Nicholas Ray was a tough guy who made tough films like They Drive by Night, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men, On Dangerous Ground, The Savage Innocents and 55 Days at Peking. Schooled in architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, writing by Thornton Wilder, music by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, radio by John Houseman and directing by Elia Kazan, he was a master of shooting movement within a frame and making pictures for the widescreen format.
Yet despite all of his artistic accomplishments—and there were many more—the way Ray himself viewed his notable career is reflected in the subtitle of Patrick McGilligan’s new book Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. In his own estimation, he was a terrible disappointment in life and as a filmmaker. In fact, Ray is on record as saying he never made a completely successful film, whether due to studio interference or his own excesses and demons.
While the body of Ray’s work—the director’s 100th birthday was recognized in September—certainly belies this point, his personal life, as reported by veteran Hitchcock, Cukor, Eastwood, Altman and Oscar Micheaux biographer McGilligan, was often in a shambles.
There were four marriages, including one to actress Gloria Grahame, who he found in bed with his 13-year-old son from another marriage. Ray also had affairs—lots of them—with Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday, Joan Crawford, Shelley Winters, a young, Parisian heroin addict and a teenage Natalie Wood, among others. Like Kazan, Ray “named names”—including his first wife’s—in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. This act, incidentally, is treaded on lightly by McGilligan, who has written extensively about the blacklist in the past.
There was also alcoholism and drug addiction, bouts of depression and unemployment and poverty, when he lived on friends’ couches and practically begged for money. There were unrealized projects—many of them, including a late career attempt to make a film about the “Chicago 8,” which was to star Dustin Hoffman and Groucho Marx.
And while never admitting to being bisexual, Ray had several affairs with men, including screenwriter and journalist Gavin Lambert (Inside Daisy Clover), a consistent source throughout the book.
At one time, however, Ray was considered one of Hollywood’s most influential directors. The La Crosse, Wisconsin native made a big splash with his first film, 1949’s They Live by Night, about three escaped convicts hiding out from authorities in the South. His reputation grew with each successive film throughout the 1950s, and he cemented a place in film history with Rebel Without a Cause, the 1955 zeitgeist drama about alienated youth, starring Wood, James Dean, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. By the mid-1950s, Ray was throwing parties at his Chateau Marmont bungalow, where young Hollywood came to party, rehearse scenes, drink and listen to cool music.
McGilligan’s details about the filming and backstory of Rebel are fascinating, but much has been reported before, most notably in Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel. After the critically acclaimed and popular Rebel, things were a different story. The sudden death of star and close friend Dean had a great effect on Ray, who had planned other projects with the actor. While there were such impressive films after Rebel—like Bigger Than Life, with James Mason as a teacher hooked on cortisone, and the underrated Bitter Victory, an underrated WWII war film with Richard Burton—Ray had trouble finishing his work (e.g. Wind Over the Everglades, of which screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrested control) and often led studios to hire other directors to complete the task.
At the same time, his legendary status grew with help from the critics who became the directors of the French New Wave. For example, Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “There is cinema and cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Such overlooked films like Johnny Guitar (1949), the wacked-out Freudian western with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, and The Lusty Men (1952), with Robert Mitchum as a rodeo competitor, were reconsidered by the French and, soon, elsewhere.
But Ray eventually headed to Europe to toil on Samuel Bronston productions such as the Biblical epic King of Kings (1961) (The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote that “the film has the nature of an illustrated lecture”), and the Boxer Rebellion saga 55 Days at Peking (1963), which saw actress Ava Gardner continually feuding with Ray and star Charlton Heston. Ray eventually collapsed on the set, forcing Andrew Marton to complete shooting the film.
The rest of Ray’s life is even darker. There were a few experimental films, teaching assignments, an erotic short he made in Copenhagen strictly for a payday, and memorable cameo appearances in the movies Hair and The American Friend for German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Wenders thereafter helped capture the dying director in 1980’s Lightning Over Water (aka Nick’s Film), a chronicle of Ray’s life and career in which the frail, white-haired, 67-year-old ruminates on his acquaintances, life and cinema as he’s dying of lung cancer.
While the film is a fitting tribute to Ray and his work, it is also difficult to watch. And while McGilligan’s well-researched biography has no shortage of seamy tales from Nick’s life to spill that may be true but are also tough to fathom, it’s the author’s insight into the making of the films and the man himself that makes this Hollywood tragedy, well, larger than life.