Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How About "Barry Lyndon" for Starters?

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has put his foot in it.

He has said that Hollywood stars just can't "do" period drama.  Presumably he means American actors, as opposed to the many British and Australian actors who have become stars via films made by American studios and independent companies.

At a recent seminar he argued: "Our actors have an understanding of period--for Europeans the past is very much in them as well as the present.  Americans find it harder."

I'm not so sure.  I'd say Los Angeles-born Ryan O'Neal, then a neophyte and heartthrob, had little trouble carrying the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, and made by the Bronx-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.  That picture may well be the greatest period adaptation of English literature ever made.  It is worth studying alone for Kubrick's ingenious fitting of vintage super-fast 50 mm projector lenses on to his cameras, allowing him to shoot on film using only available light.  When you watch (below) the scene, set in the evening, of players at a card table lit by candlelight consider that that set was lit only by those candles, giving the whole scene a resemblance to a painting by, say, Gainsborough, one of the masters of the era of the novel from which the film was adapted.

Chinatown was, of course, a period film, and Nicholson and Dunaway were superb in those roles, seemed natural, and were Oscar nominees for their performances.  The Godfather films were, of course, in period.  Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973 for originating the role of Vito Corleone.  Two years later, Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone in Sicily at the dawn of the twentieth century, won the Oscar for best supporting performance.  Friends who speak Italian better than I do, and who understand the Sicilian dialect in which De Niro delivered his lines, say he did well.  Apropos, his performance in Bertolucci's 1900 was superb, and his Italian, the only language spoken in that film, was well handled.

Perhaps Mr. Fellowes meant American actors are not very good in British period roles, and that may very well be so; but the same might be said of many British actors (excepting Daniel Day Lewis!) taking American roles in period films... though Fellowes, being British, might not be in the position to know this.  Whatever Mr. Fellowes did mean, the collaboration of British and American filmmakers has produced many fine films.  I am, however, growing concerned that since pulling off a superb Olympics presentation, and since winning all those gold medals (3rd place overall), the Brits may start to lose the self-deprecating style we all so admire.

In any case, Ryan O'Neal is pretty good in Barry Lyndon.  Watch at the beginning of the scene below for a funny subtext, where Lyndon's employer speaking to him (O'Neal) says: "Pretend that you speak not a word of English."  Is this a mischievous Kubrick joke meant to send up attitudes akin to Fellowes's?  Perhaps.  A bit later in the scene watch O'Neal pull off dialogue spoken in passable German:

Regarding Fellowes, and his thoughts on the matter, more here.

UPDATE: In response to the above I received a call from filmmaker John Irvin (director of Hamburger Hill, A Month in the Country, The Garden of Eden).  Irvin knew Kubrick and said that Kubrick chose to make Barry Lyndon and indeed his many other films in Britain because of the high quality of the film craftsmen, the editors, sound technicians, set builders, costumers, wig-makers, etc...  Just before ringing off he said, "But Gone with the Wind... the civil war... a period picture... wasn't that made by Americans?  Performances very good."  Too right, as some Brits might say.


James Scott Linville said...

A film reviewer friend responds via blackberry from the back of a cab in Mumbai, and asks me to post on his behalf:

Age of Innocence?
the entire oeuvre of James Ivory!
The Godfather?
Gone with the Wind?
Amadeus (ok a european director but otherwise h'wood)
Cyrano de Bergerac
Last of the f#*$&%^g Mohicans?

James Scott Linville said...

Another friend writes:

And what about Westerns for heaven's sake?! Madmen? WW2 movies? No but it is worth heeding his point, which he miscues. I do think that Americans simply dont make period movies set in the mainstream of their history. Minorities, yes. Subgenres of subnarratives yes. Mafia stories, slavery stories etc, entertainment figures etc, yes. But where are all the movies about the country's central historical experience as experienced by the predominant ethnic group throughout the centuries? I think, here's the true gravamen of the matter. Once you see it, you also see the whys and wherefores and the reason why no one comments on it.