Aldo Ray: Brainy beefcake

“Aldo Ray” didn’t exist.  The actor born Aldo DeRe never became the star he deserved to be. Maybe agents confused him for a Tad Hunter blond beefcake type. Recognized by audiences now as the moniker Quentin Tarantino gave to Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, the force that played a character called Aldo Ray specialized in slow, decent, but by no means dim-witted American men — imagine Sterling Hayden without the threat of violence.

He made his film debut in 1952’s The Marrying Kind, a George Cukor picture that can’t shake its roots as a proto-Playhouse 90  “proletarian” drama released as a response to television but nevertheless generates fitful tension, especially in its last half hour, when the married couple played by Ray and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) predate Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage by twenty years. Holliday and Ray were uniquely suited to the roles: their voices tied for the most grating in American cinema. Ray does better. Pitted against Holliday’s toneless doorbell, Ray’s scratchy, whiskery pipes adduce lower middle-class American in the Eisenhower era.

He’s even better in Nightfall, a fifties noir with a smashing start that unfortunately goes conventional in the other two-thirds. Playing an Average Man pursued by two robbers who want him after failing to kill him the first time, Ray shows no traces of Glenn Ford or Gregory Peck’s granitic intensity. Best of all, Ray gets another exceptionally laryngeal  actress as a sparring partner: a young, kittenish, and unrecognizable Anne Bancroft, whose every line in that first third is scabrous and stinks of sex. Both are available on DVD in relatively good prints.

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