Nicholas Ray: Grand Old Man of Delinquency

An outsider at the center, that is the contradiction of Nicholas Ray (Raymond Nicholas Kienzie Jr, 1911-1979), who bridged art forms, generations, and even nations (I’m looking at you, France).

Ray’s best known work as a director, as well as his artistic pinnacle was Rebel Without a Cause (1956), a phrase which could serve as his own motto or the title of his autobiography. He’d been a juvenile delinquent in his midwestern hometown (La Crosse, Wisconsin), a poor student, a drunk, and later a druggie. He hung out in Chicago nightclubs (speakeasies) during the Depression. But he did excel in dramatics and public speaking, and this is what allowed him to get a little college under his belt. He studied with Thornton Wilder for a semester, and then oddly, spent some under the wing of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to which is attributed Ray’s spacial awareness and appreciation of the built environment as a director. In the ’30s he was heavily involved in left wing theatre, working with the Group Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. With folk music titan Alan Lomax, he traveled through the South recording great musicians, and helped produce the radio show Back Where I Come From, exposing him to the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Burl Ives. (This fact is what tipped the scales and made me want to do a post on him.) During World War Two he worked under John Houseman, directing and producing wartime propaganda shows for radio.

Ray’s baptism into cinema came at the hands of his Group Theatre cohort Elia Kazan, who hired him to assistant direct A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Then, for Houseman, he A.D.’d an early TV production of Sorry Wrong Number (1946) starring Mildred Natwick. In 1946 he directed his only Broadway show, Duke Ellington’s jazz version of The Beggar’s Opera, called Beggar’s Holiday, featuring Zero Mostel and Herbert Ross. Then in 1947, again at Houseman’s instigation, he directed his first Hollywood film, the highly influential romantic chase noir film They Live By Night (1949). (It was released two years after it was finished due to the hash Howard Hughes had made of RKO. There are countless examples of films and artists who suffered through his dilettentish interference). But even with a bumpy intitial release They Live By Night, cast a long, long shadow, influencing the French New Wave and New Hollywood directors alike. Godard, Truffaut, Arthur Penn, Terence Malick, Robert Altman, and numerous others owed him a debt, and were effusive in their praise of him. Yet despite the widespread admiration, Ray’s time in Hollywood was short and his footprint small: a couple of dozen films over a little over a decade. He is associated pretty exclusively with the 1950s. Other notable films included A Woman’s Secret (1949, where he met his second wife, Gloria Grahame), In a Lonely Place (1950), Born to Be Bad (1950), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Lusty Men (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1956), Bigger Than Life (1956), The True Story of Jesse James (1957), King of Kings (1961), and 55 Days at Peking (1963), his last Hollywood film. Ray was to become especially esteemed for his use of widescreen and color. Martin Scorsese has ofted cited his influence with respect to his use of those technologies.

There is much chatter about Ray’s personal life, probably best not to be ignored as most of it seems germane to his work: that he was bisexual, that he was in a relationship with teenaged Natalie Wood, that he caught his own teenaged son in bed with his second wife Gloria Grahame (not the boy’s mother), prompting their divorce. The sexual tension (and relief of the tension) is palpable in nearly all of his films, and sometimes (as in Rebel) it is of a homosexual nature. There were a LOT of kids in Rebel Without a Cause, and I imagine Ray partied with them, because that was how he rolled. At any rate, the film is what made an icon of James Dean, and it affected American culture (and by extension that of much of the world) enormously as a catalyst for the rock and roll and beat cultures that would morph into the counterculture during the next decade, even as the folk music that he had helped foster in the ’30s and ’40s also made a comeback and played a role.

Thus the ’60s SHOULD have been Ray’s decade. The problem is, he was too fucked up! After 55 Days at Peking, he couldn’t get another Hollywood directing job on account of his drinking, substance abuse, and costly absences. He’d also had a massive heart attack during his last shoot. He spent some time in Communist Yugoslavia, ostensibly to direct a movie of Dylan Thomas’s 1953 Burke and Hare screenplay The Doctor and the Devils, but it seems not to have come to fruition. (In 1985, Mel Brooks of all people produced a revised version of that script, starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea). In 1968 Ray lost an eye to a blood clot, causing him to require an eyepatch for the rest of his life. In 1971 he was hired to teach film at SUNY Binghamton (with the assistance of Dennis Hopper, who had appeared in Rebel Without a Cause). While there, he collaborated with his students on an experimental film called We Can’t Go Home Again, which he continued to work in for the rest of his life (much as Orson Welles continued to tinker with several of his own films during his last years).

In 1973, his SUNY supervisors let him go, but he did continue to have one major disciple, apprentice and official assistant: Jim Jarmusch. I often think of the relationship of Jarmusch to Ray to be not unlike that of Samuel Beckett to James Joyce. One great artist serves under another (who happens to have an eye patch) and then emerges to achieve equal and distinct eminence on his own. Also with Ray in his last years was Wim Wenders, who cast him in The American Friend (1977, an adaptation of Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith). The pair co-directed Lightning Over Water in 1979. He also has a supporting role in Milos Forman’s movie version of Hair (1979) — countercultural to the end!

Lung cancer took Nicholas Ray in 1979. (Smoking is rebellious).