Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American  Director

A book review by Dan Lalande

Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director
By Patrick McGilligan
It Books
432 pages

No rebel, of course, is truly without a cause. Veteran film director Nicholas Ray had a myriad of them: his love-hate relationship with his father, a Hollywood that only semi-respected him, his uncontrollable appetites for drinking, gambling and drugs, ad infinitum. Small wonder he became the architect of cinema’s most enduring anti-establishmentarian: young James Dean, in flame red jacket and stovepipe jeans, the weight of the adult world upon his shoulders in Ray’s seminal Rebel without a Cause.

It’s the best known picture of Ray’s small catalogue, though lesser entries, from the Humphrey Bogart melodrama In a Lonely Place to the campy Johnny Guitar have, bit by bit, found appreciative voices. And like Rebel’s haunted hero, Ray’s life, according to veteran biographer Patrick McGilligan, was rife with soul-wrenching dualities:

Ray was a respected stylist who accepted pedestrian assignments with little resistance; a devout leftist who named names before HUAC with almost no reservation; a prolific ladies’ man who enjoyed periodic same-sex dalliances. The biggest dichotomy of all may be that this taciturn introvert with limited communication skills somehow managed to direct not only a classic but to amass enough of a reputation to find his name occasionally linked to fellow Wisconsinite Orson Welles.

McGilligan’s detailed book, a golden mean of character analysis, Hollywood history and tabloid-worthy gossip, takes us briefly through Ray’s frighteningly Freudian childhood (allegations of illicit sex with his father’s mistress,) then through three fascinating pre-movie careers: the leftist theatre of the ‘30s, the folk-music boom of the same era, and a stint at the famed Wisconsin artists’ colony, Taliesin. All three were ultimately derailed by – surprise, surprise! – charged relationships with substitute paterfamilias: Elia Kazan, Alan Lomax and Frank Lloyd Wright.

It is Kazan with whom he had the longest relationship, and in whose shadow he toiled till death. Both brought the research-based bent of the Method to commercial cinema, and both were instrumental in creating a new, dimensional form of screen actor. But where Kazan stood fast enough to play elder statesman, Ray was hoisted by his own dysfunctional petard – hence the book’s title, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.   

Some willy-nilly assignments after Rebel, Ray, in the clutches of both his addictions and a mysterious suicidal chippie, muddles his way through a series of big-budget productions in exotic locales.

Then, it’s off to Europe, where years are spent looking for a fix, a fuck or financing. When the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, despite holding him dear, cannot advance his career, Ray, the patron-saint of teenage movie angst, is, quite logically, adopted by America’s hippies. Their silent, sliver-haired guru, he makes misguided student films with them, shares their potent pastimes, and even manages to out-hippie them, making social appearances dressed only in his trademark eye patch plus leopard skin underwear and gun holster!

There’s a small redemption before his death in 1979, when he finally puts a lid (if loosely) on his bad habits to pair with long time admirer and auteur du jour  Wim Wenders; together they make a little-seen piece of oblique autobiography, Lightning Over Water.

The conclusion is that yes, Ray was definitely a failure, a man of surprising talent whose Rosebud was his irrepressible self-betrayal. But, too, that despite his flaws, both off screen and on, the man’s legacy is, well, glorious.

Ray the legend is alive and well because, as McGilligan proves conclusively, the man was his heroes, whether they were the young, fiery James Dean or the aged, sour Humphrey Bogart. He made the born outsider – endowed of enough charm, attractiveness and talent to get by if he so desired yet achingly aware that this same world had silently sealed his self-destructiveness from Day One – come to everlasting life.

It’s made for one good, perhaps great, film, one complex, tortured life, and one worthy, enjoyable read.

Dan Lalande is a writer and critic based in Ottawa. You can find him on his Youtube channel HERE.