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The Life and Career of Actor Ryan O’Neal: From Love Story to “Empty” Acting

Actor Ryan O’Neal, one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s, passed away on Friday, December 8, at the age of 82. In the film Love Story, the hit of 1970, he spoke the famous and often parodied words “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. As with all major film stars, his private life was also in the spotlight, especially his volatile relationship with actress Farrah Fawcett – best known for her wavy hairstyle and the TV series The six million man in Charlie’s Angels. Like fellow movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, O’Neal and Fawcett broke up several times before getting back together. He even wrote a book about it: Both of Us: My Life With Farrah. O’Neal, a former boxer, had a difficult relationship with several of his children. Daughter Tatum and son Griffin accused him of physical abuse and emotional neglect. He and his other son Redmond were arrested in 2008 for drug possession. In the last decades of his life, O’Neal was more in the news for these types of incidents than for his acting.

Boyish charm

The photogenic, always boyish actor with blond hair and blue eyes never again achieved the popularity he had in the 1970s. The foundation for this is laid by his charismatic performance in the groundbreaking soap opera Peyton Place, in which he stars alongside Mia Farrow. His big breakthrough came in 1970, with the tearjerker Love Story. In it, he plays a wealthy Harvard law student who falls for assertive music student Jennifer (Ali MacGraw), a young working-class woman. Despite opposition from his father, they get married, after which disaster strikes when she turns out to be terminally ill. Francis Lai’s compelling music definitely puts the tear glands to work.

In one of his best films, Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), he can be seen together with his daughter Tatum. At the age of nine, Tatum won the Oscar for Best Actress for the role of orphan girl Addie, still the youngest winner. In the amusing picaresque film, shot in beautiful black and white, he is a con man who uses Addie to sell Bibles in America during the depression years. He selects his gullible victims by spelling out obituaries. A year earlier, he co-starred with Barbra Streisand What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Bogdanovich’s witty homage to the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. In 1979 he would meet Streisand The Main Event in which he is an expired boxer who she takes under her wing.

Actor Ryan O’Neal in 1984 Photo by MYCHELE DANIAU / AFP

‘Empty’ acting

In recent years, O’Neal’s acting in Stanley Kubrick’s fairytale-like costume film Barry Lyndon (1975) is more appreciated. His ’empty’ acting is functional and crucial to the role he plays. Kubrick’s William Makepeace Thackeray film adaptation is about the rise and fall of the opportunistic Edmond Barry, an Irish guy who wants to rise quickly in noble circles and marries Lady Lyndon purely for her money. It is up to the viewer to determine whether Barry is sympathetic or a villain, which is due to O’Neal’s open, according to some not very expressive playing, but his non-expressiveness may also be due to the many takes that Kubrick had him play: “At the end of the long shooting period you could carry me away,” he said later.

In the late 1970s, O’Neal again uses his minimal acting very effectively in the underrated, stylish bank robber film The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978), who had a great influence on five years ago Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017). O’Neal plays ‘the Driver’ whose existential loneliness is hidden behind a cool armor of professionalism. It is a role that consciously goes against his ‘soft’ image as a heartthrob, and is therefore all the more compelling.

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2023-12-09 12:04:07
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