the jack we used to love
This week, as part of its Jack Nicholson season, the Irish Film Institute will screen one of the actor's less well-known films that may, however, contain his finest performance. Five Easy Pieces (1970) was a seminal film in Nicholson's career. It arrived just as he was beginning the transition from talented B-movie actor to bona fide A-list star, and in Bob Rafelson's powerful drama, Nicholson revealed fully for the first time his range, power and formidable charisma.
It all started inauspiciously enough. In 1970 Nicholson had just completed his scene-stealing turn in Dennis Hopper's anarchic road movie Easy Rider, when he agreed to star in a feature his friend Bob Rafelson was directing.
Nicholson can have had no idea of the impact that Easy Rider would have on his life, earning him an Oscar nomination and finally opening the doors of Hollywood. But if you compare Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's film to Five Easy Pieces, it begins to look pretty flimsy, and there's no doubt about which one best displayed Nicholson's talent and potential.
By 1970 the 33-year-old was something of a veteran. Having trained as a method actor and cut his teeth in the ingenious low-budget horror films of Roger Corman, Nicholson had become somewhat disillusioned with Hollywood and acting by the time Five Easy Pieces came along. He had already begun double-jobbing as a writer, and had plans to quit acting altogether in favour of directing by the time he was 40.
He and Bob Rafelson had collaborated on the script of Head, a 1968 movie starring pop band The Monkees, and Rafelson's first film as director. So when Rafelson approached Jack about an exciting new script by Carole Eastman, the actor was ready to listen.
Until now, Nicholson had tended to get small parts and character roles, but in Five Easy Pieces he'd play the lead role and be on screen virtually all the time. It was a big challenge and one he was ready for, but Rafelson would push him far beyond his comfort zone.
Nicholson played Bobby Dupea, a nomadic oil-rig worker and hard-drinking womaniser who goes home when he hears that his father is dying. Bobby hailed from a wealthy and cultivated background and was a gifted pianist and child prodigy of whom big things were expected. But he turned his back on all that and when he returns to his childhood home in Washington State we find out why.
With a brilliant script from Eastman, Five Easy Pieces was the kind of searing, gritty, social realist American drama that would become almost commonplace through the 1970s, but seemed shockingly fresh when it appeared. Rafelson shot it in six weeks for less than $1m, which was pretty tough on his actors and on Nicholson most of all.
There would be no sets, no studios, winter shoots on oil rigs and along Vancouver's blustery shore, and money was so tight that Nicholson and Rafelson often bunked in the same motel room, which can't have been easy for either man. But the hardship and seat-of-the-pants atmosphere seems to have suited Nicholson, because his performance is truly rivetting.
Watching it at this remove one is struck by how intense and unmannered his acting is. The grinning, eyebrow-waggling 'Jack' persona has not yet appeared, and instead we glimpse a nervy and raw method man in the grand tradition of Brando and Dean and Montgomery Clift, all of whom had been idols for Nicholson in his youth.
Nicholson made important inputs into the film's two most famous scenes. The celebrated row between Bobby Dupea and an unhelpful waitress was apparently based on a similar incident 10 years previously involving Nicholson at an LA café. In Five Easy Pieces things get tetchier and tetchier as the waitress queries Dupea's order until she asks him will she "hold the chicken" and he tells her "you can hold it between your knees!", sweeping all the food and coffee off his table.
In the film's most pivotal moment, when Bobby confronts his dying father, Bob Rafelson and his star had a serious disagreement. The director wanted Nicholson to break down and cry while explaining to his dad why he ran away from everything, but Nicholson was having none of it.
Always wary of sentiment, he told Rafelson that "no one in the world tries to cry except bad actors -- good actors try not to cry". His character, he insisted, "would never indulge in self-pity", and a tense stand-off ensued.
Rafelson got his way by breaking Nicholson's will. He kept him up for 40 straight hours, and then had Jack wheel William Challee, who was playing Bobby's wheelchair-bound dad, out into the middle of a field. Rafelson held the camera and did the sound, so that only he and the two actors were present, and told Challee to do nothing and stay in character.
After grumbling about his lines Nicholson made up some new ones on the spot, and in the resulting one-take scene delivered one of the most convincing breakdowns you'll ever see.
It was a great performance and when it came out even the likes of Pauline Kael, The New Yorker magazine's much-feared cinematic attack dog, rushed to praise it. Jack's performance won him a best actor Oscar nomination, and he became one of Hollywood's most sought after young actors on the strength of Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider.
Nicholson and Rafelson would collaborate again on four more films down the years, but none would match the intensity and excellence of Five Easy Pieces. As for Nicholson's acting, he continued tackling weighty roles for the next few years.
But by the time One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came along in 1975, despite the excellence of Nicholson's Oscar-winning performance as RP McMurphy, the shadow of the 'Jack' persona was already beginning to edge towards centre stage, and would ultimately turn the once-edgy method man into a knowing, grinning caricature.
Five Easy Pieces screens nightly at the IFI, Temple Bar, until August 26, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will be shown on August 31 at 6.10pm. www.ifi.ie