Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble

 

That’s what the headline read on the cover of Time Magazine, and they were right. It was December 1975. The nation was ready and waiting to celebrate the Bicentennial. As usual with one of his films, there wasn’t much advance information about Barry Lyndon. All we knew was, it was about a gambler; it was set in the late 1700s. In time, it would be regarded as an elegant, one-of-a-kind glimpse into a distant era that gave birth to the modern world.

The Christmastime weather was especially beautiful that year. I was 23, a movie fan and a fan of Stanley Kubrick in particular. I climbed aboard my motorcycle and headed for the Ziegfeld Theater. The movie got good reviews, some very positive, and it made money for its studio, Warner Bros. But not a whole lot compared to his previous two, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, and there hangs a tale.  It acquired the not-entirely-deserved reputation of being “Stanley’s flop” and that’s what people remember, if they’ve heard of it at all.

Since it was first revealed that Stanley Kubrick’s next film would be based on a book by William Makepeace Thackeray, it’s generally believed that Kubrick first did the obvious thing—that is, thought about adapting the far better known Vanity Fair. But he saw potential in Thackeray’s all but forgotten 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It’s told in the first person, and that narrator is unreliable, a braggart and a con man.

But the movie, though it had its moments of dry humor, would have a totally different tone than the Thackeray novel. In some ways it was surprisingly conventional. It was the first Kubrick film since Spartacus to be publicized and marketed as what was then called a “star vehicle”, featuring Ryan O’Neal, then the heart-throb of Love Story, at the time a huge and recent hit, and Marisa Berenson, the female co-star of Cabaret, (it was Liza who got the Oscar), a socialite and model.

The truth of Barry Lyndon is: it’s a getting and spending world. The getting was even harder in the past, and the spending meaner, in the British sense: Harder, stingier.

If death and taxes are, as cynics suggest, the only certainties in life, then Barry Lyndon must be one of the most realistic movies ever made, because it is unflinchingly all about money and mortality. As much as Kubrick changed it, it’s still Thackeray’s world.

This is how it came about: Stanley Kubrick’s most cherished unrealized project was Napoleon, an epic so vast that MGM pulled out of the deal. As usual, he’d already bought and read hundreds of books about the subject and the times he lived in, so on the rebound Kubrick found a very different story set in roughly the same era.

From the time Barry Lyndon was announced, the project attracted a lot of speculation and curiosity. The rise and fall of an 18th century Irish social climber seemed an unlikely choice of subject matter and time period for a director whose fame and aura of hipness were based on his three recent hits, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange.

For all their differences, Stanley Kubrick’s best-known hits are all, to some degree, set in a technologically oriented near-future, deriving iconic power with their cold, striking images, and their reserved attitudes towards humanity.

By contrast, Barry Lyndon is an uncharacteristically sympathetic portrait of mortality and loss. It has a warm background of children and babies, dogs and geese and doves, cattle and horses, tranquil ponds and fountains. I’ve read that cultural Irishness, like being a Southerner in the US, tends to include an unflinching acceptance of life’s tragic aspects. There’s some truth to that, I’ll personally attest, and it extends to the understanding that Kubrick might have silently had with a fellow outsider brashly pushing his way upwards through society, to levels where “he didn’t belong.”

I don’t know of a major Kubrick film before this one that had no screenwriting collaborators, and for all its virtues, and they are many, Lyndon’s limits are somewhat defined by Kubrick’s writing, not to the risky, slightly reckless casting of his leads. Ryan O’Neal does some remarkable things in the film and deserves more credit for them than he’s gotten over the decades, but the character as written of Barry Lyndon, the man, is not as compelling as needed.

Kubrick did prove to be a surprisingly good, sparing user of narration and he was at least decent at writing dialog, but a superlative dramatist supplying dialog to a superb actor would have made more of the opportunity.

Ryan O’Neal is a good looking, hard-working, not terribly deep actor earnestly doing his best. Robert Redford often played similar roles: handsome, catnip to the ladies, brave, physically gifted men, who are also somehow less than what they seem. One critic, generously trying to be fair, referred to O’Neal as the human figure that architects add to models of proposed buildings to give them a sense of human scale.

While the film was in production, it was widely anticipated to be a “swashbuckler”, in retrospect similar to Tom Jones crossed with the 1973 The Three Musketeers. It wouldn’t turn out that way, but the look of the ad campaign makes me wonder if Warner Bros understood what kind of movie Kubrick was going to deliver.

Even the way that the film’s main titles are drawn reflects that. Unlike the cold objectivity of the titles of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, the typeface on the main title, as well as Kubrick’s credit, Ryan O’Neal’s, and Marisa Berenson’s, is a Seventies swirl, with custom lettering that looks only a little like the late 18th century, but vaguely suggests a Tom Jones-like romantic style. (The end credits are in a plain white-on-black style that suggests funerals and finality, appropriately enough.)

Stanley Kubrick, like Alfred Hitchcock, liked to set new challenges with each film. 2001 was an elaborate re-invention of special visual effects that was shot nearly entirely on studio sound stages. A Clockwork Orange was also a futuristic film, but it was shot almost entirely on then-present day London locations, carefully chosen to be the most exotic (by 1970 standards) but credible ones that Kubrick’s staff could find. Barry Lyndon, set 200 years ago, would also be filmed entirely on location, well before this became the norm with films and shows like Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited. Kubrick raised the standards. He also set himself the challenge of cinematography in candlelight, giving night interior scenes a unique and authentic look.

YouTube stories about Barry Lyndon include production designer Ken Adam talking about the rambling, almost improvised way the crew drove around Ireland, filming a few pages at a time. Murray Melvin recounted the “delights” of doing 57 takes of a scene. Ryan O’Neal and Leon Vitali also talked about what Stanley was like on the set.

Jan Schlubach was art director of the scenes in Germany, even across the border in communist East Germany, which also had some 18th century locations. I knew Jan well. He told me a few Kubrick stories. Everyone seemed to tell the same basic tale of a very kindly, soft-voiced man of infinite patience who could drive you stark raving mad with his ruthless, pitiless quest for utter perfection.

So what went wrong? From one point of view, nothing; Barry Lyndon’s reputation has only risen over the years, especially in contrast to the shoddiness of many modern films. Contrary to the “flop” legend, the film didn’t lose money. It actually made a small profit. Today, when big films routinely lose a horrifying $100 to $300 million, it seems ludicrous to remember Barry Lyndon as a failure.

But let’s be real: this was Kubrick we’re talking about, and Hollywood expectations were sky-high. 1975 was the year of Jaws, the first picture to gross $100 million, and if an unknown kid like Spielberg could do it, why couldn’t Stanley?

Some people blame Ryan O’Neal, but he didn’t write his own part and generally did okay. The movie took big narrative risks with the audience, beginning scenes with deliberate spoilers, like one of Barry teaching fencing to his adored young son Brian while the narrator intones, “It is impossible to adequately convey Barry’s hopes for the boy. But Barry was destined to finish his life childless, poor, and alone.”  This was in keeping with the melodramatic standards of Victorian storytelling, (it’s an 1844 novel, after all) but it looks strange, even disconcerting to modern audiences.

The picture is undeniably slow-paced. No one would say, wow, that three hours just flies by. However, for those of us with a streak of appreciation for classical beauty, those familiar scenes, many of them visually stunning, are welcome reminders of just how beautiful big-scale films could look, long before CGI came along.

2023: a personal postscript.

The skinny, intense kid in the leather jacket who saw the movie in 1975 was long gone. Or was I? Sure, some things had changed. I was 71 now, let’s say in the early winter of my years. I now resembled those stout, grasping members of the 18th century bourgeoisie who’d managed to reach old age.

My daughter and her husband-to-be picked me up and we all went to see Barry Lyndon at the NuArt in west Los Angeles. In 1975, I could hardly have imagined seeing this film 48 years in the future, now as a retired Los Angeles film curator, riding home with our grown daughter (a teacher!) and her boyfriend (An engineer! From Texas!)

I haven’t been back to this repertory theater since its big renovation. Everything technical has been upgraded. Once upon a time, I knew the NuArt really well. I used to rent the place for festivals at Filmex, AFI, and the ACF. Now, my days of doing shows there is a long time back, 25-40 years. It’s still a place for dating couples of a certain intellectual and/or artistic type, as it’s been since the 1950s. They now sell wine. We bought a bottle for the three of us. It’s overpriced, of course—some things about movie theaters won’t change—but it was fun, especially for a sumptuous, champagne-and-caviar picture like Barry Lyndon. The young folks really liked seeing it, especially on the big screen. So did I.

Riding home later, we chatted about the movie. A discussion about it and history has two focuses (foci?), the period depicted on film, roughly 1755 to 1789, and the period of our lives when it was new and still in theaters (a much longer period in those days before cassettes and cable), roughly December 1975 through late 1976.

That year I took 3D pictures outdoors with the Stereo Realist camera. Even when those pictures were new, I used to run them on the 3D slide projector in rough sync with the film’s soundtrack of The Chieftains playing “Women of Ireland”.

When I see those pictures now, they represent an admittedly glorified Lyndon-ian version of a half century ago, the springtime of our youth. A time in life that I’d guess most people idealize. In our case, it was the beauties of the old village we grew up in, and the excitement of the city we moved to. It could have been anywhere in an industrializing world, but it was America, early in the golden spring of its Bicentennial year.

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  1. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Even the narrator says that she occupied a place in Barry’s life not unlike the paintings and decor.

    Lots of luck bringing that to life.

    I recall hearing an expression of an actor tearing up the scenery.  Would Kubrick have preferred that? 

    • #61
  2. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):
    That being said, comedy was slower too.

    I just rewatched Peter Sellers in The Party. That’s a slow comedy.

    • #62
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):
    I recall hearing an expression of an actor tearing up the scenery.

    Did someone call for the Scenery Chewers of America? We’re here for you!

    • #63
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Kubrick’s scenery-chewers often tend to be in uniform, like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. And, come to think of it, the prison guard in A Clockwork Orange

    • #64
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    The first time I heard of “scenery chewing,” it was in reference to Lionel Barrymore. I loved the term at first sight. Very evocative.

    • #65
  6. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Arahant (View Comment):
    The first time I heard of “scenery chewing,” it was in reference to Lionel Barrymore.

    Yeah, not a fan of Lionel.

    • #66
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    The first time I heard of “scenery chewing,” it was in reference to Lionel Barrymore.

    Yeah, not a fan of Lionel.

    How about Simon Bar Sinister from Underdog?

    • #67
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    The first time I heard of “scenery chewing,” it was in reference to Lionel Barrymore.

    Yeah, not a fan of Lionel.

    How about Simon Bar Sinister from Underdog?

    Misnamed character. Bars are either horizontal (per fess) or vertical (per pale).  Bends can be sinister: starting at the upper left and going to the lower right. In some places, in some times, a bend sinister might be an indication of illegitimacy. Asking someone who was bearing a shield so emblazoned would be a good way of catching a mace up the side of your helm.

    On a field azure, a bend sinister or

    • #68
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):
    Misnamed character.

    Yes, I know, but I was not responsible for the production. I also suspect they were trying to call the character illegitimate.

    • #69
  10. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    Misnamed character.

    Yes, I know, but I was not responsible for the production. I also suspect they were trying to call the character illegitimate.

    Also Simon Bend Sinister doesn’t sound as good.

    • #70
  11. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    The first time I heard of “scenery chewing,” it was in reference to Lionel Barrymore.

    Yeah, not a fan of Lionel.

    How about Simon Bar Sinister from Underdog?

    All I know is Underdog is not a bird, nor plane, nor even frog.

    • #71
  12. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    When I want a very slow, very long movie (preferably with subtitles) I turn to the Russians.

    I’ve watched both the original Solaris (2 hrs, 47 min) and Andrei Rublev (3 hrs, 25 min). Now there is some atmospheric world-building and leisurely story-telling.

     

    • #72
  13. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    When I want a very slow, very long movie (preferably with subtitles) I turn to the Russians.

    I’ve watched both the original Solaris (2 hrs, 47 min) and Andrei Rublev (3 hrs, 25 min). Now there is some atmospheric world-building and leisurely story-telling.

     

    In the digital streaming era, I am not sure you can find Shoah, c. 1985. 

    Not sure today’s young folks could manage to watch it. 

    • #73
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One early critic (I forget who, 48 years on) noticed something that I’d noticed: the little boy’s fatal accident with an un-authorized dawn horse ride, the grief-stricken mother, the effect on a failing marriage, all show up with some remarkable, even suspicious similarities in Gone With the Wind, published 92 years later.

    • #74
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Leon Vitali, the main actor who played Lord Bullingdon (the Jagger-esque one who played him as an adult) must have been more reliable than his screen portrayal as a snobbish heel; he became one of Kubrick’s trusted assistants. His story is told in a documentary called Filmworker. It’s available online here and there. 

    • #75
  16. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Kubrick’s scenery-chewers often tend to be in uniform, like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. And, come to think of it, the prison guard in A Clockwork Orange.

    Yes, Michael Bates.  A fantastic performance that just laps against parody.  His and Lee’s performances are not parodies.  These people do exist and their jobs of authority in many respects are performances in themselves.  I believe Lee had said as much in some interviews.  And over-officious characters in TV/film are just plain funny.

    The scene is a fine example of the unique alchemy of filmmaking: writing, performance, production design, cinematography, sound and editing.  It’s just a simple scene of an inmate being processed that at first glance is played for laughs, but conveys much more.  We see the power of the state.  We see the absurdity of the state’s policies.  Alex is unashamed of his crime.  Despite his rogue nature Alex will figure out how to exist in the Stadja.

     

    • #76
  17. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    One early critic (I forget who, 48 years on) noticed something that I’d noticed: the little boy’s fatal accident with an un-authorized dawn horse ride, the grief-stricken mother, the effect on a failing marriage, all show up with some remarkable, even suspicious similarities in Gone With the Wind, published 92 years later.

    Any time this has happened in film since GWTW I get the Han Solo “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” vibes.

    • #77
  18. Archibald Campbell Member
    Archibald Campbell
    @ArchieCampbell

    In some documentary about Kubrick I saw years ago, someone mentioned that his approach to Barry Lyndon was as a series of classic paintings (as I think someone notes here) and that to understand that was to appreciate it more. That was true for me when I finally saw it a couple of years ago. I was ready for a pretty slow pace and was surprised that the movie both moved along faster and had more action in it than I thought it would.  As for Ryan O’Neal, I think he did fine. He wasn’t so good at portraying the low cunning of Lyndon, but was pretty good at showing his self-destructive and impulsive nature.  And the scene where he “throws away his shot” at the duel to avoid shooting his stepson was surprisingly affecting.  But maybe don’t watch it after Crank.

    • #78
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