The last book on this list of books I read this summer, mostly during my three week stay in Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Mallorca), is Franklin Jarlett’s biography of Robert Ryan. Ryan is, I guess, my favourite film star ever, so I devoured the book in a day.
This is the only biography of Robert Ryan that I know of, at least in English. Like so many, he eventually became more popular in France due to the re-evaluation by the Cahiers du Cinéma – gang. This was a fate he shared with one of his directors, Samuel Fuller.
The biography is pretty much what you would expect and is a solid presentation of Ryan’s life. Jarlett is understandably a very positive biographer, highlighting the generosity of Ryan and talking in some length about his liberal political and social activism. If you are going to write a biography like this, you have to be a bit admiring of the man you are spending time portraying. In Ryan’s case, I see no reason not to be admiring. He seems like a rock of normality in a Hollywood so often driven by fame and superficiality. Ryan was more the down to earth type, but Jarlett does manage to let us glimpse the man outside his films.
Jarlett writes about how contemporaries like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made big careers for themselves, partly by taking an active part in setting up their own production companies, but not least by actively chasing roles with star potential. Ryan always seemed too modest for this. After his breakthrough role in Crossfire, where he played a racist thug, he was often typecast as unsympathetic or borderline psychotic characters. Jarlett writes well about how this possibly precluded Ryan in getting the same kind of stardom as the above mentioned gentlemen. He manages to show us the few occasions where Ryan expressed a certain resentment or regret about this. While never bitter, he mostly regretted not being offered more quality films, for too many years having to play in films not worthy of his talent just to earn an income.
Unlike some biographies, in this case, I think you definitely have to be a fan to enjoy the book. I’ve read autobiographies by John Huston, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller that were all so well written and downright exciting, that the reader could enjoy them cold. For one thing a biography is not an autobiography, so the genius of the protagonist is not necessarily reflected in the tale. Jarlett’s biography of Ryan is sturdy and solid, but lacks perhaps some spark or reason to read for the non-Ryanist. The book is also split in two, where the first half is the biography, and the second part is a “critical filmography”. This latter part is very handy for scholarly purposes, but also for the above average Ryan-fan. All his films are included, with full technical specifications (cast list, company, year, producer, screenplay, etc.), followed by abstracts of contemporary reviews of the film in question.
Jarlett’s language is not particularly adventurous, but serves its purpose. I am, however, left with a feeling that there should be more to this tale, and all biographies are indeed tales. For one thing, the characters never really come to life under Jarlett’s pen. Just because one is writing about real persons, doesn’t mean that the text magically will transform them into full-bodied specimen on the page. There is enough here, though, to mourn both Ryan’s lack of roles and his premature death of cancer at the age of 63. Jarlett seems to have talked to all the relevant players and I guess that this is the only Ryan biography we will ever see, as many of the interviewees have since died, such as John Frankenheimer. (The book is from 1990). And I have to compliment Jarlett for having both the inclination and the stamina to write this book, as I can’t think of a single movie star more deserving of a biography and critical filmography than Robert Ryan. If you are a fan, you should definately read this biography.
I don’t think I’ll write much more about this book now, as I plan to write a longer post about Robert Ryan at a later date. If you are at all curious about the man and what he was able to, I’d suggest the following films:
Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann 1947)
The Set-Up (dir. Robert Wise 1949)
On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray 1951)
The Naked Spur (dir. Anthony Mann 1953)
Inferno (dir. Roy Baker 1953)
House of Bamboo (dir. Samuel Fuller 1955)
Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov 1962)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)
I could mention many more, but in these, at least he is given a bit to do and they are all very good films. Inferno is a personal favourite of mine, but should be caught in 3-D. It is still the best film I have seen in that format. For once, the technology actually worked to enhance the story, letting us experience the desolation and aloneness in the middle of a brutal unforgiving nature. Act of Violence is another favourite. It is one of the best and truest Noirs I have seen; instead of a femme fatale, though, there is a histoire fatale, to put it a bit wankerish. I will, I hope, explain these choices, together with his other roles, in a later post.
Well, that was that for this year’s Summer Reading. I hope against reason, that these posts have not been boring to the point of suicide. I think I’ve written about 10.000 words now, in about a week, so that was a bit more than the quick overview I had planned. Perhaps these books are not all what one would consider suitable for lazy days at the beach or slumbering afternoons under the shade, but all in all I’m satisfied with my choices. This year, I actually aimed for readability and more or less accessible literary works, rather than the more convoluted narratives I’ve sometimes brought with me on my vacations. Maybe this means I’m getting even more lazy…