So, here we go. I chuckled when I rolled my little paper balls of thirteen titles out of a cup, and the winner came out “Barry Lyndon”, for my first focus in this new series. Why? I had just recently received the Blu-ray of it from my Netflix queue, so it was kind of ironic that my roll of chance landed on that. Good, I thought…let’s get Stanley’s 2nd longest feature right out-of-the-way (1960’s “Spartacus” gets the blue ribbon). I remember how I first experienced “Barry Lyndon”, if not exactly when. It was on a rented VHS, from one of those now defunct chain video stores. Blockbuster, West Coast Video…one of them. That big bulky box stared at me from the shelf quite a few times. It looked so epic and large. This had to be in the late 1980’s, when I was still in my twenties. I was a full-fledged Kubrick nut by then, so I had to tackle “Barry Lyndon”. And I enjoyed that first look, and felt triumphant when I returned that unwieldy two-tape behemoth. Yay me!
Fast forward a quarter-of-a-century, or so. I’m fifty now, but this would only be my 2nd go round with “Barry Lyndon”. So, I was really looking forward to it. And, of course, like almost all of Stanley’s films, it’s aged extremely well. It’s 41 years old, but as beautiful and stately as ever. No wonder cinematographer John Alcott grabbed the Oscar (“Barry Lyndon” won four total, in the production categories). It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards total, when you add Kubrick’s trifecta: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Picture…he would lose all three to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Talk about bad luck of the draw! The other picture nominees from ’75 were “Nashville”, “Jaws”, and “Dog Day Afternoon”. Not a weak link in the chain. I mean, the previous year, “The Towering Inferno” was up! Sheesh. Also, this was Stanley’s fourth, and final, shot at Best Director–to no avail. Let that sink in for a moment. Ron Howard has a Director Oscar, but Kubrick doesn’t. Freaking Opie!
I admire Ryan O’Neal’s work as Redmond Barry Lyndon. Do you realize he later named one of his kids Redmond? I just found that out. It was never my inclination to think too much of him as a performer, but here he undoubtedly shines bright. And “Barry Lyndon” was smack dab right in the middle of his commercial and artistic prime, between 1970’s “Love Story” smash, and the very successful “The Main Event” from 1979. Ryan plays a boxer in that last one, plus he was a Golden Gloves fighter himself once in real life. I seem to recall Muhammad Ali saying in an interview that O’Neal was one of the few actors that actually looked like he knew what he was doing when he laced on the gloves. Ryan has a nifty bare knuckle fight scene in “Barry Lyndon” too, plus more than one pistol duel, as well as some fervent sword play. O’Neal touched me when he weeps at the loss of his friend Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) in “Barry Lyndon”, and once again when his young son Bryan (David Morley) is killed as a result of a riding accident (keep the kids off those horses, folks–see “GWTW”). Kubrick truly worked wonders with O’Neal. It appears Ryan was guided perfectly.
Kubrick based his screenplay on 1844’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” by William Makepeace Thackery. My re watch has me itching to read the original source novel–my bet is that that will enhance the viewing experience even more. No less than Martin Scorsese has proclaimed “Barry Lyndon” his favorite Stanley Kubrick film. The movie’s critical reputation is quite strong now, in fact–after a mixed reception in 1975. I like it very much, and I’m currently right on the verge of loving it. It would be wonderful to see it, and hear it, on a giant screen in a huge auditorium. It is loooong (185 minutes), which isn’t necessarily a criticism, as much as an observation. It was intended to have an intermission, and it does fade to black and display an “Intermission” card at about the one-hour and forty minute mark. Act II of “Barry Lyndon” begins after what I imagine would’ve been a 15 minute break, or so, if in an actual theater in 1975. I like to think that watching it that way would enhance it even more.
Other observations: Marisa Berenson is stunning, and Shakespearean acting titan Michael Hordern’s narration is infectious. Hey–there’s a young Steven Berkoff as Lord Ludd! You’ll probably recall him (if you are of a certain age) from a string of 1980s villain roles in movies like “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, and Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” (well, at least I remember him from that last one). The costumes in “Barry Lyndon” are exquisite (another Oscar), the classical music arrangement is superb (Oscar again). Apparently, Kubrick wanted to make a film about “Napoleon” at one point, so, I guess, this is the next best thing. Also, Gay Hamilton made quite an impression on me with her physical presence as Nora Brady, and Marie Kean was overstuffed with patience and gravitas (that’s a compliment) as Belle, Barry’s mother. I’m going to hedge, just a bit, with my final grade for Kubrick’s 10th feature, but I’m betting it will fully blossom by the time I visit it again. For now, “Barry Lyndon” veers awfully close to perfection.
KUBRICK coming in October: the roll of twelve has occurred…and it will be his first feature, 1953’s “Fear and Desire”