I remember very well all the excitement surrounding the 1975 release of Barry Lyndon; director Stanley Kubrick’s highly anticipated follow-up to A Clockwork Orange. Four years had elapsed since Kubrick’s stylized vision of an all-too-imaginable future opened to controversy and equal parts critical acclaim/antipathy, and Barry Lyndon ‒ shrouded in secrecy, costing $11-million, two-years-in-the-making, 3-hours long, and starring the eyebrow-raising choice of actor Ryan O’Neal in the lead ‒ augured no less.
Arriving on a wave of publicity crested by a lengthy Time magazine cover story declaring it “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble,” Barry Lyndon was hyped as a painstakingly detailed 18th century epic adapted from the little-known 19th century novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair). Shot in Ireland, England, and Germany over the course of a 300-day shooting schedule, next to nothing was known of the film’s storyline, save for it being a kind of inverse Pilgrim’s Progress chronicling the rise and fall of a handsome Irish rake. What was instead proffered at the forefront of all publicity, eclipsing references to either the actors’ performances or the general dramatic appeal of the story itself, was the fact that it was a Stanley Kubrick film.
Like Hitchcock, Kubrick and his reputation as an innovative perfectionist were the real stars of the film. In fact, the single most-discussed element about Barry Lyndon beyond the cult of worship surrounding Kubrick himself was the film’s sumptuous cinematography. Much was made of how Kubrick & Co. eschewed the traditional use of artificial lighting to create a period-perfect look through the near-exclusive application of candles and natural light. Advance word was that it was Kubrick’s masterpiece; an epic historical spectacle with art house aesthetics.
|Ryan O'Neal as Redmond Barry|
|Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon|
|Murray Melvin as Reverend Samuel Runt|
|Patrick Magee as The Chevalier du Balibari|
|Leon Vitali as Lord Bullington|
Barry Lyndon opened on Christmas Day at
Northpoint Theater, advance buzz suggesting an event more than a motion
picture. With all this buildup, you’d think I’d be chomping at the bit to see Barry
Lyndon when it opened.
While I loved Barry Lyndon’s Saul Bass-designed poster art (below), and was impressed by what little I’d seen in the way of movie stills, none of that translated into an interest in actually seeing the film itself.
But the main reason for my disinterest was my (then) overall aversion to epic costume dramas in general. Sure, the Julie Christie factor was enough to entice me into seeing Far From The Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, but for the most part I was of the opinion that any movie asking me to sit still longer than two and a half hours had better be a musical. Barry Lyndon looked to me like it was either going to be a somber, picturesque snooze like Lawrence of Arabia, or (based on how often the words “scoundrel” and “rascal” popped up in reviews) one of those tediously bawdy romps like Tom Jones or Lock Up Your Daughters. No thanks.
|Barry Lyndon's lush spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events |
and characters are themselves a subversive commentary on classic romantic tradition
So I didn’t see Barry Lyndon when it premiered that December, and I’m not sure I’d have seen it at all were not for my older sister who was attending an art school at the time where it was something of an art history mandate for students to check out Barry Lyndon for its cinematography redolent of the paintings of 18th century artists like John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.
Like everyone else, my sister raved about the film’s visual splendor, but her going back to see Barry Lyndon two more times persuasively backed up her assertion of it being an irresistibly entertaining film, as well; something I’d yet to come across in any of the reviews I’d read. Hailing it as the perfect costume picture for people who didn’t like costume pictures (that would be me), she sold me on the film by alluding to Kubrick’s success - intentional or not - in fashioning an epic heroic romantic drama devoid of either a hero or romance. A film whose lush spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events and characters are a subversive commentary on classic Romance tradition.
I saw Barry Lyndon the next day.
That was 40 years ago. And since then I’ve seen all but three of Stanley Kubrick’s movies (Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss, & Paths of Glory), but my opinion of Barry Lyndon then hasn’t changed: it’s my absolute favorite of all his films.
|Nominated for 7 Oscars, Barry Lyndon won 4|
Cinematography, Costume, Art Direction, and Musical Score
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the stylization in Stanley Kubrick’s films as being a form of emotional evasion. I don’t think that was meant as a compliment, but as it pertains to Barry Lyndon, it defines why this film strikes such a chord with me.
Barry Lyndon begins in 1750 and tells the episodic story of a young, naïve Irish lad (O’Neal) of modest gentry status who aspires to aristocracy. As self-deluding as Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, as social-climbing as Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths; Redmond fancies himself a well-bred man of courage and honor out to claim his rightful position in the world. That his quest calls upon him to summarily assume the roles of gambler, cheat, deserter, spy, and adulterer, prove of little consequence.
Attempting to live his life as though he were the hero of a romantic novel, Redmond’s lack of self-awareness blinds him to the flaws in his character which, while successful in getting him where he wants, unfailingly stand in the way of getting him what he wants.
The combined effect of Kubrick’s distancing camera and Michael Hordern’s subjective, coolly disdainful narration is that the chronicling of Redmond Barry’s ascendancy and decline becomes a doleful implosion of romantic myth. Dramatic irony replaces clichéd sentimentality, and the result is a film both moving and reflective. What looks at first glance like emotional evasion might well be a director not finding it necessary to tell the viewer what they should be feeling.
|Marie Kean as Barry's headstrong mother|
I think Ryan O’Neal gives his best comedy performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) and the best dramatic performance of his career in Barry Lyndon. To my mind he’s really quite marvelous and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. (Robert Redford was considered and turned it down. Sparing us from having to put up with a Barry Lyndon sporting the same layered Malibu beach boy shag haircut he’s had in every film he’s ever made.)
Barry Lyndon rests on our being able to see both the good and bad in Redmond, never being sure from scene to scene if he’s truly as dishonorable or as virtuous as he appears. I'm not sure how he pulled it off, but O’Neal captures Redmond’s idealism, cowardice, cruelty, heart, with a depth that brings home the ultimate tragedy of the story.
Cabaret), has a role that's largely silent, yet her performance I find to be the film's most poignant. A former model, Berenson benefits from precisely the same subtle projection that makes models in fashion magazines appear to convey exactly what the observer seeks to find in their sphinxlike countenances. Certainly I'm moved by the "corruption of beauty" nuances at the core of her character arc, but I think there's a great deal more to Berenson's performance than being heartstoppingly beautiful in her period finery.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Certain critical buzzwords and phrases always raise red flags for me. Whenever I read that a stage performer “puts on a good show,” I take that to mean a meager talent is attempting to mask their shortcomings behind the bells and whistles of production values. Any fashion trend signified as “fun!” is sure to be ghastly. So, similarly, whenever movie critics go on and on about how beautifully a film is shot, I can’t help but assume there’s precious little else about it to recommend.
In promoting Barry Lyndon stateside, Warner Bros, hamstrung both by the film’s largely unknown (at least in the U.S.) cast of British character actors, and perhaps an inability to extol the acting virtues of Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson convincingly, built its entire marketing around the beauty of film's cinematography and the technical artistry in its recreation of a bygone era.
Like many, I took this to suggest Barry Lyndon had nothing to offer beyond its visual grandeur, when in fact it's merely an indication of the limitations inherent in marketing a film that fails to fit into a set genre category.
Barry Lyndon is without a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever made, and in 1975 on the big screen, it fairly took my breath away. But over the years I’ve come to better appreciate the film's visual magnificence as something more than just ornamental show. Its images have a poetic quality about them that has taken on a melancholy richness in this day of CGI fabrication.
When I watch Barry Lyndon today, I’m aware of witnessing the recreation of a time and era that couldn’t be achieved today without digital manipulation. I actually respond emotionally to the fact that what I’m seeing has been painstakingly rendered in the real world. People, not computer-generated clones, occupy the crowded battle scenes; the stately landscapes vistas are actual locations; the immense interiors are authentic.
Even Barry Lyndon’s deliberate pacing and long-held static shots, once a source of much criticism, feel positively rapturous in today’s climate of I-don’t know-what-the-hell-I’m-looking-at rapid-fire editing.
Better still, Barry Lyndon's beautiful facade masks many somber truths. There is nothing heroic in death; war is absurd; pain endures, and what happens to us can't help but change us. And not always for the better.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Barry Lyndon didn't do very well during its initial release, but as so often happens when a talented director passes on and film fans are left to contemplate the meager talents still drawing breath; Barry Lyndon has been reappraised, reassessed, and hailed by many as an overlooked masterpiece.
When those who once dismissed it as boring and sluggish now sing its praises, I try not to look too smug while suppressing a desire to jog their memories with a well-timed, "I told you so!".
I won't say it's a romp, a crowd-pleaser, or a movie that'll tug at your heartstrings, but for those open to an epic scaled to human dimensions, Barry Lyndon contains a great deal of humor (mostly ironic), action, and compelling drama. I particularly like the cast of supporting players, some familiar, many more, less so, but even the briefest roles are brought to vivid, dimensional life. In many ways Barry Lyndon is like Ken Russell with self-control: a feast for the eyes, heaven to listen to (the classical music score is gorgeous), and a roster of brilliant supporting actors with fascinating faces.
Stanley Kubrick's long out of circulation first film, Fear & Desire (1953) is
available in its entirety on YouTube HERE
Kubrick's masterpiece gets the Mad Magazine treatment