15 July, 2015
As good as it gets
With the Oscar season behind us, we pay tribute to a true cinematic icon – the incomparable, Jack Nicholson
Is there anything in the cinematic firmament as strange and as wonderful as Jack Nicholson’s smile? It is a smile possessed of some great and extraordinary secret; of esoteric carnal knowledge; of wellsprings of devilry and chaos unknowable to mere mortals. It is the smile of a man privy to the world’s filthiest joke. And it is a grin that hides its own deep ironies. Because when little John Joseph Nicholson was born, seventy-seven or so years ago, there was precious little for anyone to smile about. Men are from Mars, women make their home on Venus, as some love-guru has it. Perhaps it should not surprise us though that a being as exotic and splendid as Jack Nicholson hails from neither. Jack’s from Neptune. Neptune, New Jersey, to be precise. An insignificant burgh on the East Coast, an hour or so south of New York, though, back in those pre-war days the glittering lights of Manhattan might as well have been in a different universe. In 1936 a small family scandal, well hidden by its key players, acted itself out in one of the small grey houses within earshot of the thrashing Atlantic. Sixteen year-old June Nicholson, a somewhat flighty local girl with show business aspirations, had gone and gotten herself pregnant by a nameless local lothario and a story needed to be cooked up to deflect the scandal. Thus when, on April 22, 1937, John entered the world word was swiftly put about that he was the unplanned progeny of Ethel May Nicholson and John Nicholson, June and her sister, Lorraine’s, parents. He was unexpected. Unplanned. Illegitimate. A disruptive influence, then, right from the very start. When he was old enough to understand June was introduced to him by Ethel as his older sister, as was Lorraine. It wasn’t an unusual deception back in the days when the word ‘bastard’ had grim condemnatory edges. But maybe living in a family built around a deception, even one so well-intentioned, informed his later, mercurial, secretive nature. ‘I don’t want people to know what I’m actually like,’ he once said. ‘It’s not good for an actor.’ Well, perhaps. But maybe the urge to disguise the truth, to put a face on to the world, or rather to hide one behind perma-shades, was inculcated a long time ago. ‘If I hadn’t been an actor, I’d have been a thief’, he once informed another interviewer but in fact the main surprise of his childhood, given the tempest that was to come, was its relative placidity. His most typical expression of juvenile displeasure was a flamboyant flounce up the hallway stairs accompanied by a ‘for cripes sake!’ delivered in a prepubescent echo of what would become that legendary drawl. School, though, was a bust, he was a C-grade student at best, more drawn to sports than study, and when June indulged her starry aspirations by moving to California Jack with not much else to do, followed in tow. The Hollywood that he found when he arrived in the mid-50s was in the opening convulsions of a revolution. The old was beginning to give way to the new, but it was not doing so with much in the way of grace. Its ancient citadels, the dream factories – MGM, Warner, Columbia Pictures – were coming under pressure from a new kind of star and a demand for a new kind of film. Out was suavite and cocktail-hour sophistication, in was angry cinema, its leading lights sporting ferocious scowls. A kid called James Dean was turning sullen adolescent angst into a code of generational honour. Another, Marlon Brando was introducing something called ‘The Method’, mumbling his way into the nation’s dreams in a sweat-drenched wifebeater. Jack couldn’t have known it but he would become a strange bridge between eras, embodying in one package the irresistible, timeless lure of the 50s movie star with the hip, dangerous countercultural jaggedness which would define Hollywood’s second greatest age. Despite the shock of the new he grinningly channeled his early films there’s a jigger of James Cagney’s terrifying unpredictability, a dash of Robert Mitchum’s hood-lidded menace there too. And like those titans he would become well aware that audiences did not want to see a character vanish entirely into a performance, they wanted at least a little of ‘The Jackser’, as he had begun to call himself, in anything he did. While his contemporaries dutifully mined their unformed psychogeographies for dramatic grist, perfecting the art of vanishing altogether into whatever part they were playing, Jack cottoned on early that there was something in him to which audience might be drawn. In his best roles he would riff on his essential Jackness, serving the drama and the character certainly but, unlike those erstwhile cinematic chameleons, maintaining enough of himself to justify the name in big letters on the marquee. But all that came much later.
He began in MGM’s mail room. A kid starting out in a studio mail room . . . nothing ever came of that, right? He spent his days sorting Tom and Jerry’s fan letters, craning his neck for a glimpse of passing starlets’ legs. ‘Hey Joe’, he yelled out one day at legendary MGM exec Joe Pasternak, ‘How ‘bout givin’ me a screen test?’ Pasternak admired the chutzpah and stuck him in front of a camera. Nothing came of it, but there was hope in a studio flak’s wary appraisal: ‘You’re such an unusual person we don’t know how we could use you’, the guy had said. ‘But when we need you, we’ll need you badly.’ Better luck was had with Roger Corman, the legendary schlockmeister who gave many of the hungry new turks their first breaks – Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese all called action on their earliest movies under his pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap aegis – demanding they help fill the nation’s drive-ins with the cheapo monster movies, biker flicks and beach fandangos to which Peoria’s teens could neck oblivious. Nicholson would churn out close to a score of films for Corman, by the mid ‘60s he seemed trapped. But finally escape from the trash factory arrived via a lanky hippe he fell in with called Bert Schneider. Schneider, had been booted out of Cornell and arrived in LA a buttoned up preppie but had embraced dope and debauchery with Nicholsonesque gusto. Having got bored with producing the Monkees TV show he moved into movie production with fellow hellraiser, director Bob Rafelson, founding Raybert productions. One day Dennis Hopper came by the office, fought his way through the fug of dope smoke and dropped a screenplay on the desk. It was called The Loners. A no-good title everybody thought. So someone suggested Easy Rider. When it was released in 1969 Hopper’s countercultural clarion call hit audiences with a beatific ferocity they never forgot. ‘I’m one of the few people who was actually present at the moment he became a star’, Nicholson said of watching the audience cheer the film at the Cannes Film Festival. With it he established himself as scion of the new Aquarian Hollywood and the films that followed, for a decade at least, were among the finest ever produced. Bob Rafelson directed him in Five Easy Pieces, and later the beautiful, wrenching The King of Marvin Gardens. He would crystallize the terrors and dreams of the Merry Prankster crowd in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. And towering among these giants is his greatest masterpiece, Chinatown: Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s neo-noir masterpiece of power, sex and paranoia. As private detective Jake Gittes he effortlessly embodied wounded machismo, the powerless beaten, literally, by forces beyond his control and finally beyond his understanding. But in the midst of all this cinematic brilliance, there was the other stuff. The life. The booze and drugs, mischief, chaos and premium grade badassery. Doctor Devil, as he had refashioned himself, even had a name for it. The Big Wombassa!. ‘I don’t think that many people have a very good understanding of leisure and the important part it plays in our lives’, he once opined. Well Jack understood. And he was peerless in its pursuit. He wound up living in a kind of compound high in the Hollywood hills (unforgettably memorialised in pal Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo screed Happy Birthday Jack Nicholson) next door to his hero and friend Marlon Brando in which he enacted a decades-long party only occasionally and briefly interrupted by marriages to some of the town’s most pulchritudinous flesh. There were rumours of days-long parties, of ‘downstairs’ cocaine and ‘upstairs’ cocaine. There was a much-reported incident involving a battered sports car and a golf club.
If Easy Rider was the first great turning point in Nicholson’s career then The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘little story about a family quietly going insane together’, would be its second. As raging, terminally blocked writer Jack Torrance he was brilliant, ferocious, terrifying… funny. And he’d never be quite as good again. Something shifted, calcifed in the midst of its making. In the early scenes he’s the Nicholson of the Rafelson era: a barely contained pressure cooker of rage and self-loathing seasoned with a perfectly judged obsequiousness. By the end he’s a new kind of Jack. Monstrous. Frozen. Pushed beyond the bounds of the real into something supernatural. But a kind of dramatic rictus had set in along with that final glacial grimace, and the films that followed Kubrick’s masterpiece, good though many were, were never really great again. George Miller had him as Satan in The Witches of Eastwick, and while the devilry is certainly there, the desperate, wounded humanity has evaporated in a puff of sulphurous mugging. Mike Nichols cast him as the titular lycanthrope in Wolf – the lupine eyes and unruly eyebrows no doubt sealing the deal – but the result is an uneven soggy satire. As The Joker in Tim Burton’s seminal Batman, the role in which a new generation met a star who was fast acquiring a ragged kind of respectability, he had to do very little apart from pick up the cheque. They even painted his grin on. There would be flashes of the old Nicholson in the subsequent decades for sure. He would raise the roof with A Few Good Men’s defining speech (‘Truth! You can’t handle the truth!’); in Sean Penn’s captivating The Crossing Guard he is obsessed neutered as a father attempting to avenge his daughter’s murder; no character has embodied the quiet sadness of ageing and retirement with as much wit and sympathy as he did in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt while Scorsese coaxed a thunderous turn from him in the otherwise underpowered The Departed. And since then? Well nothing worth speaking of. He announced a retirement and then half unannounced it. There have been rumours of alzheimer’s (robustly denied) and decline. Maybe it’s for the best. Too many actors visit the well far too often, far too late. ‘My best feature is my smile’, Nicholson once said. ‘And, praise heaven, smiles don’t get fat.’ And, praise heaven, etched as his are in half a century’s worth of unforgettable celluloid, Jack Nicholson’s will never get old either.