He was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Galesville, Wisconsin. Before making film Nicholas Ray lived a full life; he was an apprentice for a while with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, then in New York, during the depression, he became part of the Workers Theatre, had jobs in radio and tv, directed a Broadway play and finally found his way into cinema after becoming a protégé of Elia Kazan.
He made a number of successful films including; They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground and Johnny Guitar.
In September of 1954, in one night, Ray wrote a 17 page treatment to The Blind Run, about three troubled teenagers, who after rebelling against the oppressions of society, create a new family in each other. This would form the basis for his most popular and influential film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
After some re-writes, Ray started looking for a lead actor. When a trip to the Strasberg Institute in New York proved fruitless, Ray learned that his former mentor, Elia Kazan, had recently used a New York stage actor, James Dean, for his latest film East of Eden. Initially, after watching a rough cut of Kazan’s film, Ray was unsure. It was only when Ray happened to meet the 24 year old James Dean at a party that he decided to cast him for the role of Jim Stark. Child actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo were then cast as supporting actors to Dean.
According to a Natalie Wood biography, she almost did not get the role of Judy because Ray thought that she didn’t seem fit for the role of the wild teen character. While on a night out with friends, she got into a car accident. Upon hearing this, Ray rushed to the hospital. While in delirium, Wood overheard the doctor murmuring and calling her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent“; she soon yelled to Ray, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?!”
Initially the film was shot in black and white, as Warner Bros. considered it a B movie. It was only when Jack Warner realised James Dean was a rising star that filming was switched to color stock and many scenes re-shot.
During the shoot Ray encouraged the actors to improvise and make suggestions to the direction. Though a somewhat chaotic process, this led to a close bonding between Ray and the cast. Personal insights into the actors lives were then used to help the individuals draw deeply on their own experiences and emotions to produce performances of depth and sensitivity.
“My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience. Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act. Because then you can say, ‘Hell, I could have done that too.’ And that’s the obligation of the filmmaker — of the theater-worker — to give a heightened sense of experience to the people who pay to come see his work.” Nicholas Ray
With an expressionistic application of colour, a dramatic use of architecture, and an empathy for social misfits, Rebel Without a Cause is probably the purest example of Ray’s cinematic style and vision. The use of cinemascope and the positioning of the subjects on the very edges of his wide frames enabled Ray to visually highlight the themes of alienation and isolation.
After Rebel Without a Cause Ray continued to make a number of successful films in the 50’s, however in the 60’s he dropped out of Hollywood, began using drugs and immersed himself in the chaos of the hippie generation. By the 1970s, after failed attempts to get projects off the ground and deterioration in his health, Ray became a teacher at New York University. Always an intense and open person, Ray connected deeply with his students and together they made the half-documentary, half-fictionalised experimental feature film We Can’t Go Home Again (1976). At New York University Ray become a mentor to many future directors, including Jim Jarmusch.
Finally, with the help of his friend Wim Wenders, he completed his last film, Lighting Over Water (1980), which was supposed to be about a painter dying of cancer and trying to sail to China to find a cure, but instead it became a sad documentary about Ray’s last days.
Ray continues to influence directors to this day; Jean-Luc Godard, who was a huge admirer of Ray and famously said in his review of Bitter Victory:
“There was theatre (Griffth), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”
In a final note on the film, Ray can be seen appearing in the last shot, walking towards the planetarium, not the sort of detail needed by the plot, theme, or mise en scène, but something closer to an artist’s signature.
Running Time: 111minutes