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The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby oscotto » July 10th, 2015, 5:05 pm

Greetings J.R., I'm so pleased that you are covering the legacy of my favorite actor, Robert Ryan. His intelligence shines through every role I've seen him in. My personal favorite is Miss Lonelyhearts (1959). His disillusioned William Shrike was riveting to watch on screen. He was amazingly perverse in his ability to needle the other characters. Did he ever offer a back story about what it was like to work on this project? So many of the roles he took on seemed to be the opposite of the kind of man he really was. Thanks, Scott

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 10th, 2015, 5:53 pm

kingrat wrote:You've already mentioned Ryan's troubles at RKO. Troubles with Howard Hughes? Who'd have thunk it? How do you think Ryan's career would have been different at another studio? He doesn't seem to fit the MGM mold, for instance.


What a great question! I think he would have done pretty well at Warners, though their great gangster films had largely petered out by the time Ryan came along in the early 40s. You make a fair point about MGM, but remember that it produced three of Ryan's best films--ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948), THE NAKED SPUR (1953), and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955). Also, after RKO unloaded Ryan, he had nice deals at Fox, Paramount, and Universal, but with only a few exceptions (ABOUT MRS. LESLIE at Paramount; INFERNO and HOUSE OF BAMBOO at Fox), none of those studios had any idea what to do with him. RKO may have been a mess under Hughes, but there's no question that Ryan gave more memorable performances there than he did anywhere else.
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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 10th, 2015, 6:15 pm

oscotto wrote:My personal favorite is Miss Lonelyhearts (1959). His disillusioned William Shrike was riveting to watch on screen. He was amazingly perverse in his ability to needle the other characters. Did he ever offer a back story about what it was like to work on this project?


I'm not a huge fan of LONELYHEARTS--in fact, I give it a pretty good shellacking in the book--but I've met several other people who really like it, which I find intriguing. Ryan considered the movie "a misfire" and "a compromise" because it was so watered down from the Nathanael West novella, which is a profoundly Catholic story and a masterpiece of black humor. Most of the stories about the production have to do with Montgomery Clift being completely wasted on the set; as Lisa Ryan detailed in her SSO chat, her father loved Myrna Loy and had always wanted to work with her, but during LONELYHEARTS she spent every spare moment trying to keep Clift from going around the bend.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby oscotto » July 10th, 2015, 7:07 pm

J.R. Loy mentioned in her autobiography that she liked working with Ryan and that their scenes together offered her an unusually meaty assignment. She also talked about the tormented Clift. I read Miss Lonelyhearts and it is indeed "watered down" on screen. Nonetheless, I find Ryan's performance fascinating to watch. Thanks for your reply.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 10th, 2015, 7:13 pm

kingrat wrote:What did Ryan think about ON DANGEROUS GROUND? Was this one of his personal favorites?


Oddly I could never find a single quote from Ryan revealing his opinion of ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and his children don't remember him talking about it at all. I say "oddly" because he gives a mesmerizing performance, one of his very best, and the bifurcated story, still a matter of debate among critics and fans alike, highlights like no other movie the tension between tenderness and rage that was the key to Ryan's screen persona. Bernard Eisenschitz's wonderful biography of Nicholas Ray has some brief commentary from Ryan about working with Ray on the picture, but that's about it as far as I know.

His silence on the matter may not be so surprising, though; I think artists have a hard time appraising their own work, and they tend to downgrade projects with unpleasant memories attached. ON DANGEROUS GROUND had a pretty rocky history: the studio didn't want to do it, and even John Houseman, the producer, had serious doubts that the two halves of the story would hang together. Ray was obsessed with the movie, and Ryan went to bat for him on it, but then the movie was shelved for over a year while Hughes monkeyed around with it. Ryan was similarly ambivalent about THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH (1947), which also had a troubled post-production.

FYI, when Ryan was interviewed by Films and Filming near the end of his career, he said his best screen work was in CROSSFIRE (1947), THE SET-UP (1949), INFERNO (1953), and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958).

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 10th, 2015, 7:45 pm

kingrat wrote:If you were to name the five (or so) movies best to introduce someone to Robert Ryan as an actor, what would they be?


I would say, in chronological order:
1. CROSSFIRE (1947)
2. THE SET-UP (1949)
3. ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)
4. GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958)
5. BILLY BUDD (1962) and
6. THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973).

As an addendum, I would like to recommend three exceptional performances that even devout Ryan fans probably haven't seen.

In 1960, Ryan starred in a 90-minute live TV dramatization of THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO that was directed by John Frankenheimer. It's never been released to home video, but you can view it by request at the Paley Center for Media in New York or Los Angeles. Ryan is superb; I would rank this as one of his ten best performances ever. What a shame it's so hard to see.

In 1970, Ryan costarred with Eli Wallach in a 13-minute short called THE REASON WHY, adapted from a one-act play by Arthur Miller. It's a little vignette about two old friends chatting as they kill gophers using a rifle with a telescopic site, but really it's an allegory about the Vietnam war. I don't know if a print still exists, but it was anthologized on VHS with other shorts by the director, Paul Leaf. This is another one you can see at the Paley Center.

In 1971, Ryan and his costars in the acclaimed off-Broadway production of LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT--James Naughton, Stacy Keach, and Geraldine Fitzgerald--recorded an audio version that was released on Caedmon Records. This one is a lot easier to find; your local library may have the four-disc CD set, or you can get it through interlibrary loan. I'm told there's also an archival video recording of the production, shot with a single, stationary camera, at the New York Public Library, but I've never seen that. This was the pinnacle of Ryan's stage career, so even the audio version is worth tracking down.
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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 10th, 2015, 8:05 pm

Rita Hayworth wrote:How Robert Ryan feels about his role in these following movies below:

Battle of the Bulge as General Gray
The Longest Day as Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin
King of Kings as John the Baptist
Flying Leathernecks as Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin


Ryan never made it above PFC in the Marines, and he came out of the service with a noncom's contempt for officers. "You can't let the military do anything," he used to tell his son Cheyney. "You can't let a general do anything. Generals and officers just screw it up." So it's pretty ironic that he wound up as a general-for-hire in the last decade of this career.

With this sort of attitude, he didn't have much regard for FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1950), THE LONGEST DAY (1961), or BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965). Particularly grating was LEATHERNECKS, on which he and Nicholas Ray were the sole liberals in a company that included producer Edmund Grainger, screenwriter James Edward Grant, and of course John Wayne, all of whom were active in the red-baiting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. "[Ray and I] often asked ourselves what we were doing on a film like this," Ryan later recalled. "I hate war films."

KING OF KINGS (1962) was another matter. Ryan always said that, when his agent called to tell him Ray wanted to cast him in the picture, Ryan turned to his wife and said, "Here we go again--Judas." He spoke well of the picture in the press, ranking it with his recent success BILLY BUDD. I'm not sure he was entirely sincere about that, but he probably appreciated the opportunity to appear in a serious-minded religious epic. Certainly it was something different for him, and he got paid $50,000 for a week's work.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby Rita Hayworth » July 10th, 2015, 8:53 pm

Mr. Jones,

Thanks for these candid remarks that you shared about ROBERT RYAN in these 3 War Films that I remembered so well.

On the KINGS OF KINGS - I didn't expect the answer that you've gave me here and furthermore - I learned something new about his involvement in this film back in 1962. And, I was surprised to see that you shared that he was paid $50,000 for a week's work.

Great Answers and thanks for answering them in a timely manner.

Have a great weekend with us and unfortunately I have to be out of town for the weekend and be back home on Monday. Thanks again Mr. Jones.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 11th, 2015, 7:41 am

kingrat wrote:Where will you be doing some additional appearances to promote your book? Will you be attending some of the other film noir festivals?


I thought you'd never ask! I do have two more things scheduled: In late August, I'll be joining Alan Rode at the Noir City: Chicago festival, at the Music Box Theatre, for screenings of ACT OF VIOLENCE and THE RACKET. And over Labor Day weekend I'll be introducing a six-film Ryan retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York (http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/44758).

I'm especially excited about the latter event because I'll be joined at some programs by Cheyney Ryan, the actor's son. Cheyney is a professor of law and philosophy at Oxford University and a fascinating guy, so I'm sure the discussions will be first-rate. So is the lineup of films: ACT OF VIOLENCE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THE NAKED SPUR, ABOUT MRS. LESLIE, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE. We're also hoping to show some rare items as well, but I'll have to be coy about that because these haven't been announced and in fact may not pan out.

I'm hoping to do a few more things in 2016, possibly when the paperback edition comes out, but these will probably be road trips around the Midwest. News on forthcoming events can be found at http://www.livesofrobertryan.com.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby moira finnie » July 11th, 2015, 10:47 am

Happy (Belated) Birthday, J.R. and thanks for returning today.

One interesting nuance that you brought out in your book was Ryan's ability to maintain working and personal ties with people in Hollywood, despite the sometomes cutthroat nature of the social atmosphere there and particularly the ideological differences among people during the McCarthy and Cold War eras.

Could you please discuss his interactions with co-stars John Wayne, Pat O'Brien and eccentric RKO chief Howard Hughes, each of whom were to varying degrees opposed to his humane liberalism?

Also, Robert Ryan's own values politically appear to have grown over time without becoming doctrinaire or rigid. How deeply influenced was R.R.'s political evolution by the Quakerism of his wife, writer-actress Jessica Cadwalader?

One of the saddest portions of your book touches on Mrs. Ryan's feelings at Hollywood social gatherings, when she and other wives of prominent men were almost invisible. Given the actor's sensitivity, did his awareness of her difficulties there lead him to evaluate his career differently?
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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 11th, 2015, 10:52 am

Happy Belated Birthday and thank you so much for these fabulous responses, Mr. Jones. We enjoy Robert Ryan's work so much here at the SSO.
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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby pvitari » July 11th, 2015, 11:47 am

Dear Mr. Jones, thank you so much for coming to the Silver Screen Oasis. Robert Ryan is one of my all-time favorite actors and I was so thrilled when I read advance notice that your new biography was coming out.

As a musical theater fan, it's great to know that Ryan also loved musical theater and if only Mr. President had been a success! I read a quote from his co-star Nanette Fabray that said Ryan was wonderful in all the dramatic parts of the show but he had trouble with comedy. Looking through his filmography, I can't find any comedy -- am I missing anything? How do you think he might have done in a romantic comedy, if it had had a good script?

I enjoyed your comments about Ryan and war pictures, but there's another war picture that must be mentioned, Anthony Mann's Men In War. You devote several pages to this film in your book but if there is anything you could add about Ryan and his feelings about this particular depiction of war, and his relationship with Anthony Mann (who also directed him in The Naked Spur), I would really appreciate it.

Thank you again!

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 11th, 2015, 12:19 pm

pvitari wrote:As a musical theater fan, it's great to know that Ryan also loved musical theater and if only Mr. President had been a success! I read a quote from his co-star Nanette Fabray that said Ryan was wonderful in all the dramatic parts of the show but he had trouble with comedy. Looking through his filmography, I can't find any comedy -- am I missing anything? How do you think he might have done in a romantic comedy, if it had had a good script?


That's an interesting quote, and I wish I had seen it. There are certainly some rom-com moments with Ginger Rogers in TENDER COMRADES (1943), though I find Ryan to be fairly clumsy in them; that sort of material requires a very light touch (e.g. Cary Grant), which I don't think he had. I think his best comic performances were the more farcical versions of the enraged SOBs he played so often in dramas: Walter Burns in THE FRONT PAGE or--to name my favorite--Colonel Everett Dasher Breed in THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967).

He has some pretty funny moments in GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (one of his best films) and the French crime caper AND HOPE TO DIE (one of his worst). Onstage he starred in TOO MANY HUSBANDS, BORN YESTERDAY, and TIGER AT THE GATES, and onscreen he costarred with Sid Caesar in a real turkey called THE BUSY BODY (1966). He loved George Bernard Shaw, and he seemed to have a pretty sharp wit in real life. But no, comedy really wasn't his thing.

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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 11th, 2015, 12:54 pm

moira finnie wrote: One interesting nuance that you brought out in your book was Ryan's ability to maintain working and personal ties with people in Hollywood, despite the sometimes cutthroat nature of the social atmosphere there and particularly the ideological differences among people during the McCarthy and Cold War eras. Could you please discuss his interactions with co-stars John Wayne, Pat O'Brien and eccentric RKO chief Howard Hughes, each of whom were to varying degrees opposed to his humane liberalism?


This was a subject that fascinated me as I was working on the book; we all know about the Red Scare in Hollywood, but the day-to-day particulars of how people navigated that situation really engrossed me.

Obviously I wasn't around then, but I do think there was more of a political middle in those days, and that people didn't demonize each other over their politics the way they might today. No politics at the dinner table, and that sort of thing. Ryan and Pat O'Brien may have differed politically, but O'Brien was a real mensch and he and Ryan had a warm, lifelong friendship.

Ryan didn't think Wayne was very bright, and there are all sorts of stories about them getting in each other's faces over politics, but I think they respected each other personally. Writer-producer Philip Yordan, who worked with both men, found them to be very similar personalities--modest, hard-working, egalitarian guys. When the Ryans received a bomb threat on their home in 1961, and Ryan and Wayne were in France shooting THE LONGEST DAY, Wayne offered to fly back to the U.S. and stand guard over Ryan's house for publicity purposes, which Ryan was touched by, even though it was kind of a silly idea.

Like everything else about Howard Hughes, his relationship with Ryan is shrouded in mystery. Ryan thought Hughes was a pretty strange character, though in those days Hughes's mental problems weren't quite as pronounced and he probably came off as just another Hollywood eccentric. Hughes browbeat Ryan into starring in I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (released in 1950 as THE WOMAN ON PIER 13), yet after Ryan had left RKO, Hughes came to see him in a local stage production of the lefty antiwar satire TIGER AT THE GATES. Where they friends? Maybe, but only in the sense that it's always wise to be friends with your boss.
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Re: The Q & A with J.R. Jones about THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

Postby J.R. Jones » July 11th, 2015, 1:15 pm

pvitari wrote:I enjoyed your comments about Ryan and war pictures, but there's another war picture that must be mentioned, Anthony Mann's Men In War. You devote several pages to this film in your book but if there is anything you could add about Ryan and his feelings about this particular depiction of war, and his relationship with Anthony Mann (who also directed him in The Naked Spur), I would really appreciate it.


You know, I'm really gratified to hear from people who have read the book, though I probably have the least to offer them because just about every bit of information I could find wound up in the text. MEN IN WAR was one of three pictures Ryan made as part of a profit-participation deal with independent producers Sidney Harmon and Philip Yordan, who were personal friends of his. As a consequence he was somewhat more involved with the development of those projects than he would have been at a studio, so one can assume that he endorsed the bleak vision of MEN IN WAR. As I note in the book, Mann was a pretty tight-lipped guy, which suited Ryan just fine; I don't know that they were terribly close, but Ryan thought he was a hell of a good director. BTW, I recently introduced a screening of MEN IN WAR and people were blown away by it; it's too bad more people don't know about it.


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