Jack Nicholson celebrates his 80th birthday on April 22. To celebrate, we’ll be discussing our favorite Jack Nicholson performances all week in our Jackin’ It series, a collection of critical love letters penned to Nicholson’s best characters.
Chinatown. Enter Jack Nicholson at his sexiest, playing a role that’s a remnant from the past. Men like Jake Gittes are few and far between in life and film of 1974, and that makes Polanski’s film noir character stand out. Mr. Gittes is a Private Investigator with a Sam Spade kind of flavour making a name and a comfortable salary for himself with divorce cases. Making a career out of infidelity has made him a bit of a cynic, he never bothers to feign surprise or empathy when tearful women share suspicions or angry men react to their wives sneaking around. In fact, he’s built a kind of humour around it, delivering witty one-liners his clientele are too distraught to notice. Gittes’ even and calm delivery always demands that you listen, and it rewards you every time.
Life and business seem good for Mr. Gittes, until the latest tearful woman identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the head engineer of water and electricity.This is mostly interesting because of LA’s water crisis–it has always been a desert city, after all. The powers that be are head-to-head over the construction of a reservoir. When it’s revealed that the Mulwray’s are being set up, this case ends up giving Jake more than he bargained for, but he takes it in stride and follows the trail right into a murder mystery with claws in powerful places. One could imagine his investigative nature is what compels him to continue the case which is wildly out of his jurisdiction, but it also helps that he wants to clear his name from the debacle. This is a film about corruption in unexpectedly corrupt times.
There’s something about Gittes that makes you immediately like him, even as he’s staring unimpressed and giving half-hearted responses. Behind his facade his mind is always working, his eyes are scanning and he has perfected watching you without even appearing to be looking in your direction. He is a mystery, a man behind a veil, an obsessive snoop who keeps his own dirt tightly under wrap. Small glimpses into his past only heighten the intrigue; he often remarks of his time in Chinatown, a place full of ghosts in his mind. Because Nicholson plays subtlety so well here, you can’t help but root for him and empathise with him because it’s obvious the layers are there. It’s easy to spend just as much time wondering about him as the case he’s working on. He has stories to tell.
At first glance, Jake appears to be a bit of a womanizer, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. Perhaps his study of relationships–sexual or otherwise–allow him to be realistic about his expectations and capacity for commitment. Still there’s a sense that as far as he’ll go in his investigative pursuits mirrors how far he’ll go for those he cares about. What you do see of him is often admirable. One scene that sticks in the mind, just a blip in the story but a shout in his character, takes place in a barber shop. We see for the first time Jake’s constant coolness disturbed only when someone question the validity of his line of work. Slathered in shaving cream, his voice raised, “I make an honest living!” he challenges a mortgage broker to the point of asking him to take it outside. One moment offers a man who will not be pushed past his own personal boundaries. Above all he’s persistent and perseveres despite personal injury, threats against his nose and his life, and a spiraling web of deceit and secrets from those he’s trying to assist.
As is the case in all his films, Jack oozes an onscreen charm and cannot be separated from his larger than life personality, and you see him break through early on in wild laughter after an off-colour joke. His chemistry with Faye Dunaway is smoldering as they push each other back and forth. Their mutual interest in each other is thrilling in its restraint and passionate in its secrets. Both sides are terribly scarred, but neither is disgusted once those scars are revealed. Well, at least once Evelyn’s secrets are revealed (Jake’s stay secretly tucked away, only giving more life to his enduring appeal) which is a particularly powerful moment in the story – she must have them literally slapped out of her.
It would be remiss to not mention Polanski’s hand in moving Nicholson to his mark. Together they worked to create an incandescent figure, allowing Nicholson to improvise dialogue at key moments because he trusted his knowledge of the character. Jack also did his own stunts, insisting that they be shot in one take due to the physical demand. Part of Polanski’s rewrite of the script insisted that nothing happens if Gittes isn’t there to experience, so we have a clean symbiotic experience. Both actor and director show a keen understanding of the realities of life and loss. Nowhere is this more prevalent than the final scene of Chinatown as Gittes stares in dumb shock, as if he’s left his body, at the self-fulfilling prophecy his life has become.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures