This weekend, Ray's 1950 noir In a Lonely Place screens at the Fifth Avenue Cinema (showtimes are here), which means now's as good a time as any to delve into his fascinating life. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director (It Books), Patrick McGilligan traces Ray's Zelig-like life: He was a Wisconsin teen roué; a disciple of architect Frank Lloyd Wright; a member of the Group Theater; a collaborator with music folklorist Alan Lomax; a student under the likes of Elia Kazan; a director of Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Robert Mitchum (The Lusty Men), and Joan Crawford (Johnny Guitar); a cult-famous person thanks to the writings of the future French New Wave directors in Cahiers du Cinema; and, finally, in New York, a teacher to Jim Jarmusch, among others.
Ray's most famous film remains Rebel Without a Cause. An examination of juvenile delinquency, Rebel made stars of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, introduced to the screen Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams, and featured future TV presences Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo), William Hopper (Perry Mason), and Edward Platt (Get Smart). Rebel's famous for its exotic cliff-side "chickie run," its knife fight outside the Griffith Observatory, and Dean's red windbreaker (found in a kids clothing shop in downtown Los Angeles).
Per McGilligan, Ray was highly attractive to both women and men, and availed himself of both, beginning with a school drama professor. Among the highlights is Ray stumbling upon his then-wife Gloria Graham in bed with Ray's teenaged son from his first marriage (in a tradition that Woody Allen would later follow, Graham married the kid). But it's fun to concentrate on the making of Rebel as "synecdoche" of Hollywood's typical sex roundelay.
• Natalie Wood lobbied hard for the role of Judy, the good-bad girl, seeking to break out of her kid identity thanks to films such as Miracle on 34th Street. Sixteen at the time, her efforts led to an affair with the then 43-year-old Ray.
• Dennis Hopper also knocked Wood, seeing her alternatively with Ray (Ray encouraged the relationship, in part so that he could play around with other boys and girls). Ray also encouraged a romance between Wood and Nick Adams (later a soulful TV star who ended up committing suicide).
• Rebel made James Dean a cult figure, but in one of the earliest intimate conversations with the director he confessed to having crabs.
• Like a proto-Larry Clark (Kids), Ray surrounded himself with teens eager to get cast, hosting all-night "be-bop" parties in his bungalow in the now-famous Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi later died.
• Ray immersed himself in a gang called the Athenians, led by a former child actor. Ray went along with them to "rumbles," smoked pot, and eventually lured several of the lads into the bedroom.
• Ray's boyfriend at the time was British writer Gavin Lambert. Lambert revealed that Ray preferred fucking Wood in the afternoon, as his nights were booked with other conquests, among them a "clingy" Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, and Jayne Mansfield.
• Other fun facts: Rebel as we know it would have been much different if Ray had got his way and shot it in black and white. Or if it were known by its original title, The Blind Run. The filmmakers were quite conscious of making Mineo's character gay. Later, the actor was proud of playing the "first gay teenager in films."
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