Originally published in 1990 in French, and superbly translated into English for publication in Britain by the late Tom Milne in 1993, Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey finally makes its US appearance in an excellent edition from the University of Minnesota Press, available in paperback or hardcover — the paperback especially is an outstanding value for less than $17 on Amazon.
Eisenschitz’s book is one of the finest biographies I have ever read of a film director, or of anyone else, for that matter; meticulous in detail, elegant in its prose, perceptive in its readings of Ray’s films, and brilliantly researched, rich with the detail without becoming overstuffed with trivia. Nicholas Ray (or Nick Ray, as he preferred to be called) was an artist in a business that then as now was primarily interested in the bottom line – something ray really wasn’t interested in at all.
Ray’s films as director include the legendary Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, In A Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, On Dangerous Ground and numerous other films for a variety of Hollywood studios, until the system finally crushed him with endless rewrites, front office interference and a lack of compassion for someone who clearly was making films as a personal statement, rather than simply to make films for cash.
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey spans Ray’s entire career, from his boyhood in Wisconsin to his final work as a teacher at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, where the students lucky enough to work with him completed an experimental feature film which was written, directed, and edited as a communal effort by the entire class.
Never a robust man, Ray also abused his body with drugs and alcohol, and took his work very personally; not a company man by any means, Ray used the studios to make films that identified with the lonely, the lost, the marginalized in society, to rip away the façade that covers up the bleakness of mainstream society. No wonder that James Dean, Dennis Hopper and other Hollywood “outlaws” were so eager to work with him; Ray changed the rules of American cinema.
Everything Ray directed took a toll on him, and yet he pressed on, creating work of brilliance and depth right up the end of his life. Eisenschitz’s biography is a superlative achievement; whether you’re interested in film or not, this is a book you should read. It’s a testament to an artist working within a system that often didn’t understand what he was up to, and was often hostile and unsympathetic to his work.
Yet Ray ultimately triumphed over all who opposed him, although in the end, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have put it, “the price was high.” This is a compelling, mesmerizing biography, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and yet a book that is absolutely impossible to put down once you dive into it. In fact, you’ll probably finish it in one sitting. Open it anywhere; you’ll be hooked. Ray was a one-of-a-kind visionary, and Nicholas Ray: An American Journey is the best book about him in English, available at last in the US – don’t miss it.