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Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director Hardcover – July 12, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[A] portrait of a filmmaker who managed over time to upstage the movies that made him celebrated.” (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

“A clear and balanced portrait of a most complex man.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“[A] fascinating, formidable account of a director whose life was as fraught with complications and melodrama as were his movies.…Meticulously researched and gratifying, a biographical page-turner.” (Library Journal (starred review))

“McGilligan limns the tragic trajectory of Ray’s career with insight and compassion.” (Booklist)

From the Back Cover

From award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan comes an eye-opening life of the troubled filmmaker behind Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray spent the glory years of his career creating films that were dark, emotionally charged, and haunted by social misfits and bruised young people consumed by private anguish—from his career-defining debut, They Live by Night (1948), to his enduring masterwork, Rebel Without a Cause (1955); from the noir thriller In a Lonely Place (1950), pairing his second wife, the blond bombshell Gloria Grahame, with Humphrey Bogart, to cult pictures like Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bigger Than Life (1956). Yet his work on-screen is more than matched by the passions and struggles of his personal story—one of the most dramatic lives of any major Hollywood filmmaker.

In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan offers a revelatory biography of Ray, a man whose troubled life was marked by creative peaks and valleys alike. As a young man, Ray personified the rambling spirit of twentieth-century America, learning from luminaries like Thornton Wilder and Frank Lloyd Wright; mingling with future legends like Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, and John Houseman; and carousing with musicians like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. Notoriously self-destructive but irresistibly alluring—to men and women alike—Ray empathized with the broken and misunderstood, a talent that allowed him to create characters of true complexity on-screen.

His youthful association with radical politics nearly killed his nascent film career—until a secret agreement to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities saved him. His tumultuous second marriage, to Grahame, was shattered after Ray found her in bed with his teenage son from his first marriage. He romanced stars and starlets, including Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Joan Crawford, and the teenage Natalie Wood, but never enjoyed a stable home life.

The triumph of Rebel Without a Cause, his masterpiece of teenage angst, led to a burgeoning partnership with James Dean, but Dean’s untimely death devastated the filmmaker, who fell into a spiral of drinking and drug addiction. Less than a decade later, Ray’s career was effectively over . . . until the adoration of European critics, and a frantic last-ditch burst of creativity, nearly restored him to glory before his tragic early death in 1979.

Meticulously detailed and compulsively readable, this new biography reconstructs the tortuous journey of one of the most enduringly fascinating figures in American film.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: It Books; First Edition edition (July 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060731370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060731373
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #313,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Peter L. Winkler on February 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Nicholas Rays classic films, such as In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) invariably featured imperfect protagonists struggling with existential crises. Ray himself was one such character, whose storied, notorious life only contributed to the mystique surrounding his oeuvre. "My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience," he said about the characters in his films. "Unless you can feel that a hero is just as screwed 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, but about as screwed up as you could get away from it. A bisexual, misogynistic womanizer, he was also an alcoholic depressive, drug addict, and compulsive gambler.

As a fellow Hollywood biographer, having written [...], I understand how hard it is to sift through the morass of material about a celebrity and create an objective account of their achievements and failures. So my hat's off to Patrick McGilligan. He has produced an admirably well-researched and entertaining narrative of Nicholas Ray's tumultuous and eventful life and career.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I confess that it took me ages to get around to reading this excellent book because a part of my cinephile memory was still recovering from Bernard Eisenschitz's exhaustive tome c. 1990. As comprehensive as that book was it lacks the clarity and rigor that McGilligan brings to making sense of Ray's rise and puzzling decline. Ray's appalling career decisions from the mid-50s onward make Orson Welles seem like David Geffen. However, this book is not all about the decline of a complex talent and sensibility, but a careful and compassionate examination of what Ray actually brought to the films he "authored" and why, in spite of his difficult personality, he was loved and admired by his collaborators - as varied as John Houseman, Dennis Hopper and Philip Yordan. In the end as this biography ably reminds one, we have the classic films - They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place, Rebel Without A Cause, The Lusty Men and Bigger Than Life - that show how the same brilliant, but fragile creative talent became subsumed in troubled European co-productions like 55 Days in Peking or stretched apart by personal demons in You Can't Go Home Again, Ray's equivalent to Welles' long-in-the-works-likely-never-to-be-released Other Side of The Wind. Ray's reach often exceeded his grasp, but what a reach it was. McGilligan finally makes sense of a life that often seems to have lacked focus and purpose, but was certainly a life lived to not just the limits of the self, but to the edges of what was possible in classical Hollywood filmmaking.
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This recent biography of the great American film director Nicholas Ray feels redundant. Why? Because Bernard Eisenschitz published an exhaustive, beautifully written, sensitive, and thoroughly researched biography in the early 1990s (available in an English translation by the late British film critic Tom Milne). There is precious little that McGilligan discovered that Eisenschitz didn't already know, to the point where I felt that Eisenschitz deserved co-author credit on this book. The new information largely pertains to Nicholas Ray's personal life, and there is a great deal of prurient gossip about his marriages and affairs—stuff that Eisenschitz didn't entirely shy away from, but didn't dwell on either.

As the subtitle of this book might suggest, McGilligan is most fascinated by Ray's self-destructiveness, and as a result the narratives of the production of his films are largely accounts of Ray's inability to communicate with his collaborators, his fits of silence and anger, his drinking, his dysfunctional sex life, etc. After an account of each film you wonder, if this man's life was always on the verge of falling apart, how did he manage to make a handful of brilliant movies? Unfortunately, McGilligan isn't much of a film critic; when he is called upon to explain what makes Ray's films special or even interesting, he largely falls back on vague platitudes or quotes other writers.

Eisenschitz's biography is brilliant at conveying that some of the very qualities that eventually made Ray a "failure" helped to inspire some of the most extraordinary films (and parts of films) in the Hollywood canon. McGilligan pays lip service to this paradox, but he can't really wrap his mind around it, and as a result this book feels like it has a hole at its center. You get lots of gossip, but no real insight into the films or filmmaking.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This was a page turner if I have ever read one, and I was surprised, too. Well written, interesting and thoughtful. I knew so little about the man, but I can't say that now. His life story was tragic in many ways, and it appears that he never did get over the death of James Dean. Highly recommended!
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