Sam Carey on Barry Lyndon and the Oscars…
March 1976 saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fly in to the 48th Academy Awards and leave with statues for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. It was only the second time a single film has walked away with awards in the ‘big five’ categories yet, it should never have happened. Instead, in its place should have stood Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Following the media furore of 1971’s A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick withdrew the film from theatres after groups imitated the attacks of ultra-violent lead character Alex and his group – the director turned his attentions to the 18th century. On the surface a huge departure from his previous work the film, Barry Lyndon, is nevertheless quintessentially Kubrick.
What sets Kubrick’s tenth feature apart from every other film released in 1975 is its polish. Stanley Kubrick was a master of his craft and no one since Orson Welles had more impact on the film industry. Like Welles, the New Yorker didn’t see film as merely a way to tell a story, for him it was a work of art and no film illustrates this better than Barry Lyndon.
The film is both a coming of age tale and an indictment on the needs and wants of humanity. Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) is obsessed by his desire for wealth and escapes the Army twice and cheats gamblers before coming to the realisation that, in 18th century Britain, the only true way to wealth is by marrying into it. O’Neal’s character is manipulative but likeable, sexist but charming and most of all immoral yet sympathetic. Kubrick’s screenplay ensures we know Lyndon’s comeuppance is never far away as he makes escapes through charm, luck or treachery and the audience find themselves rooting for the morally questionable titular character.
As well as beguiling characters, Kubrick pushed technical boundaries with the film’s lighting when, instead of using artificial illumination Kubrick, along with director of photography John Alcott, chose to light scenes by only candlelight or daylight. Ensuring this desire became reality Kubrick’s production crew approached NASA to obtain the technology capable. Speaking with Michel Climent Kubrick said, “The (traditional) film and the lenses were not fast enough to get an exposure. A 35mm movie camera shutter exposes at about 1/50 of a second, and a useable exposure was only possible with a lens at least 100% faster than any which had ever been used on a movie camera. Fortunately, I found just such a lens, one of a group of ten, which Zeiss had specially manufactured for NASA satellite photography. The lens had a speed of fO.7, and it was 100% faster than the fastest movie lens.” This enabled the crew to film in light “so dim it was difficult to read in”.
This dedication to his craft is synonymous with Kubrick’s work. Complementing the technical excellence was his work with actors. For Barry Lyndon the director again opted against a star name, instead choosing the right actor for the role. Lead actor Ryan O’Neal was a 15-year veteran when Kubrick cast him as Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon. When asked by Climent on his choice Kubrick said “He looked right and I was confident that he possessed much greater acting ability than he had been allowed to show in many of the films he had previously done. In retrospect, I think my confidence in him was fully justified by his performance, and I still can’t think of anyone who would have been better for the part. The personal qualities of an actor, as they relate to the role, are almost as important as his ability”. This mantra was central to Kubrick being able to get the best out of his actors.
Alongside O’Neal is Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon. Naïve but knowledgeable, the Lady is introduced as a wife after her elderly husband’s fortune. The switch of her position as beneficiary from Sir Charles Lyndon, upon his death, to benefactor to Barry Lyndon is managed wonderfully by a subtle and truly magnificent performance.
Opposed to this, Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher’s performances in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are comparatively exaggerated and posturing.
Barry Lyndon technical excellence was correctly rewarded at the Oscars with awards given for Cinematography, Art-Direction, Costume Design and Music, but when Kubrick missed out on the awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay the Academy were pandering to the masses. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an undoubtedly brilliant picture but stands as Academy fodder due to a sympathetic subject and stale direction whereas, forty years since its release, Barry Lyndon stands as a masterpiece of filmmaking. Cinematic, fantastically performed and incredibly told it is as astonishing as any period film you’re likely to see anywhere. What a pity the Academy didn’t see it that way.