|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Nicholas Ray Couldn’t Go Home Again: On the DVD Release of His Final Film by Peter Winkler
February 21st, 2013
– 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 unexpected death devastated Ray, precipitating his downward spiral. His alcoholism worsened, and he began injecting amphetamines provided by studio doctors to alleviate his depression, later adding cocaine to the mix. Ray’s personal problems began undermining his professional discipline. He was removed from directing Wind Across the Everglades (1958) by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, whose brother produced the film.
Years after the fact, Ray claimed he awoke from a nightmare with the haunting premonition that he’d never make another film if he began shooting the historical epic 55 Days at Peking (1963), an assignment he took only for the money; his directing career ended when he collapsed while shooting the film in Spain. According to his biographer, Patrick McGilligan, the story that Ray suffered a heart attack during filming may have been a public relations move to quietly ease him from duty when his creative paralysis made it impossible to finish the picture.
Unemployable, Ray wandered around Europe for several years, constantly talking up projects he claimed he was just about to get started on, using his reputation among the European filmmaking community to con people out of advances for films he would never make. Ray, who lost most of the vision in one eye, which he covered with a patch, was now a shambling wreck. He was lured back to the States in the fall of 1969 by two independent filmmakers who wanted him to direct a film about the legal tribulations of a young man charged with possession of marijuana. He then got involved in a film about the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven (it never materialized) where he met Susan Schwartz, an 18-year-old student at the University of Chicago who worked for the group’s defense committee, and who became Ray’s companion and last wife. (A participant in the aborted Chicago Seven project told Ray’s biographer, Bernard Eisenschitz, that Ray was only involved in it to mooch drugs.)
In September 1971, Ray found a temporary refuge when he was hired to teach for two years at the newly formed film department at the State University of New York’s Harpur College in Binghamton.
“He appeared out of the glory of Hollywood, the mythos of Hollywood, the dreams of Hollywood,” recalls Ken Ross, one of Ray’s students, in Don’t Expect Too Much, Susan Ray’s fascinating documentary about the making of We Can’t Go Home Again, Nicholas Ray’s experimental feature film. “He was bigger than life,” says Ross. Richard Bock (then known as Richie) adds, “And he was cool, I mean, he was a cool guy.” Once at Harpur, Ray immediately enlisted his students in the making of We Can’t Go Home Again; a glimpse at Ray’s address book, full of stars’ names, gave some the idea that he might be their ticket to Hollywood. With his hang-loose attitude toward drugs, booze, and sex, and his receptivity to the countercultural zeitgeist, Ray related to his students on their own level, serving as a kind of scruffy Yoda –– teacher, mentor, surrogate father, and hip confessor –– to the group of kids. They coalesced into a filmmaking commune centered on the farm he rented in upstate New York.
Ray had an affinity for artists’ communes. His fraught relationship with his alcoholic father and his own two sons moved him to seek out surrogate families throughout his life: he was briefly the director of theatrical activities at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin, and then a member of the left-wing Theater of Action in New York. With his film students, Ray sought to relive his experience filming Rebel Without a Cause, where he enjoyed being the paterfamilias to a group of actors barely out of their teens who responded gratefully to his interest in them. “I don’t particularly care for my generation,” Ray said. “I like the promise, I like the hope [of youth].”
Ray and his students worked five to seven days a week, living with Ray at his house, their lives becoming intertwined. One of his students described it as “an immersive experience.” “We just gave ourselves up to Nick, you know, like shape us, tell us what to do,” says Doug Cohen, a former student, in Don’t Expect Too Much. Employing a potluck of film gauges –– 8 mm, 16 mm, Super 16, and 35 mm, and film processed through one of Nam June Paik’s video synthesizers –– Ray’s students took turns working at every possible job you can do on a film and also performed in it. Switching positions on the crew may have enhanced their hands-on experience, but it deprived the film of technical expertise, which is glaringly obvious onscreen.
In Susan Ray’s documentary, most of the director’s former students retain positive memories of making the film, suffusing it with a roseate glow of nostalgia –– not only for this formative time in their lives, but for the brief moment when communes like Ray’s still seemed like a sustainable social model. But working on Ray’s film wasn’t always the Woodstock-era version of “Hey, kids, let’s all put on a show.” In an audio outtake from We Can’t Go Home Again included in the documentary, Ray can be heard telling his students, “I’ll work your asses off, if you let me.” Ray, who was nocturnal, claimed that he only needed four and a half hours of sleep. His students, who often began filming in the evening after their other courses were over, pulled all-nighters fueled by pot and alcohol to keep pace with Ray, who was determined to disprove his premonition. “It was all new to us, we listened to him because of his experience,” Tom Farrell told Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1981. “We were all in awe of him, at least for a time, and then gradually people got turned off by Nick’s megalomania. He had a free labor pool, you know, and at the beginning everyone was willing to work all day long. But he took advantage, he was asking too much of everyone.”
We Can’t Go Home Again opens with footage of the police violently routing protestors in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, followed by footage Ray shot of members of the Chicago Seven and the death scene of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Ray, who plays himself in his film and also narrates it, meets his students for the first time, not at his office at school, but at his home. He nonchalantly asks, “Anyone want a drink?” He directs his students as they film speakers supporting the Attica prisoners. Disappointed when these demonstrations don’t yield the drama of the 1968 Chicago riots, he then instructs his students to go find a boy-meets-girl story. Though Ray gave himself an onscreen credit for writing We Can’t Go Home Again, no cohesive narrative ever emerges. “The basic idea [for the film] was a professor comes to our campus and meets his students for the first time and then somehow becomes involved with these students in a number of different ways making a film,” former student Phil Weisman says in Don’t Expect Too Much.
The boy-meets-girl story is quickly forgotten and the film devolves into a disconnected series of improvised scenes, performances for which the students were encouraged to draw from personal experience. In one such confessional, a formerly obese boy tells Ray how he lost weight on the Duke University rice diet, and shows him photos of himself before he dieted, but tells him that he still engages in the same defense mechanisms he used when he was fat. A female student (Leslie Levinson, the girl from the missing boy-meets-girl story) tells Ray how she accepted a pimp’s offer to have sex with a visiting businessman to raise funds to make the film. In another, she tells Ray and his other students that she deliberately degraded herself by sleeping with a man she knew was infected with a venereal disease. When she finishes her story, Ray cues her classmates to pelt her with tomatoes. She explodes, screaming, “I’m always ugly! I’m always ugly! You get outta here!” before running out of camera range.
The most compelling scene in the film occurs when Tom Farrell cuts and shaves off his “hippie” beard. A committed opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam who had entered a seminary to escape his conflicts with his father, Farrell had been beaten up while hitchhiking back to New York after visiting the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions in Miami. It’s wrenching to witness the sobbing, trembling Farrell go through an identity crisis, watching himself in the mirror as he tears off his beard, denuding himself, while an off-camera Ray prompts him:
“It was like stripping myself naked,” Farrell says in Don’t Expect Too Much. “I looked at my face in the mirror and I was seeing my naked face for the first time in more than a year. My soul was in that scene, one of the most remarkable moments in my life, not just my acting life, my life.” To Jonathan Rosenbaum he said, “In a lot of the film we were able to express really personal things. We had that audience, and it was a kind of psychological healing. I can’t explain it –– [Ray] was able to bring it out of you, in mysterious ways.”
Other scenes in We Can’t Go Home Again don’t lead anywhere. Two students decide to take an evening swim in the college’s pool, only to be ousted by an improbably shaggy, bearded security guard (Tom Farrell). In another, Ray, dressed as Santa Claus, is walking by the side of the road when he’s hit by a car and killed, whereupon his students place him in a large plain wood coffin and load him onto a huge wooden cart. (A local poet had recently been killed in similar circumstances, though the film doesn’t provide that context.)
The film’s early scenes, where Ray first encounters his students, and the conclusion, where a disaffected Ray hangs himself from a rafter in a barn, feel like the beginning and end of an entirely different and better film about him, which I wish he’d made, but the rest of We Can’t Go Home Again never coheres into a story that prepares us for its finale. (It’s not even clear whether Ray’s hanging is accidental or intentional because the soundtrack drops out.)
Ray’s grand ambition went beyond his conviction that he could make a presentable feature film using a student crew on a minuscule budget. Ray, who had wanted to employ split-screen imagery as far back as Rebel Without a Cause, decided to “break the rectangle,” simultaneously rear-projecting several different overlapping scenes together onto a single screen, which were then photographed on a single strip of film, a kind of poor man’s optical printer. Unfortunately, it’s a half-baked concept that only distracts and confuses the viewer as they try to understand what they’re seeing and hearing, which is already something of a feat, given the film’s technical shortcomings. The split-screen mosaic looks sadly dated, as does the electronically processed footage, distorted by solarization and psychedelic patterns.
Ray never completed We Can’t Go Home Again. He ran out of money and his teaching gig at Harpur College wasn’t renewed. Ray, often seen walking a corridor at the school — a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Almaden white wine in the other — finally crossed a line with the director of Harpur’s film department when he was asked to show We Can’t Go Home Again at a conference on independent filmmaking. He had one of his students throw on a reel of footage they’d just gotten from the lab, which showed Ray and his understudies smoking pot.
Clearly hoping that We Can’t Go Home Again might get him back in the filmmaking game, Ray managed to enter it as a work-in-progress at Cannes in 1973, where it was not well received. At a screening Ray held for friends at the Cinémathèque Française, Sterling Hayden, the star of Johnny Guitar, turned to Susan Ray and said, “Shit! Was Nick on acid when he made this?” Hayden and Susan Ray were both stoned on hashish at the time.
A penniless Ray conned his way into renting his old bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, where he held a lunch buffet fundraiser for his project. Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy showed up with canisters of nitrous oxide. Few of Ray’s former Hollywood associates came. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner contributed $1,000.
Ray subsisted on the kindness of devotees of his work, including Francis Ford Coppola, who even arranged editing facilities for Ray to complete his film. He instead used the space for getting drunk on Almaden and making trouble for his sponsors.
When Coppola screened We Can’t Go Home Again at his home, editor Walter Murch (who thought Ray was a homeless person Coppola had taken in) turned to Richie Bock and said, “This is the biggest mess I’ve ever seen.” Ray admitted, “You’re right, you know, it is a mess, it’s a mess.”
“I knew then that it was over,” Bock says in Don’t Expect Too Much. Ray kept tinkering with his film until 1976, when he checked himself into the hospital to detox after being injured in a drunken fall. He joined AA and seemed to experience a resurgence, teaching classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute at the Actors Studio and NYU, only to be stricken with lung cancer, which metastasized to his brain. He succumbed in 1979.
Of Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders’s 1980 quasi-documentary about Ray’s final months, director Laslo Benedek told Jonathan Rosenbaum: “If you look into it analytically, I think this idea for a film has something to do with all these fantasies he had about making films — at a point where he knew subconsciously that this was a fantasy.” Benedek’s comments also apply to Ray’s final film. Ultimately, We Can’t Go Home Again is a rather pathetic memento of Ray’s impossible attempt to recapture his glory days and resuscitate his career, if not himself.
After reading an ailing Ray a long passage from Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, Tom Farrell asked the director, “You really don’t think we can ever go home again, Nick?” “No, son, I don’t think we can,” Ray said.