By Patrick McGilligan
For the young, film school educated directors who began work in the late '60s, Nicholas Ray was a monumental figure. His appeal to that postwar generation is obvious: Not only did he direct James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—the first movie to appeal directly to disenchanted teenagers—he made movies about drug addiction, feminism, Mc-
Carthyism, conservation, and ethnography years before anyone else. Then he spent some time after his exile from Hollywood among pacesetting youth groups including insurgent Parisian students during the May '68 uprising, the Chicago Seven, and his own film students at Bard College. Admirers such as Godard, Scorsese, and Wenders laced their own work with Ray's trademark psychologically-telling primary colors and lovingly composed CinemaScope framing, and auteur-theorists immediately lionized his work, sometimes indiscriminately. Patrick McGilligan's new and badly needed biography of Ray reorders our perception of his life and work while acknowledging that the man himself—reticent, enigmatic, and often high as a kite—may ultimately remain unknowable. Ray started late in movies, at age 38 in 1947, having apprenticed at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright (hence those 'Scope compositions), researched folk art and music with the WPA (pals included Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie), before becoming an esteemed wartime radio producer under figures such as Joseph Losey and producer John Houseman. Thus he arrived fully formed as a creative personality in Los Angeles, pouring all his experiences into his near-perfect debut, They Live by Night (1949). McGilligan rightly posits that the studio system saved Ray from his own excesses as often as it may have stifled him, and that severed from its supporting infrastructure, he was creatively adrift. This being said, movies such as On Dangerous Ground (1952), Bigger Than Life (1956), and Bitter Victory (1957), among others, sparkle with a fatalistic poetics that is Ray's alone. Contrary to McGilligan's title, the failure was not glorious, but the successes, which add up to about seven masterpieces, truly are.
Review written by John Patterson.