Friday, December 18, 2015

The Story of a Scoundrel

"Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless."


If there ever was a movie that proved how versatile its director was, the movie that premiered on this day in 1975, "Barry Lyndon," was such a movie.

And its director, Stanley Kubrick, was such a director.

I've been a fan of Kubrick's work for a long time, and he was very versatile. Each movie was different from the others he made. He made some comedies, he made some dramas. He explored space, he explored nuclear war, he directed scary movies. He did it all.

"Barry Lyndon" was set in the 18th century, and it told the story of an Irish adventurer.

It was one of those movies that wasn't particularly well received when it was showing at the theaters, but it has become more highly regarded in the years that have passed. In some surveys, it is regarded as Kubrick's finest work, eclipsing "Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange."

Yes, I know, that is high praise, but I believe "Barry Lyndon" lived up to it. And I am a fan of all those movies.

The movie was based on a novel by English writer William Makepeace Thackeray, and apparently it followed the style of its day, which was to tell a character's life story as if it were a chronological biography, from birth to death. I never read the book, but the narrator spoiled any suspense by informing the audience of what was to come. Thus, when Barry's demise finally comes, it is no surprise to anyone.

Barry Lyndon led a checkered life, to be sure. He participated in duels, fought in war, married a countess (Marisa Berenson) and generally enjoyed the existence of a narcissist, spending his wife's money on excessive living, but eventually he was forced to end the marriage and leave England when his stepson seized control of the countess' estate.

The story was told with a detachment that may have been commonplace in the 19th century but probably came across as flat to audiences in the late 20th century. For Kubrick, though, it worked.

"Kubrick has directed Ryan O'Neal in the title role as if he were a still life," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "It's difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character. He loses a fortune, a wife or a leg with as little emotion as he might in losing a dog. Only the death of his son devastates him and that perhaps because he sees himself in the boy."

Even though the movie took place in a different century than any of Kubrick's other movies — well, with the noteworthy exception of "Spartacus," I guess — I could see Kubrick's stylistic touches in "Barry Lyndon" that were recognizable in those other films. The camera angles he used and the way he utilized lighting in the scenes. Clearly Kubrick. His directorial fingerprints were all over "Barry Lyndon."

The great directors have certain touches that you know are theirs — and theirs alone. There may be other directors who seek to imitate them — but some things can't be duplicated.

"It is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film," agreed Roger Ebert, "technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness."

"Barry Lyndon" in the hands of anyone else would never have been the same. Kubrick was nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. "Barry Lyndon" was nominated for Best Picture.

The movie didn't receive Oscars in those categories — all three went to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" — but it was rewarded with Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score.