Ryan O’Neal’s 10 Greatest Movies

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Last week, the entertainment world lost an icon of cinema, Ryan O’Neal. The 82-year-old actor is remembered with such love from his family, some of whom became on-screen talents as well, and fans of his work in movies that owned the era he grew to fame in. There were only a few movie stars that shined brighter than his in the 1970s. O’Neal was versatile in anything from romantic comedies to action movies. He was an Oscar-nominated actor who has a long filmography that many should check out in the wake of his death.

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10 Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a crime thriller written and directed by novelist Norman Mailer. A film that takes place in a coastal New England town is about a writer who wakes up with no recollection of the night before. However, he does have the severed head of a woman in his drug stash and a tattoo on his arm now.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance Is a Noir You Need to See

The 1980s weren’t kind to Ryan O’Neal. His leading roles started to dwindle, so when he began to land B-grade noir-like thrillers, he still made it a point to be the best attribute about them. Tough Guys Don’t Dance was released by MGM and The Cannon Films Group, and if anyone knows a thing about Cannon Films, they like to up the sleaze factor. If you want to see a crime thriller go off the rails, check out Tough Guys Don’t Dance. But if anything, admire the actors’ efforts by being the clear throughline of a bonkers film.

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Related: The Greatest ’70s Movies According to Siskel & Ebert, Ranked

9 Chances Are (1989)

In Chances Are, Cybill Sheperd plays Corinne Jeffries, a woman who has lost the man she loves in a car wreck. The guy is reincarnated as a younger man, a writer named Alex Finch (Robert Downey Jr.). Finch falls for a young woman named Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson). He then learns that she is the daughter of his old love, Corinne. And Corinne is now being pursued by his past-life friend Phillip (Ryan O’Neal).

Why Chances Are Makes the List

O’Neal plays a supporting role among some of the young talent of the 1980s. He’s a likable character in a movie about a strange love triangle of sorts. It’s very easy to treat O’Neal’s character like the bad guy in all of this, but the film culminates in a wedding scene where Downey Jr.’s character seems to have let go of what once was and let happen what now is. It’s a heartwarming moment to have all four of the main characters on screen together.

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8 Zero Effect (1998)

Zero Effect is a late 1990s mystery about a private detective by the name of Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman). In between cases, he’s a bit of a frustrated slacker. All of this was seen by his assistant, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). When a businessman (Ryan O’Neal) falls victim to blackmail, he hires Daryl to be the man for the job. The only problem is that Daryl falls for a prime suspect.

Why Zero Effect Is Worth a Watch in Honor of Ryan O’ Neal

By the late 1990s, Ryan O’Neal was reduced to character actor gigs, and yet, due to his massive talent, he owned these roles. It was always good to see him pop up in something like this, even though Zero Effect is forgettable to most filmgoers. You could argue that this film is a cult hit of sorts; having O’Neal attached to it somewhat heightens the plot and its stars, who are clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

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Related: Greatest Mystery Movies of the 1990s

7 Nickelodeon (1976)

Nickelodeon takes place in the silent film era and is about a lawyer named Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) and a gunslinger who goes by the name of Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds). The pair must head out to stop an illegal film production but wind up becoming part of the entertainment industry.

Nickelodeon Is a Must-Watch

Ignore that Rotten Tomatoes score. The Peter Bogdanovich-directed movie may not work as well as some of the other movies in this star-studded cast’s filmography, but it’s a pretty fun thing to see come together. It would be the last time O’Neal paired up with Bogdanovich, and it is loaded with fun slapstick humor. There is a lot of film history on Nickelodeon; it’s something for true cinephiles to enjoy. Plus, it feels like one of those cool ’70s ensemble films.

Rent on Prime Video

6 A Bridge Too Far (1977)

A Bridge Too Far is another film with a massive ensemble of cast members. Its plot centers around a pairing of British and American troops in 1944 who plan to take control of a highway that stretches from the Netherlands to Germany in World War II.

Why A Bridge Too Far Makes the List

Watching O’Neal hold the screen with the likes of Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, and Anthony Hopkins is just another testament to his strength and prowess as an actor. Ryan O’Neal plays General James Gavin in the film, a man with a critical view of the world, yet he’s the real backbone of the American side of the task at hand in the movie. For those who know the true story of Operation Market Garden in WWII, you’ll know that the Allies bit off a bit more than they could chew on this mission.

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5 The Main Event (1979)

In The Main Event, Barbra Streisand is a filthy rich business owner at a perfume empire. She loses everything due to her accountant doing a very poor job with all her funds. As she falls down to her final few dollars, she comes across a contract with a down-on-his-luck boxer named Eddie “Kid Natural” Scanlon. She then begins to promote him despite being a flawed boxer and ends up falling for him.

Why We Love The Main Event

In the second pairing of Streisand and O’Neal, the chemistry is still there from their previous collaborations together. The Main Event proves Ryan O’Neal has even more comedic chops to add to his resume; it further makes him the king of “meet cute comedies.” Streisand and O’Neal were two of the most well-known on-screen couples of the era due to this film, and another one that is more famously known.

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4 What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

The other comedy between the two is the classic, What’s Up, Doc? Peter Bogdanovich directed this laugh-out-loud comedy about an accidental mix-up in San Francisco that involves multiple characters and a few similar-looking colors and styles in their overnight travel bags.

What’s Up, Doc? Channels Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn

Between the two comedies that paired O’Neal and Streisand, What’s Up, Doc? is the more well known and highly regarded. Their performances feel in the vein of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Again, the chemistry here between the two is something we see once in a generation. What’s Up, Doc? still feels fresh, even though it is more than 50 years old now. Every time you play the film, there is still never a dull moment that won’t crack you up with all its hijinx.

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3 Love Story (1970)

love story
Love Story

Release Date
December 16, 1970

Director
Arthur Hiller

Cast
Ali MacGraw , Ryan O’Neal , John Marley , Ray Milland , Russell Nype , Katharine Balfour

Rating
PG

Runtime
99

Love Story is about a Harvard student named Oliver Barret IV (O’Neal) who falls for a music student at Radcliffe College named Jenny Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw). The two come together, move to New York City, marry, and then learn that Jenny is dying of a terminal illness. The couple tries to deal with the issue as best they can.

An Oscar Nomination for Ryan O’Neal

Ryan O’Neal would receive an Academy Award nomination for this drama. It’s a film that feels like it kicked off the era of 1970s romance films. Most films of this era in the vein of Love Story have a strong sense of melancholy. O’Neal’s appeal to why he became the star he was is on full display here. He’s handsome, but not dashing; there’s serious drama behind his eyes. He plays the part well and blends into the sadness of the film perfectly. Lastly, it sure does help that Love Story was the highest-grossing film of 1970.

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2 Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick directed this three-hour-long period piece about a young Irishman who goes rogue and works his way up the social ladder in 18th-century England. Once settled on top of high society, he changes his name and transforms his overall persona into Barry Lyndon.

Ryan O’Neal being able to thrive in a Kubrick film tells you a lot about his patience as an actor. Kubrick was criticized for casting him in the role, as O’Neal clearly looks of his time, and to fit into the era of the 18th century seemed odd at first. However, O’Neal is cunning in the role, and his character arc seems carefully carried out by both him with the performance and Kubrick just doing what he does best as a director. The adaptation of the novel works in so many ways, but O’Neal’s ability to shed whatever you thought about him before watching it is a magnificent thing to watch.

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1 Paper Moon (1973)

Paper Moon is a Peter Bogdanovich-directed black-and-white drama about a bible-selling conman who encounters a little girl who may or may not be his daughter. The two of them end up forging an unlikely bond and go on the road together, committing cons all over Kansas during the Great Depression.

Paper Moon Is Ryan O’Neal’s Best

Not only does Paper Moon star Ryan O’Neal, but it also stars his daughter, a young Tatum O’Neal, as the character Addie. She would later become the youngest actress to win an Academy Award, as she would take home that prize for Paper Moon in the Supporting Actress category. Although his own daughter steals the movie from him a bit, this is a career-defining film for Ryan O’Neal. Most remember Paper Moon before any other film he has made. It’s the kind of movie you don’t want to end; you just want to keep living with these two characters after the credits roll. A true piece of American cinema, if there ever was one. And to add to the bittersweetness of his passing, watch it for the fact that it’s him and his daughter together on screen.

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