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Jack Nicholson: On aCollision Course with Fate

I'm analyzing Jack Nicholson's career for him. He's frowning behind a cloud of cigarette smoke and trying to look interested. We're sitting in a room at the Excelsior Hotel at the Venice Film Festival, the day after the premiere of "The Crossing Guard," his new movie which was directed by his pal Sean Penn. Nicholson plays a man who wants to kill the drunk driver who ran over his little girl. The irony is, he's a drunk, too. It's a very serious picture.

I'm saying: You can play this guy and you can play The Joker. Jim Carrey can play the Joker but he can't play this guy. William Hurt can play this guy but he can't play the Joker.

"Right? Yeah?" Nicholson is saying.

You can go from one extreme to the other and be comfortable at both extremes.

"I think by choice I protected that," Nicholson says. "The terrible thing for American actors is, if they have a success, everyone that they collaborate with wants them to repeat that success. And then maybe they're successful again and they repeat it again. By the third or fourth time, it begins to wear thin. So now they try a departure from the formula, and if it doesn't work, they're dead. They have to go back to repeating what they did they once worked. Years go by. They may never get free again.

"Almost by training, I like to mix it up. I did the Joker not for a commercial success but because I wanted to work in a mask. I don't wanna get trapped doing one kind of thing. When people start understanding me too quickly, I start behaving oddly. I try to put them off."

And so, whistling his own tune, sometimes in strange keys, Jack Nicholson has made his way, and at the age of 58 can find himself described in the Baseline film encyclopedia as "the very personification of the Hollywood movie star."

He did indeed play the Joker in "Batman" (1989), and not incidentally brought home a pay check, including profit participation, of between $40 and $50 million, which is probably the most that any actor has ever made from one movie. But he has also played entirely different roles: Teamsters leader James Hoffa, and a vampire, and playwright Eugene O'Neill, and J. J. Gittes, the private eye in "Chinatown," and McMurphy, the free spirit in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And of course before that, grinning triumphantly as the character that dramatized his escape from a decade of exploitation films, was the guy in the football helmet in "Easy Rider' (1969).

Nicholson had been acting for 11 years and had been involved in 17 movies before "Easy Rider" tickled the imagination of filmgoers. He started as a studio messenger boy, was an animator, took acting classes, served his apprenticeship in the low-budget quickies that Roger Corman cranked out for American-International Pictures. Study those early films and you will find few hints that Nicholson would someday personify the Hollywood movie star -- few hints, indeed, that he would long be employed as an actor, let alone one hauling in millions per movie.

"I didn't wanna just be a flash in the pan," he said. "It was good for me to be a late success and to work in those Corman movies which no one saw. I mean, I had the same standards as Laurence Olivier then, you know. If I thought people were gonna see them, I would have shriveled up and died. But I got to make them and no one saw them and I learned about acting."

The movies he is remembering included such titles as "The Cry Baby Killer," "Too Soon to Love," "Back Door to Hell" and "Flight to Fury," as well as such comparably superior titles as "The Raven," "The Terror" and "Hell's Angels on Wheels," all done between 1959 and 1968.

"I had dreadful experiences looking at them, even then," he said, lighting a fresh cigarette and moving his neck around the way he does, as if it's stiff. "You don't see acting anymore as bad as some of the stuff we did in those pictures. It doesn't exist on the professional level anymore . But I don't know how anybody learns to be a movie actor unless they get a chance to see themselves and see what they're doing wrong. They had a retrospective of some of my old stuff at the Telluride festival. I hadn't seen some of those movies since they were made. All I could see was this kind of young person, with no face on him, kind of hurling himself up on the screen in different attitudes. I don't know what the hell else I was doing."

Your face has developed a lot of character since then, I said. If you look at your early pictures, you hadn't become yourself yet.

"Well, I was just cute as could be."

He looked like he wanted to be a handsome leading man, having not yet participated in the great discovery of the later 1960s that Hollywood would tilt toward "character stars" like himself, Hoffman, Hackman, Pacino and Robert De Niro and away from the conventionally handsome leads of the 1950s.

"I was a young everything. They'd call me the young James Cagney, the young James Stewart, the young Henry Fonda -- the young anything, I was it. But I had trouble. They thought I was very odd looking in that period of time. I was working at MGM in the cartoon department, and I wanted to be an actor. My first interview at Warners, the guy says, 'Well, Jack, I really don't know what we need you for. But if we ever do need you we'll need you very bad'."

What Nicholson personified above all, in his first flowering as an actor, was an intelligent outsider with an unpredictable streak. The film that truly launched his career was not "Easy Rider," which was more of a foot in the door, but the movie he made the next year, Bon Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," where he had the lead, as a former concert pianist who was now an oil field roustabout, and returned home to deal with old and painful family issues.

In that film and in Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" (1971) and Hal Ashby's "The Last Detail" (1973) and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown' (1974) and Milos Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), he dominated the early 1970s, which was the last golden age of American filmmaking. Audiences looked forward to him because he played characters who were smart, verbal and angry, and had an attitude about the world, and because there was a way he looked, and a way he cocked that famous eyebrow or carelessly lit a cigarette, that made you think you were about to see something memorable.

If there has not been a golden age since the 1970s, it is because Hollywood, by and large, no longer tries to make smart, individualistic directors' and actors' films. The story and the package are now dominant. That's why it was good to see him in "The Crossing Guard," which is character-driven, not plot-driven, and allows him to do more precise character work instead of the wider-gauged acting he's done recently in movies like "Wolf."

"If we'd made it in 1970, I wouldn't have thought 'Crossing Guard' was as unusual as it is now," he said. "Character-motivated pictures are becoming harder and harder to find. I thought that the swing to melodrama, frankly, would be over four or five years ago already. But it seems like the movies are becoming, more formally, the circus. It's the bigger explosion and the wilder escape from the more pyrotechnical situation, and it's not very rewarding for the actor when everything is either soap opera or pure melodrama or special effects. And by now it's been going on so long that the audience is unused to anything else."

In "The Crossing Guard," his character is a jeweler whose marriage broke up seven years ago when his daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Now the driver (David Morse) has been released from prison, and the Nicholson character intends to kill him. An unexpected plot development gives him three days to think it over, and during that time we get to know him better--along with the Morse character, and Nicholson's former wife, played by Anjelica Huston. (The fact that Huston is Nicholson's own ex-partner adds poignancy to a late-night scene where they talk about the good times they had together.)

During the three days, Morse meets an artist (Robin Wright), and they begin a love affair, but she flees, because she is weighed down by the guilt he still feels.

"This role was the other end of the pole from the Joker," Nicholson said. "It was a chance to get closer to first person acting: Less artifice, more interior, more behavior. The scenes didn't all consist of you servicing the plot. There was some air in there. Right now in my career, I can afford to go for the spice. This movie is almost naked. I don't have a limp or a lisp or a walk or a thing. In other words, I did this movie for the doing, you know what I mean? "

What he does in the movie is something he did more often in his 1970s films: He lets the audience feel he contains a secret, and may share it with them, but not with anyone in the movie.

"It's a kind of conspiratorial thing?"

Yeah. It's a note that you have that people respond to.

"Part of that is technique," Nicholson said. "I had a very good teacher who felt that 85 percent of acting is relaxation and the rest is if the people like you or not. Like most really good Method acting teachers, she felt tension is the great crippler of actors. Spontaneity is what you're after. It can't come from conceptualizing."

Nicholson poured himself a fresh glass of Pellegrino mineral water and lit another cigarette and put his feet on up the coffee table and sighed.

"I was talking to this German journalist this morning," he said, "and he told me the movie was just 'too much.' I said, 'What do you mean, too much -- so I know what you're talking about?' And he landed on a scene I'm not in it, which is when the girl [Wright] says to Morse, 'Your guilt is too much competition for me.' That's what he meant by too much. He didn't think that dialog was 'realistic'."

Nicholson looked impatient with the absent interviewer.

"To dare to be poetic about reality, to give a character that line, is what's good about Sean's dialog. After all she is an artist, she's a painter, so there's justification for her being able to articulate that much awareness. But you don't hear that kind of talk in other American movies. I told the guy, 'As an audience I thirst for this. Everybody in this picture can sit there and be real. That's what we've all done for years at a time in acting class. But when you gotta step out of what you know, that's hard'."

He blew out smoke. "Anyway, what the hell. At this point, if everybody hates me and I can never work again, so what?"

Later that afternoon, I was talking to Sean Penn about Nicholson, and he said: "It's not just the script and not just the director. You've got this actor who's going to go up or down with that ship all the way and he comes in and gives it all. And on top of that you've got those two-toned shoes sticking out the trailer window every morning at 6:00, you know, and that laugh that follows him when the door opens, and it makes movie-making fun. You know?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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