Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director

Overview

From award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan comes an eye-opening life of the troubled filmmaker behind Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray spent the glory years of his career creating films that were dark, emotionally charged, and haunted by social misfits and bruised young people consumed by private anguish?from his career-defining debut, They Live by Night (1948), to his enduring masterwork, Rebel Without a Cause (1955); from the noir thriller In a Lonely Place (1950), ...

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Overview

From award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan comes an eye-opening life of the troubled filmmaker behind Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray spent the glory years of his career creating films that were dark, emotionally charged, and haunted by social misfits and bruised young people consumed by private anguish—from his career-defining debut, They Live by Night (1948), to his enduring masterwork, Rebel Without a Cause (1955); from the noir thriller In a Lonely Place (1950), pairing his second wife, the blond bombshell Gloria Grahame, with Humphrey Bogart, to cult pictures like Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bigger Than Life (1956). Yet his work on-screen is more than matched by the passions and struggles of his personal story—one of the most dramatic lives of any major Hollywood filmmaker.

In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan offers a revelatory biography of Ray, a man whose troubled life was marked by creative peaks and valleys alike. As a young man, Ray personified the rambling spirit of twentieth-century America, learning from luminaries like Thornton Wilder and Frank Lloyd Wright; mingling with future legends like Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, and John Houseman; and carousing with musicians like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. Notoriously self-destructive but irresistibly alluring—to men and women alike—Ray empathized with the broken and misunderstood, a talent that allowed him to create characters of true complexity on-screen.

His youthful association with radical politics nearly killed his nascent film career—until a secret agreement to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities saved him. His tumultuous second marriage, to Grahame, was shattered after Ray found her in bed with his teenage son from his first marriage. He romanced stars and starlets, including Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Joan Crawford, and the teenage Natalie Wood, but never enjoyed a stable home life.

The triumph of Rebel Without a Cause, his masterpiece of teenage angst, led to a burgeoning partnership with James Dean, but Dean’s untimely death devastated the filmmaker, who fell into a spiral of drinking and drug addiction. Less than a decade later, Ray’s career was effectively over . . . until the adoration of European critics, and a frantic last-ditch burst of creativity, nearly restored him to glory before his tragic early death in 1979.

Meticulously detailed and compulsively readable, this new biography reconstructs the tortuous journey of one of the most enduringly fascinating figures in American film.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Film biographer McGilligan (Oscar Micheaux) traces the rise of eccentric director Nicholas Ray in this slow-paced biography. Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. in 1911, the charismatic Ray grew up in La Crosse, Wis., and became drawn to theater. He later organized agitprop theater in New York—though he'd give secret testimony to HUAC—before leaving for Hollywood with his friend and quasi-mentor, Elia Kazan. Ray's first film, They Live By Night, completed in 1947, wasn't released in America until 1949, after winning raves in Europe, where he'd been popular, especially with the French. Knock on Any Door (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950)—both starring Humphrey Bogart—put him on the map, even as his shaky personal life threatened to destroy him. Yet even Ray's penchant for alcohol, coupled with a growing number of ex-wives, couldn't dampen the success of 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, his only Oscar-nominated film. But Rebel was the beginning of the end, and while Ray had later limited success, bizarre on-set behavior made him a virtual Hollywood pariah until his death in 1979. McGilligan, meticulous in the details, too often plods through the material without imbuing it with any of the director's signature flair. (July)
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“[A] portrait of a filmmaker who managed over time to upstage the movies that made him celebrated.”
Booklist
“McGilligan limns the tragic trajectory of Ray’s career with insight and compassion.”
Kirkus Reviews

A veteran biographer of film legends records the sad career arc of Nicholas Ray (1911–1979),the director of one of Hollywood's most iconic films,Rebel Without a Cause(1955).

McGilligan (Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, 2007, etc.), who has also written biographies of directors Altman, Cukor, Hitchcock and Eastwood, plunges into Ray's majestic and messy story with his customary assiduousness, creating a clear and balanced portrait of a most complex man. Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Wisconsin, Ray soon drifted toward community theater, then radio, then the leftist, experimental theater that flourished in his youth. One of his teachers in Chicago was Thornton Wilder, and Ray, who soon moved to Hollywood, seemed to have met and befriended (and often betrayed) just about every showbiz notable in the third quarter of the 20th century, including Elia Kazan, John Houseman, Gloria Grahame, Howard Hughes, James Dean, Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, John Wayne, Richard Burton, Gore Vidal, Charlton Heston and myriad others. He was, temporarily, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright and worked with Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger and others in the folk-music scene. Although he never had total control of a film, he still directed about 20, including some that appear on critics' lists of notables—includingThey Live By Night,In a Lonely Place,On Dangerous Ground,Johnny Guitar,King of Kingsand others. His serial womanizing and several marriages (well chronicled here), his struggles with alcohol and drugs, his gambling addiction and his incessant tinkering with scripts all soon made himpersona non grataamong producers.

The sad story, well and respectfully told, of an American original struggling with procrustean politics, timorous producers and personal demons.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060731373
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/12/2011
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 9.06 (w) x 6.38 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick McGilligan’s biographies include the acclaimed Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only; the Edgar-nominated Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light; Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast; and George Cukor: A Double Life. The author of several New York Times Notable Books, he has also penned biographies of Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Robert Altman, and James Cagney, along with the oral history Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (with Paul Buhle). McGilligan lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Read an Excerpt

Nicholas Ray

The Glorious Failure of an American Director
By Patrick McGilligan

IT Books

Copyright © 2011 Patrick McGilligan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060731373


Chapter One

Nicholas Ray was a kind of human jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of his mystery
scattered and lost over time.
Many of his films were haunted by bruised young people, threatened,
damaged, or twisted by events beyond their control. Their suffering often
begins in youth, its source a secret buried there.
Mementos of childhood crop up in Ray's films like missing pieces of
the puzzle. Sports trophies line the top of a dresser in the room of an
embittered detective in On Dangerous Ground. A broken-down rodeo
champion finds a rodeo handbill, cap pistol, and tobacco-can bank squirreled
away in a crawl space under his old homestead in The Lusty Men. ("I was
looking for something I thought I lost," he tells an old-timer carrying a
shotgun who interrupts his search.) Sprawled drunkenly on the ground,
James Dean pulls a scrap-paper blankie over a cymbal-banging monkey
toy during the opening credits of Rebel Without a Cause. ("Can I keep it?"
he pleads when arrested.)
Even so, the source of hurt is private and vague and remote—not, as in
the case of another Wisconsin filmmaker, as knowable as a certain
Rosebud sled.
In his films, Ray tended to load the blame on mother and father figures.
The parents in Rebel Without a Cause are fundamentally clueless. The
drug addicted father in Bigger Than Life tries to use a scissors to sacrifice
his young son to God. Fathers are faulted the most in Ray's films, while
mothers linger in the shadows, blurry and complicit.
His unorthodox "heroes" (the drug-addicted father is one) are destined
to fail. The obstacles they face are nothing compared to their own
neuroses. They are burdened above all by their integrity.
Ray's intense, searching visual style mirrored his personal struggles.
His best films—a list that would arguably include They Live by Night, In
a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, Rebel
Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory, and Party Girl—can't
easily be categorized. They owe something to Hollywood, where he never
quite fit in, and everything else to his iconoclastic sensibility. First to the
influential French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif in the 1950s,
and to every succeeding generation of film fans since, Ray has become a
symbol of artistic purity and tragic flaws: a test case of auteurist worship.
In his life, as in his films, everything began at home—hope and trouble,
strength and fissures.
.
Home sweet home for Nicholas Ray was an all American city that was
rugged and beautiful, as ideal on the surface as an airbrushed portrait of
the director at the peak of his fame.
Christened as a fur-trading post in 1841, La Crosse was settled on
the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, at the confluence of the Black
and La Crosse Rivers along what would become the border of Wisconsin
(which became a state in 1848) and Minnesota (which followed in 1858).
From a handful of houses, the town swiftly multiplied into a booming
gateway to the West for merchants and adventurers. Germans and Norwegians
swarmed in on packed trains and cattle cars from Milwaukee. By 1880, La
Crosse had grown into the fourth-largest community in Wisconsin.
"Here is a town," declared the former steamboat pilot Samuel Clemens.
a.k.a. Mark Twain, in his 1883 tall-tale memoir and travelogue Life on
the Mississippi, "with electric lighted streets, and blocks of buildings, which
are stately enough and also architecturally fine enough to command respect
in any city. It is a choice town." And a choice setting: With its lush
greenery and majestic bluffs spared by the Ice Age, surrounding fertile
farmlands, crystalline rivers and lakes, dense forests, and plentiful hunting
and fishing, the area was hailed locally as "God's Country."
By the early 1880s, members of a German clan named Kienzle had
reached God's Country. Nicholas Ray's German-born grandparents
stopped briefly in the Teutonic stronghold of Milwaukee before heading
to La Crosse, where they would eventually raise a brood of three sons and
five daughters. Their oldest son, Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, was born in
Milwaukee in 1863; he would wed twice, the first time at a tender age in
Milwaukee, before meeting Nicholas Ray's mother. Kienzle's second
marriage, in La Crosse in 1888, didn't last much longer than the first, though
it produced two daughters, who continued to live near their father after
their parents divorced.
An enigmatic, forbidding figure Raymond N. Kienzle was, as Ray
himself recalled him. In his earliest photographs he wears an ironic smile,
but later in life a walrus mustache and the El Producto cigar invariably
lodged in his mouth gave him the gravitas of a successful tradesman. The
Kienzles were building contractors, specializing in masonry, brick, and
stonework for public edifices and luxurious homes for rich clientele, and in
the 1890s Raymond, the oldest son, took over the family business.
Late in that decade, Kienzle got a big job renovating Gale College, a
Presbyterian institution recently absorbed by the Lutheran ministry, in
the town of Galesville, about twenty-five miles north of La Crosse. While
there he met a quiet and kindhearted woman eleven years his junior.
Slender and bespectacled Olene Toppen, known as Lena, had been raised on
a nearby farm, one of nine children born to parents who were natives of
Norway.
The couple married in 1898 and soon moved onto four acres near
Galesville. Their land included a brickyard factory where Kienzle
employed a handful of workers. Kienzle took local commissions, including
a cement archway entrance to Galesville's High Cliff Park, but also jobs
that took him away for weeks elsewhere in the Midwest and as far as the
Deep South.
All four of the couple's children were born in the small town of Galesville:
three girls—Alice (b. 1900), Ruth (b. 1903), Helen (b. 1905)—and, at
last, a son. Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. came bawling into the world on
time he would drop the name "Kienzle," reverse the order of his first and
middle names, and adopt "Nicholas Ray" as his identity.
After he turned fifty, Raymond Sr. decided to cut back on his factory
work and travel. He put the trappings of his business—the brick machines,
molders and sanders, kiln, sheds and tools, and the Galesville land itself—
up for sale, and in stages moved his family back to La Crosse, purchasing
a series of houses co-owned or shared by Kienzle relatives. By 1920 the
Kienzles had landed in a house at 226 West Avenue North, near the corner
of Vine, facing west toward downtown and, just about a mile away, the
river the Indians called "the Father of Waters."
.
Especially after Rebel Without a Cause, the mythology surrounding Nicholas

Ray tended to highlight stories of a misspent youth, complete with
drinking, truancy, car thievery, brushes with the police, and flirtations
with his father's mistresses.
In many ways, however, his boyhood offers a scrapbook of an
American idyll.
Galesville wasn't far from La Crosse, and in the early years the Kienzles
made regular trips to the bigger city for shopping, holidays, and visits
to relatives. It was the city's first-rate public schools that eventually lured
the family to return there permanently. Although the countryside was still
dotted with a few tepees, and scattered steamboats continued to roam the
Mississippi, by 1920 Mark Twain's "choice town" had transformed itself
from prairie way station to glittering metropolis. La Crosse's streets were
lit with electricity and paved with stone, whizzing with automobiles and
streetcars; most neighborhoods had sidewalks and garbage collection, and
thousands of households had telephones.
La Crosse had cause for civic pride, though the lives of its citizens
were subject to the whims of extreme weather. The wind whipped across
the Mississippi—perhaps not quite "like emery cloth tearing across their
faces," as René Hardy wrote of the searing ghibli in Bitter Victory, but
turbulently in the summers and frigidly in the winters. Those winters,
which brought snow and ice before Thanksgiving most years, were the
real endurance test. Yet La Crossians embraced the season with skiing
and skating and an annual winter carnival that featured dozens of floats
and fur-wrapped marching bands and employee clubs representing local
businesses. Ray must have remembered the strong wind, for it often blew
dramatically through key scenes of his films—sending up a murderous
sandstorm in Bitter Victory, howling outside as Mercedes McCambridge
makes her grand entrance in Johnny Guitar, blowing back the hair of the
mourning teenage rebels standing cliff-side in Rebel Without a Cause.
The Kienzles lived on a street with several other Kienzle aunts and
uncles, in a two-story house that was large but not architecturally fine: "a
big yellow barn," remembered Ferdinand Sontag, a neighbor and classmate
of Ray's. The living room featured a parquet floor and an Italian marble
fireplace; antlered heads decorated the walls, and the family's shelves were
crammed with books. There was a separate piano room; Lena Kienzle
played violin, and all her children learned to play at least one
instrument. For supper, the dining room was set with linen and lace; for
parties and holidays, the house filled with relatives, friends, and flowers.
By 1920, Ray's father was semi-retired, but he still took small jobs as
a bricklayer, cement man, and plasterer. He was active in the chamber of
commerce, while his wife earned plaques volunteering with the Red Cross
and Community Chest. Though raised as a Catholic, Raymond Sr. had
been excommunicated after his first divorce; for a time he joined the
Congregational Church, but eventually drifted away from organized religion.
His wife, brought up as a strict Lutheran, trended toward Methodism and
faithfully took her children to ser vices and Sunday school. Ray Jr. had
been steeped in the Bible, long before the temerity of his film King of Kings.
Ray Jr. was a Boy Scout, a good boy who delivered patriotic speeches in
grade school. On Election Day in 1924, as President Calvin Coolidge faced
off against Democratic candidate John W. Davis and Wisconsin Progressive
Robert M. La Follette Sr., the thirteen-year-old eighth-grader urged
his Lincoln Junior High School classmates to remind their parents to vote.
All three of Ray's sisters doted on their young brother, the only boy in
the family. His siblings were all pretty, with wavy hair like their mother's,
good-humored but serious-minded, anxious to leave home and La Crosse.
They also nursed ambitions beyond marriage. The eldest, Alice, had
already graduated from nursing school by the time of her young brother's
Election Day speech; after exchanging vows in the Kienzle living room,
she moved with her husband to Madison, the college town that was swiftly
surpassing La Crosse in size and prospects and glamour. The next-oldest
sister, Ruth, was on the verge of departing for Chicago. One by one the
girls left—with Ray Jr.'s favorite, Helen, closest to him in age, the last to go.
Ray felt particularly close to Helen—close enough that, in one of his
autobiographical jottings, he confessed that his first crush was on her.
"Ever since I was four and she was nine I've wanted to make it with my
sister Helen," he noted wryly, "because she was my sister." Years later,
reflecting on some of his adult relationships, he would joke about a history of
similar improprieties and feeling "bent towards incest with other people's
children and wives, ex-wives, and daughters and such."
By the time Ray was a freshman at La Crosse Central High School,
Helen too had graduated and was planning her escape. The table settings
dwindled at home. Ray felt abandoned and lonesome, and this loneliness,
which was with him from earliest memory, never abated. It was fundamental
to his character and the themes of his films—which were often preoccupied
with "the loneliness of man," he noted, peopled by characters who
suffer "much agony and much searching," culminating in a private despair.
In youth and manhood alike, Ray too was a soul-searcher in tortured
colloquy with himself.
.
His mother lavished attention on the girls, but when it came to Ray Jr. she
deferred to her husband.
Raymond N. Kienzle Sr. was tall, his size and erect carriage lending
him a larger-than-life air. The filmmaker romanticized his father later
in life, once boasting that Raymond Sr. had "built levees, docking areas
for steamboats and dykes against floods," as well as "colleges, creameries,
whorehouses, cathedrals, and breweries." Beyond his success as a contractor,
his father had other positive qualities: Raymond Sr. loved music and
literature, politically a Republican, he was known to speak out against
racial prejudice at the dinner table. In 1924 he may even have voted for the
spoiler La Follette, who carried only one state—Wisconsin.
But Raymond Sr. cast a formidable shadow. His son's delinquency
started as early as his Boy Scout years, by which time he was already smoking
and drinking and playing hooky. A stern disciplinarian, the father had
an iron fist, punishing his son physically for his indiscretions. And there
was something else: As the director put it once, he was raised under "the
lash of alcoholism." Though Lena Kienzle was a teetotaler, her husband
was a dedicated alcoholic. Drinking was one way to imitate his father. "All
during childhood and Prohibition," the filmmaker recalled years later,
"there was booze in the house, and on the street. At home it was for stealing.
I stole my first pint at ten. On the street it was for buying—grain alcohol
mixed with sugar and hot water—with money stolen from home. . . .
"I learned about Aqua Velva long before I started shaving. No, I didn't
drink it. I poured it over the sheets or into the bathtub to clear the smell
of my puke."
The household was filled with tension. Ray's parents slept in separate
bedrooms, and after dinner Raymond Sr. often disappeared, prowling
a city that despite Prohibition was flush with speakeasies and saloons.
Sometimes he didn't come home until the next day.
"If he had the guts to knock Mom cold once," Jim Stark ( James Dean)
muses harshly in Rebel Without a Cause, "then maybe she'd be happy and
stop picking on him."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Nicholas Ray by Patrick McGilligan Copyright © 2011 by Patrick McGilligan. Excerpted by permission of IT Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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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