Missing Jack Nicholson: A Reflection

Missing Jack Nicholson: A Reflection

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appears in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film


Does anyone else miss Jack Nicholson? He has not been in a film since 2010 and I think the cinema landscape has been poorer for it. He is not officially retired. Some reports have indicated he cannot remember lines anymore but he has gone on the record to say his mind and his memory are not the issue, rather he’s simply taken time off to live life until a project comes to him that inspires him. His filmography is as rich and deep as any actor’s ever. While I am not entirely sure he is a great actor, he is certainly one you cannot ignore or dismiss because of the sheer force of his talent and personality and because he has been in so many great films. He makes bold and usually great choices in the parts he takes and in the way he interprets the characters. He is as great a star actor as there has ever been in that sense. Anyway, in proofing and editing the new edition of my Alexander Payne book I came upon an essay I wrote about Jack and his place in film at the time he was making About Schmidt in Omaha under Payne’s direction. In doing so. I was reminded of his absence and I felt compelled to post the piece here.

NOTE: The new edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. It is the only comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning Payne in print or online. It is a collection of articles and essays I have written about Payne and his work over a 20-year span. I have basically covered him from the start of his filmmaking career through today. The book takes the reader through the arc of his filmmaking journey and puts you deep inside his creative process. There is much from Payne himself in the pages of the book since most of the content is drawn from interviews I have done with him and from observations I have made on his sets. I also have a good amount of material from some of his key collaborators.

I self-pubished the book in late 2012. It has received strong reviews and endorsements. I am releasing a new edition this summer with the help of a boutique press here, River Junction Press, and its publisher Kira Gale. The new edition features major content additions, mostly related to Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing. It will also feature, for the first time, a Discussion Guide and Index, because we believe the book has potential in the education space with film studies programs, instructors, and students. But I want to emphasize that the book is definitely written with the general film fan in mind and it has great appeal to anyone who identifies as a film buff, film lover, film critic, film blogger. It has also been well received by filmmakers,

Kira and I feel hope to put the book in front of the wider cinema community around the world, including producers, directors, screenwriters, festival organizers, art cinema programmers. We feel it will be warmly embraced because Payne is one of the world’s most respected film artists and everyone wants to work with him. People inside and outside the industry want to learn his secrets and insights about the screen trade and about what makes him tick as an artist.


Being Jack Nicholson

Published in the April 5, 2001 issue #57 of the Omaha Weekly

Bigger Than Life

With filming proceeding in earnest on Alexander Payne’s latest made-in-Omaha film, About Schmidt, real and imagined sightings of its world-famous lead actor, Jack Nicholson, are no-doubt filtering-in from starstruck citizenry. Not since Sean Penn stirred things up here with his directorial debut, The Indian Runner, largely shot in and around Plattsmouth, Neb., have locals been as frenzied about catching a glimpse of some celebrity.

The fuss is well-merited this time. For as great an actor as Penn is, Nicholson is a star on the order of the old-time greats. A genuine Hollywood legend. From his trademark shades to his romantic intrigues to his public indiscretions to his classic rebellious roles to his three Oscars, he is everything we want in a star. Cool. Sexy. Enigmatic. Independent. Well-respected. Justly rewarded. With greatness in our midst, now is as good a time as any to consider just why he looms so large in our collective movie consciousness.

The mere mention of Jack’s name conjures a portrait in rascality. From the devil-may-care glint in the eye to the sardonic smile to the sarcastic voice, he is the lovable scoundrel of our imagination, saying and doing things we only wish we could. He is, like the best screen actors, a romantic projection of our liberated inner selves. The sly, shrewd man on the make. The ageless rebel. The unreformed rake. The eternal carouser. The agitator who stirs things up. The sharp-tongued wit cutting people down to size. The volatile time-bomb ready to explode.

In an amazing display of durability he has gone from being the embodiment of the rebellious 1960s and 1970s to essaying the angst of that same generation now grown old and disillusioned in the wake of chasing love and money and happiness in all the wrong places. At a pudgy sixth three, he shows the wear-and-tear of a sometimes hedonistic life. After all, he came to fame and fortune just as America entered the indulgent 1970s, emerging from the limbo of the B movie fringe to the heights and perks of major Hollywood screen stardom on the strength of remarkable performances in a string of fine films made between 1969-1975.

Nicholson was launched from obscurity into the front ranks of the industry with his scene-stealing turn in 1969’s Easy Rider as a conventional southern lawyer gone-to-seed and turned-on to the counter-culture by hippie bikers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. More memorable roles soon followed. Think of the best films of the 1970s and ‘80s and Nicholson appears in an inordinate number of them: Five Easy Pieces; Carnal Knowledge; The Last Detail; Chinatown; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; The Missouri Breaks; The Shining; Reds; Terms of Endearment; Prizzi’s Honor. As disparate as these films and their stories are, the characters Nicholson creates are largely variations on a theme, namely, a man fighting alone to protect his identity or independence in the face of forces he cannot hope to defeat. In one way or another he is playing the existential modern man trying to save himself amid the complex crush of the system or society or fate or nature.

Unlike many contemporary actors, Nicholson, even in his early groundbreaking work, brings a weight to his performances only gained from years of working at his craft and from living a full life away from film sets. Like the great actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Tracy, March, Cagney, Bogart, Gable, Mitchum, Lancaster, Douglas) you get the sense he has been around the block a few times. That he is not merely an actor, but a complex human being with a rich personal history behind him. Besides technique, it’s what lends his performances a certain credence and gravity you don’t find very often these days outside warhorses like him, Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Sean Connery, Morgan Freeman and a few others.

Nicholson captures our fancy with the combination of his snake oil charm, angry defiance and fierce intelligence. Behind that leering smile lurks something wild and dangerous and mysterious. It helps account for his appeal with both men and women. In classic rebel tradition he is the iconoclast or nonconformist at odds with the world, raging against the tide. He is the master of the slow burn and of the sudden violent outburst.




Signature Seventies Roles

Each of his signature roles from the ‘70s features scenes in which he acts out a full-blooded tantrum, from his famous table-clearing tirade at the truck stop cafe in Five Easy Pieces to his confrontation with a bartender in The Last Detail to his brutal interrogation of his lover in Chinatown to his fighting back against brutal guards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His star making turns in the ‘70s found him working on the very edge of his craft, daring to go for deep emotional truths and idiosyncratic behaviors that reveal vital shades and nuances of his complex characters.

In Bob Rafelson’s 1970 Five Easy Pieces Nicholson is frustrated former concert pianist Bobby Dupea, a man weighed-down by the burden of expectation from his well-heeled family. He finds relief from the pressure of conformity by running away from the classical music world to work in the oil fields, where he is just another hand looking for a paycheck and a good lay. Ironically, his constant flight from his past leads him right back to where he started – to a family he can neither ever quite measure up to nor escape.

The 1971 Mike Nichols-directed and Jules Feiffer-penned Carnal Knowledge finds Nicholson as the callow Jonathan, who tries negotiating the attitudes, mores and politics at work in the male-female dynamic during the dawn of the sexual liberation and feminist movement. No matter how the times and the terms of engagement change, he is still a predator and women are still his prey. The finer points of relationships seem to bore him. Emotions scare him. For men like him, love, commitment and communication are mere decorative foreplay for making it.

In Hal Ashby’s 1974 The Last Detail Nicholson stars as foul-mouthed, free-spirited Everyman Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky, one of two career sailors reluctantly escorting a fellow sailor to prison. What is supposed to be an uneventful transfer over to authorities turns into a wild romp when Buddusky and his mate grow fond of the young, naive prisoner (Randy Quaid) and decide to show him a good time en route. Nicholson’s tragic-comic performance never misses a beat.

In the Roman Polanski-directed and William Goldman-scripted Chinatown (1974) Nicholson lends his interpretation to the classic private eye with a stunning evocation of Jake Gittes, a cocky and seedy PI haunted by a love gone bad. When he stumbles onto a new case with giant implications for arid Depression-era Los Angeles, he finds himself sucked-into a whirlpool of deceit by a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway) he can’t resist. By the time the chips fall where they may, Gittes is a broken man undone in the same Chinatown district that undid him once before.

Forever cementing his rebel image, Nicholson plays Randall P. McMurphy with the sensitive brio of an underdog beaten down by an uncaring system in Milos Forman’s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is the kind of martyr role that all of the great screen rebels – from Cagney to Garfield to Brando to Clift to Dean to Newman to McQueen – have portrayed.

Later Work

Nicholson achieves a tour de force in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s The Shining by brilliantly detailing the mental breakdown of writer Jack Torrance, a tortured man caught in the grip of some awful supernatural force compelling him to kill his family in the eerie isolation of the Overlook Hotel. In a performance that is by-turns finely controlled and manic (“Here’s…Johnny”) Jack displays astonishing range and courage by essaying a madman you loathe but pity too.

Terms of Endearment casts Nicholson as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove, a man used to having his way with the ladies. Playing his age for a change, he strikes just the right note as an aging Lothario who meets his match in the figure of neighbor Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), whom he eventually beds but not without making a commitment to her. Both Nicholson and MacLaine won well-deserved Oscars for their strong supporting performances.

Besides these stand-the-test-of-time roles, Jack’s given compelling performances in otherwise flawed films like The Fortune, The Last Tycoon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Border and Heartburn. By the time he reached icon status as the guy with the wink in his eye, he parlayed his legendary facade into some made-to-order parts where he hammed things up, including a horny Lucifer in The Witches of Eastwick, a pompous Joker in Batman. an egomaniacal colonel in A Few Good Men, and a bigoted curmudgeon in As Good As It Gets. His recent collaborations with actor-director Sean Penn have seen a new, more mature and darker Nicholson emerge. In both The Crossing Guard and the current The Pledge he plays damaged older men seeking catharsis in extreme circumstances but instead finding only more pain. Gone is the impish and ironic persona of the younger Jack and in its place is a restless, brooding character that could very well be Bobby Dupea or Jake Gittes twenty five years later.


Portrait of Jack Nicholson by David Bailey, 1984  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1970s  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Lorenzo Agius, 2007  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper, 1969  Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970
Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Hell's Angels On Wheels directed by Richard Rush, 1967  Jack Nicholson at home by Arthur Schatz in Los Angeles, Life, 1969  Christopher Knight, Robert Casper, Jack Nicholson, Helen Westcott and Frank Gorshin in Studs lonigan directed by Irving Lerner, 1960
Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970  Sandra Knight and Jack Nicholson in The terror directed by Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola, 1963  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner
Jack Nicholson and Carolyn Craig in Studs lonigan directed by Irving Lerner, 1960  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Harry Benson, 1975  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in A safe place directed by Henry Jaglom, 1971  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in A safe place directed by Henry Jaglom, 1971  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Helmut Newton, 1997
Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans by Helmut Newton, Los Angeles, 1985  Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner   Jack Nicholson in his Volkswagen, Los Angeles by Liz Ronk, 1969  Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson by Klaus Lucka von Zelberschwecht, 1985
Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Batman directed by Tim Burton, 1989  Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970  Stephen Dorff and Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine directed by Bob Rafelson, 1996  Bob Rafelson, Jessica Lange & Jack Nicholson at 34th Cannes for The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981
Jack Nicholson in The Fortune directed by Mike Nichols, 1975  Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark  Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on the set of The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975
Jack Nicholson in Carnal knowledge directed by Mike Nichols, 1971  Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Otto Stupakoff, 1960s
Portrait of Jack Nicholson, 1960s  Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Jack Nicholson on the set of The shinning directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980  Jack Nicholson by Xavier Martin, 1976
Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson, 1970s  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1976  Portrait of Jack Nicholson, 1960s  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975
Jack Nicholson, 1975  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1984   Jack Nicholson, 1980s  Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper, 1969


Jack as Everyman Warren Schmidt

Now, About Schmidt offers Nicholson yet another chance to play out the secret anxieties, regrets and desires of a man his own age. The character of Schmidt is a bitter Woodmen of the World actuary retiree undergoing a crisis of conscience in the aftermath of his longtime wife’s death. As the facade of his well-ordered world crumbles around him, the repressed Schmidt must confront some uneasy truths about himself. His struggle to make meaning of his life propels him on a road trip across Nebraska during which he comes into contact with an odd assortment of characters. With his feelings reawakened, life becomes an adventure again rather than a burden.

The passive title role of the Alexander Payne-Jim Taylor penned script they adapted from the Louis Begley novel and from an early, unproduced Payne screenplay appears in some ways a departure for Nicholson. But the implosion of his character is actually in line with the roles he’s played for Penn.

As usual, Payne will try to extract the humor from what promises to be a sharply-observed story of loss, loneliness, introspection and discovery. The vulnerable figure of Schmidt offers a ripe and fitting part for Nicholson at this stage in his career. However the film turns out, Nicholson is sure to deliver the goods under the direction of Payne, who is known for eliciting strong performances from his leads.

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