Nicholas Ray's rise and fall

He made cult classics such as Rebel Without A Cause, but by his sixties Nicholas Ray was a barfly. His friends tell Geoffrey MacNab what went wrong
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The year was 1975. It was 3am in Barney's Beanery, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, and the 64-year-old filmmaker Nicholas Ray was sitting on his own at the bar. The director of Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar may have been revered in Europe ("the cinema is Nicholas Ray," Jean-Luc Godard famously said of him), but back home in the US in the mid-Seventies, his reputation didn't count for much.

That night in Barney's, the new owner was threatening to throw him in jail because he didn't have the funds to pay a $13 bar tab. In the end, he had to be bailed out by an editor friend of his, Frank Mazzola, a one-time LA gang leader who had worked on Rebel Without A Cause.

"He called me," Mazzola recalls. "When I picked him up, I actually had $13 in my pocket. The guy said $13.37 or he goes to jail. I said: "This is Nick Ray who kept this place alive for years.' He still said $13.37 or he goes to jail. I didn't have 37 more cents and the guy was serious. Luckily, there was a gal who was a sheriff in West Hollywood who threw 37 cents on the table."

The predicament of the once revered director shouldn't come as a surprise. Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and F Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories are full of accounts of big-shots fallen on hard times. The difference about Ray is that he was at odds with the Hollywood establishment even when he was ostensibly at the heart of it. Sterling Hayden's most famous line in Johnny Guitar, "I'm a stranger here myself," rang true for him, too.

Ray's peak years in Hollywood were the bland, consumer-era of the Fifties, but his best films were always scraping away at the discontents beneath the glossy surface. They were about outsiders, whether criminal lovers (They Live By Night), teenage delinquents (Rebel Without A Cause), self-loathing scriptwriters (In A Lonely Place), tormented family men raging against the suburbs (Bigger Than Life) or lawyers for the mob (Party Girl).

"The world of Nicholas Ray is lonely, harsh and violent, dominated by an almost Hobbesian pessimism," British critic V F Perkins, one of Ray's first champions in Britain, wrote of him. In the mid-Seventies, that pessimism seemed warranted by the events in Ray's life. A few months after his encounter with Mazzola, he was reduced to trying to kick-start his career with his most unlikely venture yet - a film with porn star, Marilyn Chambers. "She is from an upper middle-class Connecticut family and I believe she can make the transition from porno into legitimate film work," he told trade paper, Variety, adding: "I also believe she will eventually be able to handle anything that the young Katie Hepburn or Bette Davis could." Unsurprisingly, the film was never made.

Despite such setbacks, Ray remained defiant. "Nick had gone through a lot of very difficult times personally and artistically ... he had gone through a period of his life when he had lost almost everything," Dennis Hopper (who was directed by Ray in Rebel Without A Cause) comments. "But as down as he might be, he was always on top of his game - or pretending to be on top of his game."

In 1976, Ray successfully underwent treatment for alcoholism. Though his health was frail, his fortunes revived. He began giving lessons at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio, some of which were attended by Wim Wenders, the German film director. "I was amazed by his teaching ability," Wenders recalls. "He had a very subtle, very intuitive, gentle and generous way with the young students."

Wenders recruited Ray to play the painter turned forger Derwent in his Patricia Highsmith adaptation, The American Friend (1977). He shot an eerie, improvised sequence showing Ray daubing a canvas with black paint until the original painting of blue sky and clouds is utterly erased. A tall, imposing figure with an eyepatch (he'd lost an eye in 1968) and a mane of silver hair, he looks like a cross between President Andrew Jackson and Captain Hook. Wenders ended up cutting the sequence out of the film but has included it on the recently released DVD version. It's a piece of performance art in its own right. Ray signs off with a flourish, drawing a black eye in the middle of the black canvas.

What the scene underlines is the intensity which Ray brings to his work. Whether hauling sets around New York when he was a young actor in the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, researching folk music in the Thirties for Library of Congress archives, producing radio shows or doing a cameo for Wenders, he'd commit everything to any project he believed in. He may have been acclaimed by Cahiers Du Cinema critics as a consummate stylist, but he never hid behind style. "You are willing to expose all or else you wouldn't be a craftsman, you wouldn't be an artist," he once said. "That (being an artist) means exposure, self-exposure."

It was his quest for authenticity which threw him together with Frank Mazzola. In the early Fifties, Mazzola was leader of a West Hollywood gang called The Athenians. In a scrap with the Motorcycle Gang, Mazzola had beaten up a notorious rival gang leader. "I got my teeth knocked out trying to save my friend but in the process I knocked the guy out and almost killed him," he remembers.

The fight "became kind of legendary". News of it filtered to Ray just as he was beginning to cast Rebel Without A Cause. Mazzola had a reputation as a "tough kid" but Ray not only gave him a part (as Crunch) but installed him in an office next to his own on the Warners lot and assigned him to teach James Dean what gang life was really about. Ask Mazzola now what most impressed him about Ray as a director, and he cites Ray's curiosity and lack of prejudice. "The majority of directors in Hollywood didn't like my type for whatever reason ... but Nick became a dear friend."

Before recruiting him, Ray had been talking with psychologists and educational theorists, trying to make Rebel Without A Cause accurate, but he was just as willing to listen to a 19-year-old gang leader as to any of the academic experts. "He reminded me of William Wellman (director of Public Enemy) who was a close friend of my dad," Mazzola says. "He would make you feel extremely comfortable. He wouldn't put any pressure on you, but he would lock you into what he wanted."

Given his background in leftwing theatre groups in the Thirties, it seems extraordinary that Ray hadn't already been drummed out of Hollywood during the anti-communist witch-hunts. Whether through the unlikely patronage of RKO boss, Howard Hughes, or sheer luck, he was able to keep on working. Unlike his old friend from New York, Elia Kazan, who'd lured him out to Hollywood in the first place, or his close contemporary Joseph Losey, he emerged seemingly unscathed from one of the most paranoid periods in US film history. As his biographer Bernard Eisenschitz notes, Ray had an uncanny knack for staying afloat. "He could be friends with everybody. He could be friends with old radical friends, because he hadn't done anything to hurt them. He could be friends with the Howard Hugheses ... and anybody."

By that night in Barney's Beanery, though, Ray was at his lowest ebb. Thankfully, the wheel soon turned full circle. "I think Nick Ray has successfully reclaimed the place he rightfully occupies in film history," says Wim Wenders, now. "His reputation was temporarily down the drain, especially in Hollywood, but in hindsight it is obvious how much he meant for an American zeitgeist in the Fifties, and how important his role was for the arrival of a rebellious youth culture in America."

Wenders captured the final days of Ray's life in Lightning Over Water (1980). This was an emotive and very intimate documentary account of the cancer-ridden Ray dying. "It was Nick who insisted on shooting for real, and on passing on this piece of film as some sort of legacy, so we kept going on," Wenders recalls. Ray finally passed away "in a siege of pain" on 16 June, 1979.

"We were ALL involved body and soul, and all knew that we were accompanying Nick on his last walk, and that doing it while he was filming made it easier for Nick," Wenders says of the movie that turned out to be Ray's last testament.

"That's the thing about Nick," he adds. "When I think of him I think of humour, and heartbreak, and tenderness. Sure, loneliness was a big topic with him, violence as well. But Hobbesian pessimism ... Nick was anything BUT a pessimist."

The National Film Theatre is showing a season of Nicholas Ray films from 1 January