Film scholar Patrick McGilligan explores an auteur's troubled life and career
Reviewed by Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 5, 2011
Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Directorby Patrick McGilligan
HarperCollins, 560 pp., $29.99
Given the title alone, a reader could be forgiven for entering cautiously, fearing a hatchet job against a beloved old friend, the director of Rebel Without a Cause, or worse – worse being a sad, true tale of talent checkmated from without, brilliance sabotaged from within, and a debilitating surrender to addictions and indecision. Unlike one of Patrick McGilligan's earlier biographies, a particularly unflattering biography of Clint Eastwood, the prolific author has no particular axe to grind in his detailed history of Nick Ray's life. But a messy life it was, and McGilligan makes no attempt to sweep the rubble into the shadows. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, McGilligan allows the facts to accrue; his portrait of the filmmaker becomes one of an artist who was often his own worst enemy.
Despite his many masterful films (They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life), Ray, who died in 1979, also left a legacy that included several troubled projects, numerous fallings-out with influential early mentors and associates, many sexual liaisons with women (including such film sirens as Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Rebel's 16-year-old star, Natalie Wood) and men (though he denied being bisexual), four marriages, and an addictive relationship with the bottle and gambling. Ray readily found a foothold in Hollywood early in his film career, when his sense of romantic realism and affinity for outsiders and the downtrodden seemed fresh and distinctive in postwar America. But by the late Fifties and early Sixties, Ray had worn through most of his supporters in Hollywood. He had developed into a director of large-scale epics such as King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, films with legendary tales of troubled productions that damaged Ray's reputation and bankability. At the same time, Ray was embraced as a singular talent and Hollywood auteur by the New Wave critics and filmmakers. "The cinema is Nicholas Ray," Jean-Luc Godard famously proclaimed. Deified by the young film turks of Europe, distrusted by the Hollywood old guard, and always pursued by his own demons, Ray led a fairly itinerant life during his last decades.
Ray's early years are detailed with great, if somewhat plodding care by McGilligan, who uncovers few new morsels but provides a greater understanding of why so many of Ray's grand starts fizzled out – whether it be a semesterlong college career at the University of Chicago where he studied with Thornton Wilder; his Taliesin Fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright that went bust before it barely began; his work for Alan Lomax and the New Deal's Works Progress Administration during the Depression when he produced field recordings of folk songs and became friends with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger; and his drift to the stage, where he forged productive relationships with John Houseman and Elia Kazan. Always, McGilligan shows us a man who became a master networker and creator of his own opportunities but was also the first in line to derail his projects' potential.
McGilligan's scholarship is thorough, yet this biography reveals few new details about Ray. Still, it goes further than previous biographies by showing the great dichotomies in the filmmaker's life and the career impediments that stemmed from internal and external forces. Tellingly, this repeated quote from James Mason, Ray's Bigger Than Life star, sums up the director's mystique: "I could tell you many conversations about Nick Ray, and mostly they're an exchange about Nick's strange conduct in one way or another. They all seem to end up with someone saying, 'Mark you, Nick is not without talent!'" This is the sort of impression that McGilligan is referencing when he terms Nick Ray's career a "glorious failure."