January 14, 2009 by MK
Many people don’t realize that Jack Nicholson was once upon a time our finest character actor. He gets much of his attention for being the era’s “Movie Star” or walking Hollywood prototype. The sunglasses. The smile. The eyebrows. Most moviegoers think of the image and forget the wide scope of work he’s turned in over the years. And no actor had quite the same run of great roles like Nicholson did from 1969-1975. We begin with Exhibit A, the introduction:
He somehow manages to throw Dennis Hopper for a loop. Oddly enough, it was only as a replacement for Rip Torn that he got his first major break. The forgotten secret to Nicholson’s success was his age. At the time of his breakthrough, Nicholson was 32, having toiled as a peasant in the films of Roger Corman and in small roles on television shows like Andy Griffith. Like Dustin Hoffman with The Graduate (age 30) and Gene Hackman with Bonnie & Clyde (age 37), Nicholson worked for years before hitting the big time. And when the big time came, he was ready. But it wasn’t until his next flick, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, that he showed the world his full range. And part of that range was simmering anger. Case in point, the anti-hero orders breakfast:
As the self-loathing Bobby Dupea, Nicholson had found his (and a generation’s) sweet spot. The 60’s were over and Dupea was left to grapple with the hangover. Never able to find himself, the character sticks with the only route he knows, escape. And, in the end, we are witness to Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance of all time.
If Five Easy Pieces was simmering, Carnal Knowledge was boiled over. Poor Ann Margret. She never stood a chance.
On a full-time quest for sex without love, the character of Jonathan reveals the ultimate frustration of a misguided life. By this point in his career, Nicholson could teach a class in “contempt.”
But just when you thought Nicholson would be typecast as “the angry guy,” along came Bob Rafelson again with 1972’s long forgotten The King of Marvin Gardens. As David Staebler, the stabler of two brothers, Nicholson takes a sharp left turn and gives his most subdued performance. He doesn’t rely on tics, he conceals the smile, and unlike his last few roles, holds in the anger, letting Bruce Dern chew the scenery instead. Somehow, someway, as a radio host he makes NPR sound like Howard Stern.
Ultimately, the movie is about the failure to communicate, a problem that his next character didn’t seem to have. Clearly, Nicholson needed an outlet after all that constraint. The Last Detail certainly gave him one with the role of Billy “Badass” Buddusky. “Badass” is a man who joined the Navy to gain some authority. As The Last Detail hammers home over and over again in its 103 minutes, he has no authority at all. Unless you count one helpless bartender of course.
Finally, we have Nicholson graduate to what seems like a movie star role in Chinatown, as a private detective trying to unravel a web the size of Los Angeles. But this “movie star” gets flummoxed, lied to, beaten up, cut on the nose and bigfooted by forces much larger than he.
After almost losing his nose, Nicholson takes on a man trying to lose his name in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. In the tragic search for identity, the film finds Nicholson back in understated territory, running away from, well, everything.
Another character trying to run away is the ultimate anti-hero himself, Randle Patrick McMurphy. If Five Easy Pieces held Nicholson’s greatest performance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is his most charismatic. It’s the one time that a Nicholson character [in this era] offers up hope to others, if not himself. In his futile fight against the establishment, McMurphy represents most clearly the struggle to break free.
With eight exceptional roles under his belt by 1975, a picture emerges. Whether by society (Easy Rider), family (Five Easy Pieces), women (Carnal Knowledge), brother (Marvin Gardens), the Navy (Last Detail), the powers-that-be (Chinatown), identity (Passenger) or institution (Cuckoo’s Nest), Jack Nicholson is The Stifled Man. A man coming up against his limits, time and time again. A man trying to escape the inescapable. A man whose identity won’t let him find another one. In the end, he’s left with anger. And he never wins.
Doesn’t sound like much of a movie star to me.