The only time I met Nicholas Ray, the legendary filmmaker of Rebel Without a Cause and other cult classics (In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar), the mighty had mightily stumbled. It was Spring 1973, and a haggard, ravaged Nick Ray, a frightening haze of alcohol and amphetamines, showed up at the University of Wisconsin for two days of what was billed as a "filmmaking workshop." What Ray actually accomplished there made sense probably not even to himself: he involved eager volunteer collegiates in a private, and very paranoid, crowd-scene improvisation in which some students were Canadian border guards and some were youth slipping marijuana into the US. Something loco he’d attempted? For frustrating hours, everyone was stuck in place while Ray paced about, mumbling to himself like a bag person. Nothing was filmed at all.
At a lunch for him, I sat next to the silent, solemn "auteur" and, searching for conversation, asked about his final picture, 55 Days at Peking (1963). A dreadful mistake: Ray had been fired from the movie, which is probably why, in response, the ex-employed filmmaker, grimacing and shivering, clutched at his black-patched left eye as if suffering a lethal migraine. My God, I remember thinking, I’m causing the great Nicholas Ray a fatal heart attack!
He obviously recovered, and, afterwards, I must have said something to earn his temporary trust. Was it that I’d seen Rebel Without a Cause more than a dozen times? Whatever! Hours later, as Ray was set to leave, he singled me out, walked up to me, and whispered intimately, "Listen, this summer, some of us will be coming through in a van." What did he mean by that? That a Ken Kesey–like trip was taking shape, and I was chosen to be, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test–style, On the Bus?
I’ll never know: the Nick Ray Magical Mystery Tour never passed through Madison in the summer of 1973. Besides, I hadn’t given him my telephone number, and he’d surely have lost it if I had.
An earlier, grander, with-it Nicholas Ray, and one with two penetrating, cobalt-blue eyes, lords over Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel’s engrossing and definitive story Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause (Touchstone). Ray, then 43, related to youth on the fringe, outsiders lonely in the Hollywood crowd. A terrible absentee father himself, he was obsessed with the messed-up, alienated kids of others. This book pulls no punches: even before Rebel was shooting, Ray was screwing 16-year-old Natalie Wood, an unhappy starlet raging against her strict stage mom, at his suite at the Chateau Marmont. And jealousy on the Rebel set: Dennis Hopper was screwing her too, a reason that Hopper has no lines in the second half of the movie.
The book is filled with such details. The mansion with the swimming pool where the main characters — Jim, Judy, and Plato — hole up was Norma Desmond’s house in Sunset Boulevard, and that’s the very pool where William Holden lay dead. Rebel’s most quoted line, "I’ve got the bullets!" was left over from an early script by playwright Clifford Odets. James Dean and Ray? Both mercurial and narcissistic, and both comfortably bisexual, they got along deliciously (but not sexually) making the great Rebel Without a Cause, released 50 years ago this month.