More than any actor of his generation, except maybe his buddy Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson has become not just an actor but a brand. Whether sitting courtside at Lakers games, literally talking out of his ass during a Golden Globe acceptance speech, or smirking at us from the silver screen, Jack is always Jack. While some may consider this an acting weakness, I disagree. Jack may always be “playing Jack,” but he scores a multitude of symphonies with that particular note. Here are five performance pieces from one of Noo Joisey’s favorite sons.
1. The Last Detail (1973). The story goes that Columbia Pictures passed on M*A*S*H because “people don’t say ’fuck’ in movies from Columbia Pictures.” The Last Detail is a Columbia Picture, and as befitting the naval occupation of its main characters, every other word is some variation of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!” screams “Bad Ass” Buddusky. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol!” Clearly, a lot had changed in the three years since Altman’s masterpiece. Scored, like “M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel, The Last Detail is an antiestablishment piece that uses the military as its object of rebellion. But Detail—written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby—is a smaller movie, and its ending is unrepentantly angry and bitter.
Like his fellow sailor Mule (Otis Young), Buddusky is a Navy lifer; both are dissatisfied with the Navy, but only Buddusky speaks his mind about how ass-backwards he finds his superior officer’s commands. Both are thrown together on the titular assignment: bringing 18-year old kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid) back to the brig so he can serve an eight year sentence for robbery. Bad Ass and Mule think the sentence, for robbing the favorite charity of a high ranking official’s wife, is overly harsh, and decide to show the young man a good time before he sacrifices his youth to the prison system. The journey is filled with prostitutes, drinking, swearing, fighting, betrayal of trust and more honesty than most contemporary movies could muster in a single frame.
Ashby’s movies meander, and they all meander differently. Detail takes its time; it knows this is the last taste of freedom and youth for Meadows, and Towne and Ashby want us to savor every moment. And who better to show one how to party than Jack? Buddusky is the role he was born to play, and for my money, he has never been better. In Meadows, he finds a symbiotic connection between his willing donation of youth to the Navy and Meadows’s forced surrender of his. Nicholson fights with his anger at the situation and his unerring sense of duty; when the aforementioned betrayal of trust comes, it raises the question of whose trust has been betrayed. Is it Meadows betraying his mentors? Is it Buddusky betraying his own feelings in service to a hated authority? Watch how Jack plays the scene where Meadows pitifully begs “please let me go,” as well as the chanting scene (which features Gilda Radner) in the film. Beneath the swearing and the bravado, there’s a lot going on; there always is with Jack.
2. Chinatown (1974). Another Nicholson-Towne collaboration with an unhappy ending, Chinatown singlehandedly ruined my childhood. As a kid, I was under the impression that movies ended happily. Though I understood very little of this film, I could sense that I wanted Faye Dunaway and Jack to ride off into the sunset. Dunaway rides off into the sunset—but not, to put it mildly, in the way that I’d hoped. Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, one of those names you never forget, especially after you’ve heard John Huston mispronounce it. “See, Mr. Gitts,” says Huston’s spectacularly evil Noah Cross, father of Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, “most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of… anything!”
Gittes is a private eye on a case so complicated that, on my last viewing, I finally discovered the answer to a question that had eluded me countless times before. The character feels lived-in, and his world-weariness gives the false impression that he has seen it all. While investigating this case, Gittes finds out the truth about Evelyn Mulwray’s sister, gets an impromptu nosejob from a puny punk who calls him “kitty cat” (director Roman Polanski, making me wish Hitchcock had interacted with his stars during his cameos), and discovers that he not only has he not seen it all, but it’s best that he forget his newfound knowledge as well. The shock on Gittes’ face at the end of Chinatown mirrored my own, and for the first time in my life, I identified with the man who would be Jack.
3. The Raven (1963). I just heard a collective “THE WHAT?!!!” I’ll bet you were expecting a different bird, a cuckoo perhaps? Now that I have your attention, allow me to sing the praises of a film I must have seen a million times on the Channel 7 4:30 movie here in NYC. If you want to see something different from Jack, before he crafted and perfected his persona, you could do worse than this amusing horror comedy from Roger Corman. In his second role for Corman, he’s just a supporting player; the film belongs to Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, a combination that sounds straight out of one of the old Looney Tunes that spoofed Hollywood. The tie to Poe is minimal: Price quotes some lines from the titular poem, once had a girl named Lenore, and has a feathered visitor rapping at his chamber door. But Poe falls by the wayside when Price asks the raven is he is a reminder of his lost love Lenore, and the Raven replies “how the hell do I know?”
Turns out the Raven is actually Lorre, a victim of an evil spell placed upon him—but none of this really matters. The allure isn’t just the chance to see Nicholson in his younger, leaner days, but also watching two old hammy horror pros go at it in a climactic duel of magic. It’s loads of fun if you’re into this type of silliness. A decade before he sent the Zuni Fetish Doll after Karen Black, Richard Matheson wrote this script.
4. About Schmidt (2002). To me, Alexander Payne seems to have nothing but disdain for most of his characters. It makes them hard to love, even though I’ve liked every one of his movies. In About Schmidt, Payne offers up his most sympathetic character, Warren Schmidt (Nicholson). He’s a man retiring from a career he has given his life to (a kinder, gentler counterpoint to Buddusky), a life we sense he feels was wasted. His 42-year old marriage could use a little spice, and his daughter is marrying a waterbed salesman he doesn’t like. The latter sends him on a road trip (again like Buddusky) to deal with the quirky family of in-laws that includes a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub. Jack’s reaction to her is worth the price of admission, as is his near obsessive restraint.
Warren Schmidt is the antithesis of the lively characters we’ve come to expect; all joy has been replaced by routine. Throughout the film, Schmidt writes letters to the 6-year old child, Ndugu, whom he “adopted” from the children’s agency that doesn’t feature Gloria the Hutt as their spokesperson. They are so adult in tone and subject matter that one expects a huge comic payoff. Instead, the effect of these letters is represented in a gloriously bittersweet end-of-film closeup of Jack’s face, a closeup that deserves mention alongside the Marquise de Merteuil and her makeup in Dangerous Liaisons, and Norma Desmond’s final role in Sunset Blvd.
5. Batman (1989). I couldn’t end this piece with Restrained Jack, so here he is in all his unrestrained glory in Tim Burton’s revisionist Caped Crusader movie. If Bad Ass Buddusky was the role he was born to play, the Joker is the role Jack’s persona was born to play. I didn’t like Batman, but I found myself drawn to three things: the art direction, the Prince songs, and Nicholson’s crazy, infectious performance. All three of those come together in the scene where the Joker decides to have some fun with artwork. Decked out in purple, Jack destroys and dances while His Purple Badness sings “Party Man, Party Man/Rock the party like nobody can/Rules and regulations/no place in his nation.” Truer words were never spoken.