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.
Jack Nicholson made a name for himself by playing the part of the 1960s hippie nomad. In movies like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson roams across the spacious expanse of an America full of hope and optimism. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he finds himself at home yet again in another character of the Beat Movement. In these films, it’s easy to imagine Nicholson hitching a ride with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or hitting the road with Jack Kerouac. Even after the wave of the 1960s broke, Nicholson frequently plays disillusioned types in films from Chinatown to A Few Good Men. On the big screen, Nicholson reflects the cruel wakeup call that an entire generation of Flower children received.
Then there’s About Schmidt. Over the course of the 2000s, Nicholson shed his penchant for tackling the kinds of rebellious roles that made him a household name. In their place he plays older figures of patriarchal authority, a shift most notable in his roles from As Good as It Gets, Something’s Gotta Give, and The Bucket List. It’s hard to imagine the same man who brought Randle Patrick McMurphy to life on the big screen being especially eager to turn his devil-may-care attitude in for a stable bank account. Nevertheless, Nicholson embodies the role of Warren Schmidt in the aforementioned Alexander Payne directed comedy in 2002.
But none of that is a bad thing. In fact, About Schmidt is arguably the best film performance from Nicholson from the 21st century. Essentially, Nicholson turns all of the extroverted cynicism from his early career into an introverted rage pit against Midwestern repression. If things went differently for Payne’s retired widower, About Schmidt might have depicted the twilight years of someone closer in temperament to Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. The trajectory of each character is contextually dissimilar, but in Nicholson’s performance the two share more then a few similarities.
During the opening scene of About Schmidt, the viewer is greeted by a demure looking Nicholson passively watching the ticking of a seconds clock hand. The walls of an impersonal surrounding office space are bare. The expression on his prototypically devilish mug is impassive. Nicholson still bears all of the feral virility that made him a star, but in About Schmidt his animal magnetism is inverted to the point of being unrecognizable in its absence.
Upon reaching a crossroads in his life, Warren in About Schmidt lives in a parallel reality to Nicholson. If a much younger Nicholson had never made his way to Hollywood, maybe his life wouldn’t have been all that different from the one depicted in About Schmidt. In terms of performance, it’s easy to imagine the same fiery presence from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest having found his way to Omaha, Nebraska. Nicholson might not strike many of his most ardent fans as an especially reserved performer, but his role in About Schmidt is striking for its somber tone. The Midwest is a land bereft of ambition in About Schmidt, which makes Nicholson’s presence within it all the more dissonant.
Forced to come to terms with the passing of his late wife, a secret history of infidelity, and his daughter’s betrothal to a repugnant suitor, About Schmidt examines the degenerative nature of old age. Like Nebraska from 2013, About Schmidt sees Payne giving center stage to an aging Hollywood icon. Like Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Nicholson surreptitiously upends the popular conception of himself in About Schmidt. Nicholson has rarely held back in terms of his performances. More often than not, he revels in broad characters meant to draw upon the kind of glaring persona made iconic in The Shining. Comparatively, About Schmidt pulls back the curtain on the emotive excess that Nicholson is known for. Instead of several distinct personalities, Nicholson reveals his past performances to be reflections of a singular caricature.
Towards the halfway point in About Schmidt, there’s a particularly poignant moment that sees Nicholson displaying a vulnerability that’s unusual for the actor. After spending an evening with a friendly middle-aged couple, Nicholson comes close to revealing himself by proxy of Warren Schmidt’s personal epiphany. Forced to come to terms with his own deeply felt anger and sadness, Nicholson regresses to the emotional state of a child. Shortly thereafter, About Schmidt sees Nicholson shuffling his way towards the precipice of human existence. In the film’s final moments, it remains unclear whether oblivion or infinity await Warren after death. This climax is more than fitting for the character, but is far more poignant when applied to Nicholson in the latter stage of his career.
About Schmidt, even as it makes several subtle nods to the adjacent realm of comedy, works first and foremost as a tragedy. Allegorical in tonal, structural, and thematic resonance, About Schmidt provides for the imagined final chapter of many peoples lives. Forced to settle for a steady paycheck, a stable rung on the corporate ladder, and the domestic comfort of the nuclear unit, Warren Schmidt is Nicholson playing the domicile everyman of the 2000s. A far cry from Nicholson’s own life trajectory, Warren Schmidt is like the Bizarro version of his Hollywood counterpart. Opting for a more immediately realistic career trajectory, Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt plays the role of Jack Nicholson in drab.
As we continue to celebrate Nicholson’s life and career as the acclaimed actor turns eighty, it’s especially intriguing to look back at his role in About Schmidt. Released just a few years prior to his turn in the critically acclaimed Martin Scorsese directed The Departed, About Schmidt sees Nicholson toning down his flair for operatic exaggeration. The result is a far more personable and nuanced performance. Nicholson may be better remembered for other roles, but his turn in About Schmidt provides for an illuminating footnote. After spending several decades playing the antihero, con man, and sociopath, Nicholson artfully dons a different guise in About Schmidt. Nicholson is known for playing Randle Patrick McMurphy, but he’s also Warren Schmidt.
Featured Image: New Line Cinema