Jack Nicholson turns 80 years old on April 22. To celebrate, we’ll be discussing our favorite Jack Nicholson performances through the preceding week in our Jackin’ It series, a collection of critical love letters penned to Nicholson’s best characters.
Of course Jack Nicholson was the wrong choice to play Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. Anybody who’s read King’s novel knows that. Nicholson was, however, the perfect choice to play Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. King’s Torrance was an inherently good man driven to the brink of insanity by isolation, alcoholism, and the evil forces lurking in the Overlook Hotel. Kubrick’s Torrance was an inherently cruel man pushed over the edge by those same forces. Such could be expected of Kubrick, a man obsessed with stories of human nature at its most base.
Time and again Kubrick’s films consisted of a gradual stripping away of the dignity and civility enforced on his characters by society until their primordial instincts shone through like bones in an open fracture: Alex DeLarge’s catastrophic experience with the Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange (1971); the platoon of marines singing the Mickey Mouse March as they return to camp after killing a teenage sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987); a young robot begging a statue to turn him into a real boy for two thousand years in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). His characters rarely have emotional arcs; they merely become their true selves. So when we first meet Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, we realize he’s already a pressure cooker. He’s a little too eager to smile, a little too deliberately casual in the way he sits in his chair as he’s interviewed for the position of the hotel’s winter caretaker. For once, the things that dwell in the Overlook Hotel don’t have their work cut out for them.
So much of this comes from Kubrick’s use of Nicholson’s face, a face that stood at complete odds with those of his New Hollywood contemporaries. Guys like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had the faces of nondescript blue-collar Joes—they were tired faces you would expect to see on the bus heading downtown for a double shift at the steel mill or a double bourbon at a dive bar. After decades of chiseled leading men, their faces were shocking in their ordinariness. But even when he was young, Nicholson had a face sculpted for RKO and early Warner Bros. B-pictures, films where harsh lighting would flood every crack and crease of Humphrey Bogart’s furrowed forehead with cavernous shadows while stretching his hang-dog eyes down to his kneecaps. These films reveled in the grotesqueries of Sydney Greenstreet’s obesity, Peter Lorre’s bulging eyes, and Edward G. Robinson’s baby-fat cheeks. And Nicholson? He had the face of a ghoul. When he smiled his eyebrows jutted into jagged gables while his lips vanished to reveal an immaculate set of brilliantly white teeth. Even when he wasn’t smiling, the long horizontal crease above his eyes could create the illusion that he was wearing a mask of his own face. Small wonder one of the most iconic shots of the film was Nicholson’s face crammed between the edges of a broken door.
One of the great misconceptions about film acting is that the quality of a performance relies entirely on the actor. That isn’t true; only a great director can make a great performance pop off the screen. And Kubrick—detached, floating, and as stately as the rugs in the Overlook’s hallways—was the perfect match for one of Nicholson’s most unhinged performances. We easily remember the crazed histrionics, Nicholson’s manic screams and mood swings. But even in smaller, quieter scenes we see Kubrick’s hand in making a good performance legendary. Consider the famous scene where Jack first meets Lloyd the Bartender in the supposedly abandoned Overlook ballroom. When Kubrick cuts from Jack to Lloyd and back again, he seems to hold the camera a half-second too long on the actors before they say their lines, stranding them in minuscule gaps of silence like they were robots downloading their next piece of dialogue. But unless we pay close attention, we don’t even consciously notice it. All we see is a man falling prey to his own demons. Nicholson’s Torrance could never be saved—he had damned himself long, long ago.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.