Thursday 26 April 2018

Has Jack Nicholson retired from acting? He was a match for anyone – even Brando

In his heyday, Jack Nicholson was a match for anyone – even Brando

Paul Whitington

Has Jack Nicholson permanently retired from acting? A couple of weeks back US magazine Star ran a story claiming that Nicholson had quit acting because of memory loss. And an unnamed source told the celebrity website Radar Online that "at 76, Jack has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him".

Nicholson's response was typically bombastic. He had, he told The Sun newspaper, "a mathematician's brain", and poured scorn on the idea that he had trouble remembering anything. But he did hint that he may indeed be finished with movies, saying: "I'm not going to work until the day I die."

As he hasn't appeared in a film since 2010, and has no apparent plans to do so in the near future, we may well have seen the last of Jack. And if so, the news should sadden movie lovers everywhere, because Nicholson really was something unique, and special.

Younger readers may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about, because, for at least the past 20 years, Nicholson has phoned in the majority of his performances and become a grinning caricature of his younger self. With his Ray-Ban sunglasses, raised eyebrows and cheesy grin, he's a smug fixture at awards ceremonies who seems happy to trade on past glories.

But those past glories really were something and, in his pomp, Jack was one of the most charismatic and electrifying screen actors there's ever been. If you've never seen Five Easy Pieces or Chinatown or The King of Marvin Gardens, you'll be amazed at the lean and electrifying young actor who so effortlessly dominates the screen.

In his day, Jack was as good as anyone, even his idol Brando, and what's more he overcame a disastrous background and repeated failures to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

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 then so did a lot of Irish-American men, and his fecklessness was compensated for by the fiercely dependable matriarch Ethel May, who kept the family going by running a hairdressing salon.

What Jack didn't know, however, 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 he was famous and both women were dead. His father's identity has remained a mystery and Nicholson has repeatedly refused to take a determining blood test.

After John Joseph Sr was turfed out by an exasperated Ethel May, 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 sneak off to the movies to watch his hero Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

Nicholson became obsessed with movies and was just 17 when he struck out for Hollywood, bunking with his 'sister' June while he tried to break into acting.

But success would not come easy for Jack, who had a strong New Jersey accent and was not conventionally handsome. His first movie job was as a gopher at MGM and a series of screen tests in the mid-1950s came to nothing. By the end of that decade he was getting bit parts and TV walk-ons, but it was in the B-movies of Roger Corman that Jack would get his first real break.

Corman was famous for his rough and ready supporting features, made for half nothing at breakneck speeds. He gave Jack his first lead, as a juvenile delinquent in Cry Baby Killer (1958). It was a poor film and worse were to follow, but Jack was a quick study and learnt a lot about movie-making from Corman.

He showed hints of what was to come with a hilarious turn as a masochistic dental patient in Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). But it was a rare gem in a sea of bad films and unhappy TV appearances that put him off the small screen for good. In fact, it was writing jobs and early attempts at directing that kept the wolf from the door through the 1960s, as his acting career slowed, then stalled. And, by 1969, the 32-year-old Nicholson had more or less decided to give up acting altogether – until Easy Rider came along.

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had originally cast Rip Torn in the pivotal role of a disillusioned Texan lawyer who drops out with a couple of bikers, but when Torn and Hopper brandished butter knives at each other after a contretemps in a restaurant, Hopper persuaded Nicholson to take the part instead. The picture was a huge hit, Jack stole the show as the wide-eyed square who discovers himself in the desert and, after Easy Rider, he never looked back.

Over the next five years, Nicholson established himself as perhaps the finest actor of his generation with a string of extraordinary performances in films like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974). To younger moviegoers who'd lived through the swinging '60s, Jack had a seductive counterculture edginess that set him apart from every other Hollywood star.

His intensity and charisma were hard for other actors to live with, and found an ideal outlet in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Jack initially hesitated about taking on the role of jovial asylum inmate RP McMurphy because everyone told him he'd be perfect for it. But they were right: it swept the board at the 1976 Academy Awards, and won Nicholson the first of his three Best Actor Oscars.

After that, Nicholson shot to the top of the Hollywood A-list. As his fame grew, he wooed a staggering array of women, and even after he began his long relationship with Angelica Huston, monogamy remained a notional concept.

A deeply private man whom close friends have called unknowable, Jack invented a grinning, clownish persona to hide behind, and has done so most successfully. But it could be argued that, from the early 1980s on, the 'Jack' act began to infect his acting. Through that decade, interesting turns in films like Ironweed (1987) and Heartburn (1986) were interspersed with performances that were coasting variants on the Jack persona. His work in Terms of Endearment (1983), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Batman (1989) might have been entertaining, but seemed safe and anodyne compared with his 1970s films.

And things got worse in the 1990s, when he drifted into self-parody with a scene-chewing performance in A Few Good Men. At times he seemed more like a celebrity than a great actor, but, in fairness, he played that role well.

With his trademark shades and gleaming teeth, he became 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."

And every now and then, he roused himself from his torpor to remind everyone just how good an actor he is. His portrayal of obsessive-compulsive pulp novelist Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets (1997) was note-perfect and won him his third Oscar. And he earned the last of his 12 Academy Award nominations for his touching turn as a lonely widower in About Schmidt (2002).

In 2006, Jack collaborated with Martin Scorsese on his gangster saga The Departed, playing an Irish-American mob boss with a staggering contempt for human life. But by then he was 69, and clearly losing interest in a movie-making era that hardly compared with the glory days of the 1970s.

His performance in the 2010 comedy How Do You Know was understated by Jack's standards and nicely restrained. Perhaps he knew it would be his last screen role, or maybe he just thought he had nothing left to prove.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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