Home Brew

“I have been under the lash of alcoholism since birth.

“I was born in Wisconsin. My grandfather died on Main Street, in front of the office of a doctor called White Beaver by the Indians, while carrying the first buck deer of the season over his shoulders.

“My father built levees, docking areas for steamboats, and dykes against floods. He built colleges, creameries, whorehouses, cathedrals and breweries. Before he was 21, he was the contractor for the construction of one of the first churches on the northern Mississippi. He married his first wife in the church. He divorced her, and was ex-communicated. He joined the Masons and married my mother, a Norwegian Lutheran. I was born when he was 50, my mother, 39. In my most vivid memories of their relationship, they slept in separate bedrooms. My mother was fond of saying, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” Who cared when there were so many younger lips?

“All during my childhood and Prohibition there was booze in the house, and on the street. At home it was for stealing; I stole my first pint at ten. On the street it was for buying — grain alcohol mixed with sugar and hot water — with money stolen from home. One day a schoolmate downed a bottle of grain alcohol and died horribly. We held a drunken ritual in his honor. Years later in Hollywood the head grip on my crew reached behind the darkened set for his stash of gin and drank from a bottle of carbon tet. He was carried offstage dead.

“During Prohibition where I grew up there were twenty-one saloons and speakeasies on one street. I learned to drive when I was 13 so I could get my father home safe from his nightly rounds of speakeasies and bootleggers. Sometimes I’d wait for him in the car and masturbate. At the age of 14 I learned of his mistress, and found her in a speakeasy across from a brewery my father had built. She lead me to a hotel room. He was lying in sweat and puke, with puke pans on the floor at the side of the bed. I took him home and nursed him through the night.

“In the morning Doc Rhodes came. He was a dope addict. Before I left for school I watched him heat a substance in a spoon and draw it into a hypodermic. In Latin class I alternated between dozing off and hypertension. I asked to be excused. I went to the S&H Pool Hall and practiced three-cushion billiards. There was a phone call. My mother had tracked me down. My father was dying.

“He was dead when I got home. I had never been in a Catholic church, but I genuflected at his side, kissed him, and spent the night in a Turkish bath.

“Six months later my mother and I got the doctor into court, but I was so pissed on home brew I couldn’t testify, so we lost. The next day I saw the doctor walking on Main Street. I was driving a new Oakland Cabriolet. I was drunk. I ran the car at him across from the cathedral my father had built. A fire hydrant got in the way. Doc Rhodes left town. I got my first ticket for reckless driving.

“I learned about Aqua Velva long before I started shaving. No, I didn’t drink it. I poured it on the sheets or into the bathtub to clear the smell of my puke.

“The pool hall was important, especially on Sundays at noon, after church. I got kicked out of high school seventeen times.

“A boy needs a father at certain times in his life so he can kick him in the shins, so he can fight for the love of his mother. The boy misbehaves at one point, runs away at another, while his father remains constant, a gauge against which the boy can measure himself. Take that away and the spine is lost.”

~ from I Was Interrupted, Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, edited and introduced by Susan Ray.

Ray’s autobiographical sketches have the same dynamism, raw emotion, concision and avoidance of sentimentality found in his best films. And his story is an incredible one — the odds would seem to have been against him from the start, yet he left an indelible mark upon cinema.

16 Responses to “Home Brew”

  1. Nick Ray was the very defenition o f”a piece of work.” Wildly talented and even more wildly self-destructive he had a remarkably good run in Hollywood, until the studio system began to fade and his luck ran out –failing to establish himself in europe as Losey had done.

  2. I wonder if Ray had a kind of blacklist-envy. He fought with the studio over Rebel Without a Cause and quit the edit, but he could see Dassin and Losey making individual films across the Atlantic.

    His own European adventures gave rise to some really interesting films, I’d argue — The Savage Innocents, of course, and Bitter Victory, but there was also a loss of focus.

    He was offered If… when it was called The Crusaders, and turned it down because it was too British (Seth Holt was briefly involved too). Can you imagine Nick Ray’s version? (Though I’m glad Anderson made it in the end.) But that refusal begs the question, why go to Europe?

    The Samuel Bronston films seem like a mis-step, and he seems to have gotten involved with unhelpful characters like the producer of Bitter Victory. The oppression of Hollywood may have provided a useful focus for him, even though it sometimes channelled him into inappropriate subjects.

  3. Had The Savage Innocents gotten the recognition it deserved it would surely have helped him. It was given a very cursory U.S. release sevaral years after it was made and in cut form. Taking on the Bronston epics may not have seemed a mispstep at the time. After all Anthony Mann made El Cid for Bronston and that turned out splendidly. Obviously King of Kings was more problematic, as Ray had no interest in conventioanl religion. Then his demons caught up with him in the debacle of 55 Days in Peking. Sad.

    In some ways there was no place for him. He really couldn’t have gone Losey’s route as his emotional scaling was far too big for Britain. On his return to the U.S. he simply couldn’t fit in, and was too wasted to work very much. So he acted a bit for others and Wenders arranged for him to more or less film his own death in Lightning Over Water.

  4. Yes, that final “collaboration” remains controversial. I’m sure Wenders intended to help Ray make his own film (as he later did with Antonioni), but Ray’s health deteriorated, resulting in Wenders creating a rather morbid affair.

    Ray’s fee for 55 Days was to have been a million dollars, according to David Sherwin. I don’t know how much he eventually got, but it may have helped keep him afloat in the years that followed, even with his gambling habit. Before starting the film he dreamed that if he did it, he’d never complete another movie. Startlingly prophetic, except that he’d had that dream on previous shoots…

  5. Tom Farrell Says:

    Yes, Nick Ray was a complicated individual. I think Bernard Eisenschitz wrote in his biography
    that Nick signed a contract with Sam Bronston that was to have paid him a million dollars for
    directing 3 films beginning with 55 Days at Peking. When he was reported to have undergone a heart attack during filming, it’s possible Ray may have been paid in full for all 3 films. As far as his final film with Wim Wenders was concerned, Nick was asked if he wanted to make a film whereby he discussed his entire filmmaking career, reminiscing how those movies were made. Nick chose instead to try acting through his illness as a drama. Keep in mind that Nick was proud of the recent performance he had given in Milos Forman’s Hair and was confdent he could continue to impress audiences with the force of his personality. Nick was an exhibitionist and welcomed the attention the cameras brought him. However, his condition deteriorated beyond expectations during the final months of his life. His closest friends, John Houseman and Elia Kazan, were repelled by Nick’s quest to portray himself as a dying man on film. I’ve never understood why Nick had these inclinations, but if you recognized Nicholas Ray as an original artist, as Wim Wenders himself had, then you were willing to let him have his way. Perhaps the streets of hell were paved with good intentions on this cursed film.

  6. I’m sure whatever fee was settled on for 55 Days, it would have been substantial — Bronston’s purpose in Spain was to spend money that couldn’t be taken out of the country, hence the crazy lavishness of the movies. Even down to using real gold leaf rather than gold paint for the sets.

    Ray’s story ideas for Lightning Over Water all sounded pretty interesting, it’s a just a terrible shame he wasn’t well enough to execute any of them. I love the idea about the painter (a relative of his character in The American Friend?) stealing back all his paintings from galleries around the world.

    Forman says in his book that he felt terribly guilty at exposing Ray to smoke bombs while making Hair, not realising how ill the man was. Knowing what I know of Forman, I suspect he was pretty ruthless on set and only felt guilty later.

    That scene in Lightning where Ray says “Cut” and Wenders refuses to cut is the one that gives me problems. If not for that, I would accept Wenders’ good intentions… but here he seems to be taking the film away from Ray, and exploiting a very ill man.

  7. Possibly. In that the film closest to it is Ciao! Manhattan!

    Ray has a screenwriting credit on Bronston’s Circus World.

  8. …if Edie Sedgwick had been credited as co-director of Ciao! Manhattan! the analogy would be bang on. I think that’s a more watchable/interesting film than Lightning though.

    Circus World could have fitted neatly into Ray’s oevre — presumably he was intending to direct it after 55 Days. You can see in the writing (by an army of scribes including Ben Hecht) that the lead should be played as neurotic and obsessed. In John Wayne’s hands he’s just a jovial bore. My God it’s a disgusting performance. Claudia Cardinale’s superstitious equestrienne seemed to me a joke at producer Philip Yordan’s expense, since he was a devotee of astrologers.

  9. Tom Farrell Says:

    David, how come The Savage Innocents has not been released as a Region 1 DVD? Is it a legal problem with the rights? I’ve been trying to convince City Lights Media to inquire about the copyrights to release the DVD in America.

    Yes, Nick’s final scene does cause alarm. However, Wim provided Nick with a source of income during his last months when he was virtually broke. I don’t know how much Nick’s health insurance was covered through his teaching at NYU and the Lee Strasberg Institute, and possibly the Directors Guild. Nick died suffering and in debt. There was a memorial tribute to him soon after his death where Nick’s 4 wives and 4 children were in attendance, perhaps the only time his compex family was together at once. There was no reception after the service.

    I’ve never seen Ciao! Manhattan! There are excerpts of interviews of Nick taken from I’m a Stranger Here Myself on YouTube.

  10. David Ehrenstein, who collaborates on the commentary, might be able to tell us more, but there is definitely a rights problem — the DVD was withdrawn in the UK shortly after it came out. I’m very glad I got a copy of it in the nick of time.

    I swing back and forth in my feelings about Lightning Over Water, but it’s unquestionably true that Wenders held out a lifeline of sorts to the ailing Ray.

    If I ever ventured into the murky waters of documentary-making, Ray would be one of my favourite subjects to tackle. Film documentarist/author Mark Cousins suggested that a good subject would be the feuding among Ray’s heirs and relatives, but I’d rather concentrate on the man and his work (which are so closely intertwined).

    Now I’m off to look at those clips!

  11. Definitely a rights problem — whcih is quite a shame. Bill Krohn and I had a teriffic time doing the commentary track on the Masters of Cinema edition, divining all sorts of mysteries related to the film, particularly thwe credit for Anna Mae Wong. It seems there was more than one Anna Mae Wong. The co-star of Shanghai Exress was not in Ray’s film. Another actress with the same name appears in it in the igloo hoedown scene (There’s really no other way to describe it.)

    In any event MoC discovered that it didn’t have the righjts to The Savage Innocents and was forced to withdraw the DVD. Them’s that got a copy have themselves a real rareity. No idea when a Region 1 might be made available as it all depends on interest in the film to begin with.

    Perhaps some intrepid company devoted to Peter O’Toole Completionism might want to find the rights, pay for them and put out the disc. It’s his first major role.

  12. Tom Farrell Says:

    That’s a shame about the copyrights to The Savage Innocents. 5 years ago I saw a surprisingly excellent 35 mm print of this film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and thought then what a marvelous master print it would make for a DVD. David, who the hell would I ask about securing the DVD rights to this film? It’s surely the best movie Nick directed after Bitter Victory.

    I’m writing a play about Nick Ray with the hope of coming to a resolution about his complex personality. Nick was a truly gifted filmmaker in spite of all his problems. I don’t pretend to understand who he was but he indeed left something to remember among those who knew him.

  13. Agree that Savage Innocents ranks pretty highly — better than the interesting Wind Across the Everglades, which I still like, and which is its nearest competitor.

    Presumably Masters of Cinema know who has the rights. They respond to inquiries via their website,

    Good luck with that play, he’s certainly a fascinating subject. I still think his original title for We Can’t Go Home Again is a good one — The Gun Under My Pillow.

  14. I would contact “Masters of Cinema” to find out about who claimed the rights. Good luck with the play. I was interviewed by Ray’s daughter Nica last year for a book she’s writing about her father. She was ery interested in Ray’s relationship with Gavin Lambert.

  15. Tom Farrell Says:

    Thanks, David and David, for your good wishes. I’ll try to make the play work. Yes, I haven’t spoken with Nicca Ray in 3 years, but her point of view should produce a fascinating book. It took guts for Nicca to approach Gavin Lambert to ask him personal (and painful) questions.

    There has to be a way to release The Savage Innocents. Years ago a producer at Turner Classic Movies told me the network could not show Nick’s film because of nudity. TCM has changed their restrictions since then but have yet to screen Bitter Victory either.

    Yeah, Nick’s original title for We Can’t Go Home Again could have been a film noir from the forties starring Robert Ryan.

  16. Bitter Victory has a decent Region 2 DVD, so that one does not seem to be problematic from a copyright standpoint.

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