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