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Hot Movie Takes – “Chinatown”

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “Chinatown”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Chinatown

 

Languid has never felt as sexy or as menacing as it does in “Chinatown,” the great 1974 film noir classic that hasn’t been topped since. Not even close. Robert Towne wrote a script that many feel is as perfect a screenplay as has ever been written. Roman Polanski’s interpretation of that script is so fully developed that he creates as evocative a work of expressionistic screen drama as I’ve seen. The photography by John Alonzo, the editing by Sam O’Steen and the music by Jerry Goldsmith are in perfect sync with the redolent rhythms and moods of this hard-boiled period piece set in Depression-era Los Angeles. The locations and sound stage sets all complement the out-of-his-element, bigger-than-he-can-handle mystery that private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes gets lured into. He’s an urban man used to working the streets yet he finds himself unraveling a mystery over water rights that plays out in city hall offices, courtrooms, desert wastelands, fruit-growing groves and ocean-side docks. He’s out of his comfort zone and his depth but he’s smart and dogged enough to put most of the puzzle pieces together. Faye Dunaway puts her spin on the femme fatale role with a performance as Evelyn Cross Mulwray that is intoxicating and heartbreaking. John Huston as her depraved father is the epitome of corrupt power. Several other character turns are worth noting, including: Perry Lopez as Jake’s cynical old partner on the police force; Diane Ladd as the scared shill who gets Jake involved in the case; Burt Young as the abusive client who owes Jake a favor; Bruce Glover as an associate concernd for Jake’s well-being and Polanski as the hep-cat enforcer who slices Jake’s nose.

Even though they tell very different stories in very different settings, I’ve always thought of “Chinatown” as a companion film to “Casablanca.” Start with the fact that they’re both studio projects made within the conventions of genre filmmaking that rise far above the average production because of a wonderful alchemy of talent and vision that made art of potboiler material. The two films share a number of other things in common as well. They’re both period pieces. The chief anti-hero protagonist of each, Rick in “Casablanca” and Jake in “Chinatown,” is a cynical, embittered man haunted by the past and the woman he lost. That past comes back to plague Rick and Jake. They are are also part of ill-fated love triangles. Rick and Ilsa can never be together because of Victor. Jake and Evelyn can never be together because of Noah. When Ilsa shows up at Rick’s club in Casablanca, he’s catapulted right back into the pain of her abandoning him in Paris. When Jake attempts to make things right with Evelyn and her daughter, he’s brought right back to where things went astray for him years earlier in Chinatown. The multi-layered story-lines are interlaced with themes of loyalty, betrayal, honor and deception. Mystery and danger lurk behind seemingly benign facades. Dark currents of irony, sarcasm and fatalism run through these dramas populated by characters who are desperate or duplicitous or both.

 

 

And perhaps most significantly Rick and Jake get caught up in events beyond their control. In “Casablanca” it’s the evil Nazi threat forcing people to flee their homelands and to barter for their freedom. In “Chinatown” it’s greedy monied interests stopping at nothing to steal property from people in order to gain control over land and natural resources and thus line their own pockets. Rick must confront a formidable foe in Major Heinrich Strasser. He’s aided in that risky effort by Captain Louis Renault. Jake must contend with his own considerable nemesis in the person of Noah Cross. In the end, Jake’s one ally, Escobar, isn’t there for him. In each scenario, the anti-hero has an uneasy relationship with authority and challenges the unlawful wielding of power. In the more romantic “Casablanca” Rick succeeds against Strasser and in the less sentimental “Chinatown” Jake fails against Cross. Though the film’s have very different endings, both Rick and Jake are faced with impossible ethical and moral decisions and they each do the right thing. It’s just that in “Casablanca” right prevails and in “Chinatown” it doesn’t. That’s because the earlier picture is at its heart a romance while the later picture is a film noir. It also has to do with the fact Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz was not about to deny us a bittersweet but happy ending as a contract studio hand and dreammaker in 1942 Hollywood while “Chinatown” director Roman Polanski was all about ambiguous, even despairing endings as a New Hollywood auteur and survivor of Nazi atrocities. If Polanski had made “Casablanca” it would have been a bleaker, less linear work, just as if Curtiz had made “Chinatown” it would have been a sunnier, faster-paced film. Each project was best served though by the filmmakers who made them and as audiences we are the beneficiaries.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aifeXlnoqY

 

Chinatown movie poster image

 

Finally, I need to comment on a few more things about “Chinatown” and its creators. I think Nicholson gives his best performance in the film. He’s only made a few crime films and he’s excellent in all of them. He’d earlier established himself in the line of great rebel screen personas with his turns in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”. With “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” he put himself right there with Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen. And he followed an equally long tradition of actors who made their marks as hardbitten anti-hero private eyes, cops or low life lifes and he showed he belonged with Mitchum, Powell, O’Keefe and all the rest. He and Dunaway show great chemistry in “Chinatown” and it’s a shame they never worked together again. With “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” Polanski went from being a rising international director known for his Eastern Europe art films to being a superstar Hollywood director of artfully done but mass appeal movies,

Former actor Robert Evans was the head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s-early 1970s when that studio made some of the era’s most compelling works:

“Rosemary’s Baby”

“The Godfather”

“Harold and Maude”

“Serpico”

“Save the Tiger”

“The Conversation”

He was also the producer on “Chinatown,” “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” and “Urban Cowboy.”

Evans and Polanski both ran afoul of the law, with the former now remaking himself a Player n the game and the latter working in exile the last few decades. Neither Nicholson nor Dunaway worked again with Polanski.

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Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson


Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Drawn from my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

As I wade through the edit on the new edition of my Alexander Payne book, I am coming across some things that I am selectively posting, including this aggregation of quotes and musings in which Payne refers to working with Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt. Getting Nicholson to star in the film, in a part that requires he be on screen for virtually its entire duration, was a huge turning point in Payne’s career trajectory but what really catapulted Payne to the upper echelon of cinema was the great performance he elicited from Nicholson in the lead part of a killer script that Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor and that Payne brought to the screen as the film’s director. Payne grew up watching Nicholson’s work in that decade of 1970s American film that was so foundational for the filmmaker and his own work as a writer-director. It meant a lot to Payne to have Nicholson deliver the goods in what was Payne’s biggest film, in terms of budget, prestige and risk, up to that point.

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.

 
JACK NICHOLSON & ALEXANDER PAYNE ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) Stock Photo

 

 

Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson 

NOTE: These excerpts are from 2001-2002 articles I wrote and that appear in my book

 

Alexander Payne derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s and therefore having the actor whose work dominated that decade, Jack Nicholson, anchor his film About Schmidt is priceless.

“One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way,” Payne said, “and this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”

Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past thirty-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”

The film’s title character, Warren Schmidt, is a man adrift in a late life crisis where the underpinnings of his safe world come unhinged, sending him reeling into an on-the-road oblivion that becomes a search for redemption. Because the story is really about a man’s inner journey or state of mind the film is not so much driven by traditional narrative as it is subtext.

“This film isn’t so much about the story because there isn’t really much of a story. It’s about a man and kind of about a way of life,” Payne said. “And it’s a way of life I kind of witnessed in Omaha. Not that it doesn’t exist elsewhere and not that many different lives don’t exist in Omaha. But, from time to time, it has a whiff of something that’s very genuine. It’s just a feeling, and I’d be hard-pressed to describe it beyond that.”

As an artist, Payne does not like limiting himself to expository narrative. He understands how seemingly whimsical, quirky or incidental elements, like the moon serenade in Citizen Ruth or the lesbian romance in Election, have value too.

“One thing Hollywood filmmaking urges you always to do is tell the story. If it’s not germane to the story, then leave it out. And I kind of disagree with that,” he said. “I mean, I like stories. I like seeing movies that tell stories. I like my movies to tell stories. But films don’t operate only on a story level. There’s a quote I like that says, ‘A story exists only as an excuse to enter into the realm of the cinema.’ Films operate on emotions, moods, sub-themes and maybe even poetry, if you’re lucky enough to have a bit of mystery and poetry in your film.”

If the screenplay is any guide, then reading it reveals Schmidt as a man who has built his life around convention and conformity but who, along the way, has lost touch with what he really is and wants. The things in his well-ordered life have become his identity. His actuarial job with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance. His office. His home. His routine. His marriage. When, in short order, he retires, his wife dies and his estranged daughter prepares to marry a man he does not like, he realizes he is alone, at odds, angry and restless to find answers to why his supposedly full life seems so empty.

What makes Schmidt’s dilemma more complex is that he is not a wholly likable man. He is a square, a miser, a malcontent. Payne is drawn to such richly shaded and often unsympathetic characters because they are more interesting, more real, more truthful. Just think of inhalant addict mother-to-be Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth or arrogant, spiteful teacher Jim McAllister in Election. Neither is totally a shit, though. Stoops is brave, outspoken, independent. McAllister is sincere, caring, dedicated. And, so, Schmidt is solicitous, careful, reflective. As he begins defining a new life for himself without a job or wife, he begins behaving in ways that defy family-societal expectations.

 

 

 

About Schmidt: at desk with stacked boxes

 

 

In this way, the film is an indictment of the prefabricated mold people are expected to fit. With Schmidt, Nicholson mutely echoes the alienated character (Bobby Dupea) he essayed in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. Just as Dupea turns his back on his classical piano career and blue blood roots to work the oil fields, Schmidt shucks his constraints to embark on a road trip that is as much escape as quest.

Then there’s the whole star power thing Nicholson brings. The clout Nicholson wields. The Player label he wears. The attention he commands. Payne is savvy enough to know that having Nicholson on the project boosts the prestige and the pressure that goes with it. That’s why this production is a little more all-business and a little less laid back than Payne’s previous two. For example, the filmmaker is, for the time being anyway, giving no interviews (outside this one) and the set is closed to reporters.

This limited access all gets back to the Nicholson factor. It means catering to him and shielding him.

Or, as Payne put, “we have a big fish on this one. Everyone knows him. Most everyone is a fan of his. Plus, there’s the Pop stuff of his winning three Academy Awards and having been in very many popular and artistic films. So, he’s a big presence in American culture. And all of us, certainly from me down to the crew, want him to be impressed. We want him to feel protected and supported. We want to feel that we have his approval. And, as director, I’m really bending over backwards to make sure he feels comfortable enough so he will expose vulnerabilities and really dive into the part. So, just because of his stature there is a heightened will among the film company and crew to do a good job.”

Making no bones about what a fan he is of Nicholson, Payne said his star has thus far been a filmmaker’s dream.

“Sometimes, you think about a movie star as being more star than actor, kind of playing some version of themselves. That’s not the case with Mr. Nicholson. He’s all about the character. He really dives into who is that person. He’s a consummate actor. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen so far. And I think watching the character unfold through him is going to be really amazing.”

Instead of full-blown rehearsal periods for the film, Payne, Nicholson and the film’s other name actors, who include June Squibb as nis wife, Hope Davis as the daughter, Dermot Mulroney as the future son-in-law and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as the future in-law, have held script readings. According to Payne, Nicholson is not throwing his weight around, as one might expect, but rather acting as a colleague and collaborator.

“My experience so far is that he expresses his opinions as he sees them and he tries to be helpful to me and to the process. He seems to respect the filmmaker. So far, it’s been a really interesting collaboration. And I also think I have much to learn from him, so I welcome his input.”

 

 

ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002 JACK NICHOLSON ALEXANDER PAYNE (DIR) MOVIESORE COLLECTION LTD Stock Photo

 

Nicholson became attached to the project through the kind of old-boy networking Hollywood thrives on. The actor was given Begley’s book by his old friend, producer Harry Gittes (whose name Nicholson appropriated for the private eye he played in Chinatown). Then, Payne came on board, writing the script with Taylor and being assigned directorial chores as well. All Payne knew was that Nicholson would read the finished script first.

“And, oh, thank God he liked and agreed to do it,” Payne said. On a practical level, Nicholson’s participation has meant a much bigger budget than Payne has worked with before. “It’s around $30 million. Mr. Nicholson’s getting a salary which is larger than actors have gotten in my previous movies. Another factor is that this is a union movie, where my previous two were non-union, so there’s a little added cost there.

“Thirty (million) is actually quite modest – it’s hard to believe, I know – by Hollywood standards. And it’s really amazing this script is getting made with this caliber of star at that budget level, because there’s no gimmicks, no special effects, no guns. It’s just a guy in crisis.”

Nicholson’s presence netted a bigger budget than Payne ever had before, which meant New Line insisted he use sound stages and multiple cameras as safeguards against cost overruns caused by shooting delays.

“Because it’s not a terribly commercial film and because it’s somewhat costly I was urged to not go over budget. I had to make all my days, so in order to do that I shot more on sound stages and I sometimes threw up two or three cameras. I’d used sound stages on a limited basis before because, one, we didn’t have the budget to build sets and, two, I don’t really trust it, I trust what exists. But practical locations, as they’re called, are difficult. They’re tight. You wreck people’s front lawns.

“Building sets and shooting on them poses its own logistical problems, but it also solves a lot of problems. And rather than shoot from one angle and then move in closer, I tried to get both (shots) at once. I like doing it precisely for the reason of not wearing out the actors and saving time.” In the end, Payne did meet his sixty two-day schedule.

Despite the hike in budget, the presence of a superstar and the imposition of union realities, Payne insists the film, which is being made for New Line, remains closer to his first two intimate independent features than to overblown mainstream Hollywood pics.

“The scale of filmmaking is, for me, not that much different than my previous two. A lot of directors, as they get older or have more films under their belt or have more success or whatever, they consistently make bigger, more impersonal films. I am conscious of wanting to make increasingly more personal films.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

By design, Nicholson carries the film. He is in virtually every scene. That Payne got him to play the lead in the first place was a coup. That he worked with an artist he’s long admired was cool. In an interview Payne gave the Omaha Weekly only days before shooting began, he said the actor was accommodating in every way, immersing himself in the part and making himself available to the entire process during script readings. Now months removed from the shoot, Payne said Nicholson remained a pro throughout the production and his extraordinary talent provided him as a director with endless choices.

“I had a very excellent experience working with him. He was extremely professional and committed to his part. Jack Nicholson is a movie star and an icon and that’s fine, but in the moment of doing it and really who he is in his heart he’s an actor who gets nervous like other actors and wants to do a good job like other actors and hopes he got it right like other actors and needs reassurance like other actors.

“What was great about directing him was that unlike many situations where you give the direction and hope to God the actor can do it just the way you’d like him to or you hope you’ve thought of the right words that will trigger the right response, with Nicholson I had to be careful with what I told him because not only would he do it, he could do it. He just has an excellent instrument. Sometimes, when I’d impose blocking or I wanted a certain scene a certain way, I’d say, ‘Is that all right with you’ and he’d go, ‘Well, anything you come up with I can find a way to justify it to myself, so, what do you want?’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh…’ He makes every possible choice doable.”

Payne said, “There’s always a bit of nerves between actors and director the first couple weeks as you’re learning to trust one another.” That was true at the start of Schmidt, as Nicholson felt Payne out, but in short time “he made it very easy to direct him. He put a lot of appreciated effort into breaking the ice with those around him. He was very professional and very cool and very kind.”

The crowds of fans that followed the Schmidt traveling all-star band from location to location have long dispersed since production wrapped.

 

 

About Schmidt

 

If reaction to the film by preview audiences is any gauge, than Payne may be striking the right chords with this gray, introspective story. He said test cards consistently use words like “real,” “true-to-life,” “genuine,” “naturalistic” and “not funny” to describe it. “And that’s been kind of nice,” said Payne, whose aesthetic is informed by the European and American cinema of the last Golden Age (the 1960s and ‘70s) when the best films were about real life. Payne said the September 11 terrorist attacks “helped cement more than ever my already existing desire to make human films – films which are about people.”

 

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.

 

CBS NEWS

 

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.

From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on ‘About Schmidt,’ Jack Nicholson and the Comedy of Deep Focus

December 20, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on ‘About Schmidt,’ Jack Nicholson and the Comedy of Deep Focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne

From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, Alexander Payne’s Triumphant Cannes Film Festival Debut with ‘About Schmidt’

December 8, 2011 13 comments

Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson at Cannes

 

 

From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, Alexander Payne‘s Triumphant Debut at the Cannes Film Festival with ‘About Schmidt’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Press accounts of Alexander Payne’s conquest of the Cannes Film Festival, where his new film About Schmidt created a buzz in the main competition, have largely focused on the film losing out on any awards or on the critical hosannas directed toward him and his star, Jack Nicholson.

But, as Payne noted during a recent Omaha visit, Cannes is a phantasmagorical orgy of the senses that cannot be reduced to mere prizes or plaudits. It is at once an adoring celebration of cinema, a crass commercial venue and a sophisticated cultural showcase. It is where the French bacchanal and bistro sensibilities converge in one grand gesture for that most democratic art form — the movies. Only a satirist like Payne can take the full, surreal measure of Cannes and expose it for all its profundity and profanity.

“I likened it to the body of super model Gisel (Bundchen),” he said, “which is extraordinarily beautiful and draped in the most elegant clothes on the planet, yet, also possesses…bile and all sorts of fetid humors inside of it. The festival is all of those things. I mean, one thing is the elegance — the red carpet, the beautiful tuxes and gowns, the fabulous beach parties and all that stuff. Another thing is the best filmmakers in the world showing work there.

“And still another side is the marketplace, which is like a bazaar, with people talking about how many videocassette units your film’s going to sell in Indonesia. It’s that kind of sordid marketplace that gives cinema its vitality. And you can’t have the cinema body without all of it. So, it’s really like a beautiful woman. It’s extraordinary to look at from the outside, but once you cut it and look inside, you could throw up.”

He said the confluence of glitz, glamour and garishness reminded him of Las Vegas. “It’s all kind of Vegasy. You see really elegant things and you see really tacky things, which I liked. I was in such a good mood, that I just loved everything.”

So, what do you do for an encore when your third feature film makes a splash at the mecca of world cinema? Well, if you’re riding a wave of success like Alexander Payne, your hot new film is next chosen to open the New York Film Festival (NYFF), September 27 through October 13, at Lincoln Center. “It’s an honor,” he said regarding Schmidt’s recently announced selection to open the Big Apple event. “That will keep the awareness of the film afloat. A lot of the New York press and international press and kind of the tastemaker-types will see it, I’m told.”

To be accepted as an opening night feature there, a film must be making its North American premiere, which forced New Line Cinema to decline invitations for Schmidt to play other major festivals on the continent, including those in Toronto and Telluride. No matter. The word-of-mouth momentum attached to Schmidt from its Cannes screenings is so strong that early industry patter is already positioning the film as an award-contending late fall release.

For the filmmaker, Cannes (May 15-26) marked a milestone in a still young career whose sky-is-the-limit ceiling has his work being compared to and his name being mentioned with the most celebrated cinema artists in the world today. An indication of his growing stature is the fact that during a recent Omaha visit he was shadowed by a New York Times reporter preparing a major profile on him. He fully recognizes, too, what Cannes means for his reputation, although the sardonic Payne points out the absurdity attending such puffery.

“It was a huge honor just to be there…and it’s a nice stepping-stone,” he said.. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s bigger than being nominated for an Oscar (he and writing partner Jim Taylor earned Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Election) because it’s international. It’s also really political and full of bullshit to some degree, but what isn’t? But given that reality of the world, it’s still about pure love of cinema, not Hollywood people slapping each other on the back and awarding movies like A Beautiful Mind. Ugh.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.


Payne and Nicholson mugging for the Cannes paparazzi

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From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald

 

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