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All you need to know about Jack Nicholson

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

All you need to know about Jack Nicholson

On the verge of the great man’s 80th birthday, James Oliver casts an admiring glance over the living legend that is Jack Nicholson. 

There are some actors who you know are going to be superstars from the first moment they stride on screen—their looks, their attitude, their sheer charisma.


Jack Nicholson was not one of them.

If you want proof, take a look at this, from the original Little Shop of Horrors:

If you asked audiences in the 1960s which of the gents in the clip above would go on to take home three Oscars (out of a record 12 nominations), they wouldn’t point to the whiny guy with the centre parting. Then again, Jack Nicholson has never been as other stars.


Jack, the lad

He was born on 22 April, 1937, in the unprepossessing town of Neptune New Jersey, the son of Ethel and John Joseph Nicholson, for whom he was named.

Or at least, that’s what he thought until 1974. That’s when Time magazine did some digging. It turned out that his beloved mother was actually his grandmother. His real mother was June, the woman he’d always known as his sister; she’d married a bigamist—one Donald Furcillo—and the fruit of their union was thus "illegitimate", as the parlance of 1937 had it. Mama Ethel stepped into safeguard family propriety; June died in 1963 (cancer), before her son ever had chance to know the truth.

He was a wild kid and the same bravado that so often landed him in detention persuaded him to travel to Los Angeles in 1954 with vague ideas about becoming an actor. He had talent for sure—he had an early break when he played the title role in a low-budget flick called The Cry Baby Killer (1957)—but since when was talent ever enough in Hollywood?

Prospective stars back then were expected to look like prospective politicians (clean cut, good hair) and a guy who got cast as the lead in something called The Cry Baby Killer was never going to find himself much troubled by the more prestigious sort of producer. Luckily, though, he had already fallen into bad company.


Jack of All Trades

“I was a nobody,” remembered the actor in later years. “And I am eternally grateful Roger Corman stuck with me because I didn’t have anything else going for me.” Roger Corman was king of the drive-ins, a director/producer/distributor then regarded with disdain by the studio big boys but who has since been almost canonised by film fans.

In part, that’s because of his liberal patronage of fresh talent—being a skinflint, Corman was happy to use anyone who didn’t mind being exploited. Nicholson might not have fitted the studio template but he was perfect for Corman, and not just as an actor; he supplemented his meagre acting wages by writing scripts for the producer, including the infamous lysergic epic The Trip (just say no, kids).

Indeed, he was making more headway as a writer than performer (he wrote Head – which starred The Monkees). With a family to support—he’d married actress Sandra Knight in 1962; their daughter Jennifer was born in 1963—he’d reluctantly decided to concentrate on work behind the camera. Still, he was always on the lookout for acting gigs, and when he heard that his pals Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper told him they were planning a biker epic, he asked if there was a part for him. As it so happened, there was.


Easy Rider changed everything for Nicholson, who won his first Oscar nod as the alcoholic small town lawyer who briefly befriends the hippie heroes. And what’s more, he was in a position to capitalise on it: the whole climate of Hollywood was changing. Saturnine looks and a brooding manner were no longer an impediment to stardom.

The 1970s were the most adventurous decade of American film, and Jack Nicholson was right at the heart of them, appearing in an amazing run of films—Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown, The Passenger, and more. His choices were brave: he was never afraid to make his characters unlikeable as long as he could also make us understand them. As a result, he became a regular at the Oscars, picking up his first little gold man in 1976, for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.


All Work and no play...?

As the 1970s became the 1980s, Hollywood changed again and this time Nicholson changed too. The movies were bigger (The Shining), the characters less marginal (Terms of Endearment, which earned him a second Oscar) and the personality a little more prominent—he was simply "Jack" now, one of the precious few celebrities familiar by Christian name alone.

When he appeared in Batman (1989) as The Joker, it was the rather ostensible leading man Michael Keaton that took top slot on the billing, not to mention a substantial slice of the box-office action.

The later films never reached the intensity of the earlier work but audiences didn’t seem to mind: they just liked the guy. It’s easy to see why. No one since Robert Mitchum has so obviously enjoyed the trappings of stardom: the parties, the privileges and, of course, the ladies (a long-term relationship with Angelica Huston was punctuated by numerous infidelities and rumour has it he's father to more than the five children he officially acknowledges).

Even a road rage incident in 1994 when he smashed a fella’s windscreen couldn’t dent the public enthusiasm for Jack; people were prepared to indulge him for as long as it looked like he was living the high life on our behalf.

He slipped into retirement in 2010; the roles weren’t getting any better (and that’s after he’d made a film with Adam Sandler). Why make bad movies when he could spend time with his reportedly splendid art collection? Now, though, he's on his way back in the American remake of the German father/daughter movie Toni Erdmann. A huge fan of the original, Jack offered his services to the producers of the remake, the first sign this unnecessary project might have some worth.

As he celebrates his 80th birthday, why not re-acquaint yourself with some of his finest moments? There is, after all, so much more to him than that grin...


The Raven

It’s worth looking at Jack’s very early films to see what a likeable, and versatile player he was. The Raven is the best of the films he made for Roger Corman, not least because it allowed him to play opposite Peter Lorre, as the bumbling son of Lorre’s great sorcerer. It’s clear that both actors are having a whale of a time in their scenes together.


Five Easy Pieces/The King of Marvin Gardens

Two films directed by Bob Rafelson, who’d first used Nicholson as a writer. More than Easy Rider, these films announce a new direction for American movies in the 1970s. Both are character studies of listless men struggling with their relatives and a wider dissatisfaction with themselves. Both are masterpieces in no small part because of their still astonishing central performances.

Carnal Knowledge

Directed by Mike Nichols, a then-superstar director thanks to The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge is as far away from the whole Joker Jack persona as the actor has ever got. Set before the sexual revolution, he plays a brooding misogynist apparently oblivious to the harm he causes. It's a tough film, certainly too tough for mainstream success, but it’s honestly one of the best performances Nicholson has ever given, fearlessly excavating a monstrous character and refusing to flinch from what he finds.




He’s been active for over 60 years now but it’s only right that any survey of Jack's career should concentrate on those films he made in the 1970s, even at the exclusion of memorable turns in The Shining or Batman (or that Adam Sandler flick, if you’re so inclined). Chinatown is another of the very greatest American movies ever made, and Nicholson is tremendous as private eye Jake Gittes (a role he reprised for its belated sequel The Two Jakes, which he also directed). Some credit, though, should go to his friend Roman Polanski, who was a very hands-on director. So prone was he to giving Nicholson line readings that some friends thought Jack was going to start delivering his dialogue in a Polish accent...


One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest


We come now to what is probably the definitive Jack Nicholson role, which is interesting since he wasn’t first choice: it was developed for (and by) Kirk Douglas. Maybe that’s why it’s so very different to Jack’s earlier roles; whereas before he was much more subdued, here he debuts the whole wild-‘n’-crazy-guy act which he has used to such effect ever since. Even if he was only a late-comer to the project, it’s basically impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. Sorry, Kirk.


A Few Good Men

Not an immediately obvious choice (there are those who’ll recommend The Shining, Terms of Endearment or The Witches of Eastwick instead) but it’s worth including A Few Good Men as it’s one of Jack’s most shameless, and shamelessly entertaining, performances in which he hams it up as a military commander being investigated by eager-beaver Tom Cruise. It’s only a small role but boy, does he have fun chewing the scenery and eclipsing the nominal star. Something of a guilty pleasure when weighed against the other films on this list but pleasure nonetheless.

Read all about the enigmatic Jack Nicholson in Jack Nicholson - The Biography: The Biography

About Schmidt

The closest Jack has come to peak form this century (and certainly more deserving of an Oscar than his by-the-numbers turn in 1997’s As Good As It Gets). Our hero plays a lonely widower making a cross-country jaunt in a caravan to his daughter’s wedding; ace auteur Alexander Payne persuades his star to dial his familiar mannerisms back and even gets him to put on an entirely unflattering flat cap; the result is a magnificent reminder of Jack the actor, something that too often gets ignored in favour of Jack the star. As things stand, it’s his last truly great performance.

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