With Jack Nicholson back in the news due to his rumoured ‘retirement,’ we look back on the days when Jack was at his best.
It’s been a while since we last saw Jack Nicholson. Indeed, the last time we did see him on-screen was in 2010, when he cashed-in a supporting role in the limp How Do You Know. Before that, it was 2007’s The Bucket List, which, again, left something to be desired. You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find a ‘proper’ Nicholson role – that of Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
There was a time, however, when Nicholson was a constant fixture at the cinema, a time when, for the best part of a decade, he churned out role after iconic role. That was the 1970s, and, as news of his maybe/maybe-not retirement circulates, now appears to be a good time to look back at that cycle.
There was a time when Jack Nicholson was a constant fixture at the cinema, churning out role after iconic role
Nicholson was already a decade into his career when he starred in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970). The year before, Easy Rider had established him as an alternative character actor, one riding the last waves of 60s counterculture. But it wasn’t until Rafelson’s picture that Nicholson began – at the tender age of 33 – to formulate the persona that would rank him alongside the great movie actors of his time. If Easy Rider highlighted the comedic, devilish ‘wild side’ of Nicholson – which many people claim, wrongly, is his primary characteristic – then Five Easy Pieces was the film that showed Nicholson to be something more than that.
A wild side is certainly a part of the Nicholson identity. However, it is better seen as a side-act to the real Jack, the one first exhibited in Five Easy Pieces: the Jack of rage and turmoil; the Jack just outside, on the edge of society, too smart to be at the bottom, too rough to be at the very top. This was the Jack Nicholson capable of compassion but too often predicated towards violence, an emotion that, as Roger Ebert put, he was “ready for but not very good at.” These were themes and states that Nicholson would use, with variation, for the rest of his career.
Jack Nicholson was, fittingly, the first person to say the word “cunt” in an American motion picture
Following on from Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson starred in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge (1971), a raw, controversial, sexually-charged slice of cinema. In it, Nicholson became, fittingly, the first person to say the word “cunt” in an American motion picture. It could only have been Jack, and, indeed, he acts like one in the film, showing that, despite holding the unofficial tag of loveable rogue, there were instances when this was unwarranted, coined by people who too often didn’t understand Nicholson’s style.
1972 saw Nicholson reunite with Bob Rafelson for The King of Marvin Gardens, which, though flawed, again showcased Nicholson’s talent, albeit in a more passive manner. Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973) was the actor’s next significant project, a film which marked a return to the more familiar Jack, this time playing a sailor determined to give a young comrade one last adventure before he is sent to jail. The film is noteworthy because it serves to strengthen Nicholson’s predilection toward anti-establishment characters, toward those who will not consent to ‘what is’. Here Jack’s hippie, counterculture beginnings are subverted into something a little more dangerous.
Thus far, Jack Nicholson had starred in four key films from the hotbed of artistic merit and innovation that was the 1970s cinema, working for key American and English directors in the process. What came next, however, was his greatest role, the one where he merged his two personas – wild, joker Jack, and the Jack of greater substance – into one, creating his most fully-realised role, his magnum opus, if you will. I’m not referring to 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I’ll come to that later) – what I’m instead referring to is Nicholson’s performance as detective JJ Gittes in Roman Polanksi’s seminal Chinatown (1974).
Chinatown shows Jack’s uneasy duality caught in its prime
Consider an early scene in that film: Gittes, receiving a fresh shave from his barber, becomes irate at the man next to him, eventually offering to “take him outside.” The barber calms Gittes down and asks him if he’d like to hear a joke. Cue a cut to Gittes, wild-eyed and hysterical, telling the joke in his office to his colleagues. This is Nicholson’s uneasy duality caught in its prime: violence to joker in the space of one scene.
Jack Nicholson is in over his head in Chinatown and he likes that, likes the idea that he is bringing down (or at least attempting to bring down) the powers that be. The 60s are gone and Jack isn’t a hippie anymore, but he’ll be damned if he can’t try and stick it to ‘the man’ once more.
That Nicholson fails in his quest in Chinatown is all the more poignant, and continues the idea of him as an outsider, a nearly man – good, but not quite good enough. He starts the film as a simple PI and ends it losing the woman he loves in a maelstrom of political and familial upheaval. You get the sense he shouldn’t have bothered, and those haunting last lines at the dénouement of Chinatown (“Forget it, Jake…”) effectively read as a mantra for many of his characters.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the final contribution to a cycle of films arguably unsurpassed by any actor ever
1975 saw Jack Nicholson work with another European master in Antonioni’s The Passenger, a fine film which contains what the actor himself regards as his best performance. Nonetheless, 1975 will always be dominated by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, for which Nicholson received his first Oscar. It is easy to see why, for so many people, it is the quintessential Jack Nicholson performance, for it is one of the manic and the tragic, one of rage and anger at the system whilst being firmly rooted – thanks to the source novel – in counterculture. It was the final contribution to a cycle of films arguably unsurpassed by any actor ever, a performance that capped off an intense period of artistic greatness by a man we’ve come to know simply as Jack.
Featured image: United Artists
Inset images: Columbia; Columbia; Paramount