For the best part of five decades this paunchy little actor has been enthralling cinema audiences across the world. His unique visual presence cemented by his devilish smile & arching eyebrows has made him and the industry millions and provided him with the most secure and untouchable places in Hollywood. Not only has achieved this but he has one of the best film C.V.’s ever to be seen in Hollywood.
Born in New Jersey on the 22nd of April 1937, John Joseph Nicholson (or Jack he was later to be called) was born into the world with already a cloak of mystery surrounding him. He was conceived out of wedlock which ultimately led to the this mystery as his mother’s parents were devout Catholics who immediately severed all contact between his mother and his unknown father by sending his mother, accompanied by his grandmother, while pregnant to relations where she gave birth to Jack.. After the birth they returned home with the story that Jack’s grandmother had given birth to him, and this was the reason why they had gone, and Jacks biological mother was now his sister. This was a close kept secret which was not made known to Jack until a Reporter unravelled it in 1974 while doing a piece on him after the success of Chinatown
As a youth Nicholson went to the cinema like his fellow thespians of his generation and also it was here that he became drawn to the idea of becoming an actor. His sister (really his mother) had moved to L.A where she invited Jack out there to stay with her. It was here that Jack decided to become an actor. He enrolled himself at Jeff Corey’s Classes where he found fellow actor and rival Bruce Dern. In 1958 to pay his way in the world he started working as a MGM Cartoon Messenger. Through this job he met producers yet he struck up an solid working relationship with the king of the B-Movies Roger Corman with who he would work closely with in the next ten years would also introduce Nicholson to Monte Helleman who he would also work with in various projects. In 1958 Nicholson had won the lead part in the thriller/drama Cry Baby Killer
Two years later he appeared in his first Corman film A Little Shop of Horrors the next eight years were spent in the most dangerous market in the Hollywood film industry “ the B-Movie films “. Being stuck in this could have proved fatal to his career due to the well publicised fact that B-Movie Actors would spend their entire lives chasing their fame and fortune and not succeeding in achieving it. Nicholson was known to hold his own in his roles but he always lost out on pivotal roles to his former classmate and number 1 rival Bruce Dern. What this period gave Nicholson however was a chance to develop his own acting method. During these years in the B-Movie wilderness he also took a keen interest in producing and writing films. It was however in 1968 that Nicholson who was now devoting his time to gathering money to begin a career in directing that he was sent out to the deep south to supervise the filming of Easy Rider. This came about after established actor Rip Torn had stormed of set refusing to film any scenes due to Director/actor Dennis Hopper because of his constant drugged up state. It was when he arrived on set Hoppers Co-star Peter Fonda instantly recognised him from a film they had made two years previously. Fonda put the motion forth to Hopper who also was in the same movie with Fonda and Nicholson but could not remember him. The role involved Nicholson playing a drunk Lawyer who hitches a lift to Mardi Gras with two bikers played by Hopper & Fonda. The role of George Hanson firmly threw the spotlight on Nicholson. Jack executed the role with such precision and charm that the entire film by today’s standards revolves around his performance leaving whatever self seeking questions and answers firmly in the 60’s.
In 1969 Easy Rider became a sleeper hit and is now a cult film. Everybody was attracted to the role of George Hanson which provided Nicholson with a platform to recreate his acting career away from the B-Movie market. His role in Easy Rider also gave jack his first Oscar Nomination in 1970 for Best Supporting Actor. However he lost out on it to Gig Young for his role in They shoot horses don’t they. Nicholson now had to pick a role that showed his full acting potential and prove that his acting ability could carry a movie. His next job was a pointless exercise as he was cut to nothing but it was his collaboration with an old work friend Bob Rafelson that would send Nicholson on the right path.
In 1970 Nicholson and Rafelson together made one of American cinemas greatest films. Previously they had worked together on the Monkees 1968 cinematic outing in Head in which Nicholson and Rafelson wrote the screenplay and rafelson directed it. This was their first outing together with Nicholson taking the lead role. Five Easy Pieces was a perfect vechicle for Nicholson to portray
someone who was troubled and uncomfortable with who he is. The role of Bobby Dupea was so suited to Nicholson as Nicholson had shown that he himself was an intelligent person who liked the challenge of a difficult role this. The role was to bring Nicholson to the eye of many new innovated film makers. The role of Bobby Dupea brought Nicholson his second oscar nomination but this time it was his first Best Actor nod. Again the academy over looked Nicholson.
ON HIS MOVIES:
” I like making beautiful things. Maybe that sounds ridicoulous, but when I choose a film to do, it’s because it interests me in that way rather than in other way ”
The intervening years of 1970 to 1973 saw Nicholson shoot up the the Hollywood ladder of success. In 1970 he directed his first film Drive He Said which was a project he had intended to do before the overnight success of Easy Rider. His directorial debut was poorly received by critics but it found a place in the memories of many his fans. Jack knew despite his recent successes he would have to carefully maintain his career from now on. He could not go back and develop his style like he did with the turkey’s in his apprenticeship years in the B-Movies. He would now have to make precise decisions in the type of films that he was going to make. It was during this period they made the tour de force Carnal Knowledge this would mark the beginning of Nicholson’s artistic friendship with The Graduate director Mike Nichols. In the years to come they would make 4 films together.
In 1974 Jack Nicholson was a known actor who had the potential to pull a good box office but Nicholson knew that the only way he would secure a solid career was when he took home an Oscar. He knew this because he was now in his mid 30’s, going bald, and whatever looks he had where going to become wrinkles. In 1974 he teamed up with top Hollywood scribe Robert Towne for the adaption of the Navy Novel The Last Detail. This hilarious yet somewhat brutal film was showered with critics praise and both Nicholson and Towne where nominated for Oscars. This marked Nicholson’s third nomination, making it his second Best Actor Nomination but he again like the previous two times lost out. This time it was to screen legend Jack Lemmon for his role in Save the Tiger. However the release of what has become the best Film Noir ever made was released marking the peak of Nicholson’s career.
Roman Polankski’s 1974 Epic Chinatown has since it’s release one of the 20th century’s most important films. It was written by Robert Towne ( of The Last Detail ) and it starred Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes a former police officer turned private who discovers irregularities with a case and he set’s out to discover why, along the way he runs into newly widowed Evelyn Mulwray, played superbly by Faye Dunaway.
Her millionaire husband has been killed and he is linked to the case that Jake Gittes is investigating. The film also boasted the presence of John Houston , the famed Hollywood actor and director, who plays the role of Noah Cross Evelyn’s father. He was also the father of young actress Angelica Houston, whom Nicholson began dating at this time. This relationship lasted for 17 years. But Chinatown possessed an uncanny resemblance to the life of the director Roman Polankski, who’s wife fell victim to Charles Manson and his cult.
The film also marked the end of Polankski’s stay in America because he was accused of Statutory rape, which alleged took place in Jack Nicholson’s house, and he had to flee the country. Since then he has not returned to the states. Chinatown boasts Nicholson’s most restrained performance, and it is this restrained performance that gives this film it’s authentic noir style. The film also implements the usual trademark of a bleak ending in which Evelyn Mulwray is shot as she makes her getaway from her dangerous father John Houston. Chinatown today remains one of cinema’s greatest landmarks and it is constantly cited as one of Nicholson’s greatest performances. It guaranteed Nicholson his fourth Oscar nomination, his third Best Actor, but the academy overlooked him. Not for the first time Nicholson had left the Kodak theatre empty handed. However Nicholson was already on the look out for a script that would suit his talents yet provide him with flawless performance.
In early 1975 Nicholson began shooting what was to be one of the centuries most memorable comedy/drama’s. One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest centres around Randall .P. Mc Murphy, a con man and trickster who incites the fellow patients on the same ward as him to stand up and go against what seems to stand up against the harsh ward Nurse Ms. Ratched.
Nicholson performance as Randall .P. Mc Murphy is such a tour de force that it helps make this film. Also the careful casting of a supporting cast also cements a solid piece of film making. In 1976 Nicholson won the Best Actor oscar for his portrayal of Mc Murphy. The film also went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best adapted script. It was the first film to win all the major oscar categories since It happened one night in 1934. Any doubts about Nicholson’s career ending were quashed. The oscar gave him an extra credit with casting agents and studios alike to be cast in roles he would not have got otherwise.
ON HIS NEED TO BE FREE:
” I don’t like being told what to do. It’s central to my nature, period. It’s a problem as an actor & it’s a problem at home at night, I’m sure. ”
Nicholson only worked three more times in the late 1970’s. After his rampant success he was cast in a minor role in the 1976 flop starring Robert De Niro The Last Tycoon. And in 1978 he starred alongside his hero and idol Marlon Brando in the terrible The Missouri Breaks. In 1978 he set about directing his se film Goin South. His second effort has a very mixed audience among his fans. Some loved his over the top performance and others hated it. Personally I loved it, it was a good show of what was to come along in the 80’s with my hero Jack Nicholson.
All of 1979 was spent in London and on location in Oregon filming Stanley Kubricks The Shining. This film was a perfect start to the 1980’s for Nicholson. Kubrick was not a actors director he was more concerned with framing the action as opposed to directing his actors. Nicholson used this lack of interest to carve out such an eccentric and memorable performance as the novelist turned care taker Jack Torrance. Torrance is a writer who brings his wife and young son to the “ Overlook Hotel “ so he begin work on a new novel. However during the course of the film he becomes mad and proceeds to terrify his family. Again it is a film that has fans and critics of Nicholson split down the middle as to whether his performance makes or breaks the film. For me personally it is one of his better performances that leaves me believing him. The only weak chink in the armour of the film is Jack’s co-star Shelley Duvall who leaves me cursing the screen every time she tries to act. The only thing to upstage Nicholson in the film is the Danny Lloyd who plays the couples young son who has a unique gift. Lloyd gives us a mature performance for his age (8 at the time of filming), he is also the only actor to up stage Nicholson in any of his films.
1981 brought the steamy remake of The Postman always rings twice. It also marked his first Biopic portrayal as American playwright & Journalist Eugene O’Neill in the supporting role of Warren Beattys Oscar laden epic Reds. Six years after his triumph at the Oscars Nicholson was back again this time Nominated in the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Reds.
Two years later in 1984, Nicholson walked away with his second oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal as Gareth Breedlove an ex Astronaut in James .L. Brooks 1983 smash hit Terms of Endearment. Taking the role of the playboy ex-astronaut saw Nicholson return to box-office gold. Since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest none of his intervening films had being a substantial box-office hits.
The rest of the 1980’s were spent appearing in Comedies and drama’s during this time he picked up two more Best Actor nominations for his roles in Prizzi’s Honour & Ironweed. Again his Box office credentials suffered but not as badly as before his return to form in Terms of Endearment. But in 1989 Nicholson took the role that was made for him by agreeing to star as the Joker in Tim Burtons 1989 masterpiece Batman
Audiences around the world enjoyed Nicholson’s performance as one of the worlds most notorious fictional villains in long awaited film version of Batman. The only ones to go against the film were the devout comic book fans who are always to hard to please no matter what you do. The film displayed a very bleak Gotham city, which is ravaged with crime. Our main character Batman/Bruce Wayne (played superbly by Michael Keaton) is also a bleak depressing individual who does not try to understand the criminals but would rather throw them over roof tops to rid the city of them once and for all. Not only did this film revive Nicholson’s Box-office status it also made him a very rich man. He had a deal struck with the producers that he would receive 10% of all the films income and merchandising deal. It is estimated that he has since made $60, 000,000 dollars. No doubt he continues to draw money from all the video rentals, sales and T.V. runs.
The Two Jakes marked the end of Nicholson’s Directing career in 1990. The story takes up 11 years after Chinatown, where we now find the Gittes character a respectable private eye with a huge operation to under his thumb. Nicholson excels once again as Gittes. The film is a fitting swansong for such a troubled directing career.
The early 1990’s saw hit and misses in Jack’s career, however he found huge success with his role as tough marine colonel Nathan Jessup in the 1993 hit A Few Good Men. Despite only being in the film for four scenes and walking away with $5, 000, 000 for his appearance he also got his tenth Oscar Nomination His third Best Supporting Actor nomination. He lost out to the screen veteran and friend Gene Hackman for his role in Unforgiven. Despite this he gave one of his most memorable performances and he gained the attention of a new legion of young fans with his immortal phrase from the film “ You can’t handle the truth “.
” Actors do play their own lives. What else do they have ? It’s not more painful, in some ways it makes it easier ”
In 1995 he teamed up with one of Hollywoods most opinionated actors turned director. He agreed to star in Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard. He played a bleak individual by the name of Freddy Gale who is hell bent on murdering the drunken motorist who has already spent six years in prison for his killing his little daughter in a drunken collision. Nicholson brings depth and emotion to such a character as torn apart as Freddy Gale. This may well be a result of Jack immediate life at the time. He too had settled down with Rebecca Broussard. His relationship with Angelica Houston had ended when it was revealed that Broussard was carry Nicholson’s child. Another impending factor is the fact that Angelica Houston appears as Freddy’s ex-wife who is also the mother of his children whom he is distant from as a result of the death of his daughter, their sister. Their is a lot of tension in each scene that they share making it the film a whole lot more believable. This is one of Nicholsons more restrained performances yet it is one of his better over the previous ten years.
In 1997 Nicholson teamed up with his Terms of Endearment director James .L. Brooks for the bitter sweet Romantic Comedy As Good As It Gets. After spending the previous seven years taking bit parts in films and fooling around with the idea of retirement, Nicholson opted to stay and do what he does best. He beat John Travolta for the role of a sexist, racist, surly, compulsive obsessive romantic novelist Melvin Udall. Nicholson struck gold in more ways then one with this great role. Taking a role that had absolute no charm or charisma in it, he injected these and made us one of the memorable screen characters in world cinema history. When you watch this film and you are watching a “ Best of Jack’s past “, you are reintroduced to all the characters that Jack has played over the last three decades. All these characters have been chopped up and mixed together to create Melvin Udall.
In 1998 Jack Nicholson enjoyed his third oscar win. This marked his eleventh time to be nominated and his second Best Actor. Since then he has teamed up with his good friend Sean Penn to make their second collaboration The Pledge which shows that Nicholson is far from finished. Many scowled at the fact that Nicholson was left out of the oscar running for 2002, because of the strength of role but under the direction of Hollywood’s resident loud mouth Penn it was unlikely. However 2003 could see Nicholson achieve his 12th oscar nomination for Alexander Payne’s About Smidt However he lost out to Adrien Brophy. Despit this Nicholsons 60th feature film starring Adam Sandler shot straight to the top of the U.s Box Office in April 2003