(1911 - 1979)
Three Key Films: In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Underrated: Bigger Than Life (1956). With a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a medical treatment that drives family man Ed Avery (James Mason) psychotic, Bigger Than Life is one of Ray’s most sensational and incisive films. It recasts the American patriarch as a raving, obsessive megalomaniac and the American home as a death trap; as it approaches its grueling climax, Ray’s style goes from baroque to grotesque, and Mason’s meltdown must be seen to be believed.
Unforgettable: The drunken Jim Stark (James Dean), the title character of Rebel Without a Cause, interrupting his parents’ incessant arguments with a howl of “You’re tearing me apart!” Dean, wearing a ruffled dress shirt, is emblematic of Ray’s fed-up anti-heroes, spiritually and visually trapped inside his parents’ suffocating bourgeois milieu.
The Legend: In 1958, Godard infamously wrote that “the cinema is Nicholas Ray”, and although that appraisal was colored by naïve exuberance, it nonetheless bespeaks the passion that Ray’s films can inflame. A rebel who bristled at studio oversight, Ray’s career was peppered with excesses and missteps, but he compensated with sheer innovation. While making films that could be stylistically extreme to the point of hysteria, he directed some of the most savage critiques of 1950s society to escape from Hollywood.
Ray’s professional life began with a short-lived apprenticeship to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, after which he spent most of the 1930s and ‘40s involved in progressive theater and music. An invitation from Elia Kazan brought him out to Hollywood, where he directed the lovers-on-the-run noir They Live by Night, his first film, in 1948. Ray spent the first portion of his film career at RKO, imbuing potentially routine genre pictures like the noir classic In a Lonely Place with yearning and emotional urgency. Upon leaving the studio in 1953, he bounced around in search of creative independence, and the resulting films count among his greatest and most idiosyncratic.
At Republic Pictures, for example, he made the operatic, female-driven western Johnny Guitar, which attacks the Hollywood Blacklist and features some of Ray’s most expressionistic uses of color. A brief partnership with Warner Brothers a year later yielded Rebel Without a Cause, which proved to be his best-remembered film. It perfectly captures the raw, romantic spirit of star James Dean, who died before its release, while depicting American suburbia as rotten with moral compromise. At their best, Ray’s films were acutely sympathetic to outsiders, warning against the dangers of conformity and the intellectually toxic environment of Cold War America.
Between his politics, addictions, and personal problems, Ray soon became persona non grata in Hollywood, and his mainstream film career was over by the mid-‘60s. However, he found his second calling as a mentor to filmmakers like Wim Wenders, with whom he made the intimate documentary Lightning Over Water (1980), and Jim Jarmusch, then a student at NYU. Traces of his artistic legacy can also be found in Scorsese’s dynamic action and Almodóvar’s garish melodrama. Nicholas Ray may have often stood alone in life while opposing broken systems, but with his social conscience and his commitment to film as art, he left an influence greater than most of his contemporaries. Andreas Stoehr
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