Jack Nicholson / The film great it would be hard to forget
Jack Nicholson: the film great it would be hard to forget
Cinema's celebrated wild man is said to have retired, citing his inability to remember lines. With his ability to steal the show both onscreen and off, has any other actor been so adored by the public?
Ryan Gilbey The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013 18.27 BST
'His lifetime is 1937 to infinity': Jack Nicholson with Michelle Phillips at an awards ceremony in 1971. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage
Most of the actors we associate with the American new wave of the late 1960s and early 70s are, in fact, no longer acting at all. Warren Beatty hasn't made a film in 12 years. Gene Hackman announced he was quitting in 2008, though it had already been four years since his last movie. Only Robert De Niro continues at anything like the speed (if not the quality) of his younger self.
So it should not be a source of consternation that news has emerged of Jack Nicholson's retirement. His recent performances in undistinguished comic doodles (The Bucket List, How Do You Know) have hinted at a slowing down, a falling off. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect a late-period equivalent to the work that established his daredevil reputation. It isn't that the actor isn't up to the job now of another Five Easy Pieces or Carnal Knowledge or Chinatown But the cliche persists: no one's making 'em like that any more.
If Nicholson has become part-pantomime dame, succumbing to bad habits or relaxing into undemanding roles, let the industry shoulder some of the blame for that. An old dog can't be blamed for putting on weight if its opportunities for exercise are inhibited.
As both product and sometime facilitator of the countercultural cinema in the 1960s and 70s, Nicholson was forged in an era sympathetic to his characteristics: the renegade energy, the deranged smile that doubles as a dam to contain his fury. He can make us shed a tear for the devil – and he has done many times, from his predatory womaniser in Carnal Knowledge right up to his amoral crook in Blood and Wine, who crouches over his dying wife in a car wreck and steals the jewellery from around her neck.
Fans of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are correct to cherish the rebellious spirit of that film's hero, Randle P McMurphy, but we shouldn't forget that the film opens with him laughingly shrugging off his statutory rape of an underage girl. Few actors could have folded that potentially destabilising detail into the mix of a character with such aplomb.
And while there's no suggestion of anything comparable in Nicholson's private life, it is a truism that he can get away with murder, or at least mayhem. His 2004 admission that "I only take Viagra when I'm with more than one woman" was greeted with a kind of whooping "Attaboy!" pride from media and public alike.
While Nicholson has not yet confirmed his retirement officially, more than one source has cited "memory loss" as the reason why the actor is no longer considering scripts. His refusal of the lead role in the new filmNebraska, about an elderly alcoholic who believes he has won the lottery, seems also to have added grist to the rumour mill; the replacement, his old friend Bruce Dern, went on to win the best actor prize at Cannes this year.
But what must statuettes and silverware mean to Nicholson anyway? He has three Academy Awards, three Baftas and his own Cannes acting prize (for his scabrous performance in the 1973 buddy comedy The Last Detail). He is the male actor with the greatest number of Oscar nominations to his name (12). But his is a species of fame and worth that can't be measured in trinkets and doorstops. Across audiences, critics and the industry, there is no disparity in the levels of affection for him.
Nicholson is never off duty. His extracurricular performances at awards ceremonies or courtside at basketball games are all of a piece with his persona. Indeed, it sometimes feels the Oscars haven't truly begun until we get the customary shot of Nicholson's eyebrows rising above his Ray-Bans and vanishing like gulls into the distant sunset of his hairline. This year, he wasn't even up for a prize and yet he still managed to grab a chunk of media coverage by flirting with Jennifer Lawrence in the middle of her post-award interviews. "You look like an old girlfriend of mine," he purred, to which the 23-year-old replied gamely: "Oh really? Do I look like a new girlfriend?"
The Nicholson trademark is a sage, slow-dawning, disreputable smile: he's the cat that got the cream but knows there's more to come. Peeling back his lips to reveal a widescreen grin of carnivorous teeth, he is at heart matey and conspiratorial. No wonder that to so many people who have never even met him, he is "Jack" rather than "Nicholson".
This can also be attributed partly to the rib-nudging, gallery-pleasing nature of some of his best-known performances, many of which have been as characters who are themselves lascivious attention-seekers. As the hotel caretaker falling prey to cabin fever and worse in The Shiningor the priapic demon in The Witches of Eastwick or the moribund editor revived by lycanthropic tendencies in Wolf, he is going for the broadest possible vote and getting it. On these occasions, the actor is not disappearing into his work so much as using his off-screen self to bolster the on-screen equivalent, and vice versa. An enduring peculiarity of The Shining is that one can never be entirely sure it isn't a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Nicholson's day-to-day conduct.
While this lunatic side has helped cultivate the Nicholson persona, it has also risked turning him into a caricature. A Jack Nicholson performance at full pelt should only be viewed glancingly, out of the corner of the eye. He has a tendency if left unchecked to obliterate everything else on screen, as Martin Scorsese found to his cost when he allowed the actor to ham it up something rotten in The Departed, capsizing that movie in the process.
Even before The Shining had finished shooting, Stephen King (who wrote the original novel) expressed doubts about the casting: "I'm a little afraid of Jack Nicholson in that context because he is not an ordinary man. So far as I know, he's never played an ordinary man and I'm not sure he can." And the most loyal devotees of Nicholson should still give thanks that he was too busy directing his comic western Goin' South! to accept the lead role of the UFO-obsessed family man in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which he was Spielberg's first choice. Had the aliens pitched up on our planet and clapped eyes on him, they would surely have turned around and taken their chances with another solar system.
There is, though, a more contemplative side to Nicholson that deserves not to be eclipsed by his goofball shtick in Batman, As Good As It Getsor The Departed. During his apprenticeship in exploitation films from the stable of Roger Corman, he could strike an oddly sober note; later, in his breakthrough performance as a lawyer in Easy Rider, he was an antidote to that picture's engineered craziness. At this point in his career, he had despaired that he would be stuck in B-movie purgatory for ever, and there is a blasé poignancy to his work in Easy Rider, enhanced by the knowledge now that the director and co-star Dennis Hopper didn't even want him for the part. "I hadn't dropped the pose of 10 to 12 years of failure," Nicholson said. "Like, 'You can use me or not. I can tell you my credits. I can charm you. But really, I'm the best actor there is in my age group.'"
His friendship with the film-maker Bob Rafelson, with whom he co-wrote the Monkees' subversive 1968 film Head, got him past Hopper's scepticism on Easy Rider and out into the world at large. And he was not slow to use his newfound influence for the forces of artistic good.
He had respect for European art cinema, starring in Antonioni's challenging existential thriller The Passenger in his first flush of fame; his forays into directing (Goin' South!, the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes) have been characterised by eclecticism and integrity. And he still knows when to dial down his mannerisms, suppress his jittery Jack-ness: one of the finest performances of his career came 12 years ago as the crumpled, foolhardy detective determined to track down a child murderer in Sean Penn's The Pledge.
If he really is retiring, the news will have little impact other than to remind us how much a part of our cultural lives he still is, so many years after his most memorable movies. But then he looks now like a man who was always playing the long game. At an American Film Institute ceremony in 2009, at which Nicholson was presented with the life achievement award, his friend Danny De Vito identified the fuel in the actor's fire. "In my humble opinion, what [he] is about is immortality," he said. "Jack Nicholson's lifetime is 1937 to infinity."