Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray (born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr., August 7, 1911 – June 16, 1979) was an American film director best known for the movie Rebel Without a Cause.

Nicholas Ray
Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr.

(1911-08-07)August 7, 1911
DiedJune 16, 1979(1979-06-16) (aged 67)
OccupationFilm director
Years active1948–1979
Jean (Abrams) Evans
(m. 1936; div. 1942)

Gloria Grahame
(m. 1948; div. 1952)

Betty Utey
(m. 1958; div. 1964)

Susan Schwartz
(m. 1969)

Ray is also appreciated for many 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 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.[1][2][3] He grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin.[4] 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, 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 hung around a local stock theater.

With strong grades in English and 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 spent only one semester at the institution because of excessive drinking and poor grades, Ray managed to cultivate relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and dramatist Thornton Wilder, then a professor. He received a Taliesin Fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.[5][6]

During the Great Depression, Ray was employed by the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration.[7] He befriended folklorist Alan Lomax and traveled with him through rural America collecting traditional vernacular music. Lomax and Ray produced "Back Where I Come From", a pioneering folk music radio program featuring such artists as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger.[8] American folk songs would later figure prominently in several of his films. In 1944, he served as Elia Kazan's assistant during the production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.[9]

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 was not released for two years due to 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 oeuvre. 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 Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy (1950), Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), and Robert Altman's adaptation of the novel that served as the basis for They Live by Night, Thieves Like Us (1974).

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."[10]

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 Westerns). 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.[11] 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.[12]

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 James Dean but starred Robert Wagner due to Dean's death.[13][14]

Later life

Some biographers state that Ray — whom they allege to have begun to sexually experiment with men during his stint at the University of Chicago — was bisexual.[5] He denied this in 1977, but stated that everyone has occasional fantasies or daydreams about same-sex relations.[15]

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 1970s.

At a 1970 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. When Ray proved to be irascible and amassed an expensive telephone bill, Hopper helped him secure a visiting lecturer position at the State University of New York at Binghamton in upstate New York.[16] From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking as he and his students produced We Can't Go Home Again, an autobiographical film employing multiple superimpositions.[17]

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.[16] 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.[18]

The extemporaneous, improvisational nature of producing 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.[16]


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.[16] He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Personal life

Ray was married to:

  • Jean Evans (born Jean Abrams), journalist, married 1936, divorced 1940.[19] They had one son, Anthony (aka Tony, 1937–2018).[20]
  • 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 13 years old at the time of the incident.[16][21][22] (She and Tony Ray would marry in 1960, divorce in 1974). 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.


In the decades after his professional peak, Ray continues to influence directors to this day.[23]

In particular, certain French New Wave directors and critics held Ray in high regard:

Filmography (director)

YearTitleProduction Co.CastNotes
1949They Live by NightRKO PicturesCathy O'Donnell / Farley Granger / Howard Da Silva
1949Knock on Any DoorSantana ProductionsHumphrey Bogart / John Derek
1949A Woman's SecretRKO PicturesMaureen O'Hara / Melvyn Douglas / Gloria Grahame
1949Roseanna McCoySamuel Goldwyn Co.Farley Granger / Joan EvansIrving Reis received credit even though he was replaced by Ray two months into filming
1950In a Lonely PlaceSantana ProductionsHumphrey Bogart / Gloria Grahame
1950Born to Be BadRKO PicturesJoan Fontaine / Robert Ryan
1951Flying LeathernecksRKO PicturesJohn Wayne / Robert RyanTechnicolor
1951The RacketRKO PicturesRobert Mitchum / Robert RyanDirected some scenes
1952On Dangerous GroundRKO PicturesRobert Ryan / Ida LupinoLupino directed some scenes when Ray fell ill
1952MacaoRKO PicturesRobert Mitchum / Jane Russell / William BendixTook over from Josef von Sternberg after he was fired during filming
1952The Lusty MenWald-Krasna ProductionsRobert Mitchum / Susan HaywardRobert Parrish directed some scenes when Ray fell ill
1952Androcles and the LionRKO PicturesJean Simmons / Victor MatureDirected an extra scene after filming that was not used
1954Johnny GuitarRepublic PicturesJoan Crawford / Sterling HaydenTrucolor
1955Run for CoverPine-Thomas ProductionsJames Cagney / John DerekTechnicolor, VistaVision
1955Rebel Without a CauseWarner Bros.James Dean / Natalie Wood / Sal MineoWarnercolor, CinemaScope
1956Hot BloodColumbia PicturesJane Russell / Cornel WildeTechnicolor, CinemaScope
1956Bigger Than Life20th Century FoxJames Mason / Barbara RushDe Luxe Color, CinemaScope
1957The True Story of Jesse James20th Century FoxRobert Wagner / Hope Lange / Jeffrey HunterDe Luxe Color, CinemaScope
1957Amère victoire
Bitter Victory
Laffont Productions, Transcontinental FilmsRichard Burton / Curd JürgensCinemaScope
1958Wind Across the EvergladesSchulberg ProductionsBurl Ives / Christopher PlummerFired during filming / Technicolor
1958Party GirlMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, EuterpeRobert Taylor / Cyd CharisseMetrocolor, CinemaScope
1960The Savage InnocentsGray Film-Pathé, Joseph Janni-Appia Films, Magic FilmAnthony Quinn / Peter O'TooleTechnicolor, Super-Technirama 70
1961King of KingsSamuel Bronston ProductionsJeffrey Hunter / Rip Torn / Robert RyanTechnicolor, Super-Technirama 70
196355 Days at PekingSamuel Bronston ProductionsCharlton Heston / Ava Gardner / David NivenDismissed from production before completion / Technicolor, Super-Technirama 70
1974Wet Dreams
(segment "The Janitor")
1976We Can't Go Home AgainExperimental film
1978MarcoShort film
1980Lightning Over WaterPart-Documentary / Eastmancolor film


Filmography (actor)

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)


  1. Ray, Nicholas (10 September 1993). "I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies". University of California Press. Retrieved 17 February 2018 via Google Books.
  2. Collins, Thomas W. "Ray, Nicholas : American National Biography Online - oi". doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1803478. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  3. Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. 2012, p. 3.
  4. Essential Cinema. JHU Press. Retrieved 2008-10-30.
  5. "Nicholas Ray | American author and director". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  6. "New Deal Cultural Programs". Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  7. "Nicholas Ray: Hollywood's Last Romantic - Harvard Film Archive". Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  8. "Nicholas Ray: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  9. Crowther, Bosley. "They Live by Night" New York Times November 4, 1949
  10. Staff, The Playlist (2012-06-15). "The Essentials: 5 Great Films By Nicholas Ray". IndieWire. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  11. Dennis Hopper on Nicholas Ray (1997) on YouTube
  12. "Wanted: Jesse James". New York Sun. Retrieved 2008-10-30.
  13. French, Philip (2007-12-04). "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". The Observer. London. Retrieved 2008-10-30.
  14. Profile of Nicholas Ray, 1977 TV interview on Criterion Collection DVD of Bigger Than Life.
  15. Live Fast, Die Young. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 2008-10-30.
  16. WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN (Nicholas Ray, 1973) on Vimeo
  17. WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN - Festival de Cannes
  18. Kashner, Sam. "Dangerous Talents". Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  19. Anthony Ray, Actor, Oscar-Nominated Producer and Son of Director Nicholas Ray, Dies at 80
  20. Zacharek, Stephanie (2006-01-08). "Giant". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-07.
  21. Nicholas Ray and Susan Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, 1995, page xliii.
  22. Nicholas Ray — University of Minnesota Press
  23. Martin Scorsese introduces Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) dir. Nicholas Ray on YouTube
  24. In a Lonely Place (1950)|The Criterion Collection
  25. Curtis Hanson, director of crime drama ‘L.A. Confidential,’ dies at 71 - The Washington Post

Further reading

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