Friday 29 September 2017

On Screen Acting - Bruce Hodsdon - Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood (4). Nicholas Ray: “I'm a stranger here myself”

Émigrés played a major role as directors in the creative melting pot that was classical Hollywood. Otto Preminger and Detlef Sierck were refugees from Nazism – Sierck's wife was Jewish, while Otto was born into a family of “poor, devout Jews” as he described them.  Elia Kazan was the son of a family of Greek Anatolian origin who escaped Turkish oppression by emigrating to America in 1913 when Elia was four. Both Preminger and Douglas Sirk (an adaptation of his German name) took the opportunity of timely invitations from Hollywood to move to America, leaving well placed jobs in the theatre and film industries in Austria and Germany respectively. (1)

Kazan went to school in New York graduating from Yale University School of Drama. He spoke of how his early life was one of family imposed social segregation. He grew up to resent wasp privilege and briefly was a member of the Communist Party. His sensitivity to the need for a creative relationship with actors and the position of relative filmmaking independence he achieved were put to productive use in launching the film careers not only of Brando and Dean but also of Julie Harris, Carroll Baker, Warren Beatty and Lee Remick while rejuvenating the career of Natalie Wood and eliciting career best performances from others in both lead and supporting roles.
Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Raymond Kienzle was a child of the American midwest born and raised in a middle class household near the American heartland city of La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1911. His teenage years in “a house filled with tension” were made more difficult when Ray was sixteen, by the sudden death of his alcoholic father whom Ray tended to romanticise in his later years.

After a short academic career at the University of Chicago in 1931, Nicholas/Nick Ray (as he now called himself) spent a few months living a communal lifestyle on a fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright which ended abortively. Nevertheless it was there he learned about the aesthetics of the horizontal in architecture which has a bearing on Ray's subsequent embrace of the potential of the CinemaScope screen's dimensions that was shared in Hollywood by few of his fellow directors; in this Preminger was an exception.

Ray settled in New York in 1934 and joined a radical left wing theatre movement, the Theatre Action Group who presented pieces in agit-prop style and where he met Kazan who was something of a pragmatist when it came to applying Stanislavkian principles to performance. “Whatever works, works” he advised, “Turn trauma into drama.” The theatre group served as a substitute family for Ray who began to absorb Kazan's confidence, his work with actors and his attention to improvisation. Ray was also brought back into contact with Joseph Losey, whom he had known in high school.  After Pearl Harbour Ray was rejected for army service because of a congenital heart condition. His interest in Southern folk music led to radio work followed by wartime broadcasting for the “Voice of America” under John Houseman.

After directing several plays in New York, encouraged by Kazan and producer John Houseman  Ray moved to Hollywood in 1944 to become the director's assistant on Kazan's first feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Following the last take one night a week Ray convened a small group of editors and a projectionist to discuss filmmaking, the drinks on him of which he consumed more than his share. He had noticed veteran directors like Henry King and Henry Hathaway always organised their films in a standard sequence - long shot, medium shot, close up – and Ray thought it might be refreshing to imitate comic strips with tighter shots, skewed angles, and extreme close-ups.

Cathy O'Donnell, Farley Granger, They Live by Night
After the filming had finished Ray tried unsuccess-fully to break into the industry then returned briefly to New York to work as Houseman's assistant, directing a play and a pioneering short tv drama Sorry Wrong Number starring Mildred Natwick  (later played by Barbara Stanwyck in Anatole Litvak’s feature film adaptation). In 1946 Houseman had Ray hired as his assistant back in Hollywood at RKO. At Houseman's instigation Ray started writing a script based on a novel, Thieves Like Us, his treatment becoming the basis for his first film as director in 1947 retitled They Live by Night.
Ray directing actors
From his first film Ray, like Kazan, set what was then something of a unique tone in Hollywood, urging players to find similarities to themselves in exploring the behaviour of their characters. Farley Granger, while starring in They Live by Night, observed that Ray “although inarticulate socially, when he wanted something special in a scene, he would put his arm around your shoulder...and talk to you privately about the situation and character.” For Ray the dictum of the Russian Yevgeny Vakhtangov - “find yourself within your character” extended to the director as well. He worked best when he could explore himself in the main character (McGilligan, 136).

John Derek, Humphrey Bogart, Knock on any Door
On personally friendly terms with Ray, Humphrey Bogart invited him to direct Knock on any Door (1949) for Bogart's production company, Santana. Although he approached the script diligently, as with James Stewart (see part 3), an established icon like Bogart didn't require or desire much input from the director. Bogart was the supreme boss and in this film and In a Lonely Place (1950) he would step in from time to time and seek to override the director particularly where an impasse arose. Ray was intent on turning In a Lonely Place into something more personal. He asked the art director to recreate one of Ray's first Hollywood homes. He viewed with empathy the tortured writer Dix, played by Bogart, as “a crazy mirror image of himself ” and Ray's then wife Gloria Grahame's character as “a twisted commentary on their own marriage” already under stress (McGilligan, 185).
Gloria Grahame, Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place
Ray cast his young nephew Sumner Williams, inexperienced and self conscious in front of the camera, in a supporting role in On Dangerous Ground (1951). Williams felt that he was helped by not being directed. “Nick had a way of instilling feeling for a moment in a character...he would suggest very subtly, never pushed you in any direction.” 

Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, On Dangerous Ground
A reporter, observing on the set, noted that Ray, “a quiet man, practically whispers directions” in taking Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino to one side. Lupino said that she and Ryan virtually directed the final scene between them, that it was nothing like what was in the script. (McGilligan, 154-7).

Arthur Kennedy (The Lusty Men) (1952) spoke of Ray's peculiar way of giving direction. “ I could never quite grasp his meaning. I'd agree to everything and then try to figure out what the hell he meant.” Ray later listed Kennedy along with Bogart and James Dean as among the true “naturals” (2) who understood his directing “shorthand.” Like Bogart Mitchum was a genuine sight reader good for up to only six takes and then they would stray and dry up (224). Ray had the habit of roaming restlessly around the set “as if looking for buried treasure” as Mitchum put it, calling him “the Mystic.” 

Robert Mitchum, Arthur Kennedy, The Lusty Men
Ray prompted Mitchum to connect with his personal life, or what the director knew of it - his fondness for drifters and losers -  to the character of the washed-up rodeo rider Jeff McCloud. Mitchum was a “show me the script page and the marks” man while Nick liked to discuss the background to the scene (McGilligan 224-5). It is one of Mitchum's most affecting performances. 

Like Bogart on his two films with Ray, Joan Crawford was the producer and the star of Johnny Guitar (1954) outranking the director in billing, salary and actual power. A feud quickly developed between her and Mercedes McCambridge fuelled by Crawford's jealousy.  Of the four leads (Crawford, Sterling Hayden, McCambridge and Scott Brady), Ray connected only deeply with stage-trained McCambridge. She exulted in the part whose character is described in the novel as “straight sulphuric acid.” 

Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar
While Crawford never stopped treating McCambridge as an enemy, this animosity was to the film's onscreen benefit. Ray proved his mettle on and off screen in handling the touchy star. She all but scuttled the production (which would probably have bankrupted the production company) threatening to walk off, demanding role reversals of the two leads, she becoming 'Clark Gable', Johnny 'becoming Vienna'.  As the scriptwriter Philip Yordan ruefully admitted, this was “Crawford's stroke of genius.” (McGilligan 254-6, Eisenschitz, 211).

Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Johnny Guitar
I've always thought that Run for Cover (1954) has a special place in the western for the maturity of the relationship played out between Jimmy Cagney and the undervalued (at least in America) Swedish actress, Viveca Lindfors. Ray felt that they were  hampered by the producers in trying to make an offbeat western out of a weak script. “Everything we tried to put in (for example aspects of farm life) was excised.” What above all makes the film, such as it is, is what Ray described as Cagney's “great serenity such as I've not seen in an actor, outside of Walter Huston at times, he has great love of the earth and his fellow man, an understanding of loneliness. I wanted to use all that.” (Eisenschitz, 216).

James Cagney, John Derek, Run for Cover

Ray's success with the young cast at the centre of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for which he had a main writing credit, can be attributed in part to his ability to extract elements for the film out of real-life emotional conflicts, James Leahy noting how he did this by getting very close to the actors enabling them “to incorporate aspects of their own psychology into the roles they would not otherwise have revealed.” 

Natalie Wood, James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause
He came to see the danger of 'over explaining' the characters, which risked making the actors self conscious in their roles. There was also another side to the risks Nick took, calculated or not, to make the most of his inexperienced cast. Dennis Hopper claimed that both he and Nick were “fucking Natalie Wood (and) her parents were starting to figure it out.” He said Nick “snitched on him, and the studio came down on me.” According to Natalie Wood “Jimmy trusted Nick a great deal, (that) he was very fatherly towards Jimmy, (as he was) to Sal (Mineo) and myself.” A child actor, a veteran of 21 films, Wood said that Ray was the first director “who wanted my ideas.”  McGilligan has a good deal more to reveal about their relationship (2). “Ray was her father surrogate, intellectual guru and soon enough, partner in love” (McGilligan 284-90, 302-4).

Ray and Dean on the set of Rebel Without a Cause
Hopper said that he thought Dean controlled many of the scenes he was in, and he is in almost every scene.” Eisenschitz comments “that in Dean, Ray found his ideal actor, not because of his association with the Method...but because of their mutual understanding...Dean's “urgent, inquisitive curiosity (his) kind of pathological desire for tension... the actor's very arrogance, in which Ray recognised his own defence mechanism against the Hollywood circus.” That may be why Rebel is “more explicit, less mysterious” than other Ray films “in revealing the name of the game: look for the father.” (Eisenschitz 246-7, 253-4)

James Mason, Bigger than Life
James Mason, who was the producer and star on Bigger than Life (1956), with Bogart and Crawford, was the third such collaboration for Ray. It did not get off to a promising start with something of a protracted stand-off over the script. McGilligan reports that Mason “found Nick's silences and pauses challenging, that he couldn't really pinpoint” his problems with the script. Years later Mason said that “he's a man who holds long, inarticulate pauses and during this early stage it was really quite frustrating because he wanted rewriting to be done, but he couldn't say exactly what it was.” Ray wanted to bring in Clifford Odets but Mason was wary, fearing that this could take them back to square one of a complete re-write. This continued as filming proceeded coalescing into shared dissatisfaction with the final scene as written which ironically was resolved at the last minute, to the satisfaction of both, by Odets with whom Ray had been secretly consulting. In fact the way Ray tried to deal with this ongoing script uncertainty was to devote himself to overcoming it through the mise-en-scène in what is one of his most intense and also arguably his last great film. Bitter Victory (1957), Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl (1958), and The Savage Innocents (1960) were all major, if flawed, additions to his oeuvre. Gavin Lambert, his assistant on Bigger Than Life explained that whenever the director was “forbidden to make a point verbally (which happened often), Nick had an extraordinary flair for making it visually.” (McGilligan 325-9)

1.  Preminger's last stage production in Vienna, October 1935, was Die erste Legion the German version of American playwright Emmet Lavery's The First Legion. A film adaptation was produced and directed by Douglas Sirk in California in 1950.
2.  On the set of Flying Leathernecks (1951) starring John Wayne and Robert Ryan, a film Ray was obliged to direct 'against the grain' for Howard Hughes, political differences at times became heatedly polarised (Ryan, like Ray, was very much an 'ultra-liberal'). Nevertheless Ray developed a good working relationship with Wayne, finding him to be “a far better actor than I had given him credit for,” like Bogart, Mitchum, Cagney and Dean, another of Ray's 'naturals'. He was helped in this by Wayne's personableness, his natural inclination “to be kind to everybody.” McGilligan adds that Wayne “felt sorry that Nick made a lot of enemies” (204).
3.  McGilligan comments that “of all the unorthodox behavior Ray was known to have indulged in during the making of Rebel... his 'secret' romance with Natalie Wood was the least defensible. Today such behavior would invite charges of sexual harassment. Then, as now, it qualified as felony statutory rape.” Apparently Wood's mother knew about it, and the studio and most of the cast and crew also knew, or suspected, but chose to turn a blind eye (302-3).

Main Sources: Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray An American Journey 1993; Patrick McGilligan, Nicholas Ray  2011.

Nicholas Ray

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