Authors say writing a book is like going on a popular ride at Disneyland. There’s a two-hour wait, followed by about 45 seconds that are pretty exciting.
Fortunately, J.R. Jones didn’t mind the wait. He calls the research a “blast.” Jones, the Reader‘s top film critic, worked five years on his biography of the actor Robert Ryan, and the project didn’t get grim until the rewriting—which is when you want to think you’re finished but your editor tells you you’re not. You grind on—Is this writing or spackling? you wonder. Then the book’s published! And then it’s history.
The Lives of Robert Ryan was published by the Wesleyan University Press in May. Four months later it isn’t history. The first print run was small, but only ten copies are left in stock, so there’s going to be a second. The Music Box is holding its annual Noir City: Chicago festival this week, and Tuesday night Jones will be on hand for a Q&A between screenings of two Ryan films, The Racket and House of Bamboo. Then he heads to New York, where Anthology Film Archives will show six Ryan movies this weekend, and Jones and Ryan’s son Cheyney Ryan—a professor of law and philosophy at Oxford—will talk about the actor.
Jones has already made appearances at a noir festival in Palm Springs, at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest, and once before at the Music Box. Ryan and Jones were featured during July on Turner Classic Movies. These activities are largely Jones’s doing: these days, part of being an author whose name doesn’t sell books all by itself is drumming up your own publicity.
On the other hand, a writer can’t write his own reviews. And a publicist can’t assign them—hard as she might try. “I am always fairly aggressive with the New York Times,” Stephanie Elliott of Wesleyan University Press tells me, “sending galleys and review copies to a variety of columnists and freelancers in addition to sending books to the [Times] Book Review editor.” But the only thing the Times has carried was the Associated Press review of Jones’s book.
This was, however, a friendly review, calling The Lives of Robert Ryan an “engaging biography of a Golden Age movie star who was a welcome presence even if—and perhaps particularly when—he lit up the screen with a sneer and filled it with menace.” The AP reviewer, Douglass K. Daniel, then quoted Jones’s thumbnail description of Ryan’s screencraft: “By all accounts, he was a good man, but often he expressed his goodness by playing evil men—with an alarming relish and conviction.”
Curiously, the Wall Street Journal jumped on the same line, quoted it, and built a sermon around it. “What Mr. Jones means by goodness is something very particular,” said the Journal’s Peter Tonguette. Jones’s goodness is really just a “preferred political perspective,” the perspective of a former marine drill instructor turned “unashamed liberal” with “strong pacifist ideals”” A little of this perspective goes a long way with Tonguette, and he accuses Jones of writing a “well-researched but finally unpersuasive biography.” What Jones failed to persuade him of isn’t clear, but he doesn’t seem to think that Ryan, as an actor and activist, was worth a book.
Other critics haven’t had that doubt. There haven’t been as many reviews as Jones hoped for, but none of them questioned why the author bothered. “Elegantly and with sparing opinionating. . . . Jones maps the particulars of Ryan’s lives.”—Film Comment. “His excellent biography shows what a fascinating career it is—complicated, contradictory, accidental.”—Sight & Sound. “A superb job . . . a masterful biography.”—Library Journal.
Says Jones about his book, “It has so much more resonance than something you knock off writing week to week. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’ll have the most longevity of anything I’ve written, but as to whether it’ll do anything for my career, I don’t know.”
Robert Ryan was a guy from Chicago but he was more than that—a Chicago guy. His father made a lot of money in real estate, and he himself went into politics and became a ward committeeman. Ryan took with him to Hollywood “political savvy” and a “heavy, heavy work ethic,” Jones tells me. The work ethic is something Chicago actors on the coast are still known for.
When I write about Jones’s book I have skin in the game. In a June essay on Ryan, Tribune film critic Michael Phillips explained how the new biography came about: “In 2009 Jones gained access to an unpublished Ryan manuscript, written for his children, in which the actor recalled his North Side childhood.”
The manuscript was a 20-page letter Ryan wrote to his children, and I heard about it from a friend of Ryan’s daughter, Lisa. It turned out Lisa Ryan was willing to share it, and when I got it I showed it to Jones. The Reader published the letter, along with a long commentary by Jones, and Ryan’s kids admired the commentary and talked to Jones about a book. For the last five years he did all the work and I cheered him on—like the guy who buys a Coke and sits in the sun watching the world go by as his pal inches forward in the line at Disneyland.