August 7, 1911– Nicholas Ray
He grew-up as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Wisconsin and he was a little juvenile delinquent, skipping school, drinking, fighting, with quite the reputation for his talent as an orator and his sexual appetite.
He briefly studied theatre at University Of Chicago in the fall of 1931, but was booted out for making trouble, but not before he managed to bed his Theatre professor Thornton Wilder.
With his new name, Ray moved to New York City where he joined The Group Theater, which is where he met his good friend Elia Kazan and impressed his fellow members with his smarts and amazing energy.
Kazan brought Ray to Hollywood as his assistant on his first film, the lovely A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945). He soon directed his own film, They Live By Night (1948), an impressionistic film noir, interesting because of the extreme empathy for society’s young outsiders, a recurring theme in Ray’s films. He seemed to give the start to that run of films from the 1950s- 1990s of two young fugitive lovers on the run from the law, movies like: Gun Crazy (1950), Bonnie And Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), Natural Born Killers (1994), Kalifornia (1993), Wild At Heart (1990), and The Little Mermaid (1989).
Ray’s most productive and successful period was the 1950s. It was in the mid-1950s that he made the pair of films for which he is best known: Johnny Guitar (1954) an influential feminist gender-bending western (François Truffaut called it The Beauty And The Beast of the Western genre) starring Joan Crawford, who was trouble on the set. Intensely jealous of Mercedes McCambridge, Crawford insisted that McCambridge’s scenes be reduced to expand focus for herself. Crawford destroyed McCambridge’s costumes and threatened to leave the set in Sedona. Crawford, as usual, got her way, but Ray delivered a brilliant, somewhat demented film that remains a cult favorite today.
Then there is the iconic Rebel Without A Cause (1955). This film’s legendary status was much influenced by its young star James Dean’s tragic death soon after filming was completed. Rebel Without A Cause still resonates with film fans and holds the essence of Ray’s vision: empathy for those who struggle to fit in to mainstream society.
Rebel Without A Cause is Ray’s biggest commercial success and it was a breakthrough in the careers of kid actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, both just 15 years old when they screen-tested during weeks of improvised auditions and interviews.
Ray had a tempestuous love affair with Dean, who was discovered by Kazan. Ray and Dean awakened the budding sexuality of Mineo. Mineo’s role of Plato is possibly the first real gay teenaged character to appear on film. Ray had originally planned a kissing scene between Mineo and Dean, an idea Warner Bros. didn’t love.
During filming Ray also had an affair with Wood, at 16 years old she was 27 years younger than her director. Ray apparently slept with most of the young cast of this film except Dennis Hopper who was also involved with Wood. This situation caused much tension between Hopper and Ray, but the friends reconciled later in life. Mineo and Wood both received Academy Award nominations, and Ray received his only Oscar nomination, for the screenplay.
Ray married actor Gloria Grahame in 1948. He directed Grahame in In A Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart . They divorced in 1952 after Ray discovered Grahame in bed with his 16-year-old son, Anthony Ray, who was 13 years old when the affair with Grahame began. Grahame and Tony Ray married when he turned 21 in 1960. The couple stayed together until 1974. Their relationship caused a scandal that cost Grahame her career. She had a nervous breakdown. Grahame had children by both father and son Rays. I’m not making this stuff up. Juicy, huh?
Anthony Ray became an actor and producer. He appeared on Broadway in the Kazan production of William Inge‘s drama The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs (1957), and in John Cassavetes‘ Shadows and Anthony Mann‘s Men In War (1957), and earned an Oscar nomination for producing An Unmarried Woman, He died in 2018 at 80 years old.
Ray made many other films in many other genres, films made with professionalism and talent, but films that are comparatively minor works, often compromised by meddling studio interference.
At his friend Kazan’s urging and with a big FBI file chronicling his time with the Socialist leaning The Group Theatre, plus his gay affairs, Ray named names during The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, a decision that added to his self-destructive ways with the horror he must have felt while watching HUAC and the Hollywood community blacklist so many of his old friends.
Ray was an unabashed bisexual and heavy into drugs and alcohol. He was increasingly shut-out of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1960s and he moved to Spain where he shot the crazy Biblical soap opera King Of Kings (1961) with Jeffery Hunter as Hot Jesus, and the historical drama 55 Days At Peking (1963), during which he collapsed on the set. He would not direct another commercial film.
Ray taught Film at State University Of New York from 1971-1973. He and his students produced We Can’t Go Home Again, an ambitious autobiographical experimental film. Ray was still editing it when his final credits rolled in 1979, taken by lung cancer.
Ray was an immense influence on younger directors, including Martin Scorsese. Jean-Luc Godard held Ray in highest regard. Godard famously said: “the cinema is Nicholas Ray,” and for a remarkable decade from 1948-1958, it was; before he flamed out in true American fashion.
Wim Wenders was crazy for Ray’s films, paying homage to his expressionistic use of color and even casting Dennis Hopper in The American Friend (1977), plus titling his film Until The End Of The World (1991) which were the last words of dialogue in King Of Kings.
Ray and I have a little something special in common. We both had flings with British director-screenwriter Gavin Lambert. They met in England while Ray was doing publicity for Rebel Without A Cause. Totally smitten, Lambert followed Ray back to Hollywood where they moved in together at The Chateau Marmont. Nicholas found Lambert work at 20th Century Fox and the pair lived together as a couple for a year. Lambert confided in me that Ray was a most mercurial lover, often volatile and that they broke up over Ray’s drinking, drug use and frequent fucking around with members of both sexes.