A Figure in a Landscape:
Ryan O'Neal's Performance in Barry Lyndon

A Discussion

Neale Paterson: Ryan O'Neal's performance in Barry Lyndon is definitely the principal weakness of the film, in my opinion, although I do not think this is entirely his own fault. I think Kubrick must take some of the blame. In the latter scenes, when Barry is required to show genuine human feeling, O'Neal makes a pretty good fist of it - better than might be expected. But in the early scenes, when his character is being established, he is as dead and dull as ditchwater and as wooden as a plank. Which is very odd, since the scenes are essentially comic, and O'Neal, while no Olivier, is a tolerably good comic actor.

I believe the woodenness he displays is a deliberate strategy by Kubrick to avoid "easy" comic effects, to portray Barry's calculating side and the way he soaks up everything going on around him, quietly storing it up for future use. It's a nice idea. But to achieve it he seems to have instructed O'Neal to rigorously exclude any show of exuberance or even emotion. With an actor of greater subtlety this might well have worked, but O'Neal comes across as merely impassive and stone-faced, and many of his scenes fall embarrassingly flat.

Kubrick should have chosen a more suitable actor, or at least adapted the part to O'Neal's particular talents. As it is, O'Neal is not much more than a (barely) animated clothes-peg, a cypher overwhelmed by the gorgeous landscapes and interiors.

Kubrick is not really an "actor's" director. Working with an actor of the intelligence and talent of MacDowell or Nicholson he can come up with some spectacular results, but he is not the man to coax a performance out of an actor with whom he cannot engage intellectually, or who is simply miscast.

Ernest Tomplinson: Earlier on...I'd expressed the opinion that Kubrick shouldn't have cast Ryan O'Neal; after some thought, I'm (partially) retracting that opinion, for this reason: Redmond Barry, once he attains his ephemeral "success", does his level best to imitate an English aristocrat, and he strives to obtain a peerage, to that end.

But he's never very convincing, is he? He has money (or at least credit), and the borrowed name of Lyndon, but little else. His attempts at obtaining his peerage all come to naught -- not only because of an ill-timed public altercation with Lord Bullingdon, but because, I think, none of the "best people" that he tries to flatter and impress ever shake the opinion that this rakish pretender isn't the genuine article. I get the distinct impression that his attempt to spend his way to a title was doomed, for that reason. For example -- the funny, if painful, scene wherein Barry is trying to impress some anonymous nobleman with his taste in art by purchasing some third-rate painting (by the renowned 18th century artist "Ludovico Corday"!) from him -- doubtless at a very high price. The nobleman, in short, played Barry for a sucker. And all the other Lord Wendovers and Lord Hallums and the rest, whom Barry was kissing up to and showering with money, were suckering Barry as well -- gladly taking the money, but never with any intention of giving Barry what he wanted.

So, it might be just coincidence, but placing an American in a film that's brimming with solid British character actors (including Magee, Quigley, Stone, Rossiter, and Sharp) actually now seems a good method to try to convey to us, the American audience, the feeling that 'this guy just doesn't fit in -- he tries, and it doesn't work.'

However, lest I give the impression that I think that O'Neal was a stroke of casting genius, I should say that O'Neal's falseness works against him in the earlier scenes, where he's still in Ireland and, in theory anyway, among friends. He's not supposed to look like he's trying too hard to play a part; quite the opposite, I should think. Barry's passionate outrage leading to the "duel" with Captain Quin is honest and heartfelt, but O'Neal's non-acting makes the quarrel seem forced and false.

Geoffrey Alexander: I'm somewhat in agreement, Ernest -- I'd add to your analysis the idea that casting another talented but lesser known actor in the role (a Gabriel Byrne, say, or an Aidan Quinn) and then directing him to be void of anything but pure charm (even Redmond's guile is inept) would have allowed the incredible wealth of background (in characters, settings, even props) to overwhelm this figure. To compensate, Kubrick would have had to make Redmond Barry an even stronger character -- which would have hurt the film.

As it is, the figure of Ryan O'Neal hold our focus, even as he's directed to function as nothing more than the still center of everyone else's comic machinations (even what little ambitious motivation he displays in the latter half of the film is urged upon him by his mother). While the casting of a known Hollywood quantity probably insured Kubrick his backing, there were many such to choose from (even if he didn't have a Byrne or a Ralph Fiennes to choose from back then) -- I think Kubrick made the only really right choice that was available to him.

And consider too, that for someone as classically Hollywood-handsome as O'Neal, he has a remarkably comic effect when he plays straight -- you just can't look at that non-plussed puppy-dog face, and not laugh sometimes -- remember Paper Moon and What's Up Doc?. Kubrick's mistake, if any, may have been, not in casting O'Neal, but in failing to use him as effectively as he could have -- though then we'd have to say that Bogdanovich the better director in at least this instance. Yikes.

Bilge Ebiri: Perhaps Kubrick's misstep in casting O'Neal might have had nothing to do with this film in particular, but with the public perception of O'Neal's talents, and with their unwillingness to accept him in a historical setting. And certainly, O'Neal's career after Barry Lyndon has done nothing to revise this assessment -- unlike, say Nicholson, who now seems to portray every character he plays as a variation on Jack Torrance, or even R.Lee Ermey, who has turned his Sgt. Hartman character into a career all its own. Thus, unfortunately, despite what I consider to be an excellent and perfect performance, O'Neal's presence ultimately hinders the possibility of a re-assessment of this magnificent film by today's viewers.

Geoffrey Alexander: Which is ironic, considering that part of the reason for casting O'Neal may have been to attract the audience, or even to give them a 'way into' the film.

Bilge Ebiri: Seeing as how Kubrick is as masterful a tactician as he is an artist, perhaps we should also consider Kubrick's logistical strategy in casting Ryan O'Neal. Remember that Barry has to age quite a bit in the film. While plenty of stars have aged effectively onscreen (via the use of make-up, etc.) in plenty of historical films, O'Neal has to age not from maturity to old age (see F.Murray Abraham in Amadeus, John Lone in The Last Emperor, etc.), but from extreme youth to middle-age. Given Kubrick's noted frustrations about not being able to film actors as they age (also given the unfounded rumors speculating that he is in fact currently doing so, hidden away in his mansion somewhere with his favorite young actor, for whichever film), Ryan O'Neal is a perfect choice for Redmond Barry. He looks young and portrays Barry as "but a boy" in the first half of the film, and ages quite effectively into middle-age in the second part of the film.

Geoffrey Alexander: I agree with you about it being necessary to accept him in the role: Before I'd seen Barry Lyndon, I'd already seen O'Neal in other roles -- and he is a distinctive actor -- at least in terms of his appearance. And of course, I saw him in others afterwards. But I've now seen the film so many times, I've watched him as Redmond Barry more often than I've seen him in any other role -- when I see him doing other things, I see Barry acting in those parts, almost. I wonder if many people's problems are not with the performance, but with the fact seeing someone so familiar to them, someone they have only identified with young, modern American characters? Seeing a person one can't believe as a young Irishman of the 18th Century, as you say, may lead one to regard his character and mannerisms as rather wooden. And Barry is a rather "wooden" lad.

Bilge Ebiri: Barry isn't supposed to be "wooden", as he's supposed to be awkward. Even in the scenes in Ireland, where he's among his 'own people' -- remember that he is also extremely young (even his cousins refer to him as a "young monkey"). Barry has just grown into his body (note the costuming: all his clothes seem to be just slightly too tight for him -- I'll bet that they fit him six months earlier). His emotional and social awkwardness is thus supplemented and enhanced by his physical awkwardness. So, in this sense, Barry is still alienated from his surroundings -- not by language or culture but by age and the melancholy that follows his romantic refusal.

So O'Neal doesn't fit in -- and he's not supposed to, not in this first part or the second. At times, he looks bumbling. He is a man-boy, and one can understand why Nora might prefer Quinn, the "pleasant rattle of a man", who looks good in his regimental uniform. Barry looks pathetic in any of these scenes, and how many of us have felt pathetic at this age? How many of us have felt alienated, awkward -- as if we not only were, but, more importantly, looked ridiculous? Kubrick is playing upon all of this. Redmond Barry is in fact a repository of all the disconnection that human beings feel in society. Perhaps the alienation that technology brought about in 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't such a novelty after all. Perhaps it just brought out what was lying beneath our surfaces all along -- that we like to exclude as much as we like to congregate, and we feel alienated as much as we feel like we belong (see Bertolucci's The Conformist for further exploration of this theme). That too lies beneath the surface of Ryan O'Neal's presence as Redmond Barry in this film.

Geoffrey Alexander: Agreed....

Bilge Ebiri: I think O'Neal gives an excellent performance, and I would direct anyone who does not agree to the scene where he faces his dying son on the deathbed. O'Neal's performance is perfect -- at first, averting his eyes, avoiding eye-contact, and then facing his son, trying to lie to him, telling him that he's not going to die. Listen to the way he whispers his lines, and to the way his voice breaks as he does so. This kind of emoting without affecting is SO difficult, even for the finest actors, that I still have a hard time believing that he was acting in that scene. When he finally breaks up -- it's shattering, every time I watch it, and I've watched this scene many times. Also, note how well his delivery of the story of his heroics matches his earlier delivery of the same story. His intonations are the same, but this time he's got tears in his eyes, and he can't keep it up -- his voice breaks up and he falls apart. O'Neal portrays this deterioration so well that it's terrifying.

Likewise, in those scenes when Barry doesn't quite connect with the audience's emotion -- for instance, when he cries upon first seeing the Chevalier -- this is in fact not a problem with the performance but an intentional moment placed by Kubrick himself. Redmond's tears don't quite reach out to the audience, but let us not forget that the Narrator at this point acknowledges, "There's many a man who will not understand the cause of the burst of feeling which was now about to take place." Likewise, the Narrator discusses the "splendor" and "nobleness" of the Chevalier's appearance and manner, when all we see is a guy in an eyepatch eating eggs and reading a letter. And the scene is devoid of music, which is rare for the more emotional parts of this film. Perhaps Kubrick is acknowledging an inner life beneath his characters, allowing a moment of feeling that we cannot understand; perhaps, as Jean Renoir once advised, 'leaving one door open on his set'.

Geoffrey Alexander: And, come to think of it, Redmond Barry isn't the only character with whom audiences are almost required by Kubrick to have some problems with in regard to their motivations. But, that's another topic entirely...

---------------------- [Image]