Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket, Odds Against Tomorrow). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow.
Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan, J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.
He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..
It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.
I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.
I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).
There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.
So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.
Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.
Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.
What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.
Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.
I finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.
Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.