Nick Ray at the Chateau Marmont
Deep in an L.A. afternoon I get a call from Wavy Gravy. “Gas, Nick Ray needs some help. Do you know who he is?” Nah, not really, I don’t have a clue yet. Nick Ray is the guy who directed Rebel without a Cause, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, He’s a legend in this town but a broken one. Plagued by demons, done by drugs he still has a few friends but he’s totally washed up. He’s staying at the Chateau Marmont in the bungalow where he rehearsed James Dean for Rebel. The management hasn’t heard he’s broke. His beat up phone book, rubber band fighting to keep the pages from spilling out, still holds the numbers of the famous. A few of them will still take his call. Gene Kelly comes by, loans him a few hundred bucks to keep the circus moving, a few others too but he’s really broke.
What he needs is some speed. I have a bottle of Black Beauties and I’m feeling generous so I go over to the Chateau. It’s crumbling then, not like now, all fixed up and chi chi. It has the air of old Hollywood, faded Kaligothic architecture, colors bleached out and filtered brown. Next to the main building is a compound of bungalows set around a pool. There’s one with a door open and the sound of a flatbed grinding film inside.
When I walk in I see a wild haired guy with a patch over one eye. He’s wearing leopard print bikini underwear and an open black shirt, nothing else. His face is a weathered lion’s; his body a crumbling temple of magnificent mistakes, his voice is white wine soaked and cocaine tempered, he rumbles and commands, he is fascinating, a legendary creator and an asshole, I like him immediately.
Long gone from Hollywood, Nick has been getting by teaching at a film school in Binghamton NY. He uses the kids to make a movie, wildly experimental, and gets invited to show it out of competition at Cannes cause he’s still Nicholas Ray in France. He is a cult god to his students too so when he piles all the film cans into a car and heads for Hollywood to finish the project they follow him. Now they are all living in the bungalow, cutting and recutting the film so that when Nick wakes from his torpor they can string the various strands up on a bunch of sixteen millimeter projectors sitting on tables in the living room and turn them on and off to his slurred commands, creating a live performance multi image overlapped…thing, human automation. Amazingly, he can make sense out it, can remember the five story lines he’s weaving and give instructions for the next set of changes before drifting back to the big bottle of Almaden he swigs from while he works. I settle in for a few weeks keeping the uppers side of the balance beam measured against the booze and I become a part time counterweight to his mad lurches, not the film part but the keeping him moving sorta forward part. The kids are too young to push him back, I can stand in his face, grab his arm and say “C’mon man, you gotta get out of here” when he’s passed out in the soup.
A few weeks go by. We spend all night one night in a garage calling itself a studio photographing all the 16mm elements onto a single piece of 35mm film. The sound tracks get married somehow to mag and a print is struck and snuck from the lab, CFI of blessed memory, at least for that one thing, and finally one morning I load Nick in my car with the film cans and we dash to the airport running late and I overshoot the entrance by a half a block then back up the whole way to the terminal with horn blaring and drivers cursing and when we get back I pop the trunk and Nick goes running into the airport with the film leaving me to get the ticket.
Later Nick comes to spend a few weeks living in the living room at Casa Greenberg/Romanoff. He is the worst of guests, loaded, freeloading and sometimes loud but an object of attention and adulation to all the young filmmakers passing through. I think the straw that finishes his stay is his throwing up one night during a screening, leaning over the side of the chair and puking onto the carpet then turning back to the movie but was that him or could it have been someone else?
I see him in New York a few years later. He’s clean now and living in a loft somewhere. We meet and talk about the film I’m there to work on, Wolfen, and he tells me many things he knows, things I wish I’d written down. I’m glad to see he’s sober but I miss the mad Nick too. He’s not raging and I still am, hanging with Tom Baker and John Cale, stupid in the streets but fun.
I see Nick again and he has cancer. His feet are painful all the time and he asks me to massage them. His feet are wrinkled and ugly and I am embarrassed to touch them.
I get a call. It’s Nick and he tells me he’s dying and in pain. Can I get him some Opium, something heavy to help him with the hurting. I find a connection and call him back but the people who answer the phone tell me they don’t want him to have the drugs. They think it would be better for him to be conscious. I put up a little fight but then I let it go. Nick dies. I still wish I’d fought harder.
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