Showing posts with label Wesleyan University Press. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wesleyan University Press. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

The Lives of Robert Ryan
by J.R. Jones
Wesleyan University Press
May 2015
Hardcover ISBN: 9780819573728
376 pages

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Robert Ryan was endlessly likable, despite the many villainous characters he portrayed on screen. There was just something about him. He brought a sense of authenticity to every role and you could tell he loved his work. Behind that wrinkled brow and severe scowl was a man who was an average Joe who just happened to be an extraordinary actor. Chances are, if you're a classic film fan, you count Robert Ryan as one of your personal favorites.

Born and raised in Chicago and educated at Dartmouth College, Robert Ryan tried out many jobs before finding his true calling: acting. As a child he appeared as an extra in Essanay Film Manufacturing Company films. After college he was invited by a friend to participate in a theater production and he was hooked. Ryan made his way to Hollywood where he studied at Max Reinhardt School of Theater. It was there he met fellow actor and soon to be wife Jessica Cadwalader. After playing some bit parts in Paramount films, Ryan was drafted into the Marines during WWII. When he came back he concentrated on his movie career at RKO. He took a huge gamble starring in Crossfire (1947) as violent Anti-Semite. The liberal minded and gentle Ryan was the complete opposite character. However, he excelled at playing bad guys and Crossfire would jumpstart his career and earn him his first (and only) Academy Award nomination.

“One thing Ryan had understood… a controversial role can help an actor’s career.” — J.R. Jones

Many films followed including Berlin Express (1948), The Boy with the Green Hair (1948), The Set-Up (1949), Clash By Night (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Billy Budd (1962), The Longest Day (1962), The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and his final film Executive Action (1973). Ryan would often play loners, outcasts and those figures on the perimeter of society. Off screen, Ryan was a fiercely private man. He opted out of the Hollywood scene and preferred to spend his off time with his wife and three children. Ryan became an outspoken critic of war, was a member of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and partook in Civil Rights efforts alongside his friend and Odds Against Tomorrow co-star Harry Belafonte. He had a penchant for booze and was troubled by bouts of depression. But he never let any of that get in the way of his work. Ryan built a reputation for coming to work on time and prepared and for befriending crew members as well as his fellow actors. Ryan passed away in 1973 at the age 63 which is a damn shame because he at least had a good decade or more left in him to continue his excellent body of work.

Robert Ryan and Jessica Cadwalader. Photo Source

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones offers a compelling look at the life and career of one of the finest actors to ever grace the silver screen. The author has clearly done his research as he pieces together the story of a man who was far from being an open book. The book benefits from extensive interviews with Ryan's children, especially his daughter Lisa Ryan, as well as access to the 20 page memoir Ryan wrote for his family shortly before his death. There are lots of great anecdotes, insightful observations and eye-opening revelations. The book leans towards the positive but the author isn't shy to share some of the darker elements of Ryan's life.

Classic film enthusiasts will love the behind-the-scenes information and following the trajectory of Ryan's acting career. The book does gloss over Ryan's later films and extrapolates more on his early work, especially some of the notable performances in films like Crossfire and The Set-Up. Some hardcore classic film enthusiasts won't mind this but I wanted the author to linger more on some of his later films.

The true star of the book for me was Robert Ryan's wife Jessica Cadwalader. I gobbled up any information offered to me about her extraordinary but ultimately sad life. There is extensive information about how she transitioned from being an actress to being a writer, how she and Ryan were fundamental in starting the Oakwood School, a private progressive elementary school in Los Angeles that is still going to this day, and how she suffered from the limitations posed on women, wives and mothers in the '50s and '60s. She had a mental breakdown in 1958 and reading about the circumstances that lead to it made me want to throw the book across the room in anger.

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones is an excellent biography that delves deep on the life and career of a beloved classic film star.

Thank you to Wesleyan University Press for sending me a copy for review!

This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

This happens to be my 100th book review! Check my book review page for the full list!

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