Remembering Nicholas Ray
The only time I met Nicholas Ray, the legendary filmmaker of Rebel Without a Cause and other cult classics (In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar), the mighty had mightily stumbled. It was Spring 1973, and a haggard, ravaged Nick Ray, a frightening haze of alcohol and amphetamines, showed up at the University of Wisconsin for two days of what was billed as a "filmmaking workshop." What Ray actually accomplished there made sense probably not even to himself: he involved eager volunteer collegiates in a private, and very paranoid, crowd-scene improvisation in which some students were Canadian border guards and some were youth slipping marijuana into the US. Something loco he'd attempted? For frustrating hours, everyone stayed stuck in place while Ray paced about, mumbling to himself like a shopping-bag person. Nothing was filmed at all.
At a lunch for him, I sat next to the silent, solemn "auteur" and, searching for conversation, asked about his final picture, 55 Days at Peking (1963). A dreadful mistake: Ray had been fired off the movie, probably why, in answer, the ex-employed filmmaker, grimacing and shivering, clutched at his black-eye-patched left eye as if suffering a lethal migraine. My God, I remembered thinking, I'm causing the great Nicholas Ray a fatal heart attack!
He obviously recovered, and, afterwards, I must have said something right, that brought his temporary trust. Was it that I'd seen Rebel Without a Cause more than a dozen times? Whatever! Hours later, as Ray was set to leave Madison, Wisconsin, he singled me out, walked up to me and whispered intimately, "Listen, this summer, some of us will be coming through in a van."
What did he mean by that? That a Ken Kesey-like hippie trip was taking shape, and I was chosen to be, Electric Kool-Aid Acid-style, On The Bus? I'll never know: the Nick Ray Magical Mystery Tour never passed through Madison in Summer 1973. Besides, I hadn't given him my telephone number, and he'd surely have lost it if I had.
An earlier, grander, with-it Nicholas Ray, and with two penetrating, cobalt-blue eyes, lords over Lawrence Frascella's and Al Weisel's engrossing Live Fast, Die Young (Touchstone, $24.95), the definitive story of the making of Rebel Without a Cause. Ray, then 43, related strongest in life to youth on the fringe, outsiders lonely in the Hollywood crowd. A terrible, absentee father himself, he was obsessed with the messed-up, alienated kids of others. This book pulls no punches: even before Rebel was shooting, Ray was regularly screwing 16-year-old Natalie Wood, an unhappy starlet raging against her strict stage mom, as his suite at the Chateau Marmont. A jealousy on the Rebel set: Dennis Hopper was screwing her also, a reason that Hopper has no lines at all in the second half of the movie.
This book is filled with the details relished by a Rebel Without a Cause freak. The mansion with the swimming pool where the main characters--Jim,Judy, and Plato- retreat was Norma Desmond's house in Sunset Boulevard, and that's the very pool where William Holden lay dead. Rebel's most quoted line, "I've got the bullets!" was left over from an early script by playwright Clifford Odets. James Dean and Ray? Both mercurial and narcissist, and both comfortably bisexual, they got along deliciously (but not sexually) making the great Rebel Without a Cause, released fifty years ago this month of October.