The Bingham Ray I knew: A passion for film, and for getting the best stuff out in a dirty business

Bingham Ray ()
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On a Friday morning not long after the Sundance Film Festival ended, the Paris Theater, the jewel-box cinema across from the Plaza hotel, was packed to the rafters with mourners. They had come to grieve Bingham Ray, the polarizing, Loki-like independent film distributor, producer, and champion who died of a stroke in Provo, Utah, at age 57 on Jan. 23.

With M.C.s Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt, the stars of Ray-distributed Pieces of April, the memorial was a family gathering of sorts, bringing together filmmakers, distributors, production executives, and movie stars from the tight-knit New York film world. Actor John Turturro; filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch (via tape) and Mike Leigh (via written statement); film executives Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, and John Schmidt, a partner of Ray’s at October Films; critic Manohla Dargis and journalist Ann Thompson described Ray’s legendary sense of humor, mischievous sensibility, quickness of temper, generosity of spirit, intense loyalty and holy appreciation for his family and friends. Speaker after speaker emphasized, above all, the religious dedication to cinema that characterized Ray’s life.

“He was our Prospero,” Clarkson said through her tears, “able to create rough magic.”

Renowned for his taste in dark, difficult movies and widely admired for his behind-the-scenes support for some of the riskiest projects of the '90s, Ray and partner Jeff Lipsky founded October Films in 1991, an independent company that positioned itself an “anti-Miramax,” distributing and producing films like Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet and Secrets & Lies, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room, David Lynch’s Lost Highway and The Straight Story, Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom and Breaking The Waves.

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Following his departure in 1999, after October was acquired by media conglomerate Universal, Ray found himself struggling to find a permanent place a business that was shifting away from its scrappy roots toward a more corporate studio system. He worked at the newly-rebooted United Artists, Stanley Kimmel Pictures, and Snag Films before taking a job as the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society in September, a position Randy Ostrow, a childhood friend who also worked at October, described at the memorial as “the job that he seemed to have been waiting for. It was as if he’d gotten tenure and no one could take it away from him.”

RAY ALSO TRIED, FOR MANY YEARS, TO START a new independent film distribution company with my mother, Linda Lichter, an entertainment lawyer. My mom had never set out to work in the indie world; representing art films was something she’d always done for fun, and not for profit. After graduating from Berkeley in 1973, where she’d studied Marxist film theory, she’d decided that her skills were better suited to the business side of moviemaking, and so she went to law school. Working from her office in Beverly Hills, she signed up clients who made Hollywood movies, but also took on visionaries with less experience, and advocated in their name. She's like an agent with legal expertise, I’ve learned to explain to people who ask. My mom and Ray met in the late '80s when he distributed a lesbian road-trip movie she was representing called Desert Hearts. In him, she saw a kindred spirit: they were both brassy and opinionated and were personally invested in getting risky movies seen by a larger audience. Over business deals and festival cocktails, they became friends.

When I was growing up, Ray was just one of many weirdos that would come over to our house or that my mother would introduce me to at a movie or party. I never understood what any of them did for a living. I knew they worked in “the movie business,” and that my mom was the kind of lawyer that never went to court. I knew she spent the whole day yelling at people on the phone; when I visited her office I learned a lot of swear words and when she came home, she’d refuse to pick up a call, no matter how long the phone had been ringing. I knew she read scripts, because they filled our house, white skyscrapers of paper filling every corner. Voracious reader and irredeemable snoop that I was, I would secret away the most interesting-looking ones. Mostly the dialogue bored me, all those adults chatting away. But sometimes I’d find scary bits or dirty scenes or wonderfully strange stories that came alive as I turned the pages.

Sometimes at the movies she’d make us stay until the end of the credits, just to catch sight, for a few short seconds, of her name under “Thanks,” or “Special Thanks,” or “Legal.”

“Without me, that movie wouldn’t exist,” she always says, citing deals signed, introductions brokered, funding found, disagreements mediated. My mother makes sure the movies get made, get seen. I was always proud of how hard she worked, her confidence in her expertise, her evident passion for film and fiery faith in the filmmakers she worked with, her notorious fiercenesss. Still, I have had my moments of filial cynicism, when I dismiss her prideful claims as self-aggrandizement. She wasn’t actually making the movies, after all. But then I’d meet someone on a plane to L.A. who worked in the movie business and I’d tell them my hyphenated last name.

“Your mother’s a badass,” they'd say, “a bulldog,” “Like a fastball to the head!”

As teenager, I showed my rebellion through my disinterest in the movie biz, my stubborn grudge against L.A., my bratty dismissal of the proxy-glamour of premieres and film sets. I rolled my eyes when people assumed that wanting to be a writer always meant screenplays. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I began to comprehend there were vast business mechanisms behind the literature, art, music and films that I loved; that culture wasn’t so much an abstract phenomenon, as I had naïvely believed, as it was a sprawling industrial machine, one in which my mother and her friends like Bingham Ray played an integral part. Cut off from the theoretical refuge of academia, I realized how much I was a product of that machine and how bound up with it I was, whether I liked it or not.

I had no idea how to be a writer, so I moved to New York and got a job in book publishing, working long hours for little pay just to see myself thanked in the acknowledgement section of people’s books, just to be able to say "I helped make that thing that you loved."

It wasn’t so much that I believed that my contribution was unique or irreplaceable—I knew there was an endless supply of English majors to take my place, people who would love to do my paperwork, read my proposals, write my copy, and offer their own opinions on cover designs—it was that I had a stake in how things turned out, and felt that the work I had done had made a difference, no matter how small that difference might be.

WHEN I RAN INTO BINGHAM RAY DURING THOSE years, I knew I didn’t have to explain to him why what I was doing mattered. He would quiz me on what I thought of the new releases, what I was Netflixing, what I was reading, how I liked working in book publishing. He was short and bald with glasses and an impish smirk, and I was desperate to impress him. Like many of my mother’s friends he was geeky and eccentric, obsessed with movies and how they got made, seen, reviewed, awarded. After we both attended a screening of Todd Field’s Little Children, I walked him to his Metro-North train at Grand Central Station while we argued about whether or not the movie was exciting or derivative and cliché—I objected to the heavy-handed allusions to Madame Bovary, while he claimed an appreciation for anything that revealed the sick secrets of suburbia.

There was nothing groundbreaking in the conversations we had over the years; they were unremarkable, even perfunctory exchanges on life and work. But having them with someone decades older (and not my mother) I was reminded that there was a kind of person who needed these conversations, thrived on them, saw them as nothing less than necessary—and that I was that kind of person. I saw, for the first time, why my mom would never criticize the movies she’d worked on, why she clung to her credit like a life vest. In the culture business, taste wasn’t an affectation of persona; it was a function of passion, how much of yourself you had given.

I was in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival with my mother when Ray collapsed in nearby Provo. “My buddy,” she sobbed. The day he died, I held her hand as we walked through the snow flurries to the impromptu memorial being held at a bar in town. Ray himself had actually reserved the space for a celebration of his new position at the San Francisco Film Society. Their heads shaking in disbelief, colleagues and friends—filmmakers, executives, movie critics, festival heads who had worked with Ray for three decades—toasted Ray with their afternoon cocktails.

It seemed both terrible and fitting that he had died during Sundance, the marquee event of the independent festival circuit. Many in the crowd murmured that it seemed to signal the end of an era, one in which passionate champions figured out how to import the fierce independence of the art house scene into mainstream American culture.

“I’m not some avant-gardist,” Ray says in Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind's tell-all about the independent film boom of the '90s. “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.”

“Bingham was unusual in the sense in having a great knowledge of film and film history, having a strong innate sense of the rhythms of films themselves,” John Schmidt, one of his partners at October, told me. “He had a special ability to discuss movies with directors, as well as the business sense and capital to get the movies to the market.”

Originally from Scarsdale, Ray had spent his adolescence taking the train into the city to take advantage of the cinematic offerings. He obsessively memorized the credits of his favorite films, giving himself an education in the relationship between aesthetics, production, and capital. His wife, Nancy, remembered how he could identify which studio made which film just by seeing what it looked like.

For Ray, this knowledge was sacred. In the early '80s, when he was wearing a lot of bow ties, Ray and his wife went to see The Purple Rose of Cairo. As the credits rolled, someone in front of them stood up. “Excuse me, you’re blocking the screen," Ray said. "Can you either sit down or move out of the way?” he asked, “not in an angry voice!” Nancy recalled. The man ignored him. “Come on, I asked you if you could please move out of the way,” Ray asked, more insistent now. “Nice bow tie,” the guy sneered, his snaggly overbite visible in the darkened theater. “Nice teeth!” Ray quipped, and suddenly the men were throwing punches, knocking the glasses off each other’s faces. In that heated moment, Nancy remembers, someone called out: “but this is a Woody Allen movie!”

After he moved back to New York from college in the Midwest, Ray worked as a programmer at the Carnegie and Bleecker Cinemas, eventually moving into distribution at companies like Alive, Avenue, and Samuel Goldwyn Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation for his fiery personality and filthy mouth. Ray had studied acting in college, and although he had given up the profession, he never lost interest in performing. His passion for movies was bottomless and personal, and he wasn’t afraid to show it: trying to get Soderberg to let him distribute Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he pleaded, “I’m really really hungry … I would chop my left arm to do it. I’ll make the best offer, but … ah … ah … I don’t have any money to offer you. Thank you very much.”

At the memorials in Park City and New York, his friends and colleagues described how he often resorted to tears to convey his desire to acquire a movie. His hyperbole and ballsiness was legendary. Oliver Platt recalled that after a screening of Pieces of April, Ray approached him and introduced himself as the distributor of the movie. Platt wasn’t aware that any deal had been struck. “’It doesn’t matter,’ Ray said. ‘It’s my fucking movie.’”

“Bingham knew everyone you needed to know,” said Janet Pierson, head of the SXSW Film Festival and a longtime friend of Ray’s. “He gave me crap for saying that but I could have stood next to him at a party and gotten an education.”

Unapologetically abrasive and opinionated, Ray wasn’t interested in playing nice or fitting himself into the mold, which meant that in the late '90s, when multinational media companies were snatching up small independent distribution companies like October, he walked away from the company he had founded and the corporate salary he could have collected. After a rough patch that included a near-fatal car wreck, he went back to work, helping to distribute movies like Hotel Rwanda and Synecdoche, New York.

He floated from company to company, stubbornly idealistic in a cynical landscape. “I don't think I ever heard him refer to movies as product,” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis said at the New York memorial. The job in San Francisco, which would have enabled him to support risky, independent projects through the country’s longest-running film festival, had finally seemed like the perfect fit.

At the Paris Theater, people talked about how much they were going to miss Ray, and how sad it was that he hadn’t had a chance to finish out his third act. They mourned for their friend, and for their own past glories, for the way the world had been, and what it has become. They described a man’s virtues and faults, with the acknowledgement that doing justice to an iconoclast like Ray was an impossible feat. Again and again they spoke of his love of movies, occasionally showing scenes from some of his pet favorites: The Iranian film The White Balloon (for which he wrote the poster’s tagline: “From a country you hate, a movie you’ll love!”), Secrets & Lies, Lost Highway (in his video tribute, Lynch recalled that it had been Ray’s idea to market Siskel & Ebert’s “two thumbs down” as “two more reasons to see this movie”).

But in the end, the films would speak for themselves. In a clip shown from one of Ray’s favorite films of all time, Touch of Evil, Marlene Dietrich’s glowing face filled the Paris Theater’s silver screen. “What does it matter what you say about people,” she intoned. “He was some kind of man.”