You can’t go back home to your family, […] back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
– Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940)
MEN STRUGGLING with existential crises populated Nicholas Ray’s classic films: In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Ray himself was one such character, his notorious life only contributing to the mystique surrounding his oeuvre. “My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience,” he said about his protagonists. “Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit an heroic act. Because then you can say, ‘Hell, I could have done that too.’”
Ray was brilliant behind the camera; when away from it, he was about as fucked up as one could get: a misogynistic, bisexual womanizer; an alcoholic depressive; a drug addict; a compulsive gambler. The night he wed actress Gloria Grahame –– because he had impregnated her –– he gambled away thousands of dollars at the gaming tables in Las Vegas to deprive her of the money. Ray’s marriage to Grahame ended when he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son, whom she later married. In his Hollywood heyday, Ray occupied a poolside bungalow at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, where he enjoyed afternoon trysts with pliable young actresses, notably Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood, with whom he had an affair when directing the 16-year-old in Rebel Without a Cause.
Ray’s colleague, John Houseman, said that Ray was troubled because he couldn’t reconcile his Depression-era values with his six-figure Hollywood income and lifestyle. “Brought up in the Depression, one of a generation with a strong anti-Establishment bias, he had been taught to regard hardship and poverty as a virtue and wealth and power as evil,” Houseman wrote. Ray may also have been guilt-ridden over his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he named names in a closed session.
Novelist and screenwriter Gavin Lambert, who had an affair with Ray when they worked together on Bigger Than Life (1956), said: “He was a very dear man in many ways, very generous, very creative. But he couldn’t work out his life. He was very conflicted, very lonely.” In Lambert’s view, Ray suffered from confusion about his sexuality and was torn between his conflicting desires for creative independence from the studios and access to their resources and perks. “He wanted to be put up in a five-star hotel,” Lambert said. “He wanted the big stars and he wanted it all his own way. He didn’t even want the studio to know what he was doing. All these conflicts led to him drinking and eventually, that got around.”
Ray enjoyed such a good collaborative relationship with James Dean during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause that they made plans to work together on several more projects. Dean’s u...read more