Robert Ryan did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning a few critic awards, for portraying Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh.
The film is notable in that it features the last film performances of both Robert Ryan and Fredric March. March though lived a few years after the release of the film, but Ryan was dying of cancer during production and the film was released posthumously. Ryan here portrays character who basically is waiting to die. A former anarchist activist who has long since given up the cause and has regulated himself to be part of the scenery in a bar filled with drunkards with their failed hopes, and dreams which they still try to hold onto in some way. Slade is different from the rest of them as there clearly is not any dream he is holding onto anymore.
Robert Ryan is best known for portraying rather low individuals, frankly evil characters from the sadistic Master d'Arms in Billy Budd, to the racist army soldier in his Oscar nominated role in Crossfire, as well as the murderous racist in A Bad Day Rock. As I said in my review of his performances in Crossfire Ryan definitely was good at playing these sorts of roles, but here in his last performance he has the chance to play a character far from his type casting. One thing that Ryan seemed to try his hardest to do, particularly in Billy Budd, was to avoid being just a one dimensional evil character. He would certianly play them as evil but he would always attempt to portray the more underlying emotions within the bad man.
In this role as Larry Slade is amazing to see Ryan take on a complex role, considering he was usually the one doing his best to add complexities to those who are not complex. Larry is a constant in the film as always a man in the bar as we see his tired worn face in the background. Ryan's expression is perfect there because it expresses the sorrow and hard life that this man has lived. It is not just a face of pain though as there is also anger there to in Larry that comes from his hatred for the world. It is the face of a cynical man who no longer can deal with any of the woes of society, instead he just sits back and observes instead just waiting for the point when he will die.
Something incredibly special about this performance is the way Ryan never allows Larry to devolve into a one note character. Early on the film he pierces through every scene he has with the harsh brutality of the statements that Larry makes. He is quite brutal with just how blunt Ryan is able to bring about the cynical edge of this character. What is equally special about his performance though is the way he still shows hints of the passion that once was in the man. It is not that he has any left over, he doesn't really, but Ryan is able to bring to life an intense passion that is in Larry. He still is a man with passion, but the problem with him is he has nothing to be passionate about other than his cynicism.
This is a film where one could argue it is seems like each actor is trying to make a bigger impression than another, and almost every actors is given such a chance in either a yelling or a breakdown scenes. There is no question though who gives the strongest performance in the film and it is clearly Robert Ryan. Ryan is terrific in every scene where he tears into to the other men. He is perfect in his performance because unlike some of the others there is no visible performance here. Ryan is brutally honest in his performance and it makes the moments where Larry espouses his disgust with the other particularly powerful. He always manages to go right for the throat with his portrayal making a strong impact whenever he can.
What is especially outstanding about Ryan's depiction Larry though is despite the harshness of his lines, Ryan somehow does manage to infuse some warmth within his performance. There are the smallest glimpses of the past in his face of happier times. In his scenes with Jeff Bridges as Don the son of Larry's former girlfriend Ryan is masterful. Ryan is able to portray that past love that is long gone in these scene in the smallest of smiles without ever losing the edge of Larry. He is fantastic in the way he weaves in the anger and disgust Larry feels toward Don for selling out his mother who was a fellow anarchist, along right with that hidden humanity that Larry still holds onto to some degree.
In this four hour film it would be easy to lose track of the character's stories, and even more easily each story could lose their strength, some of them do. One that definitely does not is Robert Ryan's. He absolutely steals the film with his heartbreaking turn as Larry Slade. All the loses of these people, and broken dreams are brought the appropriate weight through Ryan's uncompromising turn as Larry Slade. His portrayal is fantastic as he succeeds in making him the man who cuts through all the falseness of the others, but equally great in showing the man's own demons that never stop haunting him. Ryan's always finds the truth of his character and this is one of the greatest final performances ever given.