Nicholas Ray

By: Annie Nocenti
August 7, 2010

If you’ve ever felt like an alien in your own life, NICHOLAS RAY (1911-79) is your champion. Delinquent teens, estranged loners, gypsies, lovers on the run, homosexuals… Ray’s films had sympathy for all contrarians. In his hands even Jesse James was just a misunderstood kid. From James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause to Bogart in In a Lonely Place, this line from Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar speaks for them all: “I’m a stranger here myself.” With his drug use, alcoholism, bisexuality, and refusal to play the Hollywood game, Ray wrote himself out of it by the 1960s. But, in the way that one can see more clearly from the light of a burning bridge, Ray turned inward. He shot and endlessly re-edited his last and never-released film, the autobiographical, experimental We Can’t Go Home Again, a film collaboration with his students at Harpur College in the 1970s. He and his students played improvised versions of themselves, and Ray used split-screen multiple images to both underscore and ridicule his characters, creating a film both sincere and satiric. As in a reality TV show, the story is overtaken by the most demanding voice: that of a precocious female student who turns in the most compelling performance. Ray is revealed as a wounded, wise and vulnerable man on a tireless quest to live cinema, and only comes to the center of the narrative when he stages a mock-suicide. He’d written his own cinematic epitaph.

ALSO BORN THIS DATE: Bruce Dickinson.


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