“Don’t come any closer,” a young man says brandishing a firearm. Not only are those words filled with conviction, but the performance attached to them displays the tortured petulance and the ability to swing from restless calm to mad fury (all with manic ease) that would define a career. The film is 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer, the kind of teenage drive-in fare that could have inspired so many after-school specials yet to come. And the young man brandishing the gun, the titular cry baby killer, is 21-year-old Jack Nicholson. Here, in his screen debut, he’s already hinting at the talents that would make him a legendary screen presence across five decades and 75 acting credits. Whether we’re measuring him by Oscar nominations, his mark made on every film genre, or his fascinating onscreen and off-screen personas, Jack Nicholson is our finest male screen presence. Deliberately spoken, hair perpetually running away from the front of his scalp, eyes that promise fighting, fucking, or both, and expressive, arched eyebrows deployed with the deliberateness of an electrical current made to startle and stun, Jack Nicholson has always cast a striking figure. That figure is one that stands in sharp contrast to the square-jawed, honest-eyed leading men of Hollywood’s Golden Era. With facial expressions worthy of silent film, and an intensity that feels nothing less than taboo, Nicholson stood as a preeminent face of New Hollywood, and in its aftermath, carved out an indelible spot in an ever-evolving Hollywood. The game has changed at least a dozen times during his career, but despite that, we never lost sight of him, never lived a decade where his presence became anything less than welcome and anything short of necessary. It’s impossible to chart a through line for all Nicholson’s roles, but in his strongest performances we can see diverse portrayals of neurosis and mental illness as a reflection of the 20th century and the changing role of masculinity.
It was a decade of Westerns, Corman chillers, and hot rod flicks, a decade under the influence of culture-as-commodity—often its cheapest form—in which Nicholson established himself as the preeminent face of New Hollywood counterculture. Easy Rider (1969) put Jack on the map, his presence planted firmly and suddenly, like a detour run through back roads that would one day become major highways. It also earned him his first Oscar nomination. As the alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, Easy Rider offered the first significant role in which Nicholson is set up as a figure of authority, “a square,” only to be revealed as an ally to anachronistic outlaws, someone who can peer through the bullshit of America’s bound-and-gagged definition of freedom. Only seven years earlier, we’d come to associate the lawyer, at least as a cinematic presence, with Gregory Peck’s rigidly moral Atticus Finch, who despite his defense of a black man, is still firmly situated in classic American values. Hanson on the other hand, drunk and disheveled, delivers an equally impassioned defense, though on a more casual stage than a courtroom. But his defense doesn’t rely on the supposed sacredness of the Constitution, but instead pokes holes through it. While Finch can uphold the notion that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” Hanson recognizes the bullshit in that. People don’t want another point of view, they don’t want someone else’s skin, because “they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.” Through Hanson, at the end of a decade defined by the Civil Rights movement and steadily warming conflict in Vietnam, Nicholson explored the truth that most folks aren’t looking for freedom or understanding, but for control and easy answers fit for frightened children.
Fear makes for a restless man, and none of Nicholson’s characters burn with a restlessness quite like Robert “Bobby” Eroica Dupea, a man from an upper-class family of musicians who seeks solace by hiding amidst a blue-collar life of oil riggers. But oil is crude, nearly as crude as blood. Bob Rafelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces is a swan-song to traditional family values, born out of a fear of the ability to uphold them. Titled after a book of piano lessons for beginners, Five Easy Pieces features a lead character who can’t seem to get his life on the right track, perhaps because there is no right track for him. Nicholson portrays Bobby with an exquisite sense of self-loathing and an overall dissatisfaction with life and all of its prospects. It’s a characterization that still feels uniquely honest in this age of millennials cast-off the sinking ship of America. Bobby’s burdened by a family he won’t claim, a job he doesn’t want, a pregnant girlfriend he doesn’t love, and an unborn child he can’t abandon guiltlessly. Bobby’s depression runs deep, but it’s masked by pain inflicted on others, and a sardonic mischief that stings, administered most painfully to his girlfriend, Rayette (the exceptional Karen Black). While Bobby returns home to visit his dying father, he’s no prodigal son come in from the wild with regret. Instead, it’s a sense of duty that brings him back, an attempt to be the kind of man he was raised to be, the kind of man decent society says he must be. Yet, he cannot be this man. So Bobby goes the complete opposite route by picking fights, sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend, and being an all-around brute of a man, which brings an equal lack of satisfaction. Nicholson’s performance is one of complex, partial answers and allusions that point to an inward trauma never fully revealed, but one that presumably stems from a deep-seated hatred of his own masculine existence. Near the film’s final moments, Bobby attempts to talk to his mute and paralyzed father, a half-conversation of broken sentences that point to his own form of muteness and penalization.
“My life, I mean…most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of…I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really…I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking…for auspicious beginnings, I guess…”
The scene is one of Nicholson’s most powerful, revealing an intimate character portrait of a man who never stands fully revealed, a man whose idea of prosperity is vague and thus unattainable. There’s a shot, moments before the film’s end, where Bobby stares into the mirror of a gas station bathroom, contemplating a decision he’s already committed to: to abandon Rayette and once again leave his life behind in search of a beginning that can only have a cyclical resolution. In the film’s original script, Bobby committed suicide by driving off a bridge. The film’s ending is far subtler but no less self-destructive and bleak. We get the sense that Bobby will find himself starting into that mirror time after time, hitchhiking to nowhere and repeating the words “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine,” like some false mantra or wish cast into the gutters of America where dreams have become like so much filth.
The films that followed in this era of Nicholson’s career often gave way to parallel explorations of dissatisfaction and a general fear of being obsolete. He ushered in characters with private and public addictions, matched by equally private and public bouts of self-loathing. In 1971, Nicholson teamed with Mike Nichols for the black-humored sex dramedy, Carnal Knowledge, a film that’s almost blindsiding in its surgical-level castration of the male ego. The film follows best friends Jonathan (Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) through their sexual exploits and failed marriages from graduate school to middle-age. Juvenile antics in the service of one-night stands gives way to misogyny for Jonathan, and the game of scoring becomes an undiagnosed sexual addiction. Jonathan—cheating, abusive, selfish, and sexually unsatisfied—is easily Nicholson’s most unlikable character. “You give off such bad vibrations,” Sandy tells him. Yet, Jonathan is a character who is still somehow alluring because it’s Jack in the role and already he’d found the resources to deliver likably unlikable characters. There’s a vulgarity to the movie that’s still a bit shocking, even more so given its release in the early 70s. In this role, Nicholson became the first actor to say “cunt” onscreen, and he rather fittingly delivers it with all the vitriolic drip that makes it worth its still semi-forbidden nature in American cinema. Nicholson and Nichols find the fine line between making Jonathan a fascinating character and firmly insisting that Jonathan isn’t a man to root for. He exists to serve a point, the point being the prison that men can make of the newfound sexual freedom of the era—for themselves—and for the women they seek. By the film’s end, an impotent Jonathan is reduced to paying for blowjobs and self-authored pieces delivered to praise his own virility. In the age of New Hollywood, Nicholson showcased his strength and appeal by committing himself to the notion that men are weak, fragile things, both physically and psychologically.
Nicholson reteamed with Ralfeson in 1972, for The King of Marvin Gardens, which once again explored the burden that comes with family ties, though with the exception of the film’s opening monologue, it’s less successful at exploring this than Five Easy Pieces. Here, Nicholson took a more subdued role, as depressed “philosopher king,” and talk radio personality David Staebler, who becomes roped into his brother’s fruitless criminal scheme. The bespectacled Nicholson takes a backseat to the more overt madness of Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn, becoming a wallflower who’s powerless in all things except observation. There’s a loss of order, a lack of stability despite his namesake, that befalls his life as he quietly and rather passively tries to hold things together as his brother attempts to grab hold of the American Dream like some incompetent Scarface yet to receive the message that the word is, as a fact, not his. Nicholson never does quiet for long and 1973’s The Last Detail saw Nicholson in the role of brash Navy Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky. Nicholson quickly eschews any notion that his role in a position of authority will see him playing by the rules. A road movie that sees Buddusky and fellow Navy mate, Mulhall, escort a young sailor to a Naval prison for minor theft, The Last Detail explores the humanity of military officers made inhumane under the threat of the Vietnam War. Buddusky seeks to deliver the truth of the Navy, of man’s decency towards their fellow man, something that stands in sharp contrast to the character of Col. Jessup, whom Nicholson would eventually play in A Few Good Men and his proclamation “you can’t handle the truth!” Nicholson, in one of his best comedic performances, isn’t beset by mental illness in this go round, but he does exist amidst the insanity of rules and regulations that would see an eighteen year-old sailor serve an eight-year sentence for attempting to steal $40 from a charity collection box set up by the Commanding Officer’s wife. Through both The King of Marvin Gardens and The Last Detail, there’s a sense of inescapable corruption. Man is left with the inability to get ahead regardless of whether he operates outside of the government or within it. There’s nothing left to do but face it.
“You can’t eat the Venetian blinds. I just had them installed on Wednesday.” Roman Polanski’s neo-noir Chinatown (1974) has all the trappings of classic film noir. The costumes, the cars, the credits that roll at the start, all suggest a film that could just easily be presented in black and white as it is in glorious technicolor. Yes, all the makings of Classic Hollywood are there, and yet
Chinatown is distinctly modern, a new installment in the great American expose of the 70s. A large part of this freshness comes from Jack Nicholson’s performance as private investigator Jake Gittes. At the film’s start, Gittes is presented as a character with a sense of control, assuredness, and a devil-may-care attitude that we’d never see from Bogart’s or Heston’s men on the case. Gittes is haunted by the past, as all great gumshoes are, but he hides it well. He outruns it with his constant motion as an investigation into adultery leads to murder, corruption, and grand conspiracy in the heart of L.A. For a moment, as the secrets just begin to unravel, we can easily believe that Nicholson’s playing a hero, one unaware of his own heroism and lost in the mire of scandalous headlines and quick-fix cases. But this is the 70s, and there are no real heroes in New Hollywood cinema. Gittes is a man caught in a turnstile, the past revolving to meet him and render him dizzyingly helpless. The initial clue to Gittes impending helplessness comes when he gets his nose slashed, resulting in one of cinema’s most iconic looks: Jake Gittes, nose wrapped in white bandages, the flesh around his eyes bruised and purpled. Gittes is rendered a detective bereft of his senses, unable to trust his sight or smell. When these physical damages come psychological ones, as well. This change in Gittes is handled subtly by Nicholson, who, even in his moments of manic energy, creates a steady and not immediately apparent unraveling that becomes more damning as the bandages on his nose are unraveled. Gittes’ psychological affliction is that he begins to believe he’s a hero, that he can affix the badge of femme fatale to Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, save an innocent girl, save the city, and flush out corruption. He becomes brash and overconfident in his conviction that he knows the angle, and has thus become a major player in the game. But he’s no hero, there’s no femme fatale, and there’s no saving to be done. Gittes is rendered a powerless bystander to Noah Cross’s machinations, doomed to fail from the start and forever unable to outrun or forget the past. There’s only heartbreak at the end of Chinatown, and Gittes’ hollow-eyed sorrow in the recognition of failure has made of the film’s ending one of cinema’s greatest achievements.
Just when it seemed impossible that Nicholson could top himself, he did, cementing the greatest run of performances ever delivered by a single actor. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the keystone in the house that Jack built, and arguably his greatest performance. Nicholson brims with energy in this role, a man possessed sweeping everything up in his wake. While Nicholson’s always been known for his distinct deliveries, it’s the moments where R.P. McMurphy doesn’t speak that are among Nicholson’s greatest moments as an actor. Just watch the moments where McMurphy is made to sit in group sessions. McMurphy is aggressively committed to causing discomfort to those around him, to creating disorientation through his peculiar form of sanity, which isn’t so far removed from madness. If we take those with mental illness by McMurphy’s terms, they’re “no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it.” The other patients gravitate toward him, eventually come close to worshipping him like some kind 20th century Bacchus. McMurphy is medicinal, a cure for their ails, with the side-effect being a new and equally dangerous mental fit: revolution! We know very little about McMurphy. Besides the fact that he was sent to prison for statutory rape, and connived his way into a mental hospital to avoid hard labor, McMurphy is without a past, and without motive beyond living for pleasure and thrills. As a result, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest exists as more of an impressive capture of a force of nature than a work of character study. McMurphy resists study, squirms under psycho-analysis, and may be Nicholson’s most anti-establishment character. McMurphy’s battle of wills with Nurse Ratched stems back to the same constraints on freedom that George Hanson struggled against. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is charged with the manic insistence of freedom; McMurphy’s own brand of treatment releases the stigma surrounding mental illness from its purgatory, instead recognizing the life within madness. Ultimately, McMurphy’s appreciation for life cannot entirely outweigh Ratched’s clinical need to control it, but for a decade without heroes, McMurphy’s lasting influence is as close as it gets.
While Nicholson’s roles were never again quite as textured as those of his run in the 70s, the 80s cemented his status as Mad Jack. While the turn of the decade and an everlasting impression made by his Oscar-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might have found other actors typecast (“Is that crazy enough for ya? Want me to take a shit on the floor?”), Nicholson found new ways to re-brand that madness, time and time again, while perhaps having a bit more fun with it. After all, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” His performance as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is perhaps his most well-known role. While Nicholson’s take on Torrance is drastically different than the one in Stephen King’s novel, it’s impressive by its own standards. While King is correct that Nicholson’s Torrance is a madman from the start, thus denied a real opportunity to be driven mad by the ghosts of the Overlook, there is logic in this madness. The weight of responsibilities—as a writer, father, husband, and employee in recovery—must each be held to impossibly high standards and the conservative values Reagan is credited with ushering in had, in fact, already begun to be felt. Jack Torrance shares striking similarities with Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea. After all, Torrance is caught in the kind of life that Bobby avoided with reckless abandon. Torrance is broken in a way similar to Dupea, but his violent outbursts are more often the result of self-preservation rather than self-destruction. By ridding himself of his family and responsibilities, Torrance can resume his life of drinking and writing without the nagging sense of duty. The defining scene in the film is when Jack steadily approaches his bat-wielding wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), with eyes reflecting a sickness born of loathing in its purest form.
“Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in! Gonna bash ‘em right the fuck in.”
This is Nicholson at his most dangerous and most unhinged. Because this served as the introduction to Nicholson for so many viewers, it effectively tinges the rest of his filmography with threat. If Five Easy Pieces was a swan-song to traditional family values, then The Shining took said swan to the butcher shop and left a carcass to hang over the door of Reagan’s 80s: Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Perhaps it was that threat displayed in The Shining, the culminating destruction of the nuclear family dynamics he’d moved in and out of throughout his 70s roles, that led to the appearance of a softer Jack in the 80s. Well, as soft as he could get with that wolfish grin and unshakable aura of trouble. There are odd moments throughout the 80s where Nicholson is positioned as a romantic figure, a less-significant countercultural statement but still taboo in a conservative world struggling with AIDS-driven uncertainty under Reagan and Thatcher. 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice saw Nicholson once again re-team with Rafelson. The steamy adaptation of James M. Cain’s crime novel saw Nicholson’s drifter, Frank Chambers, caught in a passionate affair with diner-owner Cora Smith, played by Jessica Lange, twelve years Nicholson’s junior. But even as a man nearing middle-age, Nicholson is presented with a sexual magnetism typically reserved for younger men. While so many of his earlier characters shirked romance and family, many during this and the latter part of his career have gravitated towards it. Most famously, and most illustrative of the kinds of films he’d gravitate to in the later part of his career, was his role in James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment. Former Astronaut Garrett Breedlove enters into a romantic courtship with Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway, in a film that stands in stark contrast to the work Nicholson was known for. But even within this new melodramatic framework, Nicholson was able to make his mark in a limited amount of screen time as a middle-aged rascal, and ultimately took home another Oscar for it. “You do bring out the Devil in me,” Breedlove famously tells Aurora, and the same held true for Nicholson. Regardless of the new genres and roles he stepped into as New Hollywood gave birth to the commercialized films of the 80s, Nicholson was always able bring that sense of the unexpected, that sense of threat and iconoclasm in a film world that was beginning to feel too seamless in its safety.
Despite unmatched levels of professional success, Nicholson held off on entering the great blockbuster ball, on “danc[ing] with devil in the pale moonlight” like so many of his New Hollywood peers had done. There was a sense that if Nicholson was going to do a blockbuster, he wanted a challenge, to make a statement. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was that statement. One of the most iconic performances of all-time, Nicholson’s Joker is an amalgam of his characters’ traits—the coalescence of counter-culture, of madness, of middle-fingers raised high against authority, all wound up and set loose in what Nicholson described as “a piece of pop art.” Nicholson’s perma-grinning Joker, a former gangster, is a villain unrestrained by the rules of power. The gangster hierarchy, so popularized in cinema by The Godfather, was something to laugh at and mock. Nicholson’s performance has been so overexposed since the film’s release that it’s easy to forget now how influential Nicholson’s take was, not only to the evolution of this particular character, but to film villainry that had been too restricted by expectations. Nicholson, through his Prince-loving Joker, helped usher in a new age of blockbusters with an irreverent, dangerous take that set the standard for future comic-book movie casting.
After 30 years of films in the vein of fuck-the-old-man and fuck-the-establishment, Nicholson was faced with the question of how to transition under the limitation that he had, in fact, become an old man himself. The 90s proved to be a bit spotty in terms of the quality of his films, though he certainly made in impact in A Few Good Men, Mars Attacks, and most notably, the rom-com As Good as it Gets, which won Nicholson another Oscar for Best Actor. James L. Brooks’ film, starring Nicholson as an acerbic, homophobic, and racist author suffering from OCD and seeking redemption through love is decidedly situated in 90s saccharinity. Despite Nicholson’s commitment to the performance, the film’s romance between Nicholson and Helen Hunt, 26 years his junior, never becomes entirely convincing despite the Oscar-winning performances from both. It’s a delight to watch him as always, but there’s a sense with As Good as it Gets that Nicholson’s not tapping into something new, but instead clinging to the past, all while being crammed into a box of normalcy, which is never where Jack belongs. This film, like the handful of others throughout the 80s and 90s, displays a resistance to accept Nicholson’s age, to allow for the natural evolution of the performer.
The 21st Century found Nicholson settling into his age and delivering three of the best performances of his career with a reinvigorated commitment. Here, Nicholson portrayed old men as shadows fighting against their erasure in order to prove there’s still power left in their mind, heart, and balls. Sean Penn’s mystery-thriller The Pledge (2001), saw Nicholson take up the mantle of a retired cop, and give one of the most understated performances of his career. While there’s still a May-December romance in the film, Nicholson’s performance as Jerry Black displays a deep consideration of mortality. This time around, Nicholson’s character doesn’t begin insane, but is driven to it by his refusal to abandon the case that began at the moment of his retirement. Black’s obsession with the case is an attempt to stave off death, to run from the future as opposed to running from the past like Nicholson’s former detective character, Jake Gittes. Featuring cameo appearances from Nicholson’s longtime friends and former co-stars like Harry Dean Stanton and Lois Smith, The Pledge served as a fitting bridge to this the next stage of Nicholson’s career. The film’s musing on morality, of making a final impact before death also played a major role in 2002’s About Schmidt, albeit in a more humorous way. Alexander Payne’s film features Nicholson’s most vulnerable performance, as a widower who goes on a road trip to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding. As Warren Schmidt, Nicholson showcases an elegant emotional journey of acceptance, one nearly devoid of his familiar bag of tricks. And for Nicholson’s last great performance to date, he teamed with Martin Scorsese to portray Irish gangster Frank Costello in The Departed. Costello’s deadly, 9/11-borne paranoia primed the screen for one of the tensest scenes of the past decade: “I got this rat, this gnawing, cheese eating fuckin’ rat and it brings up questions…” Costello paws at the American Dream and works within the corrupt system Nicholson’s earlier characters fruitlessly fought against. While he’s not as refined as John Huston’s Noah Cross, Nicholson fulfills the role of politically topical villain as Costello, and holds together the cinematic depiction our modern American tragedy: government systems no better than criminal empires. With The Departed, Nicholson digs into the qualities he’s become known for, but they’ve been modified to become sharper, edgier, and more explosive in their shock-appeal, like a stagey bomb threat we’re eager to see go off—though we’re left reeling when it does. Hollywood has largely conditioned us to believe that older actors are supposed to behave a certain way, to be confined to a certain civility and type of role that, even when vulgar, comes across as more amusing than threatening. But Nicholson largely bucked that expectation, preferring instead a coarse, hands-on approach to senior-citizenry. Within the three performances of The Pledge, About Schmidt, and The Departed, we can find all the traits that have made Jack a legend—the gravitas, haunted torment,biting humor, the psychosis, and resistance to authority. With these traits, Jack Nicholson changed Hollywood, forever altering our perception of leading men and broadening our expectations of aging actors. As Frank Costello said, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” You can be certain that there’s a sizable portion of Hollywood—from producers and directors, to actors and screenwriters—who are a product of Jack Nicholson.
Jack Nicholson is an actor who treats madness like a lover. He gravitates towards psychosis, crassly exposes it with the rough hands of a day-laborer, and protects it with the gentle touch of a thespian. In his roles as unconventional authority figures, broken men, and social pariahs, Nicholson has explored our human selves on the verge—the verge of madness, of romance, or of understanding, but always dangerously on the edge. For fifty-nine years of performances, Jack Nicholson has continually felt dangerous. Despite that initial warning of “Don’t come any closer,” when it comes to Jack, we can’t do anything except that.
Featured Image: Allied Artists Pictures Corporation