Don't Fence Me In

Film still for Don't Fence Me In

No performer gets an easier critical ride than Jack Nicholson. And no star does better at playing the Hollywood game of being loved by everybody. But what exactly is his appeal, wonders Danny Leigh

Near the beginning of The Pledge, Sean Penn's elegiac 2000 crime mystery, Nevada homicide detective Jerry Black played by Jack Nicholson stumbles into his own retirement party. It's a jaunty affair, Hawaiian-themed. Black, however, seems tense, preoccupied, the root of his discomfort as his soon-to-be ex-colleagues make whoopee not (yet) any foreknowledge of the case he's about to be plunged into, but the simple fact of his redundancy.

Of late, you could be forgiven for wondering if such thoughts have been troubling Nicholson himself. Barely 12 months later, after all, there he was acting out another retirement (and another related depression) in Alexander Payne's bilious comedy About Schmidt. But it's not only US cinema's best-loved 66-year-old who may be sweating on one day being forced to take a curtain call. For his loyal audience, too, the idea of his final exit from our screens can't help but bring a jolt of disorientation.

Retirement is what happens to other, frailer talents. And Nicholson, at least in our collective minds, is surely something more elemental, more permanent. How many times have we adjusted our eyes to the darkness of a movie theatre only to see before us that feral leer, those rolling, knowing eyes? Is it not a task to remember (or imagine) a time before this devil himself, Hollywood's Pan, living the very highest of lives in a secluded house up on Mulholland Drive?

Joker Jack: perhaps the single most clearly defined persona in film today. Except that the films themselves tell a different story. Of course you can always find moments of laziness, but forgetting and forgiving passing foibles, it's been a career built on evading the kind of easy definition that cemented his public image, choosing instead complexity, ambiguity, a refusal to be pinned down. Welcome to the paradox that is Nicholson's place in film history at once snug in the warmth of the mainstream and forever a step outside it. (While it's unsurprising, for instance, that an actor of his renown would eventually choose to play an American president, only Nicholson would do so in the demented hinterlands of Tim Burton's 1996 sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks!.)

But what else could you expect after a start like his? Not for Jack the poodle grooming of a studio upbringing instead, a decade and more in grubby obscurity, learning the trade with Roger Corman, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff. By the time of the much legally debated 1968 New York supper during which a bellicose Dennis Hopper allegedly brandished a steak knife at Rip Torn the resulting fall-out freeing up Torn's role in Easy Rider (1969) Nicholson already had his most fresh-faced years behind him, emerging into the public consciousness as a wry sceptic in his thirties from the wrong side of the cinematic tracks.

And what better role with which to emerge than wide-eyed Southern lawyer George Hanson, turned on to marijuana round a campfire by bikers Hopper and Peter Fonda? Few breakthroughs, after all, could have been more smirkingly tailored for an actor whose pot consumption was already semi-legendary. Stoner irony aside, however, the actual performance proved compelling, a welcome ray of levity in what, cultural import notwithstanding, was a deeply fuddled enterprise. Not that it got the best from him. That was left to Bob Rafelson's ramshackle character study Five Easy Pieces (1970).

There, cast as the affectedly blue-collar Bobby Dupea black-sheep son of bohemian musicians Nicholson was held tight as a fist, a bowling ball hurtling through Rafelson's narrative. Watch Dupea careen from ruction to ruction and you can see the impatience streaked through almost every early Nicholson appearance: a voice forever nagging at him that somewhere, just out of earshot, there's a better party he hasn't been invited to.

The result was a market-cornering knack for the explosive. Indeed, follow the trajectory of Bobby Dupea's various tantrums and it leads direct to the oft-mimicked fury of Nicholson's colonel in A Few Good Men (1992) or the sour outbursts of his obsessive grouch in As Good As It Gets (1997). Only mere anger was never the whole story. With Nicholson, the free-floating rage that leads him in Five Easy Pieces to tell a waitress refusing to bring him plain toast to "hold the chicken between your knees" is forever undercut by recognising its pointlessness. Congratulated on his stand in the diner, he shrugs: "Yeah... but I didn't get my toast, did I?" Nicholson never again made a film quite as ambitiously woozy, yet Dupea remains a cornerstone in his legend, and in understanding how it evolved.

Coldness was part of it: the ability (and the courage) to deal not in the Luceferian twinkling of later years far less hack villainy but in simple, all-too-human expediency. It's a trait modern film-makers shy away from, but back in 1970 Bobby Dupea's abandonment of his pregnant girlfriend at a service station was no act of chivalry. Nicholson's trick was to marry that pungent self-interest to a truly magnetic charisma. Suddenly US cinema's early-1970s halcyon days had their personification: an actor capable of seducing both critics and audiences pining for a different kind of leading man.

And with that seduction came choices, the fuel of Nicholson's rise. It's those choices that have always separated him from the herd: bold, canny, certainly informed by an attraction to projects that would keep his commercial stock high (he once admitted his involvement in 1983's Terms of Endearment was not uninfluenced by the chances of it winning him an Oscar), but also, crucially, by a keen and roving desire to keep himself interested.

Hence the roles that followed Five Easy Pieces: the oafish lotharios (Carnal Knowledge, 1971), self-conscious intellectuals (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972), embittered navy men (The Last Detail, 1973), the parade of wilful diversity that led as all roads do with Nicholson to Chinatown (1974). If anyone were to doubt the grip he exerted on his material therein, it might be worth imagining any of his peers inhabiting the hapless private dick J.J. Gittes: the blustery Gene Hackman, say, or vapid Warren Beatty. No, the film was Nicholson's, the memory of its corrupted poise inseparable from the thought of its star, hair Exxon slick, grin just begging to be wiped off his face (along with his inquisitive nose).

Of course, you could always connect the dots between the dark revelations of Robert Towne's script and the murk of Nicholson's own background (specifically, the discovery that his elder sister was actually his mother). Such literal-mindedness would, however, unfairly diminish the power of the character Nicholson created: studiedly cynical but profoundly disappointable, whip-smart but not quite sharp enough to get out of the way of the Mulwrays and their toxic secrets. The film may have afforded him the chance to use both his charm and his temper, yet its most indelible memory of him remains his final scene, mute and impotent, undone. In the rush to garland director Roman Polanski and writer Towne for Chinatown's deathless appeal, the contribution of its star should not be neglected.

In its wake came retreat, more evasion: a cameo in Ken Russell's outlandish rock opera Tommy (1975), collaboration with Antonioni on The Passenger (1975). On his return to the US, however, Nicholson promptly buffed up his burgeoning status as resident rogue male with a pair of roles entirely predicated on outlaw mythology.

Jack NicholsonThe first was a career pinnacle: the part of asylum insurrectionary Randle P. McMurphy in Milos Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). For the actor it was another role instantly dispatched into his own iconography; as with Chinatown, so fully did he inhabit his character, the idea of another in his place is absurd (we may give thanks that James Caan chose to pass on the project). But tempting though it may be to view Cuckoo's Nest as the first coarsening of Nicholson's talents into self-parody, his accomplishment actually relied less on his short-fuse histrionics than on their contrasts: the weary bags under his eyes, his gloom in repose. With hindsight we might watch McMurphy wreak havoc among his fellow mental patients and see Nicholson at his most Nicholsonian, but isolated from the cultural baggage he's since accumulated, it's a performance whose humanity remains astonishing. And in the most tragic sense imaginable, it's a performance based on finding that in the face of that which seeks to destroy him, Nicholson's character isn't quite as smart as he (or we) believed (or hoped) he was. McMurphy may often be taken as the consummate rebel; lobotomised and defeated, all he represents is failed revolution, a heartbreaking counterpart to Five Easy Pieces' Bobby Dupea.

The second of Nicholson's mid-1970s hellraisers sprang from the less esteemed surroundings of The Missouri Breaks (1976), Arthur Penn's rambunctious tale of horse-rustling on the Montana frontier. Certainly every ounce of acclaim lavished on Cuckoo's Nest could be matched with a pound of opprobrium for Penn's yarn, yet the two make for definite companion pieces. Not only did McMurphy and Missouri Breaks' Tom Logan share a feverish machismo (as the latter, you can almost smell Nicholson through the celluloid), but beneath the swagger, each struggled with a definitive Nicholson fixation: a fierce, irreducible hostility to being penned, encumbered. McMurphy storms against Nurse Ratched and her white-coated goon squad; Logan equally displays a child's fury at being confined to his ranch while a rustling proceeds without him.

Such is the substance of Nicholson's position as a particularly American icon: American not in terms of malls and jingoism, but in the sense of freedom of movement, perhaps the quintessential American liberty. It's there behind those animal eyes the blank summons of a thousand freeways (taken to in everything from his lysergic biker flicks of the late 1960s to About Schmidt) and in the madness in them when he's kept confined.

So it proved again at the end of the 1970s, as a decade's worth of incipient mania was concentrated into the 146 minutes of The Shining (1980). Indeed, you could almost believe that the sole purpose of Kubrick's visionary horror movie was the lab-rat scrutiny of a prime Nicholson character, aspirant writer Jack Torrance, being driven to distraction in the snowbound Overlook Hotel. Of course, the performance he crafted was an exercise in guignol in Vivian Kubrick's documentary of the shoot, Nicholson reveals he learned script notation from Boris Karloff, and watching the film you'd have to say it wasn't the only thing. But beyond its cartoonishness, his lunacy is also a thing of wonder, wholly in keeping with the cadence of the project, its star spotlit at the very centre of Kubrick's mad ravel. Indeed, such was the grandiose scale of the film that had its star been any less overblown he would simply have become (long before the story made him such) part of the furniture.

This much was due not just to Nicholson but also to Kubrick, who spent the production encouraging his male lead to keep on getting bigger, louder. And in that coaxing lies one of the actor's secrets: that with his brightness, his dry self-possession, he would always need a director bullish enough to stop him coasting. Speaking to Vivian Kubrick, he admitted as much: "When I come up against a director who has a concept I don't agree with," he remarked, "or maybe I just haven't thought of it... I'd be more prone to go with them. Because I want to be out of control as an actor. I want them to have the control."

The tools varied. On Five Easy Pieces Rafelson reportedly took charge of his grass supply; on Chinatown producer Robert Evans' description of Polanski as "like Napoleon with actors" perhaps tells its own story. The gist, however, was the same that Nicholson would deliver his finest work not in those roles he mastered but in those he didn't.

It was a scenario that would become rarer as time passed. Not that he didn't still have a slew of great performances inside him; you just never quite knew when he was going to summon one up. Even in their absence during the arch noir of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) or the muddled sweep of Reds (1981) he was never less than hugely watchable. But the moments of greatness came in surroundings so unlikely as to be almost perverse: as dyspeptic astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment he lent the otherwise moribund affair a scabrous zing, while John Huston's souffle-light proto-Sopranos caper Prizzi's Honor (1985) gave him his biggest conceptual stretch in years, playing an idiot.

Nicholson's rendering of goombah Charley Partanna obliged him to muster exactly the kind of slavish, canine devotion (to both his mob elders and to bride Kathleen Turner) he'd always been defined in opposition to. Using a smattering of physical affectations jaw held open, top lip almost simian he dove beneath the surface of his role to create a finely calibrated portrait of stupidity. All, moreover, achieved without losing sight of either Charley's capacity for violence or his skewed morality.

Such subtlety was hardly the flavour of the mid 1980s. Instead, the dominant cultural mood was busy demonising pretty much everything Nicholson's image represented (sexual adventurism, drug use, the whole babyboomer shebang). And in that context, what could be more gleefully mischievous than playing a "horny little devil" in George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick (1987)?

Again, the performance an inspired riot of shuffling, wildcat malevolence (compare De Niro's risible turn as Louis Cyphre in the same year's Angel Heart) was better than the material deserved. Except, after such an obviously loaded role, maybe now his artistic freedom had finally been outstripped by his fame, by the pliant nature of directors happy enough for him simply to grace their films. Certainly the pattern was set long before Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, a film often cited as the point at which Nicholson lapsed into self-parody, but one in which his bogeyman strut as the Joker is still unfailingly enjoyable.

Jack NicholsonTo find a film-maker able to challenge him, Nicholson had to find a new collaborator: himself. The movie was The Two Jakes (1990), his own belated and faintly quixotic sequel to Chinatown. Given the bile aimed at the film around its release, you might think it was an unqualified disaster; the truth was that behind the camera Nicholson the director proved flawed at best (much as he had with 1970's Drive, He Said and the ill-conceived Goin' South eight years later), but that in front of it his reprise of J.J. Gittes stood squarely beside his most lauded performances. Paunchier, sadder, leathered by the California sun, Gittes' status as a haunted man was perfectly, intangibly evident without the clumsy interventions of the script (framed photos of Faye Dunaway on his desk and all). Notwithstanding the storyline's jokey longueurs and a vintage moment of Nicholson kink with Madeleine Stowe, the tone of the film as a whole was suffused with an unmistakably caustic tang of regret.

And so Nicholson ambled on into the 1990s and beyond the struggle (carried out with varying degrees of application) always to find characters and stories robust enough to withstand the weight of his celebrity. In the process his choices were seldom other than idiosyncratic, often verging on the baffling: while you can't help but wonder what the likes of Spike Jonze or P.T. Anderson could do with him, you equally can't suppress a strange admiration for his indifference to such a relatively obvious career move.

Instead, he followed an agenda all his own, routinely conjuring up great moments in films which were, perhaps, only rated as highly as they were by dint of his characterisations: the casually hateful Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men, As Good As It Gets' misanthropic novelist Melvin Udall, the titular anti-hero of About Schmidt. When the material was consistently good, meanwhile in the flinty unions saga Hoffa (1992) or The Pledge you remembered that no other contemporary actor carried quite the same crackling voltage.

So, in a forgetful world, we should celebrate him now. The man himself is not, you suspect, much given to reliving past glories: think of the scene captured by Vivian Kubrick where, after one particularly operatic moment in The Shining, he snaps back to the here and now with comic immediacy, strolling away, a picture of calm. For those who will one day have to get by without him, however, it may be prudent to step back a moment and hold in our minds as if savouring a single malt the very singular Jack Nicholson.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012