Nov 4, 2012

Ryan O'Neal

Ryan O'Neal was a Hollywood presence through the 1960s, with five years as rich kid Rodney Harrington on the evening soap Peyton Place (1964-69), plus guest roles on Bachelor Father, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Perry Mason. But it was Love Story (1970), a rich boy-poor girl romance that ends tragically, that made him the poster boy of hip heterosexism.

I never saw it, but during the early 1970s, I saw copies of the original Erich Segal novel in endless book bags, I heard Andy Williams singing the theme song every five minutes ("Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a love can be?"), and I overheard random teenagers telling each other, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It was awful.

Ryan went on to proclaim the supremacy of the fade-out kiss in movies pairing him with some of the most famous actresses of the era: Barbra Streisand in What's Up, Doc (1972)  and The Main Event (1979), Jacqueline Bisset in The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Madeleine Kahn in Paper Moon (1973), Candace Bergen in Oliver's Story (1978).

Like Richard Gere, the New Sensitive Man was not shy about shirtless, underwear, and nude shots, giving us ample views of his smooth, lean chest and smooth, lean backside. But he was more about romance than eroticism.

And  he was hard to watch. He set the Gay Rights Movement back twenty years with Partners (1982): to solve a series of murders of gay men, the heterosexual Sergeant Benson (Ryan O'Neal) and the closeted Officer Kerwin (John Hurt) go undercover as a couple.  Benson tries to camp it up as much as possible to fit in with the flitty queens, but he keeps being overcome by disgust.

The homophobia doesn't end there. In Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), Ryan plays a tough guy detective who trounces a gay villain.

With all the heterosexism and homophobia, it's hard to imagine that Ryan would have the time or inclination for buddy-bonding, but he has some.

Wild Rovers (1971), a buddy Western, pairs Ryan with William Holden for hugs, last minute rescues, and a tragic ending.

Barry Lyndon (1975) gives Barry (Ryan) a buddy-bonding friendship with professional gambler, the Chevalier de Baribari (Patrick Magee), with lots of hugs and French-style kissing (plus he stumbles upon two men having sex in a pond).

Ryan's career began to fade during the 1980s, as models of heterosexual masculinity moved in the direction of the man-mountain.  But he's never been out of the public eye, in a life awash with scandals and tragedies.  And, in spite of his heterosexism,  he's always been a quiet supporter of gay rights.