RAY BY RAY: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray
by Nicca Ray
Three Rooms Press
If you really want to know about Nick Ray’s films, track down Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, translated by Tom Milne for Faber and Faber Press. Of course, it’s out of print, but when the virus is done, an interlibrary loan may help you out.
To better know Ray the man, this book may be it, told by his estranged daughter like a detective story.
“I…had only seen him 3 times from the time I was twelve until that very moment.” This is right before Ray announces he is dying of cancer. Nicca’s previous memory was a disturbing image of Ray stoned out of his mind in his leopard pattern bikini briefs, belly hanging out and skin slightly yellow.
“He was someone who was closer to a poet than a director,” Bernardo Bertolucci said of Nick. Best known for Rebel Without a Cause, the most iconic of all of James Dean’s three films, Ray, like his maverick brother-in-eye, Sam Fuller, injected into Hollywood films a second great wave after the masters John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, who collectively had essentially defined American cinema. Today’s graphic novel owes as much to Ray and Fuller as it does to Welles or Hitchcock, a syntax of new visual language. Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Made in U.S.A. to both of them. Choosing a tight close-up or a low angle view tells you more than any dialog or plot. A dear old friend, Paul Stiver, said “Ray’s films are about hands.” Think of James Dean and Natalie Wood staring into the abyss of the surf after the chickie run car crash in Rebel. Their hands reach out to each other and there is a pause, a yearning, an anticipation more intense than most screen kisses. After Paul’s remark, I began noticing this again and again in Ray’s films—this profound desire for connection signaled by hands, like On Dangerous Ground, with a tight close-up of joining hands—Ida Lupino’s and Robert Ryan’s. It is even present in his impressive first feature, They Live by Night, where the young lovers-to-be shyly get around to shaking hands, drawn out like erotic foreplay. The alcoholism and drug addiction which haunted Ray, spelled out in clearly in the book, also haunts Nicca, whose struggles with that same gene lead to some of the most hair-raising punk-rock teen tales I’ve ever heard. To her credit, it may be one of the few memoirs of a great legend where the author’s story is as compelling as her subject’s.
Thinking over all of Ray’s films that I’ve seen, and there are a few I still haven’t, I realized there was only one I ever really struggled with, his last Hollywood epic, 55 Days At Peking. From what we can now piece together, it wasn’t his picture at all, except in isolated moments. It is a marker that is very nearly a gravestone (he collapsed on the set and was hospitalized, in 1961, just as Nicca was born into the world.)
From that point on, the only complete movie he managed to pull together, other than his own collaborative funeral pyre, Lightning Over Water with Wim Wenders, is the student film We Can’t Go Home Again, an unsuccessful but noble experiment, still far more interesting than 90% of mainstream cinema. Ray’s use of multiple images began with 55 Days At Peking, but weren’t fully realized by the rest of Hollywood until 1968, with Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler and Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, as part of the post-acid zeitgeist. Ray’s use of Cinemascope was already a precursor of this—using a bigger canvas than Welles’s deep focus to show multiple actions at once. Nicca attributes Ray’s increasing multi-image ideas to his amphetamine-mind in fragmentation.
Which brings up the classic question about any self-immolating genius: How did Ray get anything made at all, let alone so much? Go go Van Gogh! Like Charles Bukowski and a number of other survivors, you begin with the constitution of an ox, add the drive of the artist possessed, and find a certain ability to maintain. At least some of time, or in the beginning.
Nicca’s tales of Ray using American Zoetrope editing rooms at night for We Can’t Go Home and being found passed out on the floor are the legends that make any practicing alcoholic have another drink and those in recovery shudder in recognition. It is a good point in this review to indicate that Nicca talked to a lot of people, many of them the offspring of Ray’s various wives, to pull her memoir together, so it as much an intimate biography of Ray as a memoir of her own struggles. To her credit, I wanted to keep reading even after Nick dies, as she continues her own spiral into a drug-whore and black-out alcoholic. Some of my friends who were also around (on & offstage) during those legendary days of Los Angeles punk-rock clubs, the Masque in particular, would’ve been astonished to know Nick Ray’s daugther was on the floor, a slam-dancing jailbait speed freak.
Nicca got clean and sober and eventually so did Nick, but for Nick a cancer diagnosis would soon follow. He acted in Wim Wenders’ American Friend with a still-stoned Dennis Hopper (Hopper had appeared in Rebel!). With the cancer, Lightning also began with Wenders. It is an amazing film on having a mentor, a cinema guru. Nick preferred making it to hanging out with what was left of his family, including Nicca.
O.K., so you’ve seen Rebel, what are some of the other quintessential films of our mad genius? In A Lonely Place, one of the most amazing film noirs around, with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham, who married Ray. Then she married her own stepson in that relationship. Good Lord! I’m also partial to a French New Wave favorite, Party Girl, an insane technicolor musical/noir. No shit. This bizarre wedding of genres was not Ray’s idea, but the producer’s; Ray made the best of it and it is a fever dream. Then there is the nutty western Johnny Guitar. It is hard to imagine that marijuana smoking was not part of this enterprise. There are camp elements (it IS Joan Crawford) and deadly serious drama. It features Sterling Hayden’s line “I’m a stranger here myself.” That became the working title of any project Ray didn’t have a name for. Sigourney Weaver repeats it in Alien: Resurrection, an obvious homage.
It is also perhaps the summation of Nick and Nicca in the world, trying to find meaning, and their way.
Investigate the films of Nick Ray while reading this book. If you’re cooped up, hiding from the virus, you’ll have just signed up for one hell of a film class. Hell being the operative word. But Heaven too, like redemption, or a Van Gogh night sky.
–reviewed by Marc Olmsted