Nicholas Ray: American film director (1911 - 1979) | Biography
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Nicholas Ray
American film director

Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American film director
Was Film director Screenwriter Actor
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio
Gender male
Birth 7 August 1911, La Crosse
Death 16 June 1979, New York City (aged 67 years)
Spouse: Gloria Grahame
The details (from wikipedia)


Nicholas Ray (August 7, 1911 – June 16, 1979) was an American film director best known for the movie Rebel Without a Cause.
Ray is also appreciated by a smaller audience of cinephiles for a large number of 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

Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr. 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. He grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. 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 of high school, he emerged as a talented orator (winning a contest at local radio station WKBH that included a modest scholarship to "any university in the world") and gravitated toward hanging around a local stock theater. With strong grades in English & 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 only spent one semester at the institution due to excessive drinking and poor grades, Ray managed to cultivate relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and dramatist Thornton Wilder, then a professor. Ray received a Taliesin Fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.

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 wasn't released for two years because of 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 films). 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 Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Robert Altman's 1974 retelling of the novel used forThey Live by Night, Thieves Like Us.)

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."

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 the western). 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. 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 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.

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 Dean but starred Robert Wagner instead.

Later life

Biographers state that Ray — who began to sexually experiment with men during his stint at the University of Chicago — was bisexual. He denied this in 1977, but stated that everyone has occasional fantasies or daydreams about same-sex relations.

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. After collapsing on the set of 55 Days at Peking (1963), he did not direct again until the mid-1970s.

In 1970 at a 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. Hopper helped Ray secure a position at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University in upstate New York. From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking where he and his students produced We Can't Go Home Again, an autobiographical film employing multiple superimpositions. 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. 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.

The extemporaneous, improvisational nature of 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.


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. Ray died the same week as John Wayne, the star of Flying Leathernecks, a film Ray directed (Wayne had died on June 11). He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Personal life

Ray was married to:

  • Jean Evans (born Jean Abrams), journalist, married 1936, divorced 1940. They had one son, Anthony (aka Tony, born 1937).
  • Gloria Grahame, actress, whom he married in 1948. They separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952 after the director discovered Grahame in bed with his son, Tony, who was then 13 years old. (She and Tony Ray would marry in 1960.) Grahame and Nicholas Ray had one son, Timothy Ray.
  • Betty Utley, dancer, married 1958, divorced 1964; two daughters, Nica and Julie.
  • Susan Schwartz, married 1969 until his death in 1979.
  • Live Fast, Die Young. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  • Zacharek, Stephanie (2006-01-08). "Giant". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-07. 
  • Nicholas Ray and Susan Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, 1995, page xliii.


In the decades after his professional peak, Ray continues to influence directors to this day. In particular, certain French New Wave directors and critics held Ray in high regard:

  • Jean-Luc Godard is a huge admirer of Ray and famously said in his review of Bitter Victory: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." In addition, Godard's films abound in multiple references to Nicholas Ray's films. In Godard's film, Contempt, the character played by Michel Piccoli claims to have written Ray's Bigger Than Life and in La Chinoise, a young Maoist defends the politics of Johnny Guitar to his anti-American colleagues.
  • François Truffaut wrote essays about Ray (who is featured prominently in his book The Films in My Life). He asserts that They Live by Night (1949) is Ray's best movie, but gives special attention to his films Bigger Than Life (1956) and Johnny Guitar (1954).
  • Martin Scorsese is a fan of Ray's, particularly his expressionistic use of color in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956). He used clips from two of them in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
  • Director Curtis Hanson is featured on a documentary for the DVD release of In A Lonely Place, giving his analysis of the film. The film was one of many influences on his direction of L.A. Confidential (1997).
  • Wim Wenders is another European admirer of Ray's and has paid homage to him in many movies. Many of his films are indebted to Ray, from the title of his science fiction film Until the End of the World (which were the last spoken words in Ray's biblical epic King of Kings) to the casting of Dennis Hopper (who starred in Rebel Without a Cause) and the expressionistic use of colour in his own film The American Friend. He even gave Ray a cameo in this film. He also co-directed Ray's final film, the experimental documentary Lightning Over Water, and edited it after Ray's death. The film is a touching portrait of the final days of Nicholas Ray's life.

Filmography (director)

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)

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 (final film role)

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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