The subtitle of the latest book from veteran Hollywood biographer Patrick McGilligan sums up his thesis: Director Nicholas Ray spectacularly failed to live up to his full potential, and his successes and lows, both professional and personal, are inextricable. For the most part, McGilligan’s book is strictly a biography, avoiding criticism or analysis, except when connecting Ray’s most wounded protagonists—most famously James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause—to events in the director’s life. The only implicit criticism occurs whenever McGilligan cursorily skips over what he considers a lesser title (Party Girl, Flying Leathernecks, Run For Cover).
Drawing heavily on Bernard Eisenschitz’s previous biography, as well as Ray’s own writings, McGilligan patiently reconstructs Ray’s long road to Hollywood. Before entering the studio system, Ray cut a wide swath through the worlds of music, theater, and even architecture. (Frank Lloyd Wright was briefly his mentor.) Though initially passionate about left-leaning politics, Ray quickly moved away from any suggestion of Communist sympathies when the House Un-American Activities Committee came to town; McGilligan argues that his otherwise-unconfirmed admission to his first wife, Jean Evans, that he lied in naming her as a former fellow traveler in a closed hearing, haunted his work, encouraging Ray to offer work to others (including Clifford Odets and Sterling Hayden) who’d also testified, to their lasting regret.
In the ’60s, though a revered auteur in Europe, Ray had utterly destroyed his reputation in Hollywood thanks to heavy drinking, gambling, drug abuse, and worst of all, an increasing inability to make decisions about where to place the camera, leading to his breakdown on the set of 55 Days At Peking. Here, as often in McGilligan’s book, what actually happened is an unresolvable mystery: Did Ray have a heart attack on the set, or simply not show up? There are many such mysteries in Ray’s background, often leading to frustrating half-pages simply composed of throwing-everything-at-the-wall questions, as when McGilligan repeatedly circles the question of how Ray avoided alienating RKO’s new owner Howard Hughes with his politics: “Did the angst-ridden Hughes feel an emotional kinship with Ray? […] Did Ray plead new marriage and fatherhood? Did he beg for privacy? Or did he simply express his admiration for Hughes so sincerely that the studio boss was moved to help him?” Well, did he?
Ray’s most ardent admirers will bristle at McGilligan’s tone, from the title on down: He’s merciless in chronicling the many drugs, irresponsible relationships, and self-sabotaged opportunities, emphasizing the semi-gossipy over the analytical. But McGilligan makes no claim that he’s providing a critical study: He’s just setting out the facts of a long, colorful, often depressingly bleak downward spiral. A quote from James Mason sums it up: “I could tell you many conversations about Nick Ray, and mostly they’re an exchange about Nick’s strange conduct in one way or another. They all seem to end up with someone saying, ‘Mark you, Nick is not without talent!’”