Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 20, 2012
Back in September I set aside a block of time to watch TCM on the 25th. It was actor Aldo Ray’s birthday and in celebration TCM aired a batch of great Aldo Ray films including many of the WW2 dramas he appeared in and one film I hadn’t seen before, Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHTFALL (1957). NIGHTFALL was a terrifically taut and moody ‘mid-50s noir with solid performances from everyone involved including Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, Rudy Bond and James Gregory. But it was Aldo Ray’s turn as the deeply troubled James Vanning that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I became obsessed with the way he moved and delivered each line. Nobody smokes a cigarette like Aldo Ray. There’s no forethought involved. No effort to seduce or impress audiences with an exaggerated pose or gesture. Ray doesn’t have to pretend to be cool, threatening, bruised, battered or tough. He just is. And I find every unassuming gesture he makes utterly captivating.
Aldo Ray has never been considered a great Hollywood actor in the traditional sense but his natural, unaffected performances often seemed to emerge from some unsettled place. You could frequently hear a genuine urgency in way he delivered his lines and his casual swagger told you he’d been around the block more than once. Whenever Ray erupted on screen it felt like you were watching a volcano explode and if you didn’t get out of the way it could easily swallow you up in a heavy flow of golden molten lava.
Film historians often like to talk about the sea change that occurred in the 1950s, when actor’s like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando brought a new kind of sincerity to Hollywood. These highly trained method actors changed the way we appreciate and understand acting today and they’ve rightfully been recognized for their accomplishments. But there were other performers that unconsciously championed a new kind of natural approach to acting. And one of them was Aldo Ray.
James Gregory and Aldo Ray in NIGHTFALL (1957)
It’s easy to criticize the coarse and unshackled way Ray tackled his roles. He wasn’t professionally trained. He was born Aldo DaRe to a blue-collar Italian family in Pennsylvania that raised him on the West Coast in the working-class town of Crockett, California. After fighting in WW2 as a Navy frogman he returned home and taught kids to swim at Crockett’s high-school and public pool while attending University of California at Berkeley where he studied political science. Ray planned to become the constable of Crockett but fell into acting by chance. According to locals and various written accounts, one day Aldo and his brother Guido were at Crockett’s Club Tac, a bar that was originally built in 1923 and is still standing today. While there Guido spotted a column in the San Francisco Chronicle announcing that Columbia Pictures was looking for extras to appear in a football film. Guido wanted to try his hand at acting so he convinced his brother Aldo to take him to San Francisco where a cattle call was taking place at The Clift Hotel. More than 300 would-be actors showed up to try and win a part in Dick Miller’s football drama SATURDAY’S HERO (1951) before Aldo and his brother Guido arrived. Aldo was serious about his future job as a constable and hoped to eventually become a Congressman but he reluctantly agreed to read the script along with his brother. When Ray spoke his first lines with that rough husky cigarette scarred voice, director David Miller asked him if there was something wrong? Did he have a cold? Ray got irritated and told them no. That was his natural voice and he also told them that he thought the cattle call for actors was, in his own words, “A lot of crap.” Ray wanted to leave but Miller convinced him to stay and read something for them. Ray ignored the script and delivered a political speech instead, which would eventually win him the constableship in Crockett. Miller was impressed with Ray’s raw talent and immediately gave him a role in his film.
Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray in THE MARRYING KIND (1952)
Ray’s wasn’t all that impressed by Hollywood and after making SATURDAY’S HERO he returned to Crockett where he became constable and forgot about acting, at least for a little while. But Hollywood didn’t forget about him and a year later Columbia Pictures movie mogul Harry Cohn came calling. He told Ray he had a small part for him in a Judy Holliday movie playing her husband in THE MARRYING KIND (1952). But after Cohn and director George Cuckor saw his screen test they were so impressed that they had the role rewritten to give Ray more to do in the film. Their smart decision paid off. Ray had unique qualities that made him stand apart from typical Hollywood leading men of the era. One look at his down-to-earth barrel-chested performance in THE MARRYING KIND and you knew that Ray could change a tire, mow the lawn and throw a punch. His could be your father, your brother, your uncle or your neighbor and that everyman quality was something that post-WW2 film audiences desperately needed to see on screen.
My fascination with Aldo Ray recently led me to visit his hometown of Crockett where some friends of mine have purchased a house of their own. While there I heard some interesting stories about the man and learned a lot about the memories he left behind as well as the many ways in which he still haunts that sleepy little Bay Area town. Next week I’ll take you there and we can dive more into the mystique of Aldo Ray and what made him such a distinct and unforgettable screen star.
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