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Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director

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  • Posted May 9, 2012

    Good biography of a great artist and an often lousy human

    Ray is my favorite director. I've also read Bernard Eisenschitz's bio of him and a lot of critical books and essays over the past 45 years. This one is well written and has a few new revelations regarding both Ray's life and his films that help explain why they turned out the way they did. He once said of himself that he was the greatest director who never made a completely satisfactory film. Scenes and concepts are exhilaratingly original and emotionally involving in a completely unique way in perhaps two thirds of his twenty-ish films--a very high average. But the self-destructive Ray (which McGilligan describes in glimpses that are painful to read) keep his vision sadly incomplete. Ray had a number of addictions--drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling--any one of which would have siderailed him given how much he was indulging and how few hours of sleep and sobriety he had. All together, it's a self-inflicted tragedy. Ray was famously verbally inarticulate at times and I wondered after reading this book whether perhaps during his long silences he was having imaginary conversations with his colleagues in his head and was so inebriated that he didn't realize that he hadn't spoken aloud. And his seduction of 16-year old Natalie Wood, while long known, is such a distasteful, repellent act that it's hard to excuse the artist because of the human. When I'm watching Rebel Without a Cause, I have to wipe that knowledge out of my mind. It's hard to do.

    But the films are wonderful and repay any number of rewatchings. McGilligan tried hard to tie moments in his films with moments from his life, showing how he transformed his life with his art. I guess I would have preferred to have less on his life and more and the meaning of his work, even if that meant a longer book. I got to the point when I didn't want to see him continue to race to the bottom and wanted to see more McGilligan's analysis of the works, especially the lesser ones. But if you're a Ray fan, you'll need to read this book.

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