Bingham Ray: Rebel with a Cause
by Philippa Bateman



Background

All of us in the film game fall into categories: We're this type of director, that type of festival director, or journalist, or whatever. Bingham Ray was in his own unique category. Nobody could ever, in any shape or form, fill that gap.
Mike Leigh (Director, Turner, Another Year, Secrets and Lies)
Soon after the tragic and untimely death of my friend Bingham Ray during the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, I began interviewing people who knew him best—his wife Nancy, friends from school, college and bar-tending days, his former acting teacher, his employer at the Bleecker Street Cinema, his trusted business partner at October, his boss at UA, filmmakers and close pals. People were raw and fragile but unfailingly generous.

A long-form magazine style piece, based on these interviews, was the original idea but when I tried to pull it together, it didn’t hold. Writing about Bingham in the past tense when he was still very much alive in people’s hearts felt wrong, and as if I was foreshortening perspectives on his life. I hesitated: the back-story was missing and I'd dodged a bigger question that shadows Bingham's journey. He had described himself as a “vagabond explorer on a continuous adventure”; that was key, suddenly his unruly ghost was messing with my head and tearing up my well-laid, pedestrian plans.

When I was in New York for Bingham’s memorial service, I’d been to an exhibition about the documentaries and work of BBC journalist Adam Curtis; there was something he’d said in an interview that stuck:


Moods move through society. It’s something we are unaware of these days because we’re so obsessed by our own experience, that the mood we feel is probably common to a lot of other people...
It gave me the idea to dig beyond the present (Bingham’s death) and into the past—not only the events of Bingham’s life but moods and experiences belonging to other people, other times that influenced who he became. I tripped down rabbit holes seemingly un-related to Bingham’s story, and didn’t imagine they would find a way into my unwieldy narrative, but they resonated in ways not obvious. Just a few of those subjects touched on include: the chilling Black List era (where one of Donald Trump’s mentors Roy Cohn had a starring role with McCarthy), director Joseph Losey’s nervous breakdown as a result of being denied a living or place in the US after being branded a communist, the mercurial career of Nicolas Ray (no relation but Bingham did name his son after the director), the influence of Ray’s film Rebel with a Cause on Bob Dylan, the film reviews of JG Ballard, a letter sent c/o the Bleecker cinema from Jean-Luc Godard, the short reign of UK producer David Puttnam—in charge at Columbia in the early 80s until he was shown the door for not playing by the rules of Hollywood, the recollections of David Picker, an executive at UA during the 70s who backed and shepherded some of the studio's great films (Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, the first James Bond films)… Picker operated with the kind of autonomy Bingham could only dream about.

We get misty-eyed about the films of the 70s (Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick, Shampoo by Hal Ashby, Chinatown by Roman Polanksi, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Milos Forman)—but don’t always connect these films with the executive decision-making that took place within studios. In those days, a smart, highly placed executive with taste, believing in an idea and a filmmaker and talking it over with a couple of trusted colleagues—made a film happen. There were no committees, no running the numbers, no marketing bible. They loved movies and money, and they took risks. It wasn’t only in the 70s, or at the studios that this was the case and there are instances of it still, but it’s increasingly rare and that’s a real loss for the art of cinema.

Plenty has been written about the ‘rebel’ filmmakers who made art within a system designed for commerce but less about executives and distributors like Bingham who worked within the studio system and outside it. Unlike the mogul-y types who cast themselves as movie-loving wise guys who talk deals and sit in the front row of fashion shows, Bingham belongs to another bloodline entirely—the messier artistic tradition of rupture and rebellion.

The Bingham Project, as I referred to it, became part memoir, part biography, part idiosyncratic film history, part celebration, part cautionary tale. I wrote a book proposal but put it aside; I doubted myself and missed Bingham's wild humor and uncensored voice on the page. My anxiety about the bleak state of cinema also nagged at me—Do people really give a damn about cinema as an art form and the values by which Bingham operated? Because that is, in large part, what his story, and others like him, is about.

I left it alone for a year but two un-related events took place—one minor, the other major—and they signaled a radical shift in America's mood.

From the early days of silent cinema, film has always been a popular medium—unlike painting or classical music—and the studios have almost always mirrored the mainstream zeitgeist. In 2014, United Artists (UA), the studio founded in the twenties by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W Griffith, morphed into an entity headed up and co-owned by the producer of the television reality series Survivor. UA had become a content producer and distributor of faith (Christian) and family fare. After some additional corporate shape-shifting, the once revered ‘Filmmakers Studio’ as it was known, was no more than a logo, an in-name subsidiary of MGM. It was a depressing sign of the times.

Fifteen years into the new century, studios were out of specialty film and it has barely survived as a business. There are several established auteur directors who continue to make films but they are mostly financed by billionaires; the rest work in television. Hollywood is evidently sticking to profit-friendly franchises, action movies and animated family films. The corporations that own them are no doubt relieved to be off the hook. And those of us, who were and are the audience for grown up films, now binge-watch long form dramas and occasionally venture out to a film festival. I missed the formal language of cinema, and sitting undistracted in the dark, like I missed my friend.

In January 2017, Donald Trump, an entrepreneur and Reality TV star was elected President of the United States. Protest and resistance has returned to America. Here's hoping cinema finds a new way forward. In the meantime, I trust there are people, other than those who knew and loved Bingham Ray, interested in his story because now, more than ever, we need the Bingham’s.

Prologue

If there was such a thing as an auteur executive in American film, Bingham Ray—the last visionary head of United Artists at the start of the 21st Century and legendary co-founder of October Films—was it. Also known as ‘art guy’, Ray Bigmah and Mister Brigham, if you are not in the film business, you might not know who he was. In movie world jargon that crudely divides creators and crew from those who make other important decisions and work in offices, Bingham was a ‘suit’ except that’s a flawed description of his sensibility and sartorial style. He rarely wore a suit. Bermuda shorts and a baseball cap were his insignia and he wore them everywhere: from the red carpet at Cannes (where he was given special dispensation from wearing long pants with compulsory black tie) to the cold climes of the Telluride Festival (where his knees froze). With a Marlboro cigarette in hand and a sharp opinion at the ready—he was always polite and always impolitic.

Bingham would remark, almost defensively, “I’m not an artist and I’m not a filmmaker” but he could be mistaken for both. Among other auteur luminaries, he distributed the work of David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Moore, Gus Van Sant, Lars Von Trier and introduced American audiences to the first films of directors Jafar Panahi and Guillermo Del Toro. Ray understood that movies exist primarily for escape and pleasure but trusted there was a hunger and need for an unsentimental examination of the human condition—films that gave audiences a jolt, more existential than rollercoaster. As he saw it, his job was to discover and foster films that might stand a chance of being remembered into the future, and dare audiences to feel as he did. Ray once said “I know the difference between something that’s truly experimental and something that’s wholly mainstream, but I’d like to think that somewhere in the middle is a comfort zone where there’s an audience. It might not be the largest, or the most lucrative, but for me the rewards there are the greatest.”

Cast as the mouthy underdog in Peter Biskind’s book, Down and Dirty Pictures, Ray features alongside Robert Redford and Harvey Weinstein as one of the trailblazers of Independents in the nineties. But there’s an unwritten epilogue to Down and Dirty: Ray was fired as president of United Artists when the book was published in 2004, in part, because he said things he shouldn’t and upset his studio bosses. Not one to self-censor, he told stories with the outrageous, hilarious, cringe-worthy and exposing bits left in. To those listening, it was addictive entertainment but the content was his life and there were consequences to him being so open and trusting—not all of them desirable. The twist in the story is that despite the negative fall out and impact on Ray’s life and career, to many readers he was the gutsy anti-hero, a defender of art and morality in a film world that in the late 1990s and early 2000s was characterized by once independent companies operating increasingly like their parent studios.

Prior to UA, Ray had survived the heartbreaking loss of his company October Films and a near-death car accident. Later, at UA, his reliance on alcohol and drugs had escalated but according to Chris McGurk, COO and co-chairman at MGM it was his public anti-corporate stance that was the bigger problem: “He couldn’t stop badmouthing the company”. Ray felt stymied in his decision-making power by MGM, the parent company of UA. McGurk had fought against him on films like Bowling for Columbine which ended up winning an Oscar and Hotel Rwanda, also Oscar-nominated. (Bingham had lost his job at UA by that stage). A decade later, the boss who some believed contributed to Ray’s implosion at UA, and others regard as his savior, remarked “If I step back and look at the films we made together, I’m more proud of them than anything else.”

Post the turbulent UA days, Ray got sober and settled into a new path—a happier, healthier and perhaps too humble one. He had consulting jobs, uncomplainingly shared offices with junior staff, and had a spell at a production company where he enthusiastically tried to re-format his taste to fit a more generic commercial market but it wasn’t him. Privately, he felt shut out by the film world he loved—phone calls weren’t returned, meetings dodged. He’d be invited to sit on panels with others who wielded influence and he was sought out for all manner of advice but struggled to make a living. That changed when he was appointed Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society and International Festival in October 2011; here he could do what he did best: discover and curate, nurture talent and showcase the best of American and world cinema. But in January 2012 while attending the Sundance Film Festival, he suffered a stroke and 48 hours later, the hospital corridors jammed with crowds of people waiting to see him, he died from complications at fifty-seven.

If you were not in the film business you might not know who he was; “They should have”, Manohla Dargis, of the New York Times, wrote. Robert Redford, speaking in his capacity as Sundance founder, described Ray as a “true warrior”. Michael Moore credited him with being the ‘visionary’ who first saw the potential of feature-length documentaries destined for cinemas, not TV and remarked that his death was “a loss for our art form and independent film.” Kenneth Turan wrote in the LA Times, “It was not just a death, it was a death in the family in the most profound way.” Anne Thompson, a friend and writer on Hollywood, talking about Bingham as one of the people who helped define independent cinema in the US, said at his Los Angeles memorial service: “The reason we’re all freaking out and so distressed and feel this void in our lives is because he helped us to understand what we cared about… he reflected back to us what was important.”

Bingham Ray cared about friendship more than making connections. He took the making of art and artists seriously. And less so money. He didn’t go into the business to get rich or hang out with stars (although he could get giddy about the directors he admired). He was fascinated by the unconventional and that hunger didn’t mellow with age. He enjoyed dissent and provocation over consensus and compromise. He trusted his instincts and knowledge over numbers, algorithms and relying on what had been successful before—figuring that didn’t work so well when you were interested in promoting original voices. Don Quixote-like, he fought the studio system and, more often than not, lost because they weren’t going anywhere. He told the truth, often to his own detriment. He had a point of view and stood by it, when many scramble for an opinion and wait for the pack. His word was his word—and if he had to be reminded what that was, he’d look shamed and without further challenge, honor his promise. He had your back but he didn’t have his own. He was loyal and easily hurt.

That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy money and power and didn’t regret losing it. Nor was he always a pussycat. He didn’t hold back from calling a high profile rival “a fat fuck” nor a former partner “satan”—on the record. He wouldn’t remember that he had upset and insulted people, even people he loved and respected. He was fiercely competitive and a sore loser, even when it came to poker with his closest friends. He loathed the conglomerate-owned studio system and yet revered the pre-1980s filmmaking tradition from which the studios came. He was suicidal in his lack of political nous—“Let it go to the keeper” was not in his emotional lexicon. He chain smoked more on than off, and for a time, drank too many vodka martinis, partied like a rock star and indulged in substances that were bad for him. On occasion, he talked, too much, to the wrong people and didn’t always listen, when he should have, to the right people. He got lost and admitted his vulnerabilities and mistakes with a disarming honesty.

He found his way back.

An edited and shortened excerpt from Bingham Ray: Rebel with a Cause by Philippa Bateman ©Enigma Machine P/L



Video Courtesy of The Moth: The Moth Presents Bingham Ray: Dream Job