Friday, July 15, 2011

MOVIES MADE ME #26: Five Easy Decades (A Tribute to Jack Nicholson)

There's something about Jack. This week, I read Dennis McDougal's biography Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times. It adds a few years worth of detail onto Patrick McGilligan's two-decades old biography Jack's Life, but doesn't add much insight. McDougal presents Nicholson as a perpetual adolescent who takes responsibility only for his own desires... which leaves one wondering: Is that why we love him? Is Jack Nicholson our collective Id?

I prefer director Hal Ashby's assessment: "... basically there's an honesty to Jack that comes through. But then again, it's on an ethereal level. People aren't watching the film and saying, 'Gee, I like his honesty, and that's why I like to see his films.' That's just not the way it happens; people feel a kind of electricity, an attraction to this person to watch him and see what he does, because you're never exactly sure what he is going to do, and I think that's the kind of thing that's fascinating."

For each of his five decades, Nicholson has starred in at least one undisputed masterpiece... as well as a string of films that chart his personal and professional evolution. He is always worth watching, and I'm astounded to realize just how many of his onscreen appearances are burned into my brain. It would take another book for me to attempt to do justice to all of his noteworthy films, so I'm just going to point at five personal favorites...


Auspicious beginnings, indeed. One of Jack's earliest roles was a walk-on in Roger Corman's cheapest film, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). The actor didn't even get to finish acting the scene before the notoriously stingy director pulled the plug and moved on... but Jack still made the most of every second of screen time. The guy exudes raw, manic energy.

Most of Nicholson's noteworthy work in the sixties came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. He had a supporting role in THE RAVEN (1963) opposite Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, followed by a leading role in the inexplicable horror film THE TERROR (1963), which also starred Nicholson's first wife Sandra Knight. He helped conceive two existential westerns for Corman regular Monte Hellman, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1965) and THE SHOOTING (1968), and penned Corman's ode to LSD, THE TRIP (1968). There's a rumor that he also suggested the title for Corman's first biker film THE WILD ANGELS, and was rewarded with a leading role in HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967). After playing a prominent role in Richard Rush's PSYCHO-OUT (1968), the actor's familiarity with bikes and drugs led to his breakthrough role in EASY RIDER (1969).


After ten years in the business, Nicholson knew when he was on the cusp of stardom and he chose his next film carefully. His role as the spiritually and sexually restless Robert Dupea in Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) shows him at his most confident, charismatic, clever and confounded.

FIVE EASY PIECES created a Jack Nicholson persona - fiercely independent, mildly misogynistic, always simmering on the verge of explosion - which carried over into CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), THE LAST DETAIL (1973), CHINATOWN (1974) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975). Subtler performances in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) and THE PASSENGER (1975) were mostly overlooked. At his peak, Nicholson turned back to westerns, but THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976) and GOIN' SOUTH (1978) were busts.


As a writer I naturally have a weakness for Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980), even though it is completely unfaithful to Stephen King's novel. For a while, when I was writing fiction, I would put a sign on my office door reading "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"... a kind of warning. Writer's block has never been so liberating.

THE SHINING is the moment when Jack embraced over-the-top self-parody. He was critically acclaimed for more restrained character roles -- in REDS (1981), TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), IRONWEED (1987) and BROADCAST NEWS (1988) -- but the eighties were, after all, the decade of excess. And nobody does excess like Jack Nicholson, as the devil in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987) and The Joker in BATMAN (1989).


For every mainstream success that Jack made in the nineties (A FEW GOOD MEN, WOLF, AS GOOD AS IT GETS), there was a deeply personal indie film (THE TWO JAKES, HOFFA, BLOOD AND WINE). Sean Penn's THE CROSSING GUARD (1995) falls in the latter camp, and showcases one of Jack's boldest performances. The actor lets it all hang out... from man-tits to temper tantrums that make his character dangerously close to completely unsympathetic. It works only because Jack does everything with singular style, and that's something we can't help but envy. Penn and Nicholson followed up with the equally challenging THE PLEDGE (2001).


Nicholson moved confidently into the new millennium with a very uncharacteristic role in ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), a brilliantly paced film that Nicholson himself refers to as "a Hal Ashby road movie." It proves beyond a doubt that he is one of Hollywood's most talented actors. The actor suggests that Warren Schmidt is who he might have become if he hadn't found acting. I'm not sure if he's laughing at himself or at the rest of us... That's part of his mystery.

For those who thought that maybe Jack had hit his last high note, he followed up a few years later with the central role in Martin Scorsese's THE DEPARTED (2007). You can't help wondering why this volatile Buddha with the cheshire cat smile will come up with next. THE BUCKET LIST (2007) supposedly emerged from plans to make a sequel to THE LAST DETAIL, featuring Morgan Freeman in the Otis Young role. There have been rumors for years about a sequel to EASY RIDER (in which the three bikers return from the dead!) and the completion of Jack's projected CHINATOWN trilogy (according to Dennis McDougal, "the third film would chronicle an aging Gittes in 1959, witnessing the unholy marriage of freeway and urban sprawl"). More likely, the actor will do something completely unexpected. Like Ashby said, that's why we can't stop watching.


  1. Fine look at Nicholson's filmography, Joe. He is somethin' alright. And I'd dearly love if the third installment to Chinatown and The Two Jakes would somehow come to be. Though, I tend to look at the projected trilogy as Robert Towne's since he's written the story and treatments -- I acknowledge that no one can be J.J. Gittes but Nicholson, however. Thanks, Joe.

  2. I doubt that the third film will ever happen... especially since Nicholson and Towne had a bit of a falling out over THE TWO JAKES. Towne was hired to direct it in the mid-80s and the project went belly-up on his watch, costing the studio a lot of money. Nicholson later resurrected the project... but I think it's fair to question his talent as a director. I've been meaning to track down a copy of Nicholson's directorial debut, DRIVE, HE SAID (1971)...

  3. Yeah, I remember reading the troubles associated with The Two Jakes. The final result was not Chinatown (but then again, what is?), but I thought it's a decent sequel (especially with what passes for sequels these days). Robert Towne does know his L.A. history and how to fictionalize it for cinematic consumption.

    Oh, you've GOT TO SEE Drive, He Said. I saw this one in the theater when it came out and quickly died. Recently, the Criterion folk released it to disc (first time) as part of a compilation set of films. You'll see why it didn't do well at the box office, but you won't be able tear yourself away from the viewing. One of a kind, alright. Thanks, Joe.

  4. Speak of the Devil: As part of the American Cinematheque double-feature of CHINATOWN and THE TWO JAKES next Saturday, Robert Towne will be there to discuss the films during intermission. I think I'm going to try and make this one.

  5. This is an actor worthy of your exemplary tribute Joe.

    A terrific look at an immense career of wonderful films.

    I must ask you for your opinion on The Border and The Pledge. I've been wanting to check these films out and I would love to get your perspective on them.

    Additionally, I've really enjoyed Not Bad For A Human. It was a wonderful read. I'm nearly complete on it, but had to pause at Millennium Season Three as I'm finishing the DVD series.

    ALl the best,

  6. Thanks, Gordon! I'm glad you're enjoying the book... We're very proud of it.

    I was one of the six people who saw The Pledge when it came out in theaters... and I understand why audiences stayed away, though the film is definitely worth seeing. There's an awkwardness about it - especially the ending - that stands in direct contrast with most Jack Nicholson movies, but the nuances are often fascinating. I think maybe it has to be appreciated for smaller character moments, rather than as a whole.

    I saw The Border on video years ago, but honestly it's just a blur in my memory... So, unfortunately, is The Passenger. I should give those two movies another shot.

    Hell, we should do a Jack Nicholson blogathon some day... I wouldn't mind watching ALL of his films again.

    Thanks for writing!