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The Contender: Barry Lyndon (1975)
Number of Nominations: 7 - Picture, Director (Stanley Kubrick), Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick), Cinematography (John Alcott), Art Direction-Set Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Original Song Score and/or Adaptation (Leonard Rosenman), Costume Design (Ulla-Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero)
Number of Wins: 4 (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Direction, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation & Costume Design)
After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Stanley Kubrick turned his complete attention to a mammoth epic based on the life of Napoleon. He spent years researching both the man and the period, going into meticulous detail. In his notes, he modestly claimed it would be “the best movie ever made.”
As the proposed budget for Kubrick’s Napoleon went ever higher, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon was released. The big-budget epic flopped at the box office, causing Kubrick’s financiers to back out of his project. Kubrick went on to make A Clockwork Orange but Napoleon remained a dream project. The entire story can be found in the beautifully designed book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made from Taschen.
All that research didn’t go to waste, however. It would inform a different period epic, 1975’s Barry Lyndon. Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the film follows an Irish cad (played by Ryan O’Neal) as he makes his way in the world by any means necessary. The movie was not an immediate success but today is widely considered one of Kubrick’s most underrated works.
As usual, Kubrick kept the production shrouded in secrecy. Ryan O’Neal seemed an odd choice for a Kubrick project but it wasn’t as if the director had much choice. One of Warner Bros.’ only conditions for bankrolling the project was the casting of an A-list star in the lead and the studio provided Kubrick with a very short list of names. After Robert Redford passed, Kubrick turned to O’Neal, riding high after the blockbuster success of Love Story.
Apart from casting suggestions, the studio was so eager to keep Kubrick in the Warner Bros. family that they let him go and hoped for the best. Principal photography stretched on to a whopping 300 days and the film’s budget eventually hit $11 million. When executives visited Kubrick in London to prepare for the marketing campaign, the filmmaker refused to show them any footage but assured them Oscars were in their future.
As it turned out, Kubrick was right. The film essentially swept the technical awards in 1975, a decision that even the movie’s harshest critics wouldn’t be able to argue with. Barry Lyndon is undeniably gorgeous, featuring some of the most sumptuous set and costume design you’ll see in any period film.
But if anyone deserved their Oscar, it was cinematographer John Alcott. Despite popular belief, it isn’t true that no artificial light was used during filming. However, it is true that the candlelit interiors were shot using only the light provided by the hundreds of candles. Not only did this require the development of special super-fast lenses and experimentation with film stock, it also prohibited much movement on the part of the actors during these scenes. The entire film is simply astonishing to look at. Kubrick more than succeeded at capturing the look of 18th century painters like William Hogarth.
Even though everyone agreed that Barry Lyndon was a remarkable technical achievement, critics and audiences weren’t entirely convinced it succeeded as a movie. The film is slow-moving and the usual arguments that Kubrick was too cold and detached a filmmaker to make a movie about actual human beings were rehashed.
But I’m often surprised how many people fail to see the comedy in Barry Lyndon. Thackeray was first and foremost a satirist and the film succeeds in capturing that, particularly through the droll narration of Michael Hordern. But another element in capturing the book’s wit is the oft-criticized performance of Ryan O’Neal.
True, O’Neal is a bit of an empty canvas in the film and his Irish brogue is indifferent at best. But Barry is a character who never quite fits in with his surroundings. He’s an opportunist but not a particularly ambitious or active one. He’s a man in constant need of a patron or a protector. In many ways, O’Neal is the perfect actor for the part. He grows into the role as the film goes along and thanks to him, Barry never seems too weak or too unlikable.
Barry Lyndon has received a critical reappraisal since its release in 1975. In 2005, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best films ever made and Kubrick fans have latched on to it as one of the director’s best works. Barry Lyndon isn’t an easy movie to embrace but it’s impossible not to admire. The first time you see it, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its technical genius. But the second or third time, you’ll likely get caught up in the strangely charmed life of Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.
- Adam Jahnke