Auteur or not auteur?
By Michael J. Roberts
"I am the best damn filmmaker in the world who has never made one entirely good, entirely satisfactory film."
~ Nicholas Ray
Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Wisconsin in 1911, Nick Ray enjoyed a supporting career in the arts in various disciplines before he fell into filmmaking in the 1940s. Ray had worked in theatre, radio and even had a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright in the famous ‘Fellowship’ that Wright had created as a money-generating communal living solution to his financial woes. Ray left the famed architect in murky circumstances, possibly to do with Ray’s closeted homosexual tendencies, and fell in a New Deal government project that recorded and archived folk music in the field. He worked closely with Alan Lomax, producing shows with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before he eventually left Washington and worked with a left-wing theatre troupe in New York where he became firm friends with Mr Fixit-on-the-rise Elia Kazan. Another friend from his radio days during WWII was John Houseman and various connections led to Ray directing a Duke Ellington scored Broadway show called Beggar’s Holiday and assisting Houseman on another show called Lute Song.
After the war, Houseman moved to Los Angeles and Kazan was being feted to direct a feature for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood and he duly asked his friend Nick to assist on the production, setting Ray on an accidental fast-track to directing. Ray was something of a fix-it guy around Hollywood and his wide knowledge of the arts and affable personality led to a stint at RKO directing touch up scenes for troubled films until he got the chance to direct a property Houseman had suggested, They Live By Night, an adaptation of the noir-tinged novel, Thieves Like Us. The film languished in the vault for 2 years after Howard Hughes took over RKO and set about undoing or changing every project on the release slate. Ray soon found that he was one of the rare humans able to get on with the eccentric billionaire and became a favoured son of sorts, fixing up more films for Hughes and extending and expanding his own contract.
While languishing in touch up jobs for Macao and Jet Pilot, two RKO films from Josef Von Sternberg, he directed his second feature A Woman’s Secret, and married its star, the dynamic and overtly sexual Gloria Grahame. His growing reputation led to an offer from Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions to direct the gritty Knock On Any Door, and after the resulting firm friendship between director and star they followed up with the first rate thriller, In A Lonely Place. Ray’s wife co-starred with Bogart in the memorable drama, but the script couldn’t get close to the real-life drama playing out in Ray’s marriage, something that Bogart from an earlier age would have understood when he was married to Mayo Methot. The battling Ray’s split and made up several times, to the delight of Hollywood’s gossip columnist queens, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the notoriously nymphomaniacal Grahame had sex with Ray’s 13-year-old son from his first marriage.
In an atmosphere of paranoia and panic, spurred on by HUAC’s third round of Commie hunting, the former left leaning director had reason to worry that he’d become part of the Blacklist. It’s possible that Howard Hughes saved his friend from any backlash, or that Ray gave secret testimony, but Ray had a front row seat as friends like Kazan, Clifford Odets and Edward Dymtryk all bowed to HUAC’s threats and eventually named names to save their careers. It might not have hurt his cache either (with Hollywood’s right) that he’d directed John Wayne and Ward Bond in a militaristic, flag waver called Flying Leathernecks or that his estranged wife had scored a hit in rabid anti-red Cecil B. De Mille’s blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth. Incredibly, for someone with definite political baggage, Ray was able to walk a non-political tightrope in the most political of times, possibly protected from retribution by his impeccably credentialed right-wing friends.
Hollywood viewed the likeable director as a solid, reliable foot soldier, but it was the French who decided they’d belatedly uncovered an auteur of the first rank after they fell in love with They Live By Night. They seemed blissfully ignorant of the fact that Ray had not initiated any of the films he’d directed other than his debut, churning out jobs of work for the system that paid him, but that didn’t impede their passion for his ‘singular vision.’ His strength was working with actors and giving his films an authenticity that some directors were incapable of achieving. He also was fortunate having a major star like Bogart star in two of his early successes.
Ray rode his luck in helming the interesting On Dangerous Ground, starring fellow Hollywood liberal Robert Ryan, and finished his RKO contract with a solid Robert Mitchum vehicle, the excellent The Lusty Men. Hughes sold the studio and Ray moved on to the very odd western Johnny Guitar, where he had a tough time controlling his star and producer, Joan Crawford. Another western, albeit more conventional in Run For Cover, saw Ray work with another Warner Bros legend in James Cagney, before a frustrated Ray again initiated a project, insisting he wanted to make an insightful film about juvenile delinquency, and set the wheels in motion for what would be his signature film, the iconic Rebel Without a Cause. Ray’s friend and mentor Elia Kazan had directed James Dean, the ‘new Brando’ in the young actor’s debut feature East of Eden and Ray then formed a deep connection with the idiosyncratic actor for a project that would inextricably link both their names forever.
Ray worked closely with Dean (and even closer with underage co-star Natalie Wood) but the film release was overshadowed by Dean’s untimely death just a few weeks later, a tragic event the director took to heart, losing a friend and several planned projects they had planned together. James Mason came to the rescue by hiring Ray for Bigger Than Life, a film he was producing and starring in for Fox, which became one of the directors best known efforts, and again one he had nothing to do with in planning and preparation. By now Ray may have been able to add some value to a story about self-destruction, as his drinking and gambling escalated along with his growing reputation. Fox tapped him for a second feature, a remake of the old Jesse James chestnut that originally starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, but Ray was lumbered with the less luminous Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, even though Ray himself had wanted Elvis Presley as Jesse James.
Ray distracted himself from his grief over Dean’s death by making a solid film in Europe, one that he was engaged and energized by, Bitter Victory, starring Curt Jurgens and Richard Burton. Ray’s drinking and drug use spiraled during the filming in Libya and France, but the offbeat WWII drama remains one of his best. Ray’s final Hollywood projects were a film for Budd Schulberg (another Kazan connection) called Wind Across The Everglades, starring his old folkie friend Burl Ives, and Party Girl, an odd MGM musical making use of contract players Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse. Ray’s alarming drinking and drug taking, always a feature of his lifestyle, became more problematic after Dean’s death and led to his dismissal from the Schulberg film and contributed to his toxic professional reputation in the USA. Ray again retreated to Europe and to the fawning admiration of the auteurist critics, who continued to champion his every move.
Ray next found a project he could initiate and adapt himself, a rare thing in his ‘auteur’ career – a story set in the Eskimo culture or the Arctic, The Savage Innocents. He signed Anthony Quinn to the lead and a striking British stage actor called Peter O’Toole for his screen debut. His control over proceedings was compromised by his personal excesses and the film had massive logistical and production issues, which makes its final compelling version even more miraculous. The film is a great showcase for Quinn’s earnest acting style, but a post-production decision to dub O’Toole’s voice meant that O’Toole always (understandably) disowned the film.
Ray got caught up in the international co-production fad even further with his last films of note; the very Catholic King of Kings, an epic based on the stories attached to the figure of Jesus where he took over from uber-Catholic John Farrow who’d been fired, and 55 Days at Peking, a look at the Boxer Rebellion. Both large films were essentially just jobs or work and Ray’s touch with actors had deserted him by the time he had to work with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in the China epic and gain he was dismissed and unable to finish it. Neither film was identifiably a ‘Nick Ray’ film in anyone’s estimation except the auteur pushing critics. Ray spent the next 17 years until his death in various states of dishevelment, chasing illusory projects and milking his friends and supporters at every turn. Dennis Hopper and Wim Wenders were among the cohort who aided and abetted the former legend, and Wender’s credited Ray with a co-directing credit for the documentary on Ray’s final years, Lightning Over Water.
Nicholas Ray’s life seems a succession of Boy’s Own amazing situations leading him to endless opportunity in his creative endeavors. From the same small town in Wisconsin that produced his contemporary Joseph Losey, Ray was nurtured by noted playwright Thornton Wilder, mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright, and buddied up with Elia Kazan and the leftist theatre of New York. He fell in with key folk music figures of the era via Alan Lomax and worked with John Houseman on the iconic Voice Of America radio broadcasts during the war. For anyone else this would be a full and satisfying resume, but all of that happened before Ray shot a foot of film. His creative life prepared him well for many of the things that Hollywood had to offer, and his affable accommodating nature saw him ingratiate himself with several key allies.
Ray’s personal hedonistic tendencies may have been his eventual undoing, but as long as he was making profits for the studios, he found himself immune from consequences and was even protected from fallout over his former communist associations when HUAC came knocking. He was sexually voracious, like his great friend Kazan, but didn’t limit his assignations to women. He had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Shelley Winters and his relationship with Gloria Grahame allegedly touched on some depraved areas, and he probably broke several actual laws conducting his affair with underage starlet Natalie Wood.
Ray was a self-promoter of the first order, cultivating relationships with the poisoned gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, and was not above kissing the arse of powerful men like Howard Hughes when it was in his interest. His sense of his own importance was confirmed by the esteem some critics held him in, particularly the French auteur theorists. American critic Andrew Sarris swallowed the auteur Flavor Aid and held the same (I think broadly unsupportable) opinion of Ray as an auteur of the (nearly) first rank, and Ray’s oeuvre is symptomatic of the problem of the theory itself. Undoubtedly, Ray was an ‘auteur’ on a few of his films, but he rarely was the originator or writer or the main creative vision in stewarding his films to release. Often, he was removed from editing or even the finish of filming, and films that he dismissed, like Johnny Guitar, were only embraced by him in retrospect after the auteurists found merit in them.
For all of that, Nicholas Ray was a significant figure in American film. It’s not his fault that French critics compared him to a true auteur like Robert Bresson, but Ray (like other studio directors such as Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh) worked effectively within the studio system to make outstanding films, bringing an empathy for the actors that allowed for his heightened emotionalism and directness that suited post war America. He was a curious and creative individual and pushed the creative boundaries of filmmaking when he got the chance. He also pushed his friends capacity for tolerance as he tested boundaries of every stripe - losing wives, lovers, houses and fortunes on the gaming tables in the process. His capacity for self-destruction was matched by a penchant for self-promotion which saw him amplifying the European critic’s acclaim which fed into their unquestioning further lionizing of his efforts - a mutual regard that became a closed loop of mutual admiration.
Nicholas Ray was renowned as a Mr Fixit in his early days (in the same way Kazan was) and his broad range of creative experiences and underlying, restless curiosity served him well in the Dream Factory. A more disciplined figure may well have parlayed his abundant opportunities into an absolutely stellar career, but the output may have been tamer and less interesting. Nicholas Ray left behind a mid-sized body of work with enough style and interest to ensure his name will be in the mix when post war American cinema is discussed. Auteur or not.