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Wednesday 16 August 2017

Jack Nicholson's back - in the Nich' of time?

Nicholson turns 80 next week and rumours of a comeback are rife. But can he turn his back on the overripe performances that have sadly defined his later years

Here's Johnny: Jack Nicholson making a grand entrance as Jack Torrance in The Shining
Here's Johnny: Jack Nicholson making a grand entrance as Jack Torrance in The Shining
Jack Nicholson in 'Five Easy Pieces'.

Paul Whitington

Jack Nicholson turns 80 next week, and though he hasn't made a film in close on a decade, there is talk of an imminent comeback. Following his appearance as a womanising mogul in the 2010 comedy How Do You Know, Jack retreated from the limelight amid rumours his memory was failing and he couldn't remember his lines. Since then there have been rare TV appearances, but otherwise, a studied silence.

Now, it would seem, Jack's back: two months ago Paramount announced that he and Kristen Wiig had signed up for a remake of the Austrian drama Toni Erdmann. In that film, an elderly teacher posed as a marketing guru in order to make a connection with his career-obsessed daughter. Its mood swung wildly from funny to darkly surreal, but if Nicholson's version goes ahead, you can rest assured it'll be cuddlier, more broadly comic.

In his later career, Jack became notorious for overripe performances in some very ordinary films. Audiences knew him so well that a raised eyebrow or lascivious smirk could always buy a cheap laugh, but since the mid-1980s critics have been angrily accusing him of phoning it in. The reason they get so worked up is because they know what Nicholson is capable of, and evidence of his wild talent can be found at the IFI this week, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is being shown on the big screen. Younger readers may assume that Jack has always been a glib show-boater, but once upon a time he was a lean, mean method man, the worthy successor of his teenage idols Dean, Clift and Brando. At his peak he was as good as any of them, and even later, the over-fed and lazy Jack would surprise his detractors now and then by switching on the raw intensity that had got him noticed in the first place. So no one should discount the possibility that his return to the screen will be memorable for all the right reasons.

His old friend Candice Bergen once described Nicholson as "unknowable". A deeply private person, an art collector and man of culture, he appears to have invented his grinning, buffoonish public persona as a kind of decoy.

With his arched eyebrows, blinding grin and trademark Ray Bans, he was for many years a familiar sight at the Academy Awards, at the home games of his beloved LA Lakers, and along the boulevards of Hollywood. Once, when he was cruising in his Mercedes 600 with his Newfoundland retriever Mr Fabulous, he rolled down the window to pointing pedestrians and said, "Yes, it's Mr Fabulous."

His exploits as a ladies' man would be hard to exaggerate, and over the years he has fathered at least six children by various women. A restlessness has pervaded his private life, as if he's searching for something he'll never find. And when you explore his childhood, it all starts to make sense.

He was born John Joseph Nicholson in New York City on April 22, 1937, and raised in the quiet working class New Jersey town of Manasquan. His father, John Joseph Sr, drank too much, but his fecklessness was compensated for by the fiercely dependable Ethel May, who kept the family going by running a hairdressing salon.

What Jack didn't know was that these two were actually his grandparents, and that his eldest 'sister' June was his mother. Jack would not find this out until the mid-1970s, when both women were dead.

John Joseph Sr was eventually turfed out by Ethel May, and Jack grew up without a male role model and surrounded by adoring women. An unremarkable student, he was voted "class clown" by his peers. He auditioned for school plays, and would later remember sneaking off to the movies to watch his hero Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

Movies were becoming an obsession, and at 17 he fled the east coast for Hollywood. He got a job as a gopher at MGM's animation studios, and in 1956 was spotted in a studio lift by a producer called Joe Pasternak, who asked him if he'd ever thought of acting. "No," he replied, but nevertheless a screen test was arranged.

The result was not impressive: untrained, not conventionally handsome, Jack was encouraged to do something about his flat New Jersey drawl.

He spent most of the 1960s toiling on Roger Corman B-movies and bad TV shows, and by the end of that decade he was ready to abandon acting altogether in favour of writing and directing. Then Columbia chairman Abe Schneider asked him if he'd go down to New Mexico to give Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda a hand with their new biker picture. Nicholson thought they needed a producer, but Fonda asked him to stand in for Rip Torn, who'd left the project in a huff.

Easy Rider was a huge hit, and Nicholson stole the show playing a disillusioned Texan lawyer who finds himself in the desert.

Jack seized his chance once it came, and in the space of the next five years delivered a string of electrifying performances in films like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974). His greatest role would arrive in 1975, but Jack initially wanted nothing to do with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Kirk Douglas had bought the rights to Ken Kesey's beat classic back in the 60s. His son Michael produced Milos Forman's screen adaptation, and was very keen for Jack to play McMurphy, the rebellious jailbird who sets the cat among the pigeons when he's sent for assessment at a mental institution.

But Nicholson grew tired of everyone telling him how good he'd be in the part, and seriously considered turning it down before wisely changing his mind. Forman allowed Nicholson to improvise dialogue whenever he felt like it, leading to such priceless lines as the moment during a card game when McMurphy asks the other mental patients "which one of you nuts has got any guts".

His performance was mesmerising, full of bravura and life-affirming nervous energy. It won him an Oscar, and confirmed that he could carry a picture on his own. After that, Jack was Hollywood royalty.

In the early 1970s he'd bought a house next to Marlon Brando's on Mulholland Drive: when Warren Beatty moved nearby it was rechristened 'Bad Boy Drive'. As his fame grew he wooed a staggering array of beauties, and even during his long relationship with Angelica Huston, monogamy was a notional concept.

Although there would be more good performances, over time his work began to be obscured by his image. The larger-than-life embodiment of McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest contained elements of the swaggering persona that would make his later work harder to take seriously. Even some of his most celebrated performances through the 80s - in The Shining, Terms of Endearment, Batman - are divisive and have led to accusations of hamminess.

It's true that Nicholson's acting is sometimes bigger than his films, but even at his showiest he's more interesting to watch than most. And he seems to be able to turn in work of real quality whenever he feels like it - in his own film, The Two Jakes, in Bob Rafelson's Blood and Wine, or Martin Scorsese's Departed.

In screen acting terms, he's a sort of genius, so don't be too surprised if Jack manages to add to his collection of Oscars when he shows up in Toni Erdmann.

Five of his best

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Jack Nicholson in 'Five Easy Pieces'.
 

It could be argued that Jack Nicholson gave his finest performance of all in Bob Rafelson's moody 1970 drama Five Easy Pieces (above), playing a wandering oil-rig worker who's turned his back on his cultured family but returns home when he hears his dad is dying. Most people remember the famous diner scene, but Nicholson's confrontation with his father would move a stone.

In Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir classic Chinatown he was utterly convincing as Jake Gittes, a wise-ass 1940s Los Angeles private eye who falls foul of a powerful and splendidly dysfunctional family.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (inset right) we have discussed, and it's hard to imagine the film having had anything like the same impact if McMurphy hadn't been played by Nicholson. One could argue the merits of his performance in The Shining, and Stephen King and others certainly have. But I think his guignol theatricality took Kubrick's film in a darker, more surreal and interesting direction.

And let's not forget that Nicholson can play ordinary when he wants to: he was note-perfect as the dim but loyal Mafia hitman Charlie Partanna in John Huston's 1986 Prizzi's Honor.

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