Sunday 22 April 2018

Nolte keeps us guessing in a rackety Tinseltown memoir

Memoir: Rebel, Nick Nolte, William Morrow, €21.99

Demons: As he gained a foothold in the theatre circuit, Nolte continued to experiment with drugs and slowly became a functioning alcoholic
Demons: As he gained a foothold in the theatre circuit, Nolte continued to experiment with drugs and slowly became a functioning alcoholic

Hilary A White

The archetype of the rackety screen star is dying off much the same way that rock 'n' roll has become such a terribly polite place in recent years. Cocksure debauchery and excess are as rare today in Tinseltown as the famous TV out the hotel window is on the rock circuit. And what's more, we're not quite sure how we feel about this.

It makes this long-awaited autobiography by Nick Nolte, one of modern cinema's great enfant terribles, read almost like something from a forgotten realm even if Nolte is still in our midst (albeit tucked away in the US TV drama Graves). Even taking into account a dash of self-mythologising (as is his wont, if you believe director Neil Jordan), Nolte's reflections in these pages are some of his most entertaining work of late.

While the tone is warts-and-all and blunt when it wants to be, the three-time Oscar-nominee is a hard card to read. When, for example, he casually divulges how he'd administer "a bit of heroin" on the set of Jordan's The Good Thief to get into character, your gut tells you to take it with "a pinch of salt".

Why would somebody so good at being anyone but himself let truth get in the way of a good yarn?

Tom Waits, another growling embodiment of untamed Americana, played a similar game with interviewers for years and that worked.

What is certain is Rebel does a good job convincing us that recklessness has long been Nolte's default setting.

Growing up in Iowa, it was his mother, a proto-feminist, who introduced him to drugs, he claims. When he was sluggish on school mornings, out would come a "vitamin".

"The pills were Dexedrine - in reality speed - and taking one would have me bouncing off the walls in no time, eager as hell to get to school and wreak whatever havoc I could find."

From the get-go, a portrait of a highly-strung youth is painted. "It was fine with my mom that I was fiery and forceful - I received those traits from her - and I discovered that I possessed a kind of intensity that was both internally and externally powerful. When fear welled up, I'd simply summon a kind of outrageousness that was always inside me."

Naturally athletic, Nolte was a mercurial football talent, as prone to gifted flair as he was beer-drenched off-field wildness and disciplinary issues.

There was a soiree south of the border in search of a sexual education in a whorehouse. By 1965, he had a Federal conviction for hustling fake ID cards and escaped imprisonment "by the skin of his teeth". Hopping from one junior college football programme to the next couldn't bring stability and a bizarre stress-relieving habit of bouncing his head off cars had developed.

A turning point came when a friend planted a seed of interest in acting. Nolte, desperately in need of an anchor, dived headfirst into acting theory, reading everything he could get his hands on with a lupine hunger in keeping with anything and anyone he loved.

As he gained a foothold in the theatre circuit, he continued to experiment with drugs and was a functioning alcoholic to all intents and purposes.

Women were also a major drug of choice ("I'm fascinated by them. Totally fascinated. And fascinated by myself in relation to them"), one that became increasingly available as his roles on stage and screen rose in prominence.

Variously, Nolte lashed himself to open marriages, incendiary party girls, on-set romances with leading ladies and passion-laced brushes with the likes of Jacqueline Bisset and his The Prince of Tides foil Barbra Streisand.

Rebel is punctuated by thoughts Nolte has about the projects he was taking on at the time and how usually there was some parallel or harmonisation between the character and his personal circumstances.

Continually there is a feeling that the trail of Lear jets, beautiful women, critical acclaim and piles of drugs will derail at any moment into another divorce, another stymied film project or another depression-fuelled bender.

Even when free of booze, blow and broads, Nolte found new crutches in prescribed medical wonder drugs which would lead to his 2002 conviction for "driving under the influence" and that dishevelled mugshot.

By the end, as the 77-year-old contemplates his curtain call, the tone is more one of grizzled acceptance than regret. He is also light on the score-settling that such memoirs often turn into. And just as we come to feel we've finally got to know Nolte after all these years, a mischievous postscript clouds the picture.

He'll keep us guessing a little longer.

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