History in the Movies

‘Ray’s’ heart and soul

By Cathy Schultz

Many films require actors to portray actual historical figures. But while playing Elizabeth I or Alexander the Great is no doubt challenging, playing a contemporary celebrity like Ray Charles is especially daunting because of his sheer familiarity. The man had such a presence, such a distinctive and instantly recognizable style. Even his infectious smile seems inimitable. This was the challenge for actor Jamie Foxx, admittedly better known for comedy than for meaty, dramatic roles.

Foxx nails it. In watching “Ray,” I seemed to be watching young Charles himself, struggling to make it as a musician, exerting his charms on numerous women, and unabashedly experimenting with drugs. And, I was hearing Charles as well, though in that case, Foxx had some help-the film wisely used Charles’ singing vocals throughout.

The film accurately reveals Charles’ fascinating contradictions. He was a man prone to addictions-drugs and sex in particular. Yet, he also possessed enormous strength of will, keeping himself and his band consistently at the peak of their creative power. Perhaps that’s because, as his wife Bea points out in the film, his overriding “addiction” was to his music. As Charles himself once observed, “Music was a necessity for me-like food or water.”

This film doesn’t whitewash the less savory parts of Charles’ life. He was a heroin addict for 16 years. He cheated on his wife, constantly. Charles himself, who lent support to the film until his death this past June, told the filmmakers, “I ain’t no angel. Just show the truth.”

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It does. Here are other ways the film gets (and sometimes misses) the truth.

Q. Did Charles’ younger brother drown in a washing tub? And did the experience haunt Charles, eventually leading him into drugs as the film suggests?

A. Yes. And no. Ray Charles was five when his brother drowned, and certainly the experience traumatized him. But he insists in his 1978 autobiography (the frank, unsparing, and fascinating “Brother Ray”) that he began and continued heroin use for no other reason than, well, he wanted to.

While the film shows a repentant Charles going through an agonizing withdrawal, the real Charles was never very apologetic about his heroin addiction. He did kick heroin completely in 1964 (though he continued using marijuana through the end of his life), but only because he faced a potential prison sentence after being arrested for possession.

Q. How did Charles manage his blindness so well?

A. Glaucoma robbed Ray Charles of his sight at seven, and though the film passes over the following eight years, he spent them cultivating self-reliance at a school for the blind. He may have learned it too well. His autobiography gleefully recalls riding bikes blind in his hometown, and driving motorcycles or the occasional car, aided by sighted friends helpfully calling out directions.

Q. Did he meet a very young Quincy Jones in Seattle?

A. He did. Both were teenagers at the time, but their friendship and collaboration would span decades.

Q. Was his big hit “What I’d Say” really created on the spur of the moment?

A. Yes. The movie captures that electrifying evening on tour, when the room exploded and shook to his improvised new piece. He continued to work on it through the rest of the tour before returning to New York to record it.

Q. Did Ray have an illegitimate child with one of his backup singers?

A. The affair with Margie and her subsequent pregnancy was real, though by Charles’ account he never pushed her for an abortion. He welcomed all his children, and there were lots. Three with his wife and nine more with various other women around the country.

While the film does show many scenes of Charles pursuing women, it exercised restraint, for in actuality there were far more affairs and one-night stands. Charles rhapsodizes about women-and sex-in his autobiography. He remembers his first sexual encounter taking place when he was 13, the girl 19. He muses at one point that he’s rarely gone a day without sex. Just about every chapter, including the one describing his wedding to Bea and the birth of their first son, mentions that he had no capacity-and little desire-to stay faithful to one woman. “I Got a Woman,” might have been more aptly titled “I Got Lots of Women.”

Q. But didn’t Bea stay with him regardless?

A. Film biographies usually leave audiences with a sense of uplifting closure, which means inevitably that some fudging takes place. Unlike the messy, unresolved lives we all actually lead, lives in the movies have neat, rounded edges and a clear beginning, middle, and end (and a cool soundtrack as well). Since Charles was still alive and performing when the film was made, the ending had to be somewhat artificial.

I won’t reveal how the movie closes, but it does subtly misrepresent the fate of his marriage. His wife Bea did not stay with him forever. Fed up eventually with his long absences, his drugs, but most especially his countless affairs, she finally left the marriage in the mid-1970s.

Q. Where can I read more about Ray Charles?

A. The man’s own inimitable voice comes out in “Brother Ray.” But if you’re shocked by raw language and sex, I’d recommend a nice biography of Pat Boone instead.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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