In Bigger Than Life (1956) schoolteacher Ed Avery fragments in the broken medicine-cabinet mirror that his wife Lou furiously slams shut when in a pharmaceutically induced delusion he imperiously gives her an order and crosses a line of civility.

For only a few frames just moments before, in accidental confluence the blurred face of director Nicholas Ray watching the action appears below and beside actor James Mason’s in the same swinging mirror.

Ray himself lived a perennially distorted, disrupted, and disruptive life, professionally and personally, though that might surprise no viewers of his movies. His protagonists are often troubled, divided, or fractured, and caught in intolerable knots. “You’re tearing me apart!” cries Jim Stark (James Dean) to his parents in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and in Bitter Victory (1957), on his way to his own death, Richard Burton’s Capt. James Leith ruefully laments, while chuckling at the irony, “I kill the living and I save the dead”. Yet typically in the end a Ray hero or someone in his orbit, comparably torn or shattered, is sacrificed to make way for a restored or renewed order. In The Lusty Men (1952), Jeff McCloud’s (Robert Mitchum) death returns his prodigal protégé from the rowdy world of rodeo to dirt farming and stable post-World War II America. After screening his RKO picture at Vassar College, in a moment caught in – or made self-consciously for – Lightning Over Water (aka Nick’s Movie, 1980), Ray refers to his collaboration with Wim Wenders in the last months of his life (he died in June 1979) as a film “about a man who wants to bring himself all together before he dies”.

Published in time for the 100th anniversary of Ray’s birth in 1911 – and perhaps completed hastily for the occasion, as an editorial blunder on the second-last page that has Ray dying “two months short of his seventy-eighth year”, rather than his 68th birthday, might indicate – Patrick McGilligan’s biography follows on other of the author’s lives of Hollywood lions, among them George Cukor, Fritz Lang, Clint Eastwood, and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as independent Oscar Micheaux. Examining such luminaries, some of whose lives had already been extensively documented, McGilligan has adeptly and resourcefully retraced previously trod ground, often digging up new dirt along the way and expressing varying degrees of admiration or disdain for his subject and his subject’s films. (Eastwood, no stranger to litigation, famously sued for libel.) McGilligan’s findings perhaps result in a composite portrait of the artistically proficient, professionally successful Hollywood director as self-possessed, often cruel, misogynistic (or misanthropic), and manipulative con artist, permeated with corrosive streaks of cowardice and dependency – in other words, arguably, as conventional 20th century American men.

Alcoholic from youth, later drug-dependent as well, several times married, but also promiscuous, bisexual (or at least bisexually promiscuous), and a chronic prevaricator, Ray is an unsurprising object of McGilligan’s attention. Unlike many of his other subjects, filmmaker Ray sits on “The Far Side of Paradise”, as Andrew Sarris judged him, not among the Pantheon alongside Hitchcock and Lang (1). To be sure, Ray’s work as a director yields a highly variable graph of positive and negative accomplishment. He made one nearly indisputable artistic and commercial success, a generous handful of well-received or dismissed movies that have gained reputational status, and the balance comprising flops or failures that challenge auteurists to honour them. Even Ray’s champions can tend to give some of them (such as Hot Blood, 1956) scant space – though Jean-Luc Godard contrarily met the challenge and, in his review of this otherwise little-esteemed film, found reason to declare, “If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and, what is more, of wanting to”. An industry director from just after the Second World War to the end of the Kennedy presidency, Ray made movies that produced few profits. McGilligan indicates that his biggest box office achievements were his last two mainstream pictures, King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963): runaway productions and historical epics unsuited to his skills and plagued by his dependencies, movies that marked his sad downfall as a conventional filmmaker.

Buried in his sometimes-confounding documentation, McGilligan claims that his interest in Ray and Ray’s films was whetted during the filmmaker’s “flamboyant 1973 visit” (p. 511) to the University of Wisconsin, where the writer was an undergraduate. It’s easy to imagine that the oddball, exotic filmmaker piqued young McGilligan’s curiosity. In a workshop, students waited for the guest director to provide something like direction, and they continued to wait for several hours, but in the recollection of then-graduate student Gerald Peary, “nothing happened”. Ray stayed “pretty uncommunicative” (p. 481) the remainder of his time in Madison – though he was lucid enough on his Hollywood career for Michael Wilmington to compile a substantial interview for publication. McGilligan is silent about how many of the events he witnessed firsthand, how much of a “regrettable wreck of a human being” (p. 481) Ray might have looked to him, but gnomic as ever Ray may have already appeared the “human jigsaw puzzle” (p. 481) the biographer claims him to be in his opening sentence.

Ray is a puzzle to which solutions have been attempted before, most notably and impressively by Bernard Eisenschitz, in Roman américain: Les Vies de Nicholas Ray, translated as Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, also republished this year, by the University of Minnesota Press, also for the filmmaker’s centenary. Eisenschitz’s account is meticulously researched and a methodically and clearly related narrative of a life – or of lives, to use the suggestion in his original title – lived through the midsection of twentieth-century USA. In space, Ray’s path traversed the land, from the Midwest of his youth to New York, California, and after a Lost Generation-like European exile a revisit to New York and, after death, a return home of his remains to Wisconsin. In time, Ray lived through two world wars, the Great Depression in between, the assumption of social normalcy afterward, and the subsequent growth of a counterculture coinciding with the United States’ most traumatic conflict of the era, in Southeast Asia. Professionally, Ray grew into a person of media other than the cinema – of radio and theatre, of music and the folk process – before landing in the lucrative but mercurial world of motion pictures, with the support of friends and colleagues Elia Kazan and, later, John Houseman. In Hollywood time, he was born as US moviemaking was moving to Southern California, he directed his first picture just one year after the film industry’s most profitable year, and his final few releases were themselves symptoms of the classical cinema’s collapse. Although both biographers necessarily follow Ray along the same paths, Eisenschitz – perhaps having to elaborate on American themes more than a US-born writer writing for a US publisher – more explicitly situates the filmmaker in the tapestry of the country’s cultural production and historical narrative.

McGilligan had to rely on Eisenschitz as a principal source. Not only was his earlier research thorough within the practical limits of the time he sought information, but Eisenschitz also interviewed key witnesses, now dead or otherwise inaccessible. McGilligan credits Eisenschitz appropriately and extensively, as he does sources published later, such as Vincent Curcio’s scabrous but invaluable biography of Gloria Grahame, Gavin Lambert’s recollections of his professional and personal relationships with Ray – two key sources for some of Ray’s more sordid and vulnerable moments – and memoirs by Kazan, Houseman, and others who worked with the filmmaker.

Apart from being less discreet about Ray’s temptations and frailties, what does McGilligan add, and how is his account distinctive? His research bears signs of both his being based in Ray’s home state and of borderless Internet access. He expands our knowledge of Ray’s roots with local sources, and of his expansive career with a wide range of news reports that mentioned “Ray Kienzle”, “Nik Ray”, or finally “Nicholas Ray”. Among other outcomes, they suggest that, as much as Ray might have wandered, he returned frequently and remained tied to Wisconsin and to his mother (as a journal entry quoted in the last moments of Lightning Over Water alludes). Moreover, for McGilligan they indicate the foundations of both Ray’s artistic predilections and his personal demons in accomplishments and diversions of his youth, a biographer’s standard tack. Many themes are familiar, from Eisenschitz’s and others’ accounts, from Ray’s own statements and his widow Susan’s long retrospective introduction to the collection I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (1993), and even from the films that director Ray signed. McGilligan amplifies them, however, and they emerge as dialectical “but alsos”: Ray’s recurrent interest in youth, not only as both characters and confederates, but also his attraction to mentors and father figures; the evident draw he felt to retrieve home and family, but also his peripatetic instability and his inability to sustain stable relationships; his conversational skill and manipulative charm, but also his mirroring and apparently crippling incapacity to communicate; his will to attain professional and artistic independence, but also his lifelong, hobbling personal dependencies, addictions, and frailties, in addition to his reliance over his career on an industrial system in decline, which he was decreasingly successful in negotiating.

Throughout his account McGilligan points to observations, provisional conclusions, and hypotheses that might be tested and proved. The near-commonplace, for example, that the scenario of Johnny Guitar (1954) evolved in response to the concurrent anti-communist witch-hunt and blacklisting in Hollywood, he traces to writer Philip Yordan’s early-1960s recollections as part of the film’s recuperation by Cahiers du cinéma (p. 415), finding no evidence that the picture was made or read with that agenda at the time it was produced and released. Yet he also impugns Yordan as self-servingly questionable both as a writer – characterising him more as a contractor of other writers labouring anonymously under his credit line – and as a historical source. Yordan’s view considerably shaped future exegeses of Johnny Guitar and in partial consequence Ray’s reputation concerning the persecution, posse mentality, and figurative lynching of the time, but what are we to make of his revisionism?

Probably the most tantalising new source to address Ray’s record and reputation is Ray’s FBI file, accessible only since mid-1990s legislation made the US Freedom of Information Act an effective instrument. Evidence from inside, it promises more than confederates’ recollections of a character as evasive and dissembling as Ray could be. A veteran of the pro-communist radical theatre of the 1930s, a confederate of Alan Lomax and the Almanac Singers, including Woody Guthrie and the blacklisted Pete Seeger, and a federal employee in the World War II years, Ray was ripe for government investigation. Local accounts and recollections McGilligan unearthed indicate that even in La Crosse young Ray Kienzle might have attracted the Bureau’s attention, although that remains unconfirmed. Ultimately constrained, however, the file McGilligan received dates at its earliest from 1942, showing the Bureau’s interest while also remaining silent about any connection between Ray and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations.

Ray’s own record with HUAC was long conjectured. Creative personnel in the Depression-era radical theatre and other leftist cultural circles in which he travelled were charged, blacklisted, driven into exile, and otherwise persecuted, yet Ray worked steadily through the 1950s. Did Ray’s early 1940s security clearance sustain him through the blacklist period? Was he protected by influential RKO boss Howard Hughes, who bonded with his contract director? Did he just outwit the G-Men? Ray worked with talent who testified to the committee – Sterling Hayden, Clifford Odets, Budd Schulberg, Robert Taylor – without overt challenge to his conscience. Unlike his longtime friend Kazan, he seemed to face no opprobrium. Eisenschitz affirms that Ray must have had to testify confidentially in person or by letter, as John Houseman did, and reports that Ray’s first wife Jean Evans remembered Ray’s admission that he had named her to the authorities. Although he makes more of the issue, stressing the secrecy and making it a persistent force weighing on Ray as his career peaked with Rebel Without a Cause and then declined after James Dean’s death, McGilligan adds little of substance, in part because no further evidence surfaced from his inquiries. Remarkably, the Ray file he received is suspended in 1948, resuming in 1963, about the time the filmmaker’s industry-based career ended. Whether more information might have been surrendered on insistent further requests, or such omission or suppression might be expected in records involving cooperators, more than a half-century later, does not form part of an evidently complex picture.

McGilligan writes lives of auteurs, directors with artistic personas stamped in the themes, structures, and styles of their films, but he is not innovating auteurist biography by weaving evidence of a lived life and an authorial life to produce a rich historical tapestry. Particularly in the case of centrally creative personnel, films as they were produced and realised constitute meaning-laden evidence. This is not necessarily to situate them as the primary source, but they are primary sources, deserving consideration alongside archival records, personal recollections, and secondary accounts. McGilligan by no means ignores Ray’s formal and stylistic preoccupations. They Live by Night (1949), for instance, provides a site of innovation, for Ray’s bold insistence on the aerial shots that open the film’s action, for handheld shots or images “skewed at an angle, just like in the funny papers” (p. 135) that had had an impact on the young filmmaker, and for sound design distinctively deriving from his radio work. It was also innovative for Ray himself, of course, as his first directing assignment, though McGilligan insists on the accurate but fallacious standard line for such a starting point: “all that he had done in the fifteen years since leaving Wisconsin […] had led to this propitious moment” (p. 134).

Ray fed interviewers a story about links between his affinity for the widescreen and his Fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin two decades earlier, and McGilligan seems to buy into it. His accounts of the later films on which Ray’s reputation as a visual stylist greatly rely, however, have little to do with the “horizontal line” and any aesthetic that Ray purportedly drew from Wright. The chronicle of Ray’s apprenticeship, while valuably recounting the type of work he did and expanding on the aspiring artist’s growth, has more to do with Ray’s need for a mentor and for approval. Relating one of Wright’s occasional extemporaneous, discursive lectures of the type Ray might have witnessed while at the cultural colony, McGilligan reports another apprentice’s response, “Many are still wondering, no doubt, what happened” (p. 42), anticipating Ray’s University of Wisconsin visit decades later and suggesting that the greater influence on Ray might have been less in cinematic form and more in personal style.

More significant are the points he identifies that can be discerned as distinctive to Ray’s aesthetic. Where, for instance, the composite frames and collage construction of We Can’t Go Home Again (1976) appeared unlike any of Ray’s Hollywood productions and more consistent with avant-garde cinema of the early 1970s, the period Ray was shooting that film with his students in Binghamton, NY, evidence McGilligan stresses (which Eisenschitz also had indicated) suggests that Ray aspired to use comparable techniques much earlier. While 1950s Hollywood might have tolerated split-screens in musicals and comedies, visually disruptive strategies found no place for Warners in such a serious picture as Rebel Without a Cause. While dealing with the films’ production adeptly, McGilligan assesses the results and integrates them into his account less satisfactorily. He refers to Ray’s movies, but certainly by comparison with Eisenschitz’s systematic attempts to stitch them into biographically oriented history, he is less inclined to consider their textual values in depth in order to make them essential to his history.

At points the films appear not just distant but even remote to McGilligan, or the source of odd and strained connections. The strenuous location shooting of Bitter Victory in North Africa was “worth it, the desert photographed in black and white as eerily, as beautifully, as rolling Wisconsin hills in the winter” (p. 352). Maybe so, and implicitly, of course, alluding to geographies of Ray’s youth (and familiar to the Milwaukee-based biographer), though McGilligan provides no evident reason for the link. It may be that the form and stylistics Ray at his most demanding best could muster compete successfully with a writer’s translation into words. Shot night-for-night under necessarily massive artificial light, however, and not incidentally many taxing kilometres and hours from the film company’s base camp, the Libyan sands glowing white beneath the blackest of skies make for something more like a moonscape – eerie and beautiful, but also imposing, isolating, dangerous, even aggressively threatening ­– than a midwestern January terrain might connote. To cite a less interpretive instance, McGilligan relates the well-known decision by Warner Bros. to restart Rebel Without a Cause after a couple of weeks’ production, converting from black-and-white to colour, and he refers to “Ray’s last color film, Johnny Guitar” (p. 299). Here he forgets Run for Cover (1955), shot in Technicolor (and in VistaVision, incidentally making it Ray’s earlier essay in a widescreen format) immediately before Rebel.

Creative personnel in the divided labour of filmmaking operate in intersecting spheres, and their biographers typically are beholden to them in order to yield a historical account. They must situate details of a personal and working life as parts of systems that have economic, industrial, and socio-political dimensions. The moving pictures that filmmakers make speak not only of the protagonist, but also of those orbiting conditions. McGilligan nods to the significance of the movies Ray made, using them to elaborate on his personality vividly if superficially. For him Ray’s chimeric projects or other aspirations are “moon talk”, like Wes and Louise Merritt’s aspiration of owning their own farm. In each case, as Ray himself suggested in talking at Vassar about The Lusty Men, they embrace a postwar American Dream. Perhaps his observation suggests the filmmaker saw through the commonplace – declaring his implication in the blind run but also elliptically claiming a greater responsibility Jim Stark tries to teach his craven parents, “But I am involved. We are all involved!” – but perhaps Ray also found himself ensnared in the cliché.

Thanks to Samantha Fernandes and Pamela Stamoulis, who first brought to my attention the image of Ray in the mirror in Bigger Than Life.

Patrick McGilligan, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, It Books/HarperCollins, New York, 2011.


  1. See Sarris’ entry on Ray in The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1968, pp. 107-9.
  2. See Mike Wilmington, “Nicholas Ray on the Years at RKO”, The Velvet Light Trap no. 10, Fall 1973, p. 54-55.


About The Author

Blaine Allan is Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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