in Fuller’s House of Bamboo), this tall, handsome former Dartmouth boxing champ suggested, with utmost subtlety, access to untold seething depths of doubt and self-loathing. If our favorite movie stars embody how America would most like to see itself, Ryan embodied what America is secretly most afraid that it really is.
For this reason—and for his collaborations with, at one time or another, most of the postwar era’s most interesting filmmakers—he’s a favorite of cinephiles, both professional and amateur. Certain cultural commentators find him especially suggestive. From Don DeLillo’s White Noise, in a scene depicting a cultural-studies bull session:
“How old were you when you first realized your father was a jerk?”
“Twelve and a half,” Grappa said. “I was sitting in the balcony at the Loew’s Fairmont watching Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle, Paul Douglas as Jerry d’Amato and the great Robert Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer.”
This seems just about right.