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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Castro Salutes Nicholas Ray, a Troubled Director Who Made Troubling Films

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Nicholas Ray
  • Nicholas Ray

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Nicholas Ray directed big-budget Hollywood films that rarely had anything to do with the mainstream American cinema of the day. He held a position on the inside track of Hollywood for well over a decade despite having major alcohol and drug problems. Ray's second wife, the Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame, had an affair with Ray's son from his first marriage and later married him. Ray was a loose cannon, unpredictable on the set, and was fired from a number of "Nicholas Ray" films.

In spite of that, Ray is one of the 20th century's most influential directors. This year marks his 100th birthday, and the Castro Theatre honors this Hollywood maverick with a pair of double features this week: Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life on Wednesday, and In a Lonely Place and Party Girl on Thursday.

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Rebel (1955) is Ray's best-known classic. This 56-year-old feature still seems more relevant than the nearly all "troubled teenager" movies to come from Hollywood. Anchored by James Dean's second -- and second-to-last -- film performance, Rebel also stars Sal Mineo, memorably creepy as the quietly self-destructive Plato, and Jim Backus, excellent as Dean's well-meaning but ineffectual father. (Note that at no point during the film does Dean wear a leather jacket.)

Bigger than Life (1956) features James Mason (who also produced the film) in a crazily subversive story of a suburban dad driven mad by what is thought to be the "miracle drug" of the time, cortisone. Mason is outstanding, and the movie's milieu, photography, and interest in the underbelly of American middle-class life can be seen as a precursor to David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

In a Lonely Place (1950) has a lot to recommend it, including one of Humphrey Bogart's best performances. He plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter on the skids. When his neighbor is murdered, Steele is increasingly considered a suspect, and he doesn't help himself by his hot temper or reputation for instability.

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Ray evinces a clear interest in the contradictions and dead-ends in middle-class American values. His characters are either tortured by an inability to be themselves, or their true nature is corrupted somehow by external and uncontrollable forces. These are powerful films -- we haven't seen Party Girl, but it also has a strong reputation -- continuing to illustrate why Nicholas Ray continues to stand out with each passing year.

Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life screen Wednesday (Nov. 2), while In a Lonely Place and Party Girl screen Thursday (Nov. 3) at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $7.50-$10.

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For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby

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