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—including They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, King of Kings and 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 him persona non grata among producers.
The sad story, well and respectfully told, of an American original struggling with procrustean politics, timorous producers and personal demons.