As a film director, Nicholas Ray made some memorable films, like They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause. As a father, he was also memorable, but for all the wrong reasons, most related to drinking, drugging and dysfunction. His daughter, Nicca, didn’t really get to know him until she was a teenager and a wild child on the L.A. punk scene. In her memoir, Ray by Ray, she tries to reconnect with the man he really was. Benito Vila spoke with Nicca Ray for PKM.
Hollywood royalty. Though the words conjure glamour and sophistication, the truth is often more shadow-filled and wicked. This is especially true when it comes to describing the life of Nicholas Ray, director of They Live By Night, Rebel Without A Cause and other groundbreaking films. His daughter, Nicca Ray, the youngest of his four children and a product of his third marriage, knows the truth all too well. After her parents separated when she was two years old, Nicca didn’t see her father again until she was 13. And, even today, she doesn’t have any photos of them together. An apple that fell close to the tree, Nicca followed her father into bennies, booze and emotional blow-outs, at least until she found herself getting sober in 1981 at age 20. By then her dad was dead two years, and the legacy of his greatness was the stuff of legend, both in Hollywood and around the world.
The Nicholas Ray that Nicca came to know was an elusive, unreliable madman, a wild, one-eyed artist solely concerned with his needs, who came and went as he pleased, completely insensitive to her and everyone else. He did leave a puppy once, but even that was hasty, abrupt and allowed him to get away after a whirlwind three-day drunk with The Rolling Stones. Despite the emotional and physical distance, Nicca has always felt a connection to her dad, one she’s struggled to verbalize and otherwise make real until recent years. On April 28, Three Rooms Press will release her memoir, Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray, a decade-plus project that tells all in a way that’s true to herself and true to her father.
Take Bogart, for example, you see a real vulnerability in him in his portrayal of Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place. There’s a bonding there of form and content.
Nicca Ray’s upbringing was anything but normal. In Ray by Ray, there’s a 1975 Thanksgiving where Nicca’s mom, Betty Uitti, goes off with Tony Ray, Nicca’s half-brother. That pairing left 14-year old Nicca to get stoned with her 15-year old sister, Julie, and Tony’s kids, 12-year old Tony, Jr. and 10-year old Jimmy. All the young Rays assumed their parents were having sex. Nicca and Julie were aware Betty had had an abortion after an earlier hook-up with Tony. Laughter ensued as the group realized that they could all end up related as aunts, nephews, brothers and sisters and how weird that would be. Nonetheless, all four were still thrilled at the prospect. But then again, when you know that your half-brother/father married his stepmother and that your mother/aunt and half-brother/father are having sex (and you’re later to learn that your father/grandfather had sex with his sister), it’s hard not to want the story to get more strange. Add in intimate first-hand grasp on the benefits and hindrances of drugs and alcohol––along with front-row access to the Hollywood scene––that was growing up Ray.
For Nicca that scene meant knowing her beautiful dancer mom had once been courted by Bing Crosby, that her aunt, Gloria Grahame (Nicholas’ ex-wife and Tony’s step-mom/wife) was an Academy Award winner, and that her dad––who had directed Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, Jane Russell, Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole and Charlton Heston––was known by every bright-light talent in town.
Living like a defiant character in a Nicholas Ray movie, Nicca sought escape and found like-minded friends in the dim clubs of the late 70s/early 80s Los Angeles punk rock scene. She spent her nights seeing Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Darby Crash, FEAR, PiL, Wasted Youth and more, mixing cheap drugs, cheap booze, cheap fashion, cheap thrills and cheap rent into an impossible-to-sustain life filled with addicts, cockroaches, car crashes, evictions and blackouts. Her other half-brother, Tim Ray (son of Nicholas and Gloria, half-brother and stepson of Tony), was one of the first people to encourage Nicca to pursue sobriety, but the LA punk scene proved to be too alluring for her and she kept relapsing.
Coming to New York in 1981 to stay clean, Nicca instead got high with a West Coast friend, and ended a crazy night wasted and alone in Alphabet City with nowhere to go. She took a cab to SoHo, buzzed the apartment of her dad’s widow, Susan Schwartz, who Nicca hadn’t seen since her dad’s 1979 memorial, and asked for help.
Susan paid the cab fare and in the morning Nicca awoke to discover a poster promoting the band Television near her dad’s bedside. The poster quoted Nicholas Ray saying the band was “Four Cats with a Passion”. That fan kinship to Television, and its bassist/songwriter Richard Hell, gave Nicca a renewed connection to her dad, and the last 30-some years of sobriety have led her to discover his past and her own talents.
A poet with a soon-to-be released new collection, Nicca’s Ray by Ray tracks her dad’s life from 1911 Wisconsin to 1930s Chicago and 1940s New York and Washington. Along the way, Nicholas Ray goes to work for [modernist architect] Frank Lloyd Wright, takes acting roles in The Group Theatre and befriends [producer/director and Actors Studio founder] Elia Kazan, creates a national folk music radio show with [Library of Congress musical archivist] Alan Lomax and joins [producer/actor] John Houseman in the United States Office of War Information bureau directing World War II propaganda for the Voice of America. Those Kazan and Houseman collaborations led Nicholas Ray to 1940s Hollywood, as assistant director on Kazan’s 1944 film debut, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Houseman then called Nicholas Ray back to New York when he needed help staging the 1946 Broadway play, Lute Song, starring Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.
In 1947, Houseman, then working at RKO Radio Pictures, secured Nicholas Ray’s screenwriting and directorial debut, the pair turning Edward Anderson’s crime novel Thieves Like Us into the film noir classic They Live By Night. Premiering in the fall of 1949, the film opened to positive reviews, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times writing, “Mr. Ray has an eye for action details. His staging of the robbery of a bank, all seen by the lad in the pick-up car, makes a fine clip of agitating film. And his sensitive juxtaposing of his actors against highways, tourist camps and bleak motels makes for a vivid comprehension of an intimate personal drama in hopeless flight.”
Nicholas Ray’s on-screen juxtapositions weren’t limited to the visual, the director casting his soon-to-be ex-wife Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place, a 1950 film co-starring Humphrey Bogart, depicting the shattering marriage of a tormented Hollywood screenwriter. In interviews, Nicholas Ray claims no one knew his own marriage was in trouble and he knew Gloria was the right actress for the role.
When it comes to describing Nicholas Ray’s work, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) is most often cited as his masterpiece, the film giving voice to the unrest of American youth sick of hearing the monotonous, white-bread consumerism of their middle-class Depression-era parents. In panning the film, Crowther wrote, “They are children of well-to-do parents, living in comfortable homes and attending a well-appointed high school in the vicinity of Los Angeles. But they are none the less mordant in their manners and handy with switch-blade knives. They are, in the final demonstration, lonely creatures in their own strange, cultist world.” In truth, Rebel Without A Cause portrays the parents as the delinquents, in their inability to communicate and connect with emotion, and casts their children as the sensitive, misfit heroes of a new America. Whichever way Rebel Without A Cause is viewed, it never fails to illicit a reaction and it remains one of the first mass-marketed counterculture films.
In Ray by Ray, Nicca stays out of that sort of film talk, rather opening up her own family history to reveal her dad’s emotional and professional disintegration, his own twisted-up storylines. In the end, she’s forgiving of his absences, concluding, “He removed himself from my sister and my life because he convinced himself he could bring nothing of value to the table.” And she’s clear in her motivation, stating: “I pray he is not forgotten.”
PKM: What set you into writing this book?
Nicca Ray: I was at The New School University [in Manhattan]. I’d gone there in my mid-30s, first for writing and then veered off into film. That was when I started to look at my father’s films. That was the first time I saw Rebel Without A Cause and identified myself as his daughter. I was walking through the halls of The New School one day and thought to myself, “So many kids grow up without knowing their fathers and knowing what part of them comes from their father, and they never have a chance to find out in what ways they’re like their fathers, but I’m lucky because my father left behind this legacy, and I’m going to go find out and answer questions that I have had all my life about my dad.”
PKM: How long did it take you to do the research and the writing?
Nicca Ray: Jesse, my partner, says I’ve been writing this book ever since he met me. We’ve been together 30 years.
Nicca Ray: It took me a really long time. I did some research on my own for about six years and put a manuscript together but then it was decided that more on my father was needed. [Writer, editor, film director and PKM contributor] Stacey Asip came on to help me do interviews with everyone we could find who knew my dad from the 1930s until his death. That go-round took about 10 years and I needed someone like her, a professional journalist, to come along to do those interviews with me because, first of all, I’m not a journalist. Second of all, everything I was hearing I was hearing for the first time and my father wasn’t a good person. He was a great man, a great artist, but he wasn’t a good person. So many times I’d be hearing things that I couldn’t really respond to. I could sit there and go, “wow,” but I couldn’t keep the conversation going so it was helpful to have someone there, someone who was able to do that. I always came up with questions I wanted to ask and Stacey never took “no” or “yes” for an answer. She kept people talking and the more people we interviewed, the more comfortable I got. Those interviews took a long time, so did the writing and so did my finding my way in figuring out what the story is that I have to tell. I wanted to blend the two stories, my father’s and mine. I didn’t want it to be a straight biography and that figuring out how to do that also took a long time.
My father wasn’t a good person. He was a great man, a great artist, but he wasn’t a good person.
PKM: What did you discover about yourself in doing this?
Nicca Ray: I’m not the same person I was when I started this book, and I don’t think I was a whole person when I set out to do this. I had this fantasy outlook on my dad. That little girl’s hope that my dad would come out of the heavens and tell me which way my life should go. I don’t have that little-girl view anymore, and I don’t have to live the life I think he would want me to live. I feel like this book has enabled me to come out of his shadow, and my mom’s shadow, and that whole Hollywood shadow, and claim my space in this world as an artist, as a writer, and as a human being.
PKM: What did you discover about your dad?
Nicca Ray: That he was anything but black and white. When you put a label on someone, like saying, “they’re a narcissist”, it helps you get a footing on that person but it doesn’t allow you to see the person for who they really are. I discovered that my father was like 10 people wrapped up in one body, that he lived more lives than most men live in a lifetime. I discovered that he was cruel, that he was selfish, that he was probably a narcissist. I also discovered he was a seeker. He was searching all his life for the truth and an understanding of what it meant to be a human being. I discovered that my father was a fully rounded human being, that he wasn’t just cruel, selfish and manic. He was also very giving. And I discovered all his movies. I discovered his work in the theater on the Lower East Side in the 1930s. I discovered his travels with [ethnomusicologist] Alan Lomax and the program he did with Alan Lomax on CBS Radio, Back Where I Came From.
I had this fantasy outlook on my dad. That little girl’s hope that my dad would come out of the heavens and tell me which way my life should go.
We interviewed Pete Seeger, who sang for us and who told us stories about [Alan’s father, folklorist] John Lomax and his hearing first cowboy songs, like Home on the Range, coming through his window. That’s how we came to know and have that song, through John Lomax. I got a picture of my father being around these people, living in a house with Alan Lomax where Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Molly Jackson came through. I got this picture of my dad being willing to get his nails dirty to see what’s here on earth, and what’s here in society that the most people aren’t seeing. He seems to be asking himself, “What’s beyond what we’re being told? And what’s beyond what we’re being sold?” It’s like he said to himself, “Let’s go dig it up.” He did that in the theater. He did that in music and he did it in film through the characters he brought to life. That’s where I relate to him, wanting more than what meets the eye, wanting to know what’s beyond “that”.
PKM: What did you learn about your family?
Nicca Ray: Oh my god. What I learned. [Pause] I learned about my mom, who she was before she married my dad and how she came out of that marriage a broken human being. And in spite of how broken she was, she had the strength to always provide for my sister and I. She was a neglectful mother, but she had this wherewithal. She knew when she left my dad that she could not have anything to do with Hollywood, even though Hollywood was where she’d been since she was 14 years old. I can see her, 30 years old, with these two toddlers and a drunken mother to take care of and no money coming in. She refused help from Edie and Lew Wasserman. Who does that? Instead, she built this life for herself. I gained a great appreciation for what she did for my sister and I.
I also got to know my brother Tony. I had idolized him because he had been in [John Cassavettes’ 1958] Shadows and then he produced all those movies with Paul Mazursky, like The Rose, Harry and Tonto, and other stuff. I had never spent time with Tony as an adult, but Stacey and I interviewed him and, later on, I spent time with him, visiting him in Maine. He had his issues, but for a certain amount of time there I felt like what it could have been like to have a big brother. One time Stacey and I were going to go interview [director] Barbet Schroder and I was talking to Tony on the phone and I said, “I don’t know what to wear”. He was like, “Just wear jeans and a T-shirt. That’s what you like to wear. Just be yourself”. That, to me, was big brotherly. Tony told us a story of when he was living with Gloria and my dad in Malibu when he was 13 and something happened in the house and he ran away. He had this motorbike they had bought for him, and he just got on it and drove it all the way to Santa Barbara on PCH [Pacific Coast Highway]. I identified so much with that. I did that growing up. The house was so chaotic I would just run out, too.
Another thing I learned about my family, and from my family, was how we never really talked about what it was like to have our dad as our dad. We never talked about any of it. Doing this book was the first time my sister and I talked about our father and what it was like for him to come home when he did, and how he did, and what she wanted from him and what she felt like when he died. And from Tim, I learned all about what it was like for him living with my dad in London. I had always looked up to Tim as a kid because he and my mother were close. He would come over a lot when he went to CalArts and we stayed close until my early 20s. Tim always had these beautiful girlfriends. For a time, his girlfriend was Jenny Arness, whose father was James Arness, the sheriff in Gunsmoke. I loved Jenny. Tim and Jenny would take my sister and I to the beach, and out to the ranch. Her father had the ranch and Tim had a Porsche. Like I said, I always felt really close to Tim but I never knew what he felt about Tony marrying his mother. I got to hear from all my siblings what they had wanted from our father and how our father had let them down and how we all did okay considering what our father brought into our lives.
I discovered that he was cruel, that he was selfish, that he was probably a narcissist. I also discovered he was a seeker. He was searching all his life for the truth and an understanding of what it meant to be a human being.
Tim used to always tell me I was lucky that I hadn’t spent much time with my father. When I was younger, I read John Houseman’s autobiography and saw that quote where he said, basically, that Nicholas Ray damaged all the lives he touched, including those of his children. But, in talking openly to everyone, I found a real strength in us. Honestly, I had always thought of myself as damaged goods. I don’t believe that anymore. Even though Tony had his issues, my dad, our father, did everything in his power to ruin Tony, absolutely ruin him. Despite that, Tony worked as an actor and became quite a successful producer. I found out the truth about what my dad did to Tony and I found out the truth about what my dad did to my mom. That’s why when I say, “my dad was cruel”, I mean, he was cruel.
PKM: How do you describe your dad’s film work?
Nicca Ray: I love his film work. [Pause] People have fathers who maybe aren’t the best people or who abandon them, and that’s all they have of their fathers. I have a father who left behind these beautiful movies, who created these worlds that we get to go into and inhabit. And he shows us people’s frailties, their defects of character. I found one interview where he said that his protagonists can have these faults and that’s why we relate to them as human beings. You can look at Jim Ryan, Robert Ryan’s character in On Dangerous Ground, the violent policeman, who finds love and doesn’t need to access his violent behavior anymore because he finds love. Love saves Jim Ryan. That doesn’t happen for Dixon Steele, Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place. Dix is this misunderstood Hollywood screenwriter, who is accused of being a murderer. His neighbor Laura [played by Gloria] provides an alibi for him and they fall in love, but in In a Lonely Place, love doesn’t save him because Dix’s rage ruins it for himself. How many of us have been in situations where we want the best outcome, we want to be the best person, but something outside of ourselves or inside of ourselves that we can’t control ruins everything for us?
That “human thing” happens, too, in The Lusty Men, when Robert Mitchum is trying to find his place in the world after he’s not a rodeo star anymore and wants to go home. What does it mean to go back home? Can you go back home? Those are very personal questions that we all ask ourselves at some point in our lifetime. And, of course, there’s Rebel Without a Cause where, for the first time, you see middle-class teenagers in trouble, you see the generation gap, and how the teenagers form their own family to save themselves. My dad created worlds like these, with a lot of depth. He took risks. He did things that weren’t done before, like, in They Live by Night with the helicopter shot. You can’t often say that something’s never been done before, but it’s pretty much accepted that a helicopter shot hadn’t done before. He felt that that was the best way to create the tension and the suspense in the [prison] breakout. Luckily, my dad had John Houseman by his side, supporting his vision. And the way my dad used the camera, the camera becomes a character in the film. It doesn’t just film, record the action, it moves along with the scene and the music. That’s pretty darn brilliant.
And, of course, there’s Rebel Without a Cause where, for the first time, you see middle-class teenagers in trouble, you see the generation gap, and how the teenagers form their own family to save themselves. My dad created worlds like these, with a lot of depth. He took risks. He did things that weren’t done before
PKM: You mention the camera following the action. What else should people look for in his movies? Is there a visual connecting thread? Is there a thematic thing?
Nicca Ray: One thing is the way he gets great performances out of his actors. He builds a trust between himself and the actor, so that they reveal things that they may not have revealed in other films. Take Bogart, for example, you see a real vulnerability in him in his portrayal of Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place. There’s a bonding there of form and content. My dad understood how to create visuals that inform the subtext of a scene. Take, for instance, in On Dangerous Ground when you first meet Jim Ryan, you see him sitting alone in his apartment with his gun. The way that he relates to where he is, you know that he’s alone. You know that that gun is him. You get a sense of trouble, the minute you see Jim Ryan. When he beats up a suspect, you see he’s not able to control himself. In that instance, you feel sorry for him. The way people are positioned in the frame, from scene to scene in his movies, you can see that real marriage of form and content.
Jeanine Basinger, the film scholar, pointed this out to me. I talked to her about my dad’s films, how in On Dangerous Ground my father used the camera to go from dark into light, where he has us starting out in the dark of the city and then going into the light of the country. She pointed out that on the road into the mountains, we gradually get out of the dark into the light. In the country, in the light, he’s there to find out who murdered this girl, and, in the light, he finds love with a blind woman. I mention that movie a lot because it’s really underrated and it’s pretty darn melodramatic, but I think my dad was pretty darn melodramatic. It’s really a beautiful film. It was a pet project of his that John Houseman begrudgingly produced. John Houseman hated it, and hated the book that it was based on, and the movie bombed. It just bombed. I think that it was really heartbreaking for my dad.
Watching Robert Mitchum’s character befriend Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward, who are married and have this home he wants so bad, I wanted that, and that connection to that movie [The Lusty Men] is still there for me.
Jeanine Bassinger also pointed out how my dad would start moving the camera before the scene really starts and kept the camera going after the scene ends. She said that really wasn’t done. You shot a scene, the camera started, the camera stopped. It’s as if my dad’s camera work, in my opinion, is more like music. It’s very rhythmic and you can feel my dad’s vibe, for lack of a better word. You can feel his essence in the way the camera works in all of his films, the intimacy he creates in The Lusty Men when Robert Mitchum is walking through a mountainscape towards his childhood home. The character is in this wide-open landscape, and yet you feel really close to him. How did my dad do that?
PKM: What’s your favorite Nicholas Ray film?
Nicca Ray: The Lusty Men. Before I first saw it, I had never heard of it. Of course, I had heard of In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause but when I saw The Lusty Men, I was just like, “Wow, this is beautiful, really beautiful. All the nuances in it.” It’s also the first of my father’s films that I saw on a big screen in its entirety. I saw it when I was 19 at the Bleecker Street Theater. [Film critic] Bernard Eisenschitz took me to see it because he was writing a biography about my dad. I was not sober yet, although I had tried to get sober a couple of times. I’d moved to New York to get away from the punk rock scene in LA. I didn’t feel like I had a home and I landed on my stepmom Susan’s doorstep at three in the morning and she let me live with her. Bernard took me to see The Lusty Men and I had such a connection with that search for home, that not feeling attached to one place or another. Watching Robert Mitchum’s character befriend Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward, who are married and have this home he wants so bad, I wanted that, and that connection to that movie [The Lusty Men] is still there for me.
PKM: You didn’t talk about your dad’s eyepatch in your book. He’s pictured on the cover with one. Where did the eyepatch come from?
Nicca Ray: The eyepatch is a funny story. I believe the story is that he was living in Chicago  saying that he was going to make this movie about the Chicago Seven conspiracy trials. He was at the flatbed, editing footage he had shot of the demonstrations in Washington, D.C., when he had an embolism in his eye. That made it so he had to wear an eyepatch. Stacey and I laughed about this a lot and we decided that my dad liked the pirate image the eyepatch gave him. We interviewed people who were around him through the ’70s and quite a few people suspected that he didn’t really need the eyepatch, but that he liked its aesthetics, the look of eyepatch. When he came back into my life, when I was 13, he was wearing the eyepatch. My mom told stories of him leaving his eyepatch in various parts of the apartment. You could tell he’d been out somewhere because he’d leave his eyepatch there, or sometimes he would wear it on the other eye. This didn’t make it in the book, but Barbet Schroeder said that when my dad and Susan were living on 12th Street, he went over to their apartment and my dad was wearing the eyepatch, and he also had a knife, like a pirate would wear, tucked in the side of his pants. He was doing so much speed then. He was on this weird trip, that he was some swashbuckler [Chuckles].
PKM: What was the hardest thing to write about in this book?
Nicca Ray: Writing about my dad’s family, his upbringing and his incestuous relationship with his sister. That was pretty hard. And then writing about my mom’s relationship with her father and seeing how, of course, my mom would be attracted to someone like my dad, given what her father had done. And because of what had been done to her, my mom wasn’t able to see what my stepbrother was doing to me. That was hard to write about, too. That, and looking at my parent’s sicknesses and not taking on their shit. For several years into writing the book, I felt like people could see all their shit on me. I carried their weight and their insanity on my shoulders. It was also hard to write about my dad’s time in Madrid, my mom’s marriage to him, and, oh my god, to really sit with who he was when he came home to us. I think maybe that was the hardest.
Barbet Schroeder said that when my dad and Susan were living on 12th Street, he went over to their apartment and my dad was wearing the eyepatch, and he also had a knife, like a pirate would wear, tucked in the side of his pants. He was doing so much speed then. He was on this weird trip, that he was some swashbuckler.
PKM: Last question. Are you closer to your father now than when he was alive?
Nicca Ray: Definitely.
PKM: How does that play out?
Nicca Ray: I feel that I now see the whole picture of who he was. I love him and it’s a real love, not a little girl’s fantasy of love. I got to go through the hate, the disappointment, the loneliness and the abandonment. Going back a bit, I made a film when I was in college. I made a short non-sync film and I remember being at the flatbed. This was before schools started to teach editing on Avid software. When I was editing on the flatbed, I would feel my dad very strongly when I was alone, like he was guiding me through. I feel like knowing my dad and what my dad went through and what his sacrifices were and how he compromised himself allows me to stay true to who I am as an artist. That’s where my relationship with my dad is at right now. I did this book and I’m out of his shadow.
I have a collection of poetry coming out later this year. I’m a poet. I get to embrace who I am. I think I brought myself to this point, both on my own and with the help of a lot of people, but I feel he’s saying, “Go be a poet. Don’t compromise your self.” I know now to do what I want to do, not what someone else is telling me to do. I express myself the way I want to express myself, not the way someone else is telling me to express myself. I say things in my language, in my words, and it doesn’t matter how many people like it or don’t like it. “Do it with your vision.” That’s what I’m getting from him now.
Jim Jarmusch on Nicholas Ray (Jarmusch talks about being Ray’s assistant during his days at NYU film school):