Director Nicholas Ray (August 7th, 1911-June 16, 1979) most noted for his celebrated 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause and a string of celebrated and influential (if not always commercially successful) films, was born in Galesville, Wisconsin as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr. Though not from Greenwich Village, his professional career both began and ended here, with a lot of remarkable filmmaking history in between.
Ray’s first close up exposure to mass entertainment came when he experienced the wonders of radio broadcasting in high school. After attending the University of Chicago for only a year, he received a scholarship to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, from whom he learned the importance of space and geography, and later his love of CinemaScope, an anamorphic lens used to capture widescreen images. When political differences came between the seasoned architect and his young protégé, Ray left for New York and immersed himself in radical theater.
In 1931, he joined the Theater of Action and later the Group Theater, which would later evolve into the Actor’s Studio, which operated out of the Civic Repertory Theatre at 107 W. 14th Street. Here he would meet his good friend, the legendary writer/director Elia Kazan. Ray thrived in the bohemian lifestyle of the close-knit group, despite the effects of the Great Depression, and enjoyed one of the happiest times of his life.
In January 1937, Ray was put in charge of local theater activities by the Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration and moved to Washington with his then-wife Jean Evans, who was pregnant with his first child, Anthony. He also, along with Alan Lomax, traveled around the south and recorded folk musicians for the Library of Congress. The collaboration proved quite fruitful, and in the early 40s Lomax and Ray were hired by CBS to produce a regular evening slot, headed by Woody Guthrie.
In 1945, Elia Kazan had been called to Hollywood to make his feature film debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and hired Ray as his assistant. In 1946, he was whisked back to New York where he displayed his acting chops in his live TV debut with the enormously popular Sorry, Wrong Number (1946). Following this, Ray made a string of critically acclaimed (some only retrospectively) but not always commercially successful films, including the influential film noirs They Live by Night (1948) and In A Lonely Place (1948), and the gender-bending western Johnny Guitar (1954). American audiences didn’t always know what to do with these films, but in Europe, where there was a much larger market for what we would call ‘art films,’ they developed a loyal following. Ray inspired and influenced the emerging French New Wave, including Francoise Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the latter of whom would later state emphatically “Cinema is Nicholas Ray.”
Ray’s style of camera movement (he was one of the first to use a helicopter to film a sequence), fast pacing, and empathetic approaches to characters all received praise. But broad commercial success with American audiences eluded him. But then in September of 1954, Ray wrote a treatment to The Blind Run, about three troubled teenagers who create a new family in each other. This would form the basis for his most popular and celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After some re-writes, Ray started shopping for a lead actor. After a trip to the Strasberg Institute in New York proved fruitless, he learned that Elia Kazan had recently discovered a New York stage actor for his latest film, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, but he wasn’t recommending him; even after Ray saw a rough cut of this actor’s latest film, he still wasn’t sure.
It was only when Ray met 24-year-old James Dean at a party did he realize that this hot new talent would be perfect for the role of Jim Stark, a troubled youth whose world is unraveled in a 24-hour period. Ray and Dean formed a very close bond during filming, which allowed Dean to improvise and even direct to his own liking. The rest of the cast came together with the talents of two fifteen-year-olds: Natalie Wood (the bisexual Ray was rumored to have had romantic feelings — and possibly relations — with both Wood and Dean) and Sal Mineo. The film was in production from March 28 to May 25, 1955. When production began, Warner Bros. considered it a B-movie project, and Ray used black-and-white film stock. When East of Eden was released and became a smash hit, and Jack L. Warner realized James Dean was a rising star and a hot property, filming was switched to color stock, and many scenes had to be reshot in color. It was shot in the widescreen CinemaScope format, which had, for years, been unsuccessfully implemented. With its densely expressive images, the film has often been lauded as a landmark achievement in cinematography, and was released on October 29th, 1955. Mineo and Wood would receive Oscar nominations for their acting, and Ray for the screenplay.
Ray and Dean planned to make more movies after this, but Dean’s death would never make that possible. Despite the success of Rebel Without A Cause, Ray never received his due, though he continued to make films until his health started to become a problem on the set of Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Ray was fired and most of his footage discarded.
In the 1960s, he tried again to climb back into the director’s chair for two big-budget films in Spain, the Biblical epic King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963). On set, he suffered a heart attack brought on by years of heavy drinking and smoking. This sadly brought his Hollywood career to a premature finish.
In the early 1970s, he would return to New York where he became a teacher at New York University, and also split time at Binghamton University, where his relationship with students made him an engaging and memorable instructor. Together, he and his students filmed We Can’t Go Home Again (1973), half documentary and half fiction about Ray and his students portraying fictionalized versions of themselves. With the help of fellow director Wim Wenders, he completed his last film, Lightning Over Water (1980). The original premise followed a painter dying of cancer and his quest to sail to China to find a cure. It instead became a documentary about Ray’s last days.
Nicholas Ray died on June 6th, 1979 of lung cancer, but his legacy lives on in some of the most painfully realized motion pictures ever put on celluloid; his ability to share a fully realized vulnerability through images has rarely been duplicated since.