Monday, October 24, 2011

Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director by Patrick McGilligan

Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director
by Patrick McGilligan
9780060731373 Hardcover
It Books (Harper Collins)
July 2011
560 pages

He had always been, at least potentially, an avant-garde, "arty" filmmaker, but perhaps one who had followed the wrong muse and ended up mismatched in the Hollywood factory. - Patrick McGilligan

[Ray] looks... not bad, really, but QUELLEd, somehow. - Charlton Heston

Nicholas Ray was a Hollywood director who made such classic films as In a Lonely Place (1950), Born to Be Bad (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952),  The Lusty Men (1952), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The True Story of Jesse James (1957) and The King of Kings (1967). Ray's career in filmmaking was varied and as the quote from McGilligan above suggests, he was meant to be an artsy independent filmmaker but got caught in the cog of the Hollywood machine. McGilligan is a prolific biographer and in this book looks at Nicholas Ray's career which was such a failure in so many ways yet 100 years after Ray's birth the man is still remembered as a legendary filmmaker.

Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in 1911 Wisconsin. He was the youngest sibling with three older sisters. His childhood was full of rebellion. So much so that McGilligan often compares Ray's youth to Rebel Without a Cause. At first this sort of art imitates life comparison bugged me. McGilligan mentions several times in the book that Ray's life paralleled his movies (other sources such as Truffaut are referenced to back up his claims). These comparisons wane as the text progresses. 

The book follows Ray's life and focuses much more on his film career than it does his personal life. We learn about his three wives Jean Evans, actress Gloria Grahame and dancer Betty Uyet and his last long-term relationship with Susana Schwartz/Ray. However, the book is really a profile of Ray as a filmmaker more so than it is a profile of Ray as a man. One of the ways we learn about Ray as a filmmaker is through his relationships with other men. Elia Kazan proves to be the most significant figure in his life. Both Kazan and Ray were part of the same theater group and both dabbled in leftist/communist politics. During the HUAC investigations, Ray was under similar pressure to Kazan to cough up names. I can tell McGilligan has somewhat of an agenda with Kazan. In a few of his footnotes and asides, the author points out that not all of the names that Kazan divulged were in accordance with a previously arranged agreement or were already publicly known as having communist ties. Kazan was a mentor to Ray, having started his directorial career a few years before Ray. Kazan's films were bigger, better and more successful and at many times during the text a Nicholas Ray film is put into chronological context with a Kazan film. Ray's career seems to have been constantly in the shadow of the great Kazan.

Ray worked well with men but not so much with women. The director figured out that both Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place) and Robert Mitchum (The Lusty Men) were 6-take kind of guys. They had 6 takes in them and after that the quality of their acting decreased dramatically. When that happened, Ray would move on to other scenes. Ray always sought Marlon Brando for the roles of many of his films but never got to work with him. He considered Brando the best modern actor there was. Women actresses he had virtually no patience for. He had a difficult time working with such divas as Gloria Grahame (his second wife), Ava Gardner (not surprised), Joan Fontaine and Joan Crawford. 

The apex of Ray's career was definitely Rebel Without a Cause (1955). While it was a critical failure (both Kazan and Welles hated it), it was a box-office hit. Today it's well-known because of the iconic status of the young stars of the film: James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, who became even more infamous because of their violent deaths. McGilligan spends a lot of time on Rebel Without a Cause, devoting much of the middle section of the book to it. After the death of James Dean and the release of Rebel, Ray's film career went spiraling down. His films were less and less successful and he became more and more difficult to work with.  The last part of the book is a bit of a slog. I enjoyed some parts but found myself disinterested in Ray's post-King of Kings career and life. I always find biographies difficult to finish especially if the person being profiled has passed away. Ray's death (that of his career and his life) was painful to read.

I was worried that this book might be a salacious read considering the reputation of It Books, the publisher. However, McGilligan really focused on Ray's career and while he explored Ray's sexual life (including his affairs with men and women and scandals including that of Gloria Grahame and his son and his relationship with 16 year old Natalie Wood), we as the reader don't often get too many moments of TMI. Although the whole part about the film Wet Dreams still disturbs me.

There are lots of fun anecdotes in the book. I liked reading about how the original plot of In a Lonely Place was completely different from the final product. Ray was adamant about not letting Robert Mitchum sleep walk through The Lusty Men and worked to get the best performance out of him. Ray was influenced by Bunuel's film Los Olvidados to make Rebel Without a Cause. He really wanted to explore rebellion in middle class versus that of the lower class which had already been explored many times before. 

His relationship with James Dean was very interesting. They would sometimes have a father-son relationship and other times it would be more like brothers. Ray compared him to a Siamese Cat saying "the only thing to do with a Siamese cat is to let it take its own time. It will come up to you, walk around you, smell you. If it doesn't like you, it will go away again. If it does, it will stay." The original psychiatrist who did all the research that would influence Rebel was completely snuffed by Ray. Screenwriter Stewart Stern saw the three characters of the film much like those of Peter Pan (Dean - Peter, Wood - Wendy, Mineo - John). 

I don't want to give everything away but I do want to point out a couple more interesting anecdotes. Ray's third wife Betty Utey choreographed the great Salome dance sequenced that I loved so much in King of Kings. I thought it was strange that Ray had the King of Kings star Jeffrey Hunter have a nose job so his nose would look more like Jesus' would. WTF?! If you watch Nicholas Ray's films, make a note of the absence of blue. Ray disliked using the color blue in his films because he thought it was a "scene-stealer". I guess Ray would have hated 500 Days of Summer (2009).

Overall, the book was very organized and well-written. I had a difficult time at a certain points with the star and footnote system. The font was so small for the star that I would often miss it and sometimes couldn't even find it when I read the footnote. A lot of Ray's films started off with one title and ended up with another. McGilligan uses the first name and then finishes off with the second which would confuse me greatly. Otherwise, if you are interested in Nicholas Ray as a director I highly recommend this very thorough and informative book.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book from Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

John Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers

John Huston: Courage and Art
by Jeffrey Meyers
9780307590671 Hardcover
Crown Archetype - Random House
September 2011
496 pages

John Huston was an admirer of high art but he didn't think film fit into that category. He thought film was just another way to showcase the art he admired. Huston had a great admiration for novels, plays, paintings and sculptures and for the people who had the talent to create them.  When John Huston was 11 years old, he was misdiagnosed with an enlarged heart and chronic nephritis. He was forced to be bedridden for 2 years, not allowed any form of exercise and given a bland diet. Gone crazy from being shut up for so long, he escaped his home one evening and went for a swim. He almost drowned but miraculously survived. Huston came out of that experience traumatized but driven to be an adventurer and to be constantly on the move. He was determined never to be lonely or bored ever again.

John Huston: Courage and Art is by far one of the best books I've read this year. It's one of the best biographies I've ever read. When I started the book, I thought that I didn't have much interest in John Huston. Why was I reading this again? However, it only took about 20 pages to make me realize that not only is Huston a fascinating figure, his life story is being told by a very talented and thoughtful researcher and writer.

The book starts off with a strange prologue depicting the friendship between John Huston and Ernest Hemingway. Meyers goes on to chronicle the life of Huston from the very beginning to the bitter end. The book is structured chronologically and each chapter is devoted to a particular span of years in Huston's life. You can tell there is not much information about Huston's early years because we quickly move on to him as an adult. But Meyers was able to provide us with valuable information about those early formative years and helps understand why Huston was the way he was.

Meyers did years of research and interviewed as many people as he could including Jacqueline Bisset, Susannah York and Huston's wives/lovers Zoe Sallis, Eloise Hardt, Celeste Huston and Anna van der Heide. He also corresponded and/or interviewed Huston's children including Anjelica Huston, Danny Huston and Allegra Huston. He also pored over the extensive notes from the collection of Huston papers. The result is a very well-researched and thorough biography. There are a lot of facts but you are never overwhelmed as they are presented clearly. The writing style is approachable and easy to follow without any dumbing down. At the beginning of the book Meyers warns "rather than moralizing about Huston's conduct, I would urge readers to take pleasure in his impressive achievements."

I learned a lot about John Huston. His directorial debut was none other than The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the greatest and most respected classic films of all times. Talk about starting off with a bang! He wasn't just a director. He was also a writer and director. He co-wrote the screenplay for good friend Humphrey Bogart's break out film High Sierra (1941). Huston credited himself for getting away with having a female character living with two unmarried men in the story even after the Production Code team came back with 27 pages of corrections for the film. Huston was one of the few people who didn't put up with Jack Warner's machinations and even told him off when Warner tried to chastise him for arriving late to set. Huston never lost his temper but was still tough on his actors. He expected a lot of out them and would use sarcasm to demonstrate his disapproval. Huston was also a big jokester and loved to pull pranks on his actors and fellow writers and producers.  I very much enjoyed reading about the filming of Key Largo (1948), Beat the Devil (1953)Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)The Misfits (1961), and  Freud (1962).

Because Huston admired art so much many of his films are adaptations of great pieces of literature including novels and plays. He remained as faithful as he could to the original art. Sometimes this proved to be a good thing and sometimes it meant the demise of the film. Huston didn't believe in fancy camera shots. He once said, "in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing."While he tried to stay as true as possible to his vision, the Production Code more often than not got in the way. A perfect example of this is the noir The Asphalt Jungle. Meyers credits Huston for being able to create "a strikingly innovative film despite the moralistic Production Code, which drained a lot of originality and interest from the eccentric cast of characters." Huston had a love for nature and animals and gravitated towards stories that included natural settings and fauna. He wasn't the most savvy of business men and was often swindled out of money. Making The African Queen cost $4 million and it went on to make 10 times that at the box office. Huston made virtually no profit because he swindled by producer Sam Spiegel.

(Walter and John Huston)

The book focuses a lot on Huston's film career devoting several pages to most of the major films and at least a couple paragraphs to the lesser ones. If when reading this you stumble upon a film of Huston's you haven't seen, I would suggest reading the first few sentences and then skimming the rest. There are major spoilers for each. The rest of the book focuses on Huston's family life including his famous dad actor Walter Huston, his mother, his five wives and his children. Huston had many many lovers. So many it's virtually impossible to count them. He enjoyed the company of women but tired of them quickly. This most likely stems from his determination never to be lonely or bored. Whenever he got bored, instead of being alone he moved on to someone else. Meyers exploration of Huston's love life is never salacious. It's more factual and it fits into the overall picture of Huston's life as a whole.

John Huston was a complicated man who lived a very full life. He left behind some famous children, incredibly valuable pieces of artwork (some of which were stolen) and a legacy of films. If you have enjoyed any of Huston's films, I encourage you to read this book!

Fun Facts:

~ Living in Ireland was cheap so Huston had is own Xanadu, a mansion filled with artwork from all over the world
~ to buy Monet's Red Water Lilies, the cashless Huston gambled at a local casino to acquire the funds for the purchase.
~ in lieu of being paid to act in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963), he accepted two Jack Yeats paintings instead.
~ Huston insisted on filming in sequence whenever he could.
~ he had a great love affair with Olivia de Havilland
~ he was traumatized both by WWII as well as the HUAC investigations
~ Louis B. Mayer didn't like the Asphalt Jungle even though it was a great financial success
~ Audie Murphy was saved by Huston's lover Inge Morath. He fell off a boat and was drowning. She swam to his rescue and had him hold onto her bra straps as she pulled him out.
~ on the set of Beat the Devil (1953), Truman Capote beat Humphrey Bogart at "several arm-wrestling contests at $50 a throw"
~ Huston hated chicken

Thank you to Crown Archetype/Random House for sending me this book to review!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I Heart Jack Klugman ~ Quincy M.E. (1976-1983)

Quincy M.E. is a TV show starring Jack Klugman as the title character. It aired from 1976 to 1983 and is well-known as the antecedent to the popular CSI and forensic TV shows of today. It's a formulaic show in which Quincy, a Medical Examiner for the Coroner's Office in L.A., solves murders. Each show features a death which is a result of foul play but appears to be either accidental or as a result of natural causes. Quincy , to the dismay of his bosses and colleagues, goes above and beyond his job to investigate the death further. He puts himself in danger, involves himself directly in the case and the lives of the victim's family and friends and collects the evidence along the way. In his search for the truth, Quincy uncovers various forms of corruption in modern day society. He's driven by the sole need to help people and to bring justice to those who have been wronged.

Sam (Robert Ito) works in the lab with Quincy and is the only character who doesn't doubt Quincy's instincts, even though on occasion he is reluctant to him. Lt. Frank Monihan (Garry Walberg) is hot-headed and often reacts emotionally to cases and to Quincy's ideas. Dr. Robert Asten (John S. Ragin) is Quincy's boss and always proves to be the biggest obstacle in Quincy's path to find the truth. Quincy proves everyone wrong yet they never seem to learn their lesson. Danny (Val Bisoglio) is Quincy's best friend. Danny's bar is Quincy's regular hangout and Danny is often caught in Quincy's adventures much to his dismay. Quincy also has several girlfriends and love interests. He's a bit of a player and demonstrates an unwillingness to settle down because of the nature of his job. Quincy, a widower, finally gets married by the end of the series.

Seasons 1, 2 and 3 are available on DVD. Season 4 will be available in November 2011. It's taken a long time to get these DVDs out on the market. There was a four year hiatus between the first two and the third and two years between the third and fourth. There have been legal issues including Jack Klugman's lawsuit against NBC Universal which claimed that he was missing profits from the show. The case was settled in 2009 and I wouldn't be surprised if the suit was one of the reasons it's taken so long to release the DVDs. This isn't the only problem Klugman has had with Universal. He really hated the writer/producer team of the show and disliked one of the scripts so much he refused to appear in the episode (it was worked around his character and entitled "Has Anybody Here Seen Quincy?"). Klugman went on to rewrite scripts to get them to his liking.

This show is relatively new to me and I don't know much about it. They are really fun to watch due to their over-the-top nature. Unlike today's CSI, there is no gore porn in Quincy M.E.. The bodies are not shown in a gratuitous way. It's really all about the case and the characters. Even though the show is a drama there are a lot of funny moments as well. In the first 7 episodes of the show, Quincy had a girlfriend named Lee played by Lynette Mettey. Their romantic rendezvous were always interrupted by Quincy being called on for one job or another. I loved her character and thought she suited the show well. I was sad to see her go! Her presence helped audiences understand how Quincy's job consumed his life and their interaction added both romance and comedy to the storylines. I really wish they had kept her!

In talking with people online about Quincy M.E., several people mentioned the Punk Rock episode. It was particularly infamous because it blames Punk Rock music for the deaths of young people. I don't know much about the episode nor do I care to watch it but clips are available to watch on YouTube.

It's fun to watch the show and see all the celebrity guest stars. Some of these include:

Van Johnson 
Carol Lynley
Creed Bratton (The Office) <-- my personal favorite
Melora Hardin (The Office)
Kim Cattral (Sex and the City)
Robert Webber (12 Angry Men)
Ann Blyth
Jamie Lee Curtis
Bob Crane
Gloria DeHaven
Casey Kasem
Elisha Cook Jr.
Buddy Hackett

Do you like Quincy M.E.? Which is your favorite episode? Don't you just LOVE the theme music? Bum ba da ba da da!

I hope you enjoyed my I Heart Jack Klugman week!

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