Interviews · Movies

The Losers: American Master Nicholas Ray Deserved an Oscar

The filmmaker was only nominated, once, for writing ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’
Rebel Without A Cause by Nicholas Ray
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 18th, 2015

All this week, we’re celebrating the losers ‐ those talented filmmakers whom Oscar has foolishly overlooked. Landon Palmer interviews two film scholars responsible for a new book on the life and work of director Nicholas Ray, perhaps the most glorified loser in Hollywood history.

Nicholas Ray’s films were about outsiders, rebels and pariahs ‐ individuals that either couldn’t or wouldn’t exist according to the status quo. They didn’t obey the rules, cow to authority or play nice. It should come as no surprise, then, that Ray himself was something of an outsider, occupying a singular in-between space within movie culture that was not-quite Hollywood yet not-quite indie or arthouse. Ray began his career bending the rules of genre within the studio system and ended it within a unique matrix of experimental filmmaking, unrealized projects, film school teaching jobs, and the occasional supporting role in a Wim Wenders film.

The biggest hit of his career, the James Dean-starring Rebel Without a Cause, earned Ray his only official recognition by Hollywood ‐ an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Sixty years after that film and over thirty-five years after his death Ray remains something of a perennial outsider in film culture, with much of his filmography still commercially unavailable.

A new essay collection edited by film scholars Steven Rybin and Will Scheibel offers detailed interpretations on the films and reputation of one of Hollywood’s most difficult-to-categorize directors. The book, “Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema” digs deep into canonized Ray films like Rebel and Johnny Guitar, illuminates the importance of lesser-known titles like Born to Be Bad and The True Story of Jesse James, and even features a heretofore unpublished interview with the director about his film school career. Here’s what Rybin and Scheibel had to say about the enduring importance of this “rebel auteur”:

The introduction of your book explains how, unlike other Hollywood filmmakers embraced by auteur critics like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, Ray existed “on the margins of the American studio system.” What was Ray’s relationship to Hollywood?

Will Scheibel: Even though now Ray his a reputation as being one of the quintessential “rebel auteurs,” this was not a reputation that he had while he was initially making films in Hollywood. He was generally unknown by the moviegoing public, and in the industry he wasn’t a prestige studio director like John Huston, John Ford, or William Wyler. He was seen as a practical young craftsman who was part of an “economy wave” of young filmmakers during the postwar era reputed for making films really efficiently.

For example, the celebrated opening shot of his first film, They Live By Night, which is a helicopter shot of a getaway car as the credits appear onscreen, is now looked as an example of Ray’s signature style, but it was then seen as an economic decision to shoot the film quickly and cheaply.

Steven Rybin: As a director, his image is that of a maverick, but I think there is a sense in which Ray fit into the studio system quite well, at least during the first part of his career. For example, he trusted actors to find their characters, and the classical studio system was, of course, very much star-driven. Robert Ryan [star of Ray’s On Dangerous Ground] once commended Ray for not directing, or over-directing him, or talking too much about “motivation.” Ray let Ryan find his part, as he did for many others.

He was also a director of popular genres. Most of the films Ray made before 1958 ‐ his years spent in the mainstream of the studio system ‐ fit into historical trends of genre production. Of course, within that framework, there are always outliers. His 1956 gypsy melodrama Hot Blood and 1958’s swampland film Wind Across the Everglades are eccentric by any standard.

How did Ray’s reputation re-ignite?

Scheibel: It wasn’t until We Can’t Go Home Again [an experimental, semi-autobiographical collaborative film that turned out to be one of Ray’s last completed works] that he came back into the public eye and was seen as this persona non grata in the ’60s. We Can’t Go Home Again eventually became a film about the waning of the American counterculture broadly after the events of ’68 and the Chicago conspiracy trial as seen through the eyes of his students at SUNY-Binghamton.

During his period teaching at SUNY, Ray was very much a self-promoter of his own directorial mythos. There are countless interviews with Ray while he was a teacher where he not only talks about his teaching philosophy and his collaboration with students on this new film but also about his older films which are being cast in this new light as “rebel” films ‐ proto-counterculture films that anticipated the revolutions of the ’60s during the ’50s. And those were the seeds of the reputation he has now as a rebel filmmaker who never quite got along with Hollywood but was always attempting experimental things within the system.

Steven, your essay in the collection discusses We Can’t Go Home Again. What is this film, where does it lie in Ray’s career, and what drew your interest in writing about this film specifically?

Rybin: We Can’t Go Home Again is a film Ray made with his students during his brief tenure as a professor of cinema at Harpur College, part of Binghamton University, State University of New York. To the extent that the film functions as a documentary, it is very much about the struggle to make the film itself. It highlights Ray’s various relationships with the students who made the film and reflects many of the cultural and political upheavals these students lived through at the time.

It is a highly experimental film, using a process Ray coined “mimage,” which, at times, features multiple images on the screen at one time, produced through various formats (video, Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm). Part of the reason I was compelled to write on We Can’t Go Home Again is because of the fascinating tension in the movie between Ray the auteur and Ray the collaborator. In a sense, Ray is the star of this show ‐ I don’t think any of us would be interested in watching it if he weren’t in charge, and if he weren’t on-screen. And as the main authority in the classroom ‐ the professor ‐ he’s very much in charge of this film’s making.

But ‐ judging from everything I’ve read and after seeing the film several times ‐ I think he also earnestly intended this film as an opportunity for his students to discover themselves, and their position in relation to film and in relation to their culture, through making it. So I was most interested in the essay in exploring that relationship between Ray the auteur and Ray the teacher.

Together, these essays give a detailed arc of Ray’s storied career and complex reputation, beginning with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s record of meeting Ray and moving through much of his Hollywood filmography to his later life teaching film classes and struggling to realize new work. What were some of your goals with this collection in terms of contributing to our understanding of Nicholas Ray?

Rybin: There was some good previously existing work on Ray prior to our book. Of course, there are many fine auteurist readings of his work in existence, including Geoff Andrew’s “Poet of Nightfall.” And the two biographies, by Bernard Eisenschitz and Patrick McGilligan, cover Ray’s life quite well. But there are ways to approach Ray’s work besides those that cling to biography, or auteurism.

Scheibel: This anthology takes Ray’s status as this “rebel auteur” and looks at his signature style and personal vision through different methods within film studies. In looking at films that have fallen off the map or bringing canonical films into dialogue with contemporary developments in film studies, we consider Ray as an auteur through many different lenses and move through his career without necessarily privileging any particular perspective.

Rybin: One of the goals was to improve our understanding of Ray’s work in genre, and to that end, the book features several essays on Ray’s place in many of the key genres of the period, including film noir, the Western, the Biblical film, the melodrama, and the social problem film. There’s also an aspect to the book that looks at the larger cultural resonances carried by Ray’s films: issues of gender, sexuality, masculinity, and performativity. And Ray’s late-career struggle to realize new work takes us beyond the vision of Ray as a Hollywood auteur, and towards something like an experimental or independent filmmaker.

I’d argue that getting a complete vision of Ray as auteur is in fact almost impossible, since many of the films he wanted to make in the last two decades of his career were never fully realized, and some not at all.

To piggyback off of Steven’s comments on genre, this book delves deep into Ray’s fascinating and off-kilter relationship to genre filmmaking. What did Ray do with genre that made him unique amongst Hollywood directors of his era?

Rybin: As I mentioned before, Ray was very successful at working in popular Hollywood genres, even if particular films he made within these genres were not always very popular! I think, as with many auteurs, it is Ray’s sensibility that was always marginal to Hollywood, and it’s this unique sensibility that produces a fascinating tension in his genre films.

Both of his biographers remark that what Ray added to the story of They Live By Night were intimate touches, moments of idiosyncratic connection between the two lovers. I think he treasured these moments of idiosyncrasy between individuals. There is a palpable energy to Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live By Night that is difficult to reproduce. The love story of They Live By Night sets the template for this approach to genre work, but I think we find this kind of quality in nearly all of his films. This may be part of the reason actors figured so centrally for him in the collaborative process.

Scheibel: In terms of his reputation, Ray wasn’t known or promoted as a genre filmmaker. Hitchcock was known as the “master of suspense” in part by the vehicle of his own self-promotion on his television show, so Hitchcock was one of the first celebrity-directors in that sense. Ray was only recognized retroactively in relation to genre.

But as genre films, Ray’s work is very different than other genre entries at the time because Ray came out of a tradition in the arts that included radio and theater before he became a filmmaker. He was part of a tradition of leftist avant-garde work that was coming from a distinctly populist idiom during the 1930s. In regards the heyday of Ray’s filmmaking during the 1950s, I see these genre films as extensions of the ideologies of the leftist avant-garde work in which he began his career, but he’s filtering it through the candy-colored world of 1950s suburbia in films like Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life. But it’s still coming from a larger tradition of what historians call the “cultural front” in the 1930s.

There is a discourse of “failure” that follows a lot of Ray’s work and reputation, with many of his films having been maligned or dismissed upon initial release, only to later be rediscovered and appreciated. But the film that graces your book’s cover, and probably Ray’s most widely known work, Rebel Without a Cause, seems to bear a uniquely celebrated reputation then and now. Is Rebel in any way a departure from Ray’s other ’50s work? Why did it take off in culture disproportionately to Ray’s other films?

Rybin: I think it’s the moment when Ray’s unique sensibility and the culture sort of coincided. I think Ray latched onto teenage angst as a subject partly because it gave him a channel for the sort of idiosyncratic and singular behavior he enjoyed setting into motion. And in James Dean he found a performer who could embody the sort of inarticulate, irreducible presence that so fascinated Ray while at the same time producing a cultural image that legions of young film fans could identify with and latch onto. I do think Dean’s presence may be largely responsible for why the film took off more than any other film of the director’s career.

But even on Rebel, there was tension. Patrick McGilligan’s biography details how Ray and the film’s screenwriter, Stewart Stern, did not always see eye-to-eye. And Ray’s vision for the ending of the film was different, and had to be changed because of budget reasons. So even when Ray was closest to the zeitgeist, there was still a sense in which he was kept at the margins.

Scheibel: James Dean was an enormously popular star in the 1950s who died just before the film was released, and the continued interest in Dean has helped that film sustain a reputation over time. Ray’s other films ‐ Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar, On Dangerous Ground ‐ were either dismissed by critics when they first came out or didn’t make significant box office returns, and it was through the legacy of Rebel Without a Cause that people took interest in the other movies he made. And in many ways, Rebel’s popularity has probably conditioned readings and interpretations of his other films as also films about “rebel” protagonists.

Will, your essay analyzes Bigger Than Life, one of my favorite of Ray’s films. What drove your interest in taking a closer look at this particular film?

Scheibel: My interest in the film came from the sheer affect of the experience, of watching a film that in many ways felt like a ’50s sitcom of the suburban ideal taken to its logical fascist extreme. By the end of the movie, it seems like The Shining, but with a tyrannical Father Knows Best, an all-American dad from hell.

I was fascinated with how this film has become a key text in Ray’s reputation, but during its time was so widely dismissed by critics and audiences. So in this essay, I try to look at that tension. In looking at the film’s reception and its larger cultural context, it became evident that “melodrama” as we look at it today was not the conception of the genre that existed for film critics at the time of its release. Rather than see it as a melodrama, critics saw Bigger Than Life as a part of the “social problem” films 20th Century Fox was famous for, like Gentleman’s Agreement (about anti-Semitism), Pinky (about racism), and The Snake Pit (about mental illness). And then along comes Bigger Than Life, a baroque, over-the-top male melodrama.

There was an enormous concern in the 1950s over “male weakness” as a result of numerous things: the traumatized veteran coming home after WWII who has to adapt to new gender dynamics at home and work relationships outside home; this is also the era of the “man in the grey flannel suit,” the Kinsey report, gay panic, fear of being outed ‐ as a communist or as gay. Numerous periodicals dealt with “masculinity in crisis.” By looking at its context, I see Bigger Than Life less as a film about prescription drug addiction (Mason’s character is addicted to cortisone) and more a film that uses a story about prescription drug addiction to make masculine insecurities legible onscreen.

That’s why the bizarre move of casting James Mason in the ill-fitting role of an all-American dad is so great here. He’s an actor for whom traditional masculinity can only be performed.

Scheibel: Exactly. He’s an intellectual bearing a mid-Atlantic accent. Something seems un-American about him from the very beginning. He already doesn’t quite fit in.

Steven Rybin is Assistant Professor of Film at Georgia Gwinnett College. His previous books include “Michael Mann: Crime Auteur” and “Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film.” Will Scheibel recently earned a PhD in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University and is currently finishing a book on Nicholas Ray’s reputation. You can purchase “Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground” in paperback from SUNY Press.