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Reading: A Stranger in Hollywood

Nicholas Ray's story is not for the squeamish: the making of a cult hero is a painful process.


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Two things everybody knows about movie director Nicholas Ray are that he made Rebel Without a Cause and wore an eye patch. Go any further into his career, into the depths and shallows of Johnny Guitar, Party Girl, or The Savage Innocents, for instance, and suddenly you've joined the cult.

Certain filmmakers seem doomed to one day be placed into a hierarchy of neglected talent. They're put there by revisionist students, by theorists attracted to the elegantly obscure, and by critics such as Bernard Eisenschitz, a French film historian, former editor of Cahiers du Cinema, and author of Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. Nobody--not Orson Welles, not Erich von Stroheim or Tod Browning or Edgar Ulmer--was more misunderstood in his time than Nicholas Ray. Eisenschitz's sympathetic critical biography, originally published in 1990 but just translated into English, explains why. It's not for the squeamish. The making of a cult hero is a painful process.

The obvious place to start discussing Ray is with his two most notorious films, Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar, but they've already been thoroughly picked over. Suffice it to say that Rebel, made for Warner Brothers in 1955 with the intention of casting some light on juvenile delinquency, was both Ray's and James Dean's ticket to immortality. Despite its creative pedigree (conceived over dinner with Ray's confidant, superagent Lew Wasserman; extra dialogue by Ray pal and playwright Clifford Odets), Rebel codifies Ray's fascination with middle-class outsiders and sides firmly with the kids. Eisenschitz sizes up Rebel as "more explicit, less mysterious" than any other Ray film, but sees the three main characters' search for a father as ultimately as timeless as any ancient myth.

Johnny Guitar, on the other hand, that cubistic, near-hysterical, woman-dominated western so beloved of French intellectuals (Jean-Luc Godard never stopped praising it), made Ray physically ill. Eisenschitz reports that Ray vomited on the way to the set each morning, presumably due to the intensity of this oddest of westerns. Ray, together with most American critics, never understood why the Joan Crawford-Mercedes McCambridge catfight-on-horseback struck such a nerve, but it has endured. With its expressive use of color and Ray's trademark absorption with weakness and failure, Johnny Guitar is the wellspring of the cult.

More to the point is Bigger Than Life, a 1956 James Mason vehicle for 20th Century Fox that, like Rebel, examines what Eisenschitz calls the "crisis of nonconformism" in the story of a mild-mannered schoolteacher who shocks his wife and child with extravagant and ultimately violent behavior after using cortisone to treat his inflamed arteries. "The shrinking of idealism" is the order of the day as scrimping moonlighter Ed Avery (played by Mason) suddenly starts throwing his weight around the family's cramped home. While Ray "pursues the inner logic of madness" in Avery's tilted middle-class dreams, the colors and geometric shot combinations mirror the family's startled reactions to their drugged dad.

Mason (who also produced) was an ideal choice for the role. His urbane mid-Atlantic locution gives the movie's tag line--"God was wrong!"--a twist it couldn't have received from an all-American father figure. Besides, in Ray's vision, that father didn't exist.

Eisenschitz cites the manipulation of individuals" as one of Ray's constant themes, from Rebel through Bigger Than Life to Bitter Victory and Wind Across the Everglades. Cahiers critic-turned-director Eric Rohmer saw essentially the same thing, but also a spiritual uncertainty in Ray's social dramas, as if Ray's 50s-style predilection for the psychoanalytic were informed by his own precarious emotional state.

Nicholas Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. in 1911, and grew up in the Mississippi River town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in a family of taciturn, Germanic, "cold, hard folk," many of whom were alcoholics. Young Nick Ray, as he chose to be known professionally, wasted little time getting out of town. After an idealistic discipleship to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he began a life in the theater in New York with Elia Kazan and the Old Leftists of the 1930s in government-sponsored agitprop productions. A classic "premature antifascist," Ray gravitated to Hollywood, where he learned to combine his socially conscious notions with a knack for coaxing brilliant performances out of actors who would rather be playing tennis. His coterie included folk archivist Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, John Houseman, MCA deal maker Wasserman, Humphrey Bogart, and Gloria Grahame, whom he married. Eisenschitz spoons tidbits of gossip throughout the bio, revealing that Ray was one of the many men in Hollywood to have a fling with Marilyn Monroe. Dennis Hopper, who worked for Ray in Rebel, remembers that "we were both fucking [teenaged] Natalie Wood" during the shoot, but that Ray let Hopper take the blame from Wood's parents.

The director's personal problems, however, had less to do with romance than with the clash of his intensity against a selfconscious entertainment industry as it went through one of its occasional periods of doubt, in this case the threat of television in the 50s. For what it's worth, Ray was one of the first filmmakers to show his characters actually watching TV. But TV or no TV, Ray's social and ideological restlessness (exemplified by his former communist affiliations) often put him at odds with the studios. His projects needed to reflect his interests, and he was perennially dissatisfied. An actor on the Bogart-John Derek vehicle Knock on Any Door remembers: "Nick suffered for everybody. He couldn't direct somebody crossing a street without getting involved."

Nevertheless, Ray is remembered for the emotion and intuitive elan he extracted from actors as different as Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn, Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse, Sterling Hayden, Barbara Rush, and adolescent muses Dean, Wood, and Sal Mineo. One of Ray's most cherished ambitions was to cast Elvis Presley as Jesse James, but he had to settle for Robert Wagner instead. Meanwhile, the director drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, augmenting these vices with everything from methamphetamine (he shot it) to grass and cocaine. For the record, his right eye was lost due to a blood clot, and he wore an eye patch as the mood suited him.

One of Ray's most memorable films has autobiographical resonance: In a Lonely Place, starring Bogart as a maverick screenwriter with a violent side and Grahame as his neighbor-turned-girlfriend. As does Barbara Rush in Bigger Than Life, Grahame witnesses her lover's transformation, this time from a rather cynical guy with a slight drinking problem to a whirlwind of malice who may in fact be a murderer. The better to coincide with his own experiences, Ray had the Dixon Steele (Bogart) character's flat built to resemble Ray's own former bungalow in Santa Monica (Eisenschitz mentions a report that Ray and actress Judy Holliday made a double suicide attempt in nearby Santa Monica Bay). And Dix Steele's isolated, inebriated, wise-mouthed loner remains one of the most insightful movie-biz characterizations Hollywood ever produced, a creative type driven to the outskirts of polite society by inner demons. Ray's identification with outlaws extended as well to the Bonnie-and-Clyde pairing of Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger in Ray's first directorial effort, They Live by Night, now remembered more for its innovative elevator shot in the opening sequence.

Eventually, Ray's and Hollywood's suspicions of each other spoiled the relationship. He made two potboilers in Spain for European companies: a biblical one, King of Kings (1961), and a historical adventure, 55 Days at Peking (1963), and never worked in the system again. Ray's Hollywood oeuvre was created in just ten years, long enough to establish him as a legendary actors' director with a legendary propensity for screwing up the status quo. His declining years were filled with aborted projects and false starts, several of which are outlined in a collection of Ray's lectures and interviews, I Was Interrupted, edited by fourth wife Susan Ray.

I Was Interrupted is useful mostly as a source book for dedicated Rayophiles who have feasted on Eisenschitz's scrupulously balanced (between critical analysis and factual recounting) book, yet who still want to hear what the old, cantankerous, physically battered auteur had to say about his craft. The best essay is called "Don't Fuck With a Natural," in which Ray expounds on his and Kazan's theories of acting. His advice to would-be filmmakers: "A director must expose himself." This he did from the late 60s until his death in 1979 from cancer, camping out at film institutes and classrooms across the country, getting in touch with the young people with whom he had always identified. They liked him, too, if for no other reason than his pirate image: tousled white hair, eye patch, dangling cigarette, swagger. The titles of his late-period projects (and of those about him) tell the story of an outsider who carried his ethos to the bitter end: I'm a Stranger Here Myself, You Can't Go Home Again, The Gun Under My Pillow, Lightning Over Water. Most of Nicholas Ray's movies are available on video, and Eisenschitz's book sports a complete filmography. What are you waiting for?

Nicholas Ray: An American journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, translated by Tom Milne, Faber and Faber, $24.95.

I Was Interrupted by Nicholas Ray, edited by Susan Ray, University of California Press, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.

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