Bisexual American film director Nicholas Ray, best known for Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Johnny Guitar (1954), was a talented, undisciplined renegade whose Hollywood career lasted a mere sixteen years. Wisconsin-born Ray directed many films that explored the lives of lonely outsiders who refused to conform to the rigors of mainstream society.
Actor Farley Granger and writer Gore Vidal, Ray’s gay neighbors at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood during the mid-1950s, both reported that Ray was simultaneously involved in affairs with lead actors Sal Mineo, James Dean, and Natalie Wood during the filming of Rebel without a Cause. Although he identified as heterosexual, Ray could be seen dancing with other men at the Chateau Marmont. Ray said he wasn’t gay because he had more affairs with women than men. Ray was also in denial about his crippling alcohol and drug abuse.
British-born screenwriter Gavin Lambert (1924-2005) met Nicholas in England while publicizing Rebel without a Cause. Seduced by Ray the night they met, Lambert was swept off his feet and accepted Ray’s invitation to follow him back to the United States, where he moved in with Ray at the Chateau Marmont. Nicholas found a job for Gavin as a screenwriter at Twentieth-Century Fox, and Ray and Lambert lived together for eight months. Lambert, who characterized Ray as a possessive and erratic lover, broke off the affair because of Ray’s alcohol abuse and infidelity with both men and women.
After dropping out of college, in 1933 Ray joined the first fellowship of participants at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin (Wisconsin). After eight months, the intensely moralistic Wright expelled Ray for homosexual activity. Ray relocated to NYC and met writer Jean Evans, with whom he had a son, Anthony (Tony), in 1937. By 1941 the FBI had opened a file on Ray, because of his socialist leanings and association with African Americans. In 1944 Ray was forced to resign his position with Voice of America on the basis of further damning FBI reports of leftist political sympathies and homosexual activity.
In 1946 Ray got a huge break when RKO assigned him to direct the filming of They Live by Night, a film-noir project for which Ray had written a screenplay based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us. Ray cast the film from a group of unknown contract players, chief among them Farley Granger (in photo above). Although previews of the completed film garnered positive reviews in 1947, distribution was delayed until 1949, due to marketing dilemmas. During this gap RKO’s new chief, bisexual Howard Hughes, protected Ray from appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which would have damaged his personal reputation as well as the reputation of the studio.
In 1948 Ray married actress Gloria Grahame, even though Nicholas had gambled away everything in the days leading up to their wedding in Las Vegas. In 1950 Ray directed In a Lonely Place, starring his wife Gloria and Humphrey Bogart. During filming of In a Lonely Place, Ray found his wife in bed with his teenaged son (Tony) by his previous marriage. Gloria and Nicholas divorced in 1952, and Gloria Grahame eventually married Tony Ray in 1960, an act that incited a public scandal that ended her movie career. Gloria had children by both father and son. I’m not making this up.
In 1953 Ray bought out his contract at RKO, but went to work for MCA when he was unable to establish his own production company. It was there that Ray made a success of Johnny Guitar (1954), in spite of Joan Crawford’s attempts to thwart the production. Intensely jealous of supporting actress Mercedes McCambridge, Crawford insisted that McCambridge’s scenes be reduced in favor of an expanded part for herself. Crawford destroyed McCambridge's costumes and threatened to leave Sedona, Arizona, where the film was shot. Although Crawford prevailed, and Ray was forced to make the adjustments, he delivered a brilliant film with strong gender-bending leanings. Its critical and commercial success was exceeded by Rebel without a Cause, released the following year.
Ray seemed on track to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, but his personal demons of gambling and drug and alcohol abuse thwarted his career. Astonishingly, by 1958 his Hollywood career was over, and Ray moved to Europe, where he experienced both success and failure for eleven years. Ray suffered a heart attack in 1962 while working on 55 Days at Peking (1963), his last studio project.
Settling in Chicago in 1969, Ray met Susan Schwartz, a student who eventually became his unofficial fourth wife. During the 1970s Ray settled down and taught film in New York. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer in 1977, which took his life two years later. During the summer of 2010, the Harvard Film Archive presented a month-long film series featuring the work of Nicholas Ray. Hosted by Susan Ray, Nicholas Ray’s “fourth wife”, with whom he shared the last ten years of his life, the festival showcased all of Ray’s twenty-odd pictures. The following link includes an excellent bio, commentary and descriptions of all the films:
Martin Scorsese introduces Nicholas Ray and his film, Johnny Guitar: