Nicca Ray is the daughter of iconic filmmaker Nicholas Ray and her new biography about his life, Ray By Ray, has been called a "contemplative, deeply personal portrait" written with "courage and harrowing honesty." Raised in Los Angeles not far from where scenes of her father's most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, were shot, she spent her adolescence involved in the L.A. punk music scene. After becoming sober in her twenties, she moved to New York City. At 38, she graduated from New School University and has spent the years since researching and interviewing friends and family, including Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper, Norman Lloyd, Tony Ray, among others, for this compelling memoir.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with Nicca Ray at her home in Manhattan for this Conversation about her father, her life and her family.

STAY THIRSTY: When did you discover the impact your father's films had in the world of cinema and what did it mean to you?

NICCA RAY: The first inkling I had was when I was a teenager and would go to bookstores and read what was written about him in books or magazines. I got the feeling he was someone to be reckoned with. And that didn’t make sense to me because the man who came back into my life in 1974 was what my mom, Betty, called a “shell of himself.” I couldn’t imagine him going to a job, let alone directing such masterpieces as In a Lonely Place or Rebel Without a Cause. Not that I knew much about either one of those movies at the time. I had seen the opening credits of In a Lonely Place on late night television and the poster for Rebel was hanging in every head shop on Hollywood Boulevard. So, I knew he had made a mark. How did he go from being the well-dressed man on a movie set directing actors to the man who came home with his drug dealer in tow and no place to live? That was the question I wanted answered, but it was also a question too painful to ask. It took me until I was almost forty to search out the answer.

I was in my thirties when I saw Rebel for the first time. It was a rainy night in NYC. The Museum of Modern Art was screening it. I thought my boyfriend and I would be the only people in the theater. It was packed! A few years later, I went to the Warner Bros. Archive at the USC Cinema Library and the librarians brought six banker-size boxes with Rebel related material into the research room. That was when I began to comprehend how his films impacted history, both film and popular culture. It was at that point that I started digging into the legacy he left behind. I talked to film scholars who shared with me how he was a master of wedding content and form, how the camera becomes a character, his use of cinemascope and how he used it to create an intimacy of character.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955) - Movie Poster

Immersing myself in everything Nicholas Ray, from the standpoint of his work as a film director, made it possible for me to look at his personal life. That his films are still being shown and discussed 70 years after they were made (In a Lonely Place - 1950) continues to leave me awestruck. The impact his films have left on me? I want to help make sure they aren’t forgotten.

STAY THIRSTY: How was he as a father and what motivated you to write Ray By Ray about his life?

NICCA RAY: He was an absentee father who was a huge presence in my life. For instance, when I was 15, he wrote me a letter about how he had been the angriest of the angry, the loneliest of the lonely, and how, if he had shared what was going on with someone he trusted, he would have spared himself a lot of misery. He gave it to me after we had a dinner where I’d refused to talk or eat because I was mad at him for showing up out of the blue. When I read the letter, I asked myself, “How did he know?” But then he didn’t stay to have a conversation. So, he left me alone when quite possibly he could have been the one person I would have trusted.

The impetus for writing the book came when I realized I was like so many other children who grew up without fathers. The difference being mine had left behind a body of work that I could use to find out what kind of a person he was and in turn, find out in what ways I was like him. I was also able to find out where he was when I was growing up. I didn’t see him from the time I was two until I was twelve and my mother was never able to give me the answer my questions about him. At first, I was mostly focused on finding out where he was during my childhood and what had happened between him and my mother to cause their separation and eventual divorce. They separated after he directed 55 Days at Peking, his final studio film. It became clear to me that in order to find out why he was never to direct another big budget movie again, I had to go back to his beginnings. I wanted to know if there were patterns to his behavior that caused the industry to eventually stop hiring him. Behavior other than alcohol and drug abuse.

It’s funny, for the longest time I just imagined him to always have been a director. I never thought of him having to work towards becoming one. The more I learned, the further I wanted to dig. He was never a hands-on father. I don’t have memories of him teaching me how to ride a bicycle or edit a film on a flatbed. I needed Ray By Ray to show me in what ways I am his daughter, because I do not have physical kind of memories to hold onto.

Nicca Ray

STAY THIRSTY: Your father had a complicated relationship with women, alcohol and drugs. Have you come to accept his behavior and looked beyond it to understand the man? How did his lifestyle influence you in your teenage and young adult years?

NICCA RAY: I’d say he had complicated relationships with everyone! Ha. But, yes. His wives, especially his first, Jean Evans, a writer for PM Magazine and later an editor at Redbook, and my mother, his third, Betty Uitti, a dancer in the classic Hollywood musicals alongside Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, never got over Nick. His second wife, Gloria Grahame, was his match. He was not a stand-up husband or father. His alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling played a part in that, but there were other factors involved, too. He was a complicated person. He loved, lusted after and hated women. Jean Evans once said something to the effect that Nick was a great man not to be married to. My mother used to say, “Love is love is love,” whenever I asked her why she stayed with a man who purposefully set out to drive her crazy.

Self-pity, anger, resentment and hate make for a small life. I’ve experienced all of those feelings towards him, but if I had held onto them, I would never been able to see his beauty. His beauty and contribution to cinema and film history far outweigh his flawed character. He suffered most likely more than those he hurt. Those he hurt could move on from him, but he couldn’t move on from his self. Nick certainly was not just one thing. Looking at his life, he taught me what it was to be human.

Nick and Betty Ray at Rome airport (c. 1959)

I can’t say that his lifestyle influenced me as a teenager because, in 1974, he only stayed with us for a couple of weeks. I started getting into trouble: I was arrested for possession of pot when I was 14, and then chased through my high school by cops with their guns drawn a year or so later. I’d read how he understood juvenile delinquents like me and took that to mean he understood me better than my mom did. After he died, when I was 17, I’d read that letter he wrote me when I was 15, and identified with his saying, “I’ll be the best bastard loner in the whole lot of loners,” and then poured myself another drink. I convinced myself he was the only one who could save me. In my young adult years, after I’d been sober for a couple of years and was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I thought I should be an actress or make movies because he had made movies. At the time I didn’t know that he had acted or been involved in the leftist theater of the 1930s. I wanted to model my adult life after his without even knowing about his career or him. So, it left me at a loss. Going to college anchored me.

STAY THIRSTY: You dedicate Ray By Ray to your mother, Betty Uitti. What role did she play in your life and how were you impacted by her relationship with your father?

Betty Uitti (on right) with Jimmy Durante and Betty's friend Wanda

NICCA RAY: Betty wasn’t meant to be a mother and I needed one. She put my older sister, who is just a year and a half older than me, in charge of me from as far back as I can remember. Betty played a huge role in my life, not always positive. I couldn’t trust her to protect me or to provide a safe home. My sister and mom were really close and a lot of the time I felt like I didn’t fit in, especially after my mother’s second divorce, when it was just my mom, sister and me. My feelings of being the outcast made me look to my father for a place to belong. But you know, he was not to be found. Even after he reappeared in my life, it wasn’t like I called him on the phone to say, “Hey dad.” My mother and I fought a lot. She only talked about Nick in romantic terms and would never talk about their marriage and why they divorced. She made it clear that the subject of Nick was off limits. She was really angry and financially strapped. I thought if she had continued working in movies instead of taking a job as a commercial sensor at ABC-TV she would have been happier. I thought she had made the cowardly choice and that my father, who I wrongly believed was making movies in Europe, was the courageous one. In hindsight, by not telling me the truth about my father, my mother sacrificed her relationship with me. It was more important for her to allow me my fantasy father. If she had talked about him and told me what he had done to her, would I have created this fantasy image of my father being my savior? Would I have needed to find out about his life? My mom and I started getting close when I started researching my father’s life. She shared with me for the first time what her life had been like as a girl, her career as a dancer, her symbiotic relationship with Nick, his gaslighting her. Learning what happened to her during the years they were married really enlightened me. I saw what a strong and amazing woman she was for the first time. She was as fiercely independent as Nick. She loved people no matter their flaws. That is why I dedicated the book to her.

STAY THIRSTY: How do you feel about French cinema and its embrace of your father's work?

NICCA RAY: I’m not as well-versed in the French cinema as I ought to be. But! The Cahiers du Cinema writers/filmmakers of the 1950s held Nick in the highest regard. When I interviewed the film historian and writer, David Thomson, he said, “In the 1950s the Cahiers du Cinema had started a policy of recovering American films, saying, ‘Oh look, these commercial films are great. Maybe they’re the greatest!’” My father felt misunderstood within Hollywood. His movies weren’t the critical box office hits that, say, Elia Kazan’s were. Nick, who had met Kazan in the 1930s New York theater and stayed friends with throughout his life, measured himself against Kazan. In France in the 1950s, when Nick was making On Dangerous Ground and Johnny Guitar (both box office flops) the Cahiers du Cinema, whose writers became the directors of the French New Wave, started championing Nick’s films, calling him an auteur. He was sort of a poster boy for their Auteur Theory. When I asked the Cahiers writer, Charles Bitsch, how the auteur theory came about he said, “The need came mostly because of the weight of the screenplay. Two or three screenwriters wrote the script and the director was just the technician making images to tell what the script was saying.” The Cahiers' folk said, Woah, hold on there. They saw that directors like Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang were more than technicians. They were the authors, not the screenwriters. Bitsch said to me, “You see further beyond the scene.” Nick used to say, “If it’s all in the script why make the movie?” Seriously, why? If you look at the body of Nick’s work (including his paycheck films) you will see his mark in the same way you notice an artist’s brushstroke. He had a painter’s eye and used light and camera movement to build a subtext that informed the scene. The French New Wave directors of the Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, gave Nick authorship and were, I believe, the first to give him critical acclaim. In the 1960s, Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinemateque Francaise, screened Nick’s films and the younger generation of filmmakers were introduced to and influenced by his work. I am forever grateful to the French for defining the auteur theory. I set out to find my father in his films. It was a place for me to start.

Johnny Guitar (1954) - Movie Poster

STAY THIRSTY: Samantha Fuller, daughter of screenwriter, novelist and film director Sam Fuller, wrote the Introduction to your book. How do you and she view the history of your two famous fathers and their impact on film in the 1950s?

NICCA RAY: They were both fearless in their search for the truth. I love the last line in Samantha’s Intro: “They were reminding us that humanity could not live without emotion.” Their styles were different. Fuller was more a journalist and Nick more a poet. They were definitely unconventional. I want to say they were both uncompromising, but I don’t think that’s true of Nick. He made compromises because he had to pay off gambling debts and then would sabotage himself on set. I can’t see Fuller doing that at all. However, when Nick was directing a movie he wanted to direct, and he was in top form, he was uncompromising. They were both voices unlike any other filmmakers working at that time.

STAY THIRSTY: If you could have one more conversation with your father, what would you say to him?

NICCA RAY: Oh my God. There are so many things. I’d like to talk to him about Lightning Over Water, the film he and Wim Wenders made together at the end of his life. I would start the conversation going back to The American Friend, which Wenders directed and Fuller had a part in. In the film, Nick plays the part of the Forger. He is an artist who everyone thinks is dead and is now forging his own paintings. Wenders told me Nick loved the part of the Forger. I’d ask Nick if he felt that he had come back from the dead, so-to-speak. I’d ask my dad if making Lightning Over Water was how he thought he could forge himself. If he needed to die in order to live. Cheery stuff like that. Ha! I’d also ask him things about his childhood and his father that no one was ever able to tell me. I’d tell him that even though he is gone, I’ve learned so much from him and that his spirit lives on. I think he’d be happy to know that he is not forgotten. I’d tell him it was okay. I love him.

Nicca Ray with Wim Wenders (NYC - 2011)

STAY THIRSTY: If there was one thing you would like your father remembered for, what would it be and why?

NICCA RAY: To stay true to yourself and your vision. He believed this and lived it, and this is why we have They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life, The Savage Innocents and Lightning Over Water (with Wim Wenders).

(Nicca Ray photo credit: Kate Simon; Photographs courtesy Archives of Nicca Ray)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.