In Praise of Robert Ryan

by |
08/03/2011 4:00 AM |

Howard Hughes, the dashing, self-made flyboy hero turned paranoid maniac, was an ideal Ryan role, and as the thinly disguised Hughes figure in Max Ophüls’s Caught (1949) he’s at first tall, dark and handsome, and then uses that gentle voice to catch and hold his poor manipulated bride, Barbara Bel Geddes, while allowing us to perceive the crazy gears spinning beneath his seething, roiling speech. Caught was something of a personal project for Ophüls, fired by Hughes a couple of years prior, and he was among many great directors to see something in Ryan: in addition to Ophüls, Lang, Zinnemann, and the Americans Fuller and Wise, conflicted man of action Anthony Mann and ultrasensitive Nick Ray both used Ryan frequently and well—as Film Forum’s selection indicates, Ryan worked with most of the best hidden talents of the postwar studio era: he was an ideal instrument for layering subtle depth onto genre fare, and is now something of a password for cinephiles as well (one of the professors in DeLillo’s White Noise praises his performance in Clash By Night). This series is wall-to-wall with auteurist favorites, even as it leaves out the movies Ryan made with Jean Renoir (Woman on the Beach) and Joseph Losey (The Boy with Green Hair) in favor of a sampling of his less-cult-beloved leading roles and other curios.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Ryan also tested himself with tough, literary roles on the New York stage and on live television. He was Jay Gatsby on Playhouse 90 in 1958—nearing 50, he must have been too old, but what a perfect role for him, a strapping American icon with a fatal bottled-up past. In Hollywood, he played a lot of generals as the studio system calcified in the 60s, assaying equal parts dull decency and establishment distaste, but good parts kept finding him, too. As the former running mate turned pursuer of The Wild Bunch (1969), Ryan is soul-sick and as Black Irish as he ever got, his contemptuous outbursts contorting self-pity into something disturbingly virulent. (“We’re after men—and I wish to God I was with them.”) Peckinpah’s great Westerns all hinge on characters who live with their compromises, and Ryan, unsettlingly against the odds of his stable biography and committed, constructive lifestyle, was better than any other actor at conveying the agony of living inside the person who’s done the things you’ve done.

The impossibility of ever really living with yourself is the subject of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh; John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film of the play was Ryan’s swan song, a performance that prompted a rhapsodic Pauline Kael to ask, in her New Yorker review, whether it could really be true that he didn’t find out he was dying until after the shoot wrapped. Ryan succumbed to lung cancer in 1973, following by a year his Quaker wife, the writer Jessica Cadwalader (with whom he founded North Hollywood’s Oakwood School, in the early 50s). He was 63; his career spanned a little more than a quarter century, from WWII up not quite to the fall of Saigon, and tells a secret history of America in decline and fighting madly not to know it.

7 Comment

  • I’m glad there’s someone else who thinks Robert Ryan was the greatest actor in the history of cinema.

  • You can check out his greatest unknown performance “About Mrs. Leslie” (54) on Netflix on-demand.

  • Robert Ryan has always been my favourite actor, even though he died when I was only 15 years old. he just seemed to have so many layers to his performances, and an uncanny natural inteligence in his acting.
    John Meiklem Sept 23rd 2011

  • Mrs. Leslie is excellent but very sad. But it’s only a move and Robert Ryan is in it.

  • He always brought something special to every role. One of my favorites was his outstanding portrayal of evil in Billy Budd.

  • I have just finished watchimg”gods little acre”[1958]movie.why Robert Ryan did not win an acadamy award for his great acting in it,amazes me!.

  • I highly recommend the Andre de Toth Western/Noir film, ‘The Day Of The Outlaw’, with Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, and Elisha Cook Jr. It is a little known, low budget film which packs a wallop.