Susan Ray Nicholas Ray

At the recently concluded 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival we got to sit down with filmmaker Susan Ray and discuss the subject of her 2011 documentary “Don’t Expect Much” (here’s our review from NYFF ’11) and late husband, director Nicholas Ray. Nicholas Ray began as an apprentice to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and then decided to move out to Hollywood, and the rest is cinematic history -- as early as 1953, Jean-Luc Godard wrote, “cinema is Nicholas Ray.” 

The director put his stamp on a number of films, including the landmark noir “In A Lonely Place,” the Joan Crawford-starring camp classic “Johnny Guitar” and “Rebel Without A Cause,” which ushered in a whole new era of Hollywood (check out our The Essentials: 5 Great Films By Nicholas Ray), before the quality projects began to dry up and he turned to teaching film. Suffice to write, Nicholas Ray has had a lasting impact on cinema from his own iconic films to his influence on directors ranging from French New Wave (Godard and Francois Truffaut) to New Hollywood (Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch) and beyond. Susan Ray discussed with us his career from both personal and professional perspectives, from his apprenticeship to his professorial years and his lasting legacy.

Nicholas Ray
With such a varied filmography, do you think there are common themes that link your husband’s films together?

I’m a long time observer, but I don’t know that that makes me an authority. That said, I would say he was always looking, more than working with a preconceived notion of what he wanted to get out onscreen. He was looking and what he was looking for was truth, emotional truth, emotional revelation… My zen teacher used to always say, “There’s no wisdom without emotion,” so he was looking for a kind of wisdom about human nature and how one human being connects with other human beings or doesn’t connect. 

Studying with Frank Lloyd Wright [Ray was quoted as having “a love of the horizontal line” and used interior space as an extension of the characters], working with Elian Kazan so early in his career [“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”] and then coming to RKO [where he made his directorial debut “They Live By Night,”] working with Howard Hughes... Out of those experiences, which one do you think affected his directing style the most?

If I had to choose one, I would probably choose Wright for a number of reasons. As I’m learning more about Nick, not as someone I was involved with but as a subject....what I see are certain threads that go all the way through his life. One is the creation of a close almost familial group of collaborators, which certainly a film troupe becomes, but he was looking for that and that was something Wright created as well at Taliesin. To the day he died, [he] always referred to Frank Lloyd Wright as Mr. Wright. He was always the master in relation to Nick as an apprentice, although Nick left him because he didn’t want to be another Frank Lloyd Wright, but the imprint of Wright on Nick’s thinking was very, very strong. It brought out certain sort of innate interests that already existed in Nick and gave him a framework. The horizontal line was certainly part of it. So was the way Wright spoke about architecture, I can’t remember the exact quote, but as being the framework for the rest of the arts. Nick spoke about film as being the cathedral of the arts, so it was the same kind of metaphor, but he upped it. He upped the ante.

Nicholas Ray James Dean

Do you think he had wished to make more Hollywood films or valued his creative freedom more in the end and his teaching?

He had changed and Hollywood had changed. He said in so many words that he felt that Hollywood had the best technology, the best understanding of the techniques and the most advanced anywhere in the world, but the studio producers wouldn’t let it be used and so it became too confined for him. I think that he did have an outsider’s mentality.

Were there any actors your late husband remembered very fondly?

Sure, there were certain actors, who were friends as well like [Humphrey] Bogart, [James] Dean certainly, and Robert Mitchum.

There may be an unmade script from your husband out there that they’re thinking of getting made, possibly with Oren Moverman directing. What are your thoughts on that?

There is… Oren Moverman is interested in directing it, but at the moment no one has the rights except for the Ray estate. The rights have been licensed at various periods, but the license has expired and it’s now available.

There’s been talk that it’s a western.

The context is western, but it’s not a western story.
"He actually said during the very end of his life that he was never happier than when he was teaching."
How was Nicholas Ray as a teacher? [Ray’s final years were spent teaching at Binghamton University, Lee Strasberg Institute and NYU]

He learned teaching and he was learning as he was making “We Can’t Go Home Again.” I think there were things he did with his class in making “We Can’t Go Home Again” that he might not have chosen to repeat. That said, he loved young people and he loved the process of distilling what he knew in order to pass it on. He felt it was his responsibility to do that and he loved doing it. He actually said during the very end of his life that he was never happier than when he was teaching. He was a really good teacher. He became a really good teacher. It took some learning about how to temper his expectations and demands of his students. He demanded a huge amount of himself and worked like a demon, literally, and kind of expected his students to do the same with “We Can’t Go Home Again.” I think for a lot of them it was more than they wanted to do. I’m not sure it was more than they could do, but it was more than they wanted to do. I think he confined his demands a little more as he moved on with teaching and also as he got sober.

How was that process of him getting sober and ultimately that period when he knew he didn’t have much longer left?

He was a man who always kept growing and wanted to keep growing. He stopped growing just for a very brief period before he got sober because the drinking had become so pervasive and had really taken over, but until then, he was always trying to grow and after he got sober, he was always trying to grow. It was inspiring to watch. Really that’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing with his work, not because he was my husband or I’m tending a flame or any of that stuff. It’s because he lived a kind of yes, messy, but in another sense a very exemplary life and that he didn’t pretend to be other than what he was. He could get kind of bloated at times, but basically he was pretty naked about his human-ness and he kept trying to grow.

His personal life seems to match his work.

I don’t think he saw much difference between them. He would say over and over again that an artist must expose themselves and of course the personal is going to be there, but you try to keep the neurosis out. It may sneak in, but you try to keep it out. You try not to get stuck in it. It was part of his love and that really is the word for his fellow humans, I think, that he felt alone, he felt an outsider and he was always trying to find the way to connect.

Towards the end, where there ever any moments of bitterness?

No, I didn’t see him as bitter ever. I saw him as at times pained, maybe at times regretful, I’m not sure, but bitter? No. He had too much of a sense of responsibility for his own life to be bitter.

Susan Ray introduced her late husband’s directorial debut “They Live By Night” at the TCM Classic Film Festival, screened on April 27th at the Chinese Multiplex.