Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr. in Galesville, Wisconsin, the son of Olene "Lena" (Toppen) and Raymond Joseph Kienzle, a contractor and builder. His paternal grandparents were German and his maternal grandparents were Norwegian. He grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
A popular but erratic student prone to delinquency and alcohol abuse, Ray spent much of his adolescence with his older sister in Chicago, Illinois, where he immersed himself in the Al Capone-era nightlife and attended Waller High School. Upon his return to La Crosse in his senior year of high school, he emerged as a talented orator (winning a contest at local radio station WKBH that included a modest scholarship to "any university in the world") and hung around a local stock theater. With strong grades in English & public speaking and failures in Latin, physics, and geometry, he graduated at the bottom (ranked 152nd in a class of 153) of his class at La Crosse Central High School in 1929.
He studied drama at La Crosse State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse) for two years before earning the requisite grades to matriculate at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1931. Although he spent only one semester at the institution because of excessive drinking and poor grades, Ray managed to cultivate relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and dramatist Thornton Wilder, then a professor. He received a Taliesin Fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.
During the Great Depression, Ray was employed by the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration. He befriended folklorist Alan Lomax and traveled with him through rural America collecting traditional vernacular music. Lomax and Ray produced "Back Where I Come From", a pioneering folk music radio program featuring such artists as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. American folk songs would later figure prominently in several of his films. In 1944 he was Elia Kazan's assistant on the shooting of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Ray directed his first and only Broadway production, the Duke Ellington musical Beggar's Holiday, in 1946. One year later, he directed his first film, They Live by Night. It wasn't released for two years because of the chaotic conditions surrounding Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO Pictures. An almost impressionistic take on film noir, it was notable for its extreme empathy for society's young outsiders (a recurring motif in Ray's films). Its subject matter, two young lovers running from the law, had an influence on the sporadically popular movie subgenre often called "love on the run". (Other examples are Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Robert Altman's 1974 retelling of the novel used forThey Live by Night, Thieves Like Us.)
The New York Times gave the film a positive review (despite calling Ray's trademark sympathetic eye to rebels and criminals "misguided") and acclaimed Ray for "good, realistic production and sharp direction...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."
Ray's most productive and successful period was the 1950s. In the mid-fifties he made the two films for which he is best remembered: Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The former was a Western starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in action roles of the kind customarily played by men. Highly eccentric in its time, it was much loved by French critics. (François Truffaut called it "the beauty and the beast" of the western). In 1955, Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean in what proved to be his most famous role. When Rebel was released, soon after Dean's early death in an automobile crash, it had a revolutionary impact on movie-making and youth culture, virtually giving birth to the contemporary concept of the American teenager. Looking past its social and pop-culture significance, Rebel Without a Cause is the purest example of Ray's cinematic style and vision, with an expressionistic use of colour, dramatic use of architecture, and an empathy for social misfits.
Rebel Without a Cause was Ray's biggest commercial success, and marked a breakthrough in the careers of child actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Ray engaged in a tempestuous "spiritual marriage" with Dean, and awakened the latent homosexuality of Mineo, through his role as Plato, who would become the first gay teenager to appear on film. During filming it was rumored that Ray began a short-lived affair with Wood, who at age 16 was 27 years his junior. This created a tense atmosphere between Ray and Dennis Hopper, who was also involved with Wood at the time, but they were reconciled later.
In 1956, Ray directed the melodrama Bigger Than Life starring James Mason as a small-town school teacher driven insane by the misuse of a new wonder-drug, Cortisone. In 1957, he directed The True Story of Jesse James, which was supposed to have featured Dean but starred Robert Wagner instead.
Biographers state that Ray who began to sexually experiment with men during his stint at the University of Chicago was bisexual. He denied this in 1977, but stated that everyone has occasional fantasies or daydreams about same-sex relations.
A heavy user of drugs and alcohol, Ray found himself increasingly shut out of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1960s, though he continued working. After collapsing on the set of 55 Days at Peking (1963), he did not direct again until the mid-1970s.
In 1970 at a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East, Ray ran into Dennis Hopper, who asked Ray to join him at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, where he was editing his new film, The Last Movie. Hopper helped Ray secure a position at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University in upstate New York. From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking where he and his students produced We Can't Go Home Again, an autobiographical film employing multiple superimpositions. In the spring of 1972, Ray was asked to show some footage from the film at a conference. The audience was shocked to see footage of Ray and his students smoking marijuana together. An early version of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, but Ray, never satisfied with the project, continued editing it until his death in 1979.
The extemporaneous, improvisational nature of We Can't Go Home Again placed Ray in conflict with colleagues such as Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim in the university's New American Cinema-oriented film department, and his contract at Binghamton was not renewed in the spring of 1973. With the help of old friends, he would eventually secure teaching positions at the Lee Strasberg Institute and New York University, where he mentored graduate student Jim Jarmusch.
Shortly before his death he collaborated on the direction of Lightning Over Water (also known as Nick's Film) with German director Wim Wenders. He died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979 in New York City after a two-year illness. Ray died the same week as John Wayne, the star of Flying Leathernecks, a film Ray directed (Wayne had died on June 11). He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery.
- On Dangerous Ground (1951): Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper: Amazon Digital Services LLC
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- Justice League Dark: Matt Ryan, Camilla Luddington, Jason O'Mara, JB Blanc: Amazon Digital Services LLC
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- Flying Leathernecks: John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Don Taylor, Nicholas Ray: Amazon Digital Services LLC
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- In a Lonely Place: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid: Amazon Digital Services LLC
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Ray was married to:
Jean Evans (born Jean Abrams), journalist, married 1936, divorced 1940. They had one son, Anthony (aka Tony, born 1937).
Gloria Grahame, actress, whom he married in 1948. They separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952 after the director discovered Grahame in bed with his son, Tony, who was then 13 years old. (She and Tony Ray would marry in 1960, divorce in 1974). Grahame and Nicholas Ray had one son, Timothy Ray.
Betty Utley, dancer, married 1958, divorced 1964; two daughters, Nica and Julie.
Susan Schwartz, married 1969 until his death in 1979.