JACK NICHOLSON must be viewed as dangerous. Dangerous to the status quo, and to our ideal of an untarnished hero. He has energy. He has charm. His brittle smile can be the most unsettling experience in cinema. His characters seek the unanswerable. He can love and kill in a single breath. Like a glass time-bomb, intricate and wired, he is capable at any instant of erupting into wicked, verbal violence.
Unlike other stars, who cut a certain profile and hold on to it for years through variations of the same film--Bogart, Gable, Redford, Eastwood--Nicholson strives to delve into the human consciousness in unethical ways, and makes you love him for it. Killer eyes. Killer grin. Lady killer. Killer. But somehow a hell of a hero. Whether he's Bad-ass Buddusky fiving a kid his last breath of freedom, J.J. Gittes investigating a roller-coaster mystery, Bobby Dupea trying to shed his meaningless skin, or George Hansen smoking his first joint, Nicholson has found that inner peace and worldly violence are often inextricable.
While many criticize him for playing variations of himself, Nicholson has made such a tactic practicable by proving his self to be supercool with a tinge of vulnerability, bitterly, defiant of--but emotionally affected by--a world without any apparent reason or overseeing deity. His surface steely-eyed, fierce-grinning goblin envelops a much more luminous, purposeful character in whom we see our hopes, anxieties, lusts, and humanity, and with whom we attempt to carve a moral niche in the rotting bark of 20th-century civilization. Nicholson's important films involve religion of the self; he acts as he sees fit, spiting society, family, and his hollow "responsibilities" to each. Their characters are not merely selfish--they seek fun, truth, and escape from inhuman constrictions. What was once vice is now virtue, as long as one is animal enough to adhere to his cause.
Take last year's The Postman Always Rings Twice, directed by buddy and fellow ball of energy Bob Rafelson. In this remake of the 1946 filming of James Cain's lascivious novelette, the wayfaring Nicholson picks up work at a gas station/diner because he lusts for the Greek owner's wife. The original discarded all ethnic and sexual references, using only the plot outline. You know how people fall in love in those old movies--a look and a kiss. It usually sufficed, but not when homicide was involved. Nicholson's bestial portrayal, with the re-inserted punching and humping, helps explain his character's otherwise condemnable acts. He doesn't want to kill the old Greek; he has to. Logic, morals, and restraint are out. Survival of the fiercest reigns.
Many had trouble accepting this motivation, especially when Nicholson's character did not receive the retribution Cain had planned, the (unjust, but plausible) charge of murdering Nora Papadakis, who dies when their car crashes. Rafelson explained his modified denouement as sufficiently powerful: seeing Jack Nicholson cry makes you feel rotten enough, and seeing him (as the book would) sentenced to death for following his passions would be too much.
Nicholson has developed to the point where his mere tears can rouse the same sentiments as his death; yet precisely such a passionate death snapped critics out of their languor toward the previously obscure, drugged-out actor, in 1969's Easy Rider. Hopper and Fonda had written it as a two-wheeled vehicle for themselves, but it was Nicholson who carried the confused, drugged saga out of the multitude of road pictures, playing the only non-hippie, non-redneck in the film, the young smalltown lawyer George Hansen. Hansen leaves home to ride cross-country with these two bikers, donning his old high school football helmet, and seeing the world for the first time through red eyes. Nicholson got the role as a fluke because Rip Torn dropped out; he finally got a break, after having lost the part of C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde because he looked too much like star Warren Beauty. What made Hansen so effective (and earned Nicholson an Oscar nomination) was his innocence and honest dreaming, contrasted with the others. When the two hippies get blown away at the end, sure, you hate the hicks for doing it, but it's hard to feel deep loss when the rootless bikers are such egotistical fuck-ups; are they the future of America? But when lofty idealist George Hansen is killed in his sleep near a campfire that has recently glowed with hope for humanity, never knowing what hit him, your gut plummets. Is this America?
CHANNEL FOUR in Boston has a series starting about 2 a.m. called "The Moooooooovies," as its theme song syncopates, accompanied by poorly-drawn, tacky animated dancers apparently trying to kick their way out of some eternal fire. The extravaganza is always reserved for one of the worst movies every conceived: Twisted Brain. They Saved Hitler's Brain. Varan the Incredible. Terror in the Jungle. The combined budget for these classics doesn't approach what the Reagans spend on china. One night, the title thus announced is The Terror. I salivate with delight, in anticipation of true terribleness. The stars' names appear. Boris Karloff. Well, he made a lot of goofs. Sandra Knight. Where have I heard that name? Jack Nicholson.
The plot unfolds. Nicholson, in an ill-fitting leftover Civil War uniform, is ostensibly a French lieutenant. Knight plays a girls he falls for, who is in reality a bird Karloff has enchanted. This film is bad. Bad in a big way. What the hell is Jack doing in it? What drugs is he on?
It is later learned that he is helping out one of his buddies, and making the only living he could in 1963. Roger Corman, B-movie mogul and director of Nicholson's first picture, Cry-Baby Killer (1958), "directed" The Terror--it was filmed in three days, using leftover sets and props from the recently completed The Raven with Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price...and Nicholson. And Sandra Knight? Jack had married her in 1961.
I. Inauspicious Beginnings
THE PEOPLE who never saw my (early) movies are better off in life than I am, man, but like all actors, I needed the work," Nicholson has admitted. And a perusal of Nicholson's career makes it seem remarkable that he ever got out of the B-movie drive-ins at all. The list is impressive: Jack has not only acted in bombs, but written, produced, and directed them as well. Just what drugs were involved is a bit hazy, but his violently energetic quest for personal morality, both on-screen and off, has no doubt been aided by some hallucinogens (Time reported he smoked pot every day for 15 years
Not all these were schlock-horror flicks; in fact, many were attempts (however confused) at esoterica, disdained in commercial Hollywood. Nicholson's off-beat personality and unemployment drew him to a group known as "fringe-Hollywood"--the equivalent of semi-pro in baseball--dedicated to the less and less prevalent credo, "Get an idea, Get a camera, Get it done today." Not since Bogart has there been a career checkered by such massive hits and misses. But unlike Bogart, Nicholson also wrote scripts, sometimes to create suitable roles for himself.
In 1964-5, after bumming around the last B-movie lot in Hollywood at 20th Century Fox (and having a bit role in the atrocious sequel to Mister Roberts, Ensign Pulver, a purported A-movie), he and director Monte Hellman took the B-unit to the Phillipines and made Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury. The low-budget films had strictly limited aspirations, and still failed to fulfill them. So the dynamic duo turned to the latest craze, The Western; Nicholson wrote Ride the Whirlwind and Adrien Joyce penned The Shooting; filmed simultaneously on the Utah desert, neither was ever released in the U.S.
It was hard not to view this as a setback. But movies were too ingrained in Nicholson's blood to be discarded after a few dozen failures; he turned to personal experience to improve his literary output. He wrote about drugs. The Trip (1967), directed by Corman and starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern, detailed, in an obscure way, an L.S.D. experience. Not coincidentally, wife Sandra had experienced a bad trip; understandably, she implored Jack not to work on such a screenplay; not surprisingly, he doggedly persevered, and she packed up and left with daughter Jennifer before The Trip was completed.
Undaunted, Nicholson dug further into drug experience and scraped up Head (1968), starring the Monkees, and directed by one of their creators, Bob Rafelson. One memorable scene placed the unfab-four in the hair of a giant Victor Mature, as dandruff. Renata Adler of The New York Times summarized the Hollywood-establishment view of Nicholson's type of movie in a sentence:
A film to see if you have been smoking grass or if you like to scream at the Monkees or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads and hysterical high school girls.
This sounds, on the surface, like the ultimate putdown, an undisguised request that Nicholson find a more suitable calling. But for Nicholson, it was a pat on the back. He had made a movie from his gut, and had obviously conveyed his inner self. Smoking grass, hysterical high school girls, and drifting heads are what make him tick. He only became an actor because, "all the chicks I liked were doing [theater]" in high school. And he only pursued it as a career because he despised school too much to follow up his high SATs. So the drifting head went to California, smoking weed and politicking his way up from a mail clerk job by greeting MGM execs by their first name.
SO HE'S PUSHY. So he drove his wife out. Maybe he's impossible to control; his last two roles have been sadistic, self-aggrandizing caricatures of himself. But it's been a natural, hard-fought road. This relic of the B-movie studio star has grown to a force of major proportion in the industry, becoming perhaps the only hero for disaffected youth. The years of quickies, westerns, acid, and road movies paid off, creating a unique, vibrant, tenacious, intelligent, self-promoting, humanistic, aloof symbol of the modern age. In his best roles, Nicholson represents order amid chaos. Not in a stilted, dreary, macho way, but in an active, tongue-in-cheek yet soul-wrenching, personally moral way. All those years of hard knocks were the catalyst in his concluding what most of Hollywood has yet to discover: that there is no longer a cohesive common good, or even a "sanity" worth preserving.
II. Getting Away From Bad Things
OF COURSE, Nicholson continues to make his share of bad movies--usually with friends--which are ineffective because he isn't dominant and can't set the proper tone. Don't see The Fortune, a forced, slapsticking situational comedy with buddy Warren Beatty, that has Jack looking like Bozo with a paper moustache, and lacks both slap and situation. Don't see The Missouri Breaks, done with next-door neighbor Marlon Brando, one of the most heralded flops to gallop across the silver screen. Nor Going South, with John Belushi, which features numerous shots of our hero's derriere, proving that Nicholson cannot direct Nicholson