The name Jack Nicholson has become synonymous with remarkable acting talent, maverick personality, and cinematic versatility. A consummate performer, Jack has made his reputation on a series of demanding roles–each uniquely eccentric–that explore man adrift in a hostile or indifferent world. Film Comment contributor Beverly Walker wrote that, time after time, Jack “has evoked empathy and identification with characters whose actions and attitudes are repellent or obstreperous….Many of [his] films have pushed at the outer edges of what mainstream society can tolerate. This…is part of his mystique.”
Jack’s appeal has never been based solely on his physical appearance, so he has avoided the stereotyping that traps so many of Hollywood’s leading men. As he has aged, so too have his characters; where once he played agitated younger men, he now exalts in the special dilemmas of later life. Ron Rosenbaum analyzed Jack’s ongoing character development in the New York Times Magazine: “In part, it’s been a matter of timing, a confluence of the content of Jack’s roles with the concerns of the baby-boom generation, growing out of adolescence into adulthood. While Marlon Brando’s and James Dean’s naive rebelliousness could be models for teens in the silent generation of the 50’s, Jack’s characters embody the modulations those adolescent attitudes must undergo to survive the disillusion of adulthood.” Walker maintains that any role Jack brings to the screen becomes recognizable–comfortably or uncomfortably–as an American everyman, someone “close to home.” The critic stated: “Jack’s brilliance is his obvious, intelligent gift for both embodying and commenting upon his character in one seamless evocation….We intuitively sense something of the man himself in those squirming fictional men.”
Jack told the New York Times Magazine: “I like to play people that haven’t existed yet, a future something, a cusp character. I have that creative yearning. Much in the way Chagall flies figures into the air–once it becomes part of the conventional wisdom, it doesn’t seem particularly adventurous or weird or wild.” “Adventurous,” “weird,” and “wild” certainly describe many of Jack’s memorable characters; but his approach to his craft is conventional, based on years of training and a predisposition to analysis and investigation. Rosenbaum characterized Jack as “one of those fanatic believers in the method and mystique of the craft of acting, an actor who, even during the dozen lean years in Hollywood when he was doing only B pictures, D pictures, biker epics and schlock, would nonetheless devotedly go from acting teacher to acting teacher seeking truth the way others of his generation would go from guru to guru or shrink to shrink….If Jack’s film persona tends toward world-weary disillusion and cool cynicism, Jack himself is still the kind of excitable acting-theory enthusiast who is capable of great earnestness on the subject.”
Natural as he may appear on the screen, Jack brings careful preparation to each part. His overall estimation of acting is also based on intellectual discoveries. “You know,” he told Rosenbaum, “they say it takes 20 years at a minimum to make an actor, a full actor, and that’s the stage I’m talking about. After you’ve got some kind of idea of how your instrument is, after you have developed some kind of idea thematically of what you think you’re about, after you’ve got some kind of ease with the craft, then possibly you might have some style.” Jack himself might serve as the perfect embodiment of his twenty-year plan: a long apprenticeship and much self-searching contributed to the effortless, stylish performances he is able to give today.
Jack was born in Manhattan, New York on April 22, 1937 and raised in Neptune, New Jersey. The people he knew as his parents–John and Ethel May Nicholson–were, in fact, his grandparents; and the woman he regarded as an older sister, June Nicholson, was actually his mother. The social mores of 1937 made it necessary for this pretense, as June was unmarried. John Nicholson was a sign painter with a drinking problem; he left the family while Jack was still very young. Ethel May opened a beauty parlor in her home to support her three children, and Jack was left to his own devices in the blue collar community. According to Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated, Jack “wore a DA, blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket–a greaser down to the tips of his chukka boots.” Growing up in the 1950s, young Jack became a sports fanatic, playing basketball and football and working summers as a lifeguard at a Jersey shore beach. He was banned from organized high school sports after his sophomore year because he defaced an opposing team’s electronic scoreboard, but his enthusiasm for playing did not diminish. Barred from athletics, he channeled some of his energy into school plays because as he remarked later “all the chicks I was into were in them”, soon he was a regular performer in Manasquan High’s theatrics. He also was a popular class clown who was voted both Class Pessimist and Class Optimist when he graduated in 1954.
Jack got high scores on his college entrance exams, but he decided to postpone college until he had done some traveling. In 1957 he visited his older sister in Los Angeles and took a job as office boy in the cartoon department at MGM. There he became the protege of producer Joe Pasternak, who persuaded him to join the Players Ring Theatre troupe. He did join the troupe and also began acting classes with director Jeff Corey, the first of many drama teachers he was to consult over the years. Through that class Jack met Roger Corman, a budding director whose B-movie thrillers have since earned a measure of critical respect. Corman cast Jack as the lead in one of his early films, Cry Baby Killer, a standard picture about troubled adolescence. Jack thought the part would put him in contention with Brando and Dean, but the film did not generate that much interest. He went a year between roles and then was only able to land more work as a character actor in Corman’s low-budget movies such as The Raven and The Terror. Jack may have been frustrated by the lack of work, but he channeled his frustration into rigorous acting classes and the hedonistic abandon that characterized the early 1960s. “This was the era of the Beat Generation and West Coast jazz and staying up all night on Venice Beach,” he told Film Comment. “That was as important as getting jobs, or so it seemed at the time. I don’t reckon it has changed today….At the beginning you’re very idealistically inclined toward the art of the thing. Or you don’t stick it because there’s no money in it….I say this by way of underlining that it was then and is still the art of acting that is the wellspring for me.”
In addition to his acting classes, Jack learned all he could about filmmaking and screenwriting, feeling that the medium offered a creative outlet equal to painting or poetry. By 1965 he was sufficiently well known in the industry to wrangle a job producing Westerns. He shot two in which he also starred, Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting; both were more cerebral than standard American fare. The films did little business in the United States but were cult hits in Europe, especially France. Jack continued to write and produce movies (he had written Ride the Whirlwind), getting some attention for a psychedelic fantasy called Head and even more notice for The Trip, a story about a television executive who experiments with LSD.
The latter project brought him to the attention of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, two experimental filmmakers who were casting a movie about motorcycling hippies, Easy Rider. Jack got a part in the film by default when actor Rip Torn dropped out; Jack proceeded to make Easy Rider an unprecedented hit. In Easy Rider he plays George Hanson, a hard-drinking Southern lawyer who joins Hopper and Fonda for a stretch of their cross-country bike trip. When the lights came up on the films premiere in Cannes, the audience cheered – for him. He was an overnight sensation and it had only taken 11 years. Jack Nicholson had become a movie star. Many critics praised Jack’s monologues as the highlight of the movie, and he was nominated for his first Academy Award for the performance.
After Easy Rider, work came much more frequently for Jack. A 1970 film, Five Easy Pieces, brought him a second Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a disillusioned concert pianist in rebellion against his artistic background. The next year he seemed to throw sensitivity to the wind when he played a ruthless male chauvinist in the controversial Carnal Knowledge. Cue writer William Wolf notes of that role: “Jack Nicholson is more brilliant than he’s ever been as the empty bastard of a guy who can be potent only with the ego-building, undemanding, totally sexual plaything.” Jack earned a third Academy Award nomination in 1974 for The Last Detail, a dark comedy about two sailors in desperate search of a fulfilling fling. In the Toronto Globe & Mail, Betty Lee wrote of Jack’s character: “Bad-ass Buddusky is still a fascinating picture of a man questioning himself and his reason for being alive. Jack’s brilliant reading of the Buddusky character makes the answer apparent. No man is an island.”
If any roles can be said to have established Jack permanently as Hollywood’s reigning artistic actor, they would have to be those in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Chinatown, Jack portrays J. J. Gittes, a private detective whose worldly ways do not prepare him for the corruption he finds in Depression-era Los Angeles. Hired on a case of marital infidelity, Gittes discovers far more sinister work afoot, and learns too late of his essential naivete. His character in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick McMurphy, needs no introduction. Jack finally won an Academy Award for his role as an affable inmate of a mental hospital who finds himself pitted against a vicious nurse. Rosenbaum wrote: “What seems distinctive about Jack’s Oscar-winning performance in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ what distinguishes his…McMurphy from [novelist] Ken Kesey’s hero, is the suggestion of a dark side, a pathological impulse behind the drive for pure liberation, a self-absorbed quality that ignores the destruction that ‘liberation’ can bring upon more fragile souls.”
Jack claims that he brought that impulsiveness to the role through his own analysis of the part. He told Rosenbaum: “The guy’s a scamp who knows he’s irresistible to women and in reality he expects Nurse Ratched to be seduced by him. This is his tragic flaw. This is why he ultimately fails….It was one long, unsuccessful seduction which the guy was so pathologically sure of.” McMurphy may not have seduced Nurse Ratched, but he certainly seduced audiences; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of the most popular films released in the 1970s.
In the 1980s Jack has continued his fascination with “cusp” characters, from self-destructing writers in The Shining and Reds to over-the-hill heroes in Terms of Endearment and Ironweed. (Rosenbaum feels that no other actor “has captured so well the dark side of the writer’s disposition, the special bitterness of it.”) Jack won another Oscar for Terms of Endearment, in which he plays a paunchy, cynical ex-astronaut with a penchant for avoiding emotional attachments. Critics have praised Jack for taking a part that called for an overweight, middle-aged man–just the sort of casting many Hollywood leading men actively avoid.
Although he did not win an Academy Award for Prizzi’s Honor, a 1985 release, he does count that picture among his favorites, because his real-life lover at that time, Angelica Huston, starred in it with him and turned in her own award-winning performance. Jack also relished his own role in Prizzi’s Honor, that of a mafia killer with few social graces and even fewer scruples. “I took a certain level of intelligence away from the character,” Jack told Rosenbaum, adding that he affected facial tics to accent the character’s lack of self-consciousness.
He is absurdly horrific, yet charming and sexy, as the devil in The Witches of Eastwick. The same engaging duality is evident in Batman where, like all the villains in that series, his Joker is a good man twisted toward evil by an unfortunate metamorphosis. In Wolf, a similar transformation is caused by a midlife crisis that is both professional and sexual. In Rafelson’s Blood and Wine, an homage to James M. Cain, Jack’s frustrated, unsuccessful businessman is unable to make a new life for himself; his elaborate caper ends in bloody disaster for nearly everyone. The antihero of his earlier career, it seems, can now only be recreated–as the nostalgic performances in The Two Jakes (a flawed sequel to Chinatown) and Ironweed make clear. His impersonation of the union leader in Hoffa, however, is a mature tour de force, a demonstration of how rebellious dissatisfaction can be directed toward a good end, but then betrayed and squandered.
Similarly, Jack plays a tragic figure in Sean Penn’s underrated Crossing Guard, a man, undone by grief, who lets his life be ruined by the death of his young daughter; the performance is intense and affecting, a key to the film’s devastating anatomy of love, hate, and deliverance.
Jack took home a host of awards for his starring role in the 1997 James L. Brooks romantic comedy, As Good As It Gets;–including the Academy Award for best actor, a Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and a collection of broadcasters and critics awards. Only Jack among contemporary actors could make convincing the inner changes demanded by Brooks in As Good as it Gets, where his misanthropic loner, trapped by compulsive behaviors, reaches out to love a young woman, befriend his gay neighbor, and even form an attachment to a hitherto pesky dog.
Jack paired up with Penn again in the 2001 film The Pledge. Once again Jack plays a cop, but this time he is derailed by his obsession with finding the culprit in series of kidnappings and murders of young girls. The grim psychological thriller is a study of obsession and unconcious motivation.
In 2002, About Schmidt presented Jack with the opportunity to test his acting mettle. Cast completely against character, Jack plays Warren Schmidt, a man who is wholly unsatisfied with his life and unaware of how to change it. The dark comedy earned Jack several awards for best actor, as well as an Academy Award Nomination. Jack’s recent work shows that even in advanced middle age he continues to be one of the most talented and bankable stars in the American film industry.
Jack was married to actress Sandra Knight in the early 1960s; they have one daughter. He had a short-lived relationship with Susan Anspach his Five Easy Pieces co-star which produced a son, Caleb (although Jack was not told about the child until sometime later). He has one daughter and one son also with actress Rebecca Broussard. Among his romantic involvements, a relationship with Angelica Huston, the daughter of director John Huston, lasted for more than fifteen years. They maintained separate residences, however, and both felt that strengthened their relationship. In People magazine, Jack called Huston “a dark, coiled spring of a woman with long flowing lines [who has] got a mind and a literary sense of style, and you better believe she’s got imaginative energies. She’s absolutely unpredictable and she’s very beautiful.” Not to be outdone, Huston offered her assessment of Jack: “Most actors are vain and egotistical, but Jack is very sensible, not easily swayed. He’s at home with himself, and when you’re with him, you feel as if you’ve come home. You feel he’s family. Audiences feel this too. They feel he understands what they’re feeling, and that’s the essence of his power as a star. People who know him feel understood too. He has many, many friends and he wins their loyalty because he is so loyal. He takes care of his people.”
Jack’s other well-publicized passion is for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a fixture at Lakers home games and often travels to road games as well, despite the jeers of opposing fans. Sports Illustrated’s Reilly feels that Jack’s affection for basketball is just part of his “successful project to have more fun than anybody on the planet.”