Interview by John Wisniewski
AMFM Magazine: Nicca, you have just written a collection of poems Called “Backseat Baby”. What inspired you to write these poems?
Nicca Ray: I wanted to tell the story of my youth without having to abide by any sort of structure or formality. I wanted stories to be snapshots and glimpses into what was. I didn’t want there to be a literal beginning, middle, and end. I wanted those glimpses to move the way memory moves. I had written the poem, Back Seat Baby, while working on my memoir, Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray. I was thinking about the bedroom I had from the age of 8 to 11 and what had happened to me in that room.
AMFM Magazine: Is this your first time writing poetry?
Nicca Ray: I’ve been writing poetry in spurts since I was 20. My earlier poems never left the pages of the journals I’ve been keeping since I was a teenager. I published a few poems in poetry magazines like Hanging Loose and Heroin Love Songs but for many years my main focus was researching, interviewing, and writing my memoir, Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray. When I was in the thick of writing Ray by Ray I promised myself I’d put together a collection of poetry once I was finished. I’ve always felt more a poet than a journalist.
Nicca Ray: Wow. How much time do you have? Ha ha. I spent most of my adult life working on Ray by Ray. I was in my last year of college at the New School University when it occurred to me that I was like so many who grew up without a father. The exception was that mine left behind a huge legacy. I could go and find the answers to the questions I’d had since I was a child. I didn’t see him from the time I was two until I was almost 13. I wanted to know where he had been. Finding out dispelled the fantasy I had that he was making movies in Europe. He had gone, with my mother, Betty, to Europe in 1959 to finish making The Savage Innocence starring Anthony Quinn, Yoko Tani and Peter O’Toole. My parents settled in Rome, where both my sister and I were born, then moved to Madrid for the filming of Nick’s last movie, 55 Days at Peking. My parents separated in 1964 and my mother brought my sister and I to Los Angeles and raised us, mostly as a single parent. I never knew why my mother left my father. It wasn’t until I started working on Ray by Ray that I found out the truth. Nick Ray set out to drive Betty crazy. Finding this out inspired me to delve further back into my parents personal lives; their upbringings, in particular. I wanted to know what attracted these two people to each other. They met on the set of Androcles and the Lion, a movie Nick was doctoring for RKO. She was 17 and he was 40. They married eight years later. Movies were their history, too, and so I delved into researching the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, naturally focusing on Nick’s career. Going to the Warner Bros. Archives, the Motion Picture Library, etc., and interviewing people who had known and worked with Nick, like Norman Llyodd, Dennis Hopper and Budd Schulberg, was an incredible experience. Sometimes it was easier to just focus on the movies and both of their careers. Betty danced in many of the MGM musicals of the time. On the surface their lives were super glamorous. But scratch the surface and there was a lot of heartache and dysfunction. It was finding out the reasons for that that brought clarity to why each of them made the decisions they made and how their choices shaped my life. I needed to find the truth so that I could move out of their shadows. And to be honest, sometimes my discoveries left me feeling like the ground was coming out from under me. I believe that there are times when a person has to unravel in order to find their true self. I certainly did.
I came into the writing of Ray by Ray thinking that other people knew better how to write the story I had to tell. There were instances when I didn’t listen to my instincts. Years ago, a writer friend told me, “Nicca…You know how to write this book.” When it came time to organize and structure and decide what parts of the story I wanted to tell and why I had to put all of the other voices to rest and just listen to my own. I never wanted to write a biography about Nicholas Ray. That book had already been written by Bernard Eisenschitz. The process of writing Ray by Ray showed me how to write and most importantly showed me who I am as a writer.
Which brings me to Back Seat Baby.
AMFM: Are you a fan of your father’s films? How was it to grow up in Hollywood?
Nicca Ray: Yes. I am a fan of my father’s films. When I first started working on Ray by Ray I would watch his films with a critical eye. I wanted to find out about him through the work he left behind. His best films left me feeling less alone. I wanted to know how he was able to do that. After watching his first movie, They Live by Night, I asked the film scholar, Jeanine Basinger, how she thought he did this. She said, “What you see in his work is the innovation and the imagination of the helicopter scene, for instance. The wonderful way it creates a feeling of loneliness. It’s not so much that what he’s doing stylistically is different from what other directors of the period would do in terms of noir but it’s the way he’s able to make it mean things specifically and make it create a very specific feeling that’s abstracted, a feeling of loneliness, sadness or tragedy.” In the movie’s opening we see Bowie and Keechie, the doomed lovers. Underneath them is the caption, “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world.” That got me right away. As I write in Ray by Ray, I was never properly introduced to the world.
My father’s films gave me a place to belong. The first time I felt this way was when I was watching The Lusty Men at the Bleeker Street Theater in New York City. The movie, about a has-been rodeo star searching for his identity goes back to his childhood home looking for answers. When I saw this movie I was 19 and at a crossroads in my life. Watching made me feel like I wasn’t alone and because it was a film directed by my father (who had died two years earlier) it was like he was comforting me. Questioning who we are and where we have been and wanting change and feeling out of sorts is part of growing up.
When I talked to the director, Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), about Nick’s masterpiece, In a Lonely Place, he helped me to better understand what it was about Nick’s films that helped me understand myself better. He said, “Nick’s movies deal with characters who are very emotional and battling demons. They also exist in a society that is wanting them to conform and conform to that society and they are either alone dealing with this or they are bonding with somebody in dealing within a love story.”
In the 1970s, during a lecture at the AFI, Nick said he preferred the outlaw to the banker. He was incapable of conforming. He tried. But he couldn’t. And you see through the characters in his films how he’ll never be like other men. His films are uneasy. Again, Jeanine Basinger shed a light on just how he created this unease. She said, “The camera in a Nick Ray film has a life of its own. It’s moving frequently in a different direction with a seemingly different purpose from the characters. It gives emotional impact and also accounts for the lyrical quality. His films are poetic. He has the painter’s eye.”
There’s such beauty and tenderness and a desperate need to connect in his best films. My favorites are, The Lusty Men, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, Rebel Without a Cause and The Savage Innocents.
What was it like growing up in Hollywood? That’s a loaded question. Ha! My mother, Betty, didn’t want my older sister and I to grow up around the film industry. She’d started dancing in movies when she was 14. She wanted us to have a normal childhood. After she left Nick she left the movie business. My dad wasn’t around. I didn’t see him for ten years and when he did come back into our lives he wasn’t in good shape. He certainly wasn’t making big Hollywood films. So, I didn’t grow up on movie sets. The movie business was all around me, though. My childhood best friend’s dad was a film editor. Posters of the movies he worked on lined the walls of the garage where he kept the motorcycles he raced on the weekends. Movies like The Candidate and Jeremiah Johnson –popular movies of the time. Posters of Rebel Without a Cause hung in the racks of the souvenir stores on Hollywood Boulevard. My half-brother, Tony, who was close to Betty, and married to Gloria Grahame, was producing Paul Mazursky films like Blume in Love and Harry and Tonto. So, movies were around me but I never felt like I was a part of the Hollywood film community. My upbringing was kind of fucked up. I go into it in Ray by Ray and in Back Seat Baby. I started going to clubs on the Sunset Strip when I was 14. Older girls took me under their wings. Clubs felt like home. After my dad died I got into punk rock. I moved out of my mom’s and in with other punks in Hollywood. It was a really exciting time in Los Angeles going to see bands like Black Flag, The Adolescents, X, The Bags. There were shows every night. I belonged to a community of misfits. We kind of created our own family. Many of us had fucked up upbringings. There was a bond. In that respect growing up in Hollywood was amazing. There were things going on just down the street from where you lived that could transport you out of and away from the bondage of blood-family. There existed a freedom to be whoever you were even if whoever you were at the time was ugly. I was so angry, with cause, and found a place where it was okay for girls to be pissed off. Singers like Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka and Alice Bag gave me permission to express outwardly what I felt inside. The flipside to that was the destructive behavior and having to choose between life and death at the age of 20.
AMFM: Could you tell us Nicca of any plans or projects for the future? Will you write another book?
Nicca Ray: I’m currently working on a poetry collection about the relationship I (and other women) have with their bodies. More books? Yes.