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Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

Nicholas Ray: Director Without a Cause?

Eisenschitz, McGilligan biographies examine Wisconsin filmmaker

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Nicholas Ray's place in Hollywood history for directing Rebel Without a Cause came less from the film's greatness than its bellwether importance. The 1955 teenage drama, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, embodied the impending generational upheaval as baby boomers began to grapple with their identity in an era of unprecedented affluence and uncertain values.

Before Rebel, Ray had already made some noteworthy movies, especially the film noir They Live by Night and the Hollywood drama In a Lonely Place. The lucid new biography by Milwaukee film historian Patrick McGilligan, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director (published by It Books/HarperCollins), questions whether it was Ray's misfortune to have continued making movies after Rebel. His final decades included such Hollywood fiascos as a wacky melodrama on the dangers of cortisone, Bigger Than Life, and a cumbersome biblical epic, King of Kings, followed by much unusable, drug-induced stumbling after the avant-garde. And in McGilligan's words, Ray often behaved, in the lowest period of his last years, "like a regrettable wreck of a human being."

For the August 2011 centennial of Ray's birth, McGilligan's book is joined by the republication of an excellent earlier biography, Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey (University of Minnesota Press). McGilligan often cites Eisenschitz throughout his own work. "It's a very European book in many ways," he says of his predecessor's work, contrasting An American Journey with The Glorious Failure of an American Director. "It's preoccupied with the greatness of Ray's films to the extent of ignoring their badness. It's reverential."

And Eisenschitz, a Paris film historian, did not enjoy the same accessibility as McGilligan to Ray's birthplace near La Crosse, Wis. McGilligan explores how the director's troubled relationship with his father and membership in a Communist youth organization stirred emotional undercurrents through many of his films. Most historians have wondered about Ray's luck during the McCarthy era: He joined Communist theater groups in New York during the 1930s and yet was neither blacklisted nor called upon to name his fellow radicals. Eisenschitz began to investigate this mystery by publishing a reference from Ray's first wife, who claimed the director admitted he testified secretly before the House Un-American Activities Committee. McGilligan goes further, but still runs into a wall: The gap in Ray's Freedom of Information Act files covers the worst years of the McCarthy period. More will be written on this in the future.

"He ends up being a great story with a Wisconsin flavor," McGilligan says. "He strove for glory and the characters in his films strove for glory—and failed. He was often inarticulate and undecided—both became crippling for him. His career was spotty and he was spotty. But he became a great symbol for English, French and, finally, American film historians as somebody whose inability to fit into the Hollywood system helped destroy him."

Patrick McGilligan will read from his book 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at Boswell Book Co.