Ray is also appreciated by a smaller audience of cinephiles for a large number of narrative features produced between 1947 and 1963 including Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, and In a Lonely Place, as well as an experimental work produced throughout the 1970s titled We Can't Go Home Again, which was unfinished at the time of Ray's death from lung cancer. Ray's compositions within the CinemaScope frame and use of color are particularly well-regarded. Ray was an important influence on the French New Wave, with Jean-Luc Godard famously writing in a review of Bitter Victory, "cinema is Nicholas Ray."
He was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Galesville, Wisconsin. In his early years, he went to school and did a brief stint at the University of Chicago: here he was exposed to the media world through radio. Here he also met two men who inspired his move to films: Frank Lloyd Wright and dramatist Thornton Wilder, then a professor. Ray received a Taliesin Fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.
Ray directed his first and only Broadway production, the Duke Ellington musical Beggar's Holiday, in 1946. One year later, he directed his first film, They Live by Night. It wasn't released for two years because of the chaotic conditions surrounding Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO Pictures. An almost impressionistic take on film noir, it was notable for its extreme empathy for society’s young outsiders (a recurring motif in Ray’s films). Its subject matter, two young lovers running from the law, had an influence on the sporadically popular movie sub-genre often called 'love on the run'. (Other examples are Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Robert Altman’s 1974 remake of They Live by Night, Thieves Like Us.)
The New York Times gave the film a positive review (despite calling Ray's trademark sympathetic eye to rebels and criminals "misguided") and acclaimed Ray for "good, realistic production and sharp direction...Mr. Ray has an eye for action details. His staging of the robbery of a bank, all seen by the lad in the pick-up car, makes a fine clip of agitating film. And his sensitive juxtaposing of his actors against highways, tourist camps and bleak motels makes for a vivid comprehension of an intimate personal drama in hopeless flight."
Ray made several more contributions to film noir, most notably the 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie In a Lonely Place, about a troubled screenwriter, and On Dangerous Ground, a police thriller.
Other minor noir films he directed in this period were Born to Be Bad and A Woman's Secret.
Ray's most productive and successful period was the 1950s. In the mid-fifties he made the two films for which he is best remembered: Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The former was a Western starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in action roles of the kind customarily played by men. Highly eccentric in its time, it was much loved by French critics. (François Truffaut called it "the beauty and the beast" of the western). In 1955, Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean in what proved to be his most famous role. When Rebel was released, soon after Dean's early death in an automobile crash, it had a revolutionary impact on movie-making and youth culture, virtually giving birth to the contemporary concept of the American teenager. Looking past its social and pop-culture significance, Rebel Without a Cause is the purest example of Ray’s cinematic style and vision, with an expressionistic use of colour, dramatic use of architecture, and an empathy for social misfits.
Rebel Without a Cause was Ray's biggest commercial success, and marked a breakthrough in the careers of child actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Ray engaged in a tempestuous "spiritual marriage" with Dean, and awakened the latent homosexuality of Mineo, through his role as Plato, who would become the first gay teenager to appear on film. During filming it was rumored that Ray began a short-lived affair with Wood, who at age 16 was 27 years his junior. This created a tense atmosphere between Ray and Dennis Hopper, who was also involved with Wood at the time, but they were reconciled later.
In 1956, Ray directed the melodrama Bigger Than Life starring James Mason as a small-town school teacher driven insane by the misuse of a new wonder-drug, Cortisone. In 1957, he directed The True Story of Jesse James, which was supposed to have featured Dean but starred Robert Wagner instead.
Biographers state that Ray was bisexual; he himself denied this in 1977, but stated that everyone has occasional fantasies or daydreams about same-sex relations.
A heavy user of drugs and alcohol, Ray found himself increasingly shut out of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1960s. He kept on working, but his later films got little attention, and films like The Savage Innocents and the story of Jesus of Nazareth, King of Kings, were panned by critics. After collapsing on the set of 55 Days at Peking (1963), he did not direct again until the mid-1970s.
In 1970 at a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East, Ray ran into Dennis Hopper, who asked Ray to join him at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, where he was editing his new film, The Last Movie. Hopper helped Ray secure a position at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University in upstate New York. From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking where he and his students produced We Can't Go Home Again, an autobiographical film employing multiple superimpositions. In the spring of 1972, Ray was asked to show some footage from the film at a conference. The audience was shocked to see footage of Ray and his students smoking marijuana together. An early version of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, but Ray, never satisfied with the project, continued editing it until his death in 1979.
With the help of old friends, he secured teaching positions at the Lee Strasberg Institute and New York University.
Shortly before his death he collaborated on the direction of Lightning Over Water (also known as Nick’s Film) with German director Wim Wenders. He died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979 in New York City after a two-year illness. Ray died the same week as John Wayne, the star of Flying Leathernecks, a film Ray directed.
Ray was married to: Jean Evans, journalist, married 1936, divorced 1940. They had one son, Anthony (aka Tony, born 1937); Gloria Grahame, actress, whom he married in 1948. They separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952 after the director discovered Grahame in bed with his son, Tony, who was then 13 years old. (She and Tony Ray would marry in 1960.) Grahame and Nicholas Ray had one son, Timothy Ray; Betty Utley, dancer, married 1958, divorced 1964; two daughters, Nica and Julie; Susan Schwab, married 1969.
Burial: Oak Grove Cemetery, La Crosse, La Crosse County, Wisconsin, USA. Plot: Section 53, Lot 248 [unmarked]
Rebel Without a Cause, the most famous of hundreds of delinquent films, made the teen rebel into a national hero. Nicholas Ray directed the 1955 film and also wrote the story, which was originally adapted for the screen by Irving Shulman. James Dean was iconic as misunderstood teen Jim Stark. Jim’s two relationships in the film are with Judy, an unhappy young woman played by Natalie Wood, and Plato, a troubled gay teen played by Sal Mineo. Ray was clear in establishing Plato’s sexuality: the teen keeps a photograph of actor Alan Ladd in his school locker and is obviously in love with Jim. In one unfilmed version of the script, Jim and Plato kiss. Mineo would later claim that he was “proud to play the first gay teenager in films.” Ray consciously used sexually ambiguous images—all of the young men in the film look like Hollywood versions of the Physique models—to enhance the film’s sexual and emotional appeal. Rebel and other films were successfully mainstreaming an iconic homosexual type, barely concealed, to a huge audience who remained unaware of its origins.Further Readings:
Rebel Without a Cause resonated with audiences then, and still does today, because it addresses questions of conformity. Historically, when faced with a cultural mandate of conformity, Americans have found escape by becoming enthralled with rebels such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger. The concerns of Rebel Without a Cause emerged from cultural tensions over conformity and rebellion that can be seen in some of the professional psychological and sociological literature. Psychoanalyst Robert J. Lindner wrote several best-selling books arguing that conformity, which he called “adjustment,” is “a mendacious idea, biologically false, philosophically untenable, and psychologically harmful.” He claimed that rebellion against conformity is the only salvation for the human race. He also made the radical case, in a forty-five-page argument, that homosexuality is a form of sexual and cultural resistance to society’s mandate to conform. Lindner admired the homophile groups and agreed that laws biased against homosexuals had to be changed, but maintained that homosexuality was a misguided and pathological response to America’s culture of profound sexual repression. Lindner’s work is emblematic of how conflicted progressive ideas about conformity and rebellion in relationship to homosexuality were at this time.
The new ideas about masculinity that emerged from homosexual culture were reinforced by the homosexual influence in the film industry. Actors such as Hudson, Nader, and Hunter “helped set the style and tone of masculinity for a generation,” even as their homosexuality and relationships were open knowledge within the industry.34 Not coincidently, Rebel, a film with tremendous impact on American culture, had roots in nontraditional sexual cultures. Nicholas Ray, who was married four times, was sexually involved with both women and men for most of his life. James Dean and Sal Mineo were both primarily homosexual. Jack Simmons, allegedly Dean’s boyfriend at the time, played one of the gang members. The film industry was tolerant of nonheterosexual behaviors as long as they were not publicized, and most actors were able to be successfully closeted while having great influence on the popular, heterosexual imagination. This was true of Tryon, Perkins, Dean, and Clift. Teen heartthrobs Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun had a long-term affair.35 Many homosexuals had marriages of convenience. Hudson was married to Phyllis Gates, who was his agent’s secretary and a lesbian, for a short period of time to please his fan base and the studio executives. --Bronski, Michael (2011-05-10). A Queer History of the United States (Revisioning American History). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director by Patrick McGilligan
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: It Books (August 7, 2012)
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Award-winning film historian Patrick McGilligan follows his acclaimed biographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar Micheaux with a revelatory look at the life of Nicholas Ray, the troubled director of In a Lonely Place, We Can’t Go Home Again, and Rebel Without a Cause. McGilligan charts the cerebral struggles, astonishing adventures, and artistic triumphs that defined Ray’s life, including his Hollywood collaborations with Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, James Cagney, and James Dean; his love affairs with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Gloria Grahame; his partnerships with activist Abbie Hoffman, pornography starlet Marilyn Chambers, photographer Wim Wenders; and more. Celebrating, contextualizing, and examining Ray’s life and work, McGilligan delivers a milestone of film history and offers a captivating look at one of classic cinema’s most colorful figures.
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz
Paperback: 624 pages
Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; Reprint edition (June 9, 2011)
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Perhaps best known for Rebel without a Cause, American filmmaker Nicholas Ray directed dozens of movies in the film noir genre, including In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and They Live by Night. Born in Galesville, Wisconsin, in 1911, Ray was an iconoclastic figure in film—an alcoholic, depressive, and compulsive gambler—who found himself increasingly blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1960s only to be heralded as the spiritual father to American cinema’s New Wave and one of America’s greatest rebel auteurs. From Martin Scorsese to Jean-Luc Godard and Jim Jarmusch, Ray’s influence can be seen throughout the work of some of the twentieth century’s greatest directors. In this authoritative biography, Bernard Eisenschitz leaves no stone unturned.
The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall by Geoff Andrew
Paperback: 199 pages
Publisher: British Film Institute; 2 edition (January 22, 2008)
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Films like "Johnny Guitar" and "Rebel Without a Cause" ensured cult status for Nicholas Ray. This text discusses his stylistic artistry and abiding thematic concerns and his work with such legends as James Dean, James Mason and Joan Crawford.
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