Back in 2010, Jack Nicholson had a supporting role in the James L Brooks film ‘How Do You Know’. The film was a notorious failure with an uninspired Nicholson performance and was one of the most forgettable films of his illustrious career.
But six years on, perhaps the film has become more noteworthy as having the increasingly likely fact of being the final acting performance of Nicholson. While he has lengthy breaks between films previously they’ve never been at this length and turning 80 next year, one wouldn’t surprise if he has no desire to act again.
In anycase, it’s a good excuse to look over his career as even his detractors would be obliged to admit there have been few more noteworthy actors in American cinema in the past 50 years.
Before Nicholson became a major star at the end of the 1960s, he had spent over a decade in independent, low-budget films in genres ranging from horror to westerns with famed producer Roger Corman often involved. He had also dabbled in screenwriting with some interesting results.
During this period as an actor he had shown flashes of the brillance that was to come but 1960s mainstream Hollywood was still too conventional for someone as idiosyncratic like him to become a major star. As a result, he was often in throwaway, ill-suited films like 1963’s ‘The Terror’ (made in just a few days), playing a French officer in the Napoleon era. Nicholson demanding a castle be opened in the name of the French government in his distinctively non-French accent wasn’t one of his finest moments.
However, things would take a major turn upward for Nicholson with his supporting role as a disheveled lawyer in the 1969 film ‘Easy Rider’. It wasn’t just that Nicholson effectively stole the movie with his effortless charisma, but the success of Easy Rider ushered in a different type of Hollywood film, one where Nicholson’s specific and unique talents for great characterisations wouldn’t put him to the sidelines, but make him perfect for ‘New Hollywood’ and their move away from conventional leading men.
It’s generally agreed that Nicholson’s performances in the 1969 to 1975 era are not only the peak of his career, but are a peak that few actors of any era would reach. Put simply, Nicholson was essential and compelling viewing like few others in this period as he made a wide array of characters seem vivid and unique and yet defined by his own brand of charisma.
Were there any common themes in the characters Nicholson played in this 69-75 era? For the most part they were flawed people beaten down by society in one form or another but were full of defiance and charisma (as exemplified by the “hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces) and characters you just wanted to see flourish. In an era where audiences hungered for characters defiant of authority and fighting back, there were few who connected more than Nicholson.
Post-1975 Nicholson has done a lot of impressive work but he never reached the same level of greatness. One reason is the changing trends in Hollywood towards less character-based films and the great roles Nicholson got just weren’t as plentiful anymore.
But also I suspect Nicholson got caught up in his own fame and success to an extent. Whereas in 1969-75 Nicholson could adapt himself to what the role required, it increasingly became the roles adapting themselves towards his own personal style. To be sure he was often greatly entertaining, but more often than not he’s coasting on his persona.
His role in ‘The Shining’ is a good example of this transition. While the film is one of my favourite horror movies I’m somewhat conflicted by Nicholson’s performance. On one hand he has some truly brilliant scenes in the latter stages that are so well done that they’ve become part of pop-culture. On the other hand, playing a troubled father and writer who goes over the edge I don’t think he entirely convinces as he doesn’t seem suited or willing to put in the work to make the characterisation concrete and truthful. A grandly entertaining performance, but not a great characterisation.
Similarly in the 1997 film ‘As Good As It Gets’ Nicholson’s performance as a successful but incredibly obnoxious novelist is entertaining, especially early on when he’s dishing out the insults. But in terms of creating a rich characterisation, Nicholson’s role is somewhat skin-deep and one of the weaker parts of the film.
A latter day exception to this trend was his performance in the 2002 film ‘About Schmidt’. All the standard mannerisms of the modern Nicholson performance – the charm, the cockiness, the slicked-back hair – were replaced by downbeat, dour, not particularly likable character with a comb-over. It is a genuinely affecting and moving performance (especially in his closing monologue) and easily the most of his latter-day performances that harks back to the greatness of his 1969-75 era.
Despite these reservations, there is no doubt that Nicholson has been one of the greatest and most iconic actors of recent generations. What looks like now a permanent retirement from acting is a sad event, but also a chance to treasure his great performances.