Nicholas Ray

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Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray.jpg
Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr.

(1911-08-07)August 7, 1911
DiedJune 16, 1979(1979-06-16) (aged 67)
OccupationFilm director
Years active1948–1979
Jean (Abrams) Evans
(m. 1936; div. 1942)

(m. 1948; div. 1952)

Betty Utey
(m. 1958; div. 1964)

Susan Schwartz
(m. 1969)
Ray with Zsa Zsa Gabor, 1953

Nicholas Ray (born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr., August 7, 1911 – June 16, 1979) was an American film director best known for the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause.

Ray is also appreciated for many narrative features produced between 1947 and 1963 including Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, and In a Lonely Place, as well as an experimental work produced throughout the 1970s titled We Can't Go Home Again, which was unfinished at the time of Ray's death from lung cancer. Ray's compositions within the CinemaScope frame and use of color are particularly well-regarded. Ray was an important influence on the French New Wave, with Jean-Luc Godard famously writing in a review of Bitter Victory, "cinema is Nicholas Ray."

Early life and career[edit]

Ray was born in Galesville, Wisconsin, the son of Olene "Lena" (Toppen) and Raymond Joseph Kienzle, a contractor and builder. His paternal grandparents were German and his maternal grandparents were Norwegian.[1][2][3] He grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin.[4] A popular but erratic student prone to delinquency and alcohol abuse, Ray spent much of his adolescence with his older sister in Chicago, Illinois, where he immersed himself in the Al Capone-era nightlife and attended Waller High School. Upon his return to La Crosse in his senior year, he emerged as a talented orator (winning a contest at local radio station WKBH-FM that included a modest scholarship to "any university in the world") and hung around a local stock theater.

With strong grades in English and public speaking and failures in Latin, physics, and geometry, he graduated at the bottom (ranked 152nd in a class of 153) of his class at La Crosse Central High School in 1929. He studied drama at La Crosse State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse) for two years before earning the requisite grades to matriculate at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1931. Although he spent only one semester at the institution because of excessive drinking and poor grades, Ray managed to cultivate relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and dramatist Thornton Wilder, then a professor. He received a Taliesin Fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.[5][6]

During the Great Depression, Ray was employed by the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration.[7] He befriended folklorist Alan Lomax and traveled with him through rural America collecting traditional vernacular music. Lomax and Ray produced "Back Where I Come From", a pioneering folk music radio program featuring such artists as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger.[8] American folk songs would later figure prominently in several of his films.

During the early years of World War II, Ray directed and supervised radio propaganda programs for the Office of War Information under John Houseman.[9] In 1944, he served as Elia Kazan's assistant during the production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.[10]

Ray directed his first and only Broadway production, the Duke Ellington musical Beggar's Holiday, in 1946. One year later, he directed his first film, They Live by Night. It was not released for two years due to the chaotic conditions surrounding Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO Pictures. An almost impressionistic take on film noir, it was notable for its extreme empathy for society's young outsiders, a recurring motif in Ray's oeuvre. Its subject matter, two young lovers running from the law, had an influence on the sporadically popular movie subgenre often called "love on the run". Other examples are Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy (1950), Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), and Robert Altman's adaptation of the novel that served as the basis for They Live by Night, Thieves Like Us (1974).

The New York Times gave the film a positive review (despite calling Ray's trademark sympathetic eye to rebels and criminals "misguided") and acclaimed Ray for "good, realistic production and sharp direction...Mr. Ray has an eye for action details. His staging of the robbery of a bank, all seen by the lad in the pick-up car, makes a fine clip of agitating film. And his sensitive juxtaposing of his actors against highways, tourist camps and bleak motels makes for a vivid comprehension of an intimate personal drama in hopeless flight."[11]

Ray made several more contributions to film noir, most notably the 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie In a Lonely Place, about a troubled screenwriter, and On Dangerous Ground, a police thriller.

Other minor noir films he directed in this period were Born to Be Bad and A Woman's Secret.

Ray's most productive and successful period was the 1950s. In the mid-fifties he made the two films for which he is best remembered: Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The former was a Western starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in action roles of the kind customarily played by men. Highly eccentric in its time, it was much loved by French critics. (François Truffaut called it "the beauty and the beast" of Westerns). In 1955, Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean in what proved to be his most famous role. When Rebel was released, soon after Dean's early death in an automobile crash, it had a revolutionary impact on movie-making and youth culture, virtually giving birth to the contemporary concept of the American teenager. Looking past its social and pop-culture significance, Rebel Without a Cause is the purest example of Ray's cinematic style and vision, with an expressionistic use of colour, dramatic use of architecture, and an empathy for social misfits.

Rebel Without a Cause was Ray's biggest commercial success, and marked a breakthrough in the careers of child actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.[12] Ray engaged in a tempestuous "spiritual marriage" with Dean, and awakened the latent homosexuality of Mineo, through his role as Plato, who would become the first gay teenager to appear on film. During filming it was rumored that Ray began a short-lived affair with the mature-for-her-age Wood, who, at age 16, was 27 years his junior. This created a tense atmosphere between Ray and Dennis Hopper, who was also involved with Wood at the time, but they were reconciled later.[13]

In 1956, Ray directed the melodrama Bigger Than Life starring James Mason as a small-town school teacher driven insane by the misuse of a new wonder-drug, Cortisone. In 1957, he directed The True Story of Jesse James, which was supposed to have featured James Dean but starred Robert Wagner due to Dean's death.[14][15]

Later life[edit]

Some biographers state that Ray — whom they allege to have begun to sexually experiment with men during his stint at the University of Chicago — was bisexual.[5] He denied this in 1977, but stated that everyone has occasional fantasies or daydreams about same-sex relations.[16]

A heavy user of drugs and alcohol, Ray found himself increasingly shut out of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1960s, though he continued working in SFR Yugoslavia upon the invitation of Ratko Dražević, the head of Avala Film[17] and in US. After collapsing on the set of 55 Days at Peking (1963), he did not direct again until the 1970s.

At a 1970 Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East, Ray ran into Dennis Hopper, who asked Ray to join him at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, where he was editing his new film, The Last Movie. When Ray proved to be irascible and amassed an expensive telephone bill, Hopper helped him secure a visiting lecturer position at the State University of New York at Binghamton in upstate New York.[18] From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking as he and his students produced We Can't Go Home Again, an autobiographical film employing multiple superimpositions.[19]

In the spring of 1972, Ray was asked to show some footage from the film at a conference. The audience was shocked to see footage of Ray and his students smoking marijuana together.[18] An early version of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, but Ray, never satisfied with the project, continued editing it until his death in 1979.[20]

The extemporaneous, improvisational nature of producing We Can't Go Home Again placed Ray in conflict with colleagues such as Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim in the university's New American Cinema-oriented film department, and his contract at Binghamton was not renewed in the spring of 1973. With the help of old friends, he would eventually secure teaching positions at the Lee Strasberg Institute and New York University, where he mentored graduate student Jim Jarmusch.[18]


Shortly before his death he collaborated on the direction of Lightning Over Water (also known as Nick's Film) with German director Wim Wenders. He died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979, in New York City after a two-year illness.[18] He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Directing techniques[edit]

Ray's influences include Dylan Thomas, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Ray has a unique directorial style that has led critics to consider him an auteur.[21] Further, Ray is considered a central figure in the development of auteur theory itself, as he was often singled out by Cahiers du Cinema critics who coined the term as the par exemplar of Hollywood film directors (alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks).[22][23]

Themes and stories[edit]

Ray frequently made films characterized by their examination of outsider figures, and most of his movies implicitly or explicitly critique conformity.[21] The stories and themes explored in his films stood out in their time for being non-conformist and sympathetic to or even encouraging of instability and the adoption of then-questionable morals. His work has been singled for the unique way in which it "define[s] the peculiar anxieties and contradictions of America in the ’50s."[24]

Visual style[edit]

While he started working in Hollywood on film noir and other black & white pictures, Ray later became best known for his splashy and vivid use of color. His films have also been noted for their stylized mise en scène with carefully choregraphed blocking and composition that often emphasizes architecture.[21] One of his most distinctive trademarks is the frequent use of dissolves for scene transitions, employing the technique more than any other director from the period during which he worked.[24]


Ray distinguished himself by working in nearly every genre, and frequently drawing elements from one genre into another entirely different genre. Some critics have argued that the tendency to combine or hybridize genres reflects Ray's fluid bisexuality.[21]

Personal life[edit]

Ray was married to:

  • Jean Evans (born Jean Abrams), journalist, married 1936, divorced 1940.[25] They had one son, Anthony (aka Tony, 1937–2018).[26]
  • Gloria Grahame, actress, whom he married in 1948. They separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952. Ray stated that he had discovered Grahame in bed with his son, Tony, who was 13 years old at the time of the incident,[18][27][28] though Grahame's biographer did not believe that claim. (She and Tony Ray married in 1960 and divorced in 1974). Grahame and Nicholas Ray had one son, Timothy Ray.
  • Betty Utley, dancer, married 1958, divorced 1964; two daughters, Nicca and Julie.
  • Susan Schwartz, married 1969 until his death in 1979.


In the decades after his professional peak, Ray continues to influence directors to this day.[29]

In particular, certain French New Wave directors and critics held Ray in high regard:

Filmography (director)[edit]

Year Title Production Co. Cast Notes
1949 They Live by Night RKO Pictures Cathy O'Donnell / Farley Granger / Howard Da Silva
1949 Knock on Any Door Santana Productions Humphrey Bogart / John Derek
1949 A Woman's Secret RKO Pictures Maureen O'Hara / Melvyn Douglas / Gloria Grahame
1949 Roseanna McCoy Samuel Goldwyn Co. Farley Granger / Joan Evans Irving Reis received credit even though he was replaced by Ray two months into filming
1950 In a Lonely Place Santana Productions Humphrey Bogart / Gloria Grahame
1950 Born to Be Bad RKO Pictures Joan Fontaine / Robert Ryan
1951 Flying Leathernecks RKO Pictures John Wayne / Robert Ryan Technicolor
1951 The Racket RKO Pictures Robert Mitchum / Robert Ryan Directed some scenes
1952 On Dangerous Ground RKO Pictures Robert Ryan / Ida Lupino Lupino directed some scenes when Ray fell ill
1952 Macao RKO Pictures Robert Mitchum / Jane Russell / William Bendix Took over from Josef von Sternberg after he was fired during filming
1952 The Lusty Men Wald-Krasna Productions Robert Mitchum / Susan Hayward Robert Parrish directed some scenes when Ray fell ill
1952 Androcles and the Lion RKO Pictures Jean Simmons / Victor Mature Directed an extra scene after filming that was not used
1954 Johnny Guitar Republic Pictures Joan Crawford / Sterling Hayden Trucolor
1955 Run for Cover Pine-Thomas Productions James Cagney / John Derek Technicolor, VistaVision
1955 Rebel Without a Cause Warner Bros. James Dean / Natalie Wood / Sal Mineo Warnercolor, CinemaScope
1956 Hot Blood Columbia Pictures Jane Russell / Cornel Wilde Technicolor, CinemaScope
1956 Bigger Than Life 20th Century Fox James Mason / Barbara Rush De Luxe Color, CinemaScope
1957 The True Story of Jesse James 20th Century Fox Robert Wagner / Hope Lange / Jeffrey Hunter De Luxe Color, CinemaScope
1957 Amère victoire
Bitter Victory
Laffont Productions, Transcontinental Films Richard Burton / Curd Jürgens CinemaScope
1958 Wind Across the Everglades Schulberg Productions Burl Ives / Christopher Plummer Fired during filming / Technicolor
1958 Party Girl Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Euterpe Robert Taylor / Cyd Charisse Metrocolor, CinemaScope
1960 The Savage Innocents Gray Film-Pathé, Joseph Janni-Appia Films, Magic Film Anthony Quinn / Peter O'Toole Technicolor, Super-Technirama 70
1961 King of Kings Samuel Bronston Productions Jeffrey Hunter / Rip Torn / Robert Ryan Technicolor, Super-Technirama 70
1963 55 Days at Peking Samuel Bronston Productions Charlton Heston / Ava Gardner / David Niven Dismissed from production before completion / Technicolor, Super-Technirama 70
1974 Wet Dreams Segment "The Janitor"
1976 We Can't Go Home Again Experimental film
1978 Marco Short film
1980 Lightning Over Water Part-Documentary / Eastmancolor film


Filmography (actor)[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1945 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Bakery Clerk uncredited
1955 Rebel Without a Cause Man in Last Shot uncredited
1963 55 Days at Peking US Minister uncredited
1973 We Can't Go Home Again Nick Ray
1974 Wet Dreams The Janitor segment "The Janitor"
1977 The American Friend Derwatt
1979 Hair The General


  1. ^ Ray, Nicholas (September 10, 1993). I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies. University of California Press. Retrieved February 17, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ Collins, Thomas W. (2000). "Ray, Nicholas : American National Biography Online - oi". doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1803478. Retrieved February 17, 2018.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. 2012, p. 3.
  5. ^ a b Essential Cinema. JHU Press. 2004. p. 334. Retrieved October 30, 2008. nicholas ray bisexual.
  6. ^ "Nicholas Ray | American author and director". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved December 6, 2017.
  7. ^ "New Deal Cultural Programs". Retrieved February 17, 2018.
  8. ^ "Nicholas Ray: Hollywood's Last Romantic - Harvard Film Archive". Retrieved February 17, 2018.
  9. ^ Nicholas Ray on Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  10. ^ "Nicholas Ray: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". Retrieved February 17, 2018.
  11. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "They Live by Night" New York Times November 4, 1949
  12. ^ Staff, The Playlist (June 15, 2012). "The Essentials: 5 Great Films By Nicholas Ray". IndieWire. Retrieved December 6, 2017.
  13. ^ Dennis Hopper on Nicholas Ray (1997) on YouTube
  14. ^ "Wanted: Jesse James". New York Sun. Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  15. ^ French, Philip (December 4, 2007). "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". The Observer. London. Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  16. ^ Profile of Nicholas Ray, 1977 TV interview on Criterion Collection DVD of Bigger Than Life.
  17. ^ “'Doktor Rej i đavoli' je legenda“ ;B92, March 3, 2012
  18. ^ a b c d e Live Fast, Die Young. Simon & Schuster. October 4, 2005. ISBN 9780743291187. Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  19. ^ WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN (Nicholas Ray, 1973) on Vimeo
  20. ^ WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN - Festival de Cannes
  21. ^ a b c d Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Ray, Nicholas – Senses of Cinema". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  22. ^ "Cahiers du Cinéma, The 1950s — Jim Hillier | Harvard University Press". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  23. ^ Lane, Anthony (March 16, 2003). "Only the Lonely".
  24. ^ a b "The Strange Case of Nicholas Ray - Nicholas Ray". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  25. ^ Kashner, Sam. "Dangerous Talents". Retrieved February 17, 2018.
  26. ^ Anthony Ray, Actor, Oscar-Nominated Producer and Son of Director Nicholas Ray, Dies at 80
  27. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie (January 8, 2006). "Giant". The New York Times. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  28. ^ Nicholas Ray and Susan Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, 1995, page xliii.
  29. ^ Nicholas Ray — University of Minnesota Press
  30. ^ Martin Scorsese introduces Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) dir. Nicholas Ray on YouTube
  31. ^ In a Lonely Place (1950)|The Criterion Collection
  32. ^ Curtis Hanson, director of crime drama ‘L.A. Confidential,’ dies at 71 - The Washington Post
  33. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]