2017 Film Essays

Jack Ascending: Nicholson’s 1980s

As the 1970s drew to a close, two films were released which captured the sense of defeat that had overtaken New Hollywood exuberance; in the face of an ever-growing discrepancy between artistic vision, audience taste and industry indulgence. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) crystallized the financial and spiritual ruin of this crumbling paradigm, exposed the toll its profligacy had exacted on mind, body and soul. The age of the Movie Brat was drawing to a close in the same spirit of decadence and dissolution which had precipitated the demise of classic Hollywood’s martinets.

The decade had left behind its casualties: luminaries like Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin had flown high and fallen spectacularly, Francis Ford Coppola lost a part of himself in the jungles of the Philippines on the torturous shoot for Apocalypse Now (1979) and Hal Ashby had slipped into reclusive addiction. The 1980s were not kind to many of the New Hollywood’s biggest onscreen icons, either. The country moved to the right as the 80s dawned, and a new generation of stars rose to articulate the aspirations of this shift.

Jack Nicholson was one of a handful of 70s stars who managed to traverse this new reality with some semblance of cachet intact. Nicholson succeeded in doing so because much of what made him such a magnetic screen presence in the first place leant itself to the heightened qualities of 80s cinema. There has always been a conflict at play in Nicholson’s screen presence: between “Nicholson” and “Jack.” The desire to be taken seriously and the lure of the riotous Jack persona have always done battle across his decades of stardom.

It was a quirk of history that Nicholson became a leading man at all; in any other era he would have been too physically unorthodox to be anything more than a character actor. While he could never match the abiding bankability of 70s stars like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone, Nicholson was nonetheless able to leverage the Jack persona against changing public tastes, and by the end of the decade he was the top-drawing box office star. A perfect synthesis of this duality has occasionally been achieved — such as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) — but for most of the 80s, the Jack half was in the ascendant.

The decade was bookended by two iconic yet polarising performances that have more in common than immediately seems the case; The Shining (1980) and Batman (1989). Both films required Nicholson to serve the specific demands of a visionary director, and in so doing he reduces himself to pure essence. The rakish charm, bodily histrionics and frothing threat of the Jack persona find their fullest expression in Jack Torrance and The Joker. Both characters are malcontents at odds with their surroundings, who find their fullest expression in violence. These performances typify the best and worst of the Jack persona: the raw physicality, but also the layers of artifice, the facial contortions, the unctuous malevolence, the bombastic posturing, the honouring equally the cathartic… the chaotic and the comic.

As if to reiterate the dichotomy within the Nicholson persona, he returned home, as it were, to Bob Rafelson for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). Rafelson and Bert Schneider formed Raybert Productions, which became BBS Productions with the addition of Stephen Blauner in 1969. Raybert/BBS was a New Hollywood incubator which birthed The Monkees, gave Nicholson his breakthrough in Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1971) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), along with his directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971).

With a typically terse screenplay from David Mamet and beautifully bleak photography from legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist, The Postman Always Rings Twice has quite the pedigree in its favour. But the simmering sexuality which typified Tay Garnett’s 1946 version suffocates under the weight of a stylish torpor. It is emblematic of the tendencies which drained the vibrancy from the New Hollywood movement; by this point, the outsider stance had become a series of gestures suggesting authenticity, and Nicholson’s performance is no exception.

Nicholson’s Frank Chambers is a pared-down, hard-boiled archetype, a world-weary drifter in the Robert Mitchum mould lured to his doom by Jessica Lange’s femme fatale. Nicholson’s rendering of this classic Noir dupe is adeptly realised but fundamentally facile, a collection of behavioural and verbal reference points. Like J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (1974), the film seeks equally to emulate and upend genre expectations, refracted through the unsettling energy of its star, but without Robert Towne’s taut dialogue to enliven its mannerisms. Rafelson harnesses enough of the Jack persona to circumvent the troubling implications of the film’s dark sensuality. Chambers is, at heart, a predator whose ugly lust is twisted into a millstone.

Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) was the last audacious rumble of 70s iconoclasm, the final defiant breath of the New Hollywood paradigm. It offered Nicholson his final substantive role of 70s vintage, a masterfully contained supporting performance as playwright Eugene O’Neill. Nicholson bears no physical resemblance to O’Neill, but he loses himself in the role. Amidst the fervour and ferment, Nicholson’s O’Neill is stillness personified, a jaded observer scorning all dogma. Nicholson barely moves, to the point where the act of walking assumes deep dramatic significance. In a series of intense scenes with Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant, the two actors evoke a world of emotion with physical economy and weighted inaction.

The Border (1982) is a transitional work which bears some tonal hallmarks of the 70s, but signals the impending shift in mood. Though it fancies itself as a Southern-fried Serpico (1973), with Nicholson’s border agent fighting endemic corruption in the agency, it doesn’t carry the sting of cynicism that characterised the tenor of the previous decade, with a heroic denouement which trades in the worst kind of white saviourism. Nicholson plays alongside a grossly miscast Harvey Keitel, whose Texan drawl slips conspicuously on multiple occasions, and Nicholson gives an oddly tentative performance. This reserve perhaps evinced his uncertainty going into the 80s. But for the rest of the decade, it was Jack all the way.

Perhaps it was the box office and Oscar success that attended Terms of Endearment (1983). Perhaps — like Pacino, De Niro, Beatty, Redford, et al. — Nicholson had conceded that the new decade would be less amenable to his sensibilities. Perhaps he was buffeted on the tides of industry taste. Whatever the reason, Nicholson seemed content to luxuriate in the theatrics of the Jack persona, its extravagance growing ever more potent as he slid into disgraceful middle age.

Terms of Endearment did much to fix this version of Nicholson in the public mind, and conflate the fictional with the real. By the early 80s, Nicholson’s legendary off-screen antics had overwhelmed his dramatic capabilities, and it became increasingly difficult for him to divest himself of his reputation; even under The Joker’s heavy make-up, he is unmistakably Jack. Like the stars of classic Hollywood, Nicholson had transcended the medium itself. From this point on, every role he took would carry a kernel of self-referential insight.

As mawkish and formulaic as Terms of Endearment is, Nicholson’s Oscar-winning portrayal of louche, licentious former astronaut Garrett Breedlove may carry more personal resonance than one would imagine. Like Breedlove, Nicholson belongs to an elite set which confers social prestige and offers ample opportunity to indulge his appetite for younger women. Breedlove elicits a mixture of admiration and horror in his nubile quarry. There is equally the sense of faded glory, a steady recognition that the ageing playboy has hit an impasse.

Figuratively and literally, Nicholson lets his gut hang out in Terms of Endearment; it is the first role in which Jack’s sexuality is explicitly risible. As a force of disruption, it’s a character Nicholson would repeat with variable results for the rest of his career; the same kind of emotionally wounded and flamboyantly uncouth character that would earn him his third Oscar in As Good as It Gets (1997). For most of the film, his badinage with Shirley MacLaine’s uptight widow feels like a screwball adjunct to the main drama, finally succumbing to the cliché of the wayward womaniser being “tamed” by a stabilising force.

Prizzi’s Honor (1985) is John Huston’s most Hawksian offering, and Nicholson calibrates his central performance accordingly. Nicholson’s portrayal of love-struck “all-American hood” Charley Partanna is an entertaining play on the sort of 1940s tough guy tropes Huston helped to formalise, full of mangled New York locutions, comical swagger and outsized grimacing. In a post-Sopranos world, this kind of “ethnic” characterisation has not aged well.

The effect is a broader variation on Nicholson’s work in The Postman Always Rings Twice; it is an exercise in gesture and inflection which fails to impart any substantial character insight and glides by on the considerable élan of its execution. As with The Postman Always Rings Twice, the only moments in Prizzi’s Honor which approach emotional authenticity involve Anjelica Huston — Nicholson shares a single intimate scene with Huston in Rafelson’s film. By comparison, Nicholson’s chemistry with his central love interest, Kathleen Turner, feels stilted. Again, it was a case of Jack’s private life intruding on his dramatic universe.

Mike Nichols’ Heartburn (1986) is another piece of prestige fluff in the Terms of Endearment vein; a pallid portrait of Reagan-era aspiration with illusions of being a sophisticated Allen-esque satire of self-absorbed urbanites. The only intriguing element of Heartburn is its placement of Nicholson; a columnist who is “very single” and has “been terrible to women.” The film supposes what might happen if a man of this sort were to finally settle down.

It isn’t difficult to see the parallel, and much of Heartburn‘s comedy draws on the tacit understanding of the Jack persona being alluded to. One is left in a state of anticipation for the wedded bliss of the first act to be shattered. Nicholson is in a generous mood here; he and co-star Meryl Streep have an ease and sense of spontaneity together. Nicholson functions as a catalyst for Streep’s performance, which is predictably terrific; he glides through his scenes, leaning into the intimation of the persona. Neither stars nor director are well served by Nora Ephron’s screenplay, with its languorous pace and unsympathetic characters, who mope around their sprawling homes and complain to the hired help raising their children.

1987 was a busy year for Nicholson: he reunited with James L. Brooks to play the venerable anchor in Broadcast News, then went on to a bellwether role in The Witches of Eastwick. The onscreen evocation of the Jack persona reached its apotheosis in the late ’80s; Daryl Van Horne and The Joker are perhaps Jack’s ultimate agents of disruption. A cautionary tale on the perils of trying to have it all, The Witches of Eastwick is also an interesting take on the infinitely adaptable nature of patriarchy. Nicholson’s Van Horne is a symbol of the free-love chauvinism for which Nicholson had become an avatar in the late 1960s; equally, he stands for the forces of patriarchy mutating and devising new ways to hamstring feminine strength and solidarity. Throughout The Witches of Eastwick, there is a growing sense of reckoning.

Nicholson delivers a febrile performance that is at turns uproarious and skin crawling. He throws himself into the excesses Van Horne embodies, ripping though his scenes with livid precision. He is all arched eyebrows and knowing leers as the priapic sybarite; his every movement and utterance is exaggerated, but the size of his choices are entirely in keeping with the film’s hysterical pitch. Unlike his thorough upstaging of Michael Keaton’s Batman, Nicholson never allows Van Horne to become seductive in the eye of the viewer. He draws Van Horne to the threshold of likability, but never loses sight of Van Horne’s story function. This is not his film to steal. It is one of Nicholson’s more focused “Jack” performances.

It is curious that Ironweed (1987) crops up so seldom in discussions of Nicholson’s greatest roles, for which he received a ninth Oscar nomination. It may be that Héctor Babenco’s adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel is too downbeat to compete with the more outlandish entries in the Nicholson canon, but Nicholson delivers a performance exceptional for its low-key intensity. Ironweed reaffirmed Nicholson’s capacity to provide more than physical fireworks. The Jack persona is eschewed in order for Nicholson to become “just a bum,” one of many broken men struggling to find work and stay sober in Depression-era Albany.

The physical transformation Nicholson undergoes to become washed-up baseball player Francis Phelan is one of his most profound: he speaks with an enervated cadence, assumes a pained posture and shuffling gait. Nicholson brings a tattered pride to Phelan, a persistence and pathos which goes beyond the gifted mimicry of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Prizzi’s Honor. He immerses himself in the physical and spiritual decay of a man serving his peculiar penance; a spectral figure haunting the fringes of his former life, an agglomeration of losses held together by memories. Nicholson hadn’t given such an understated performance since Reds, and it’s almost a revelation after the bombast of The Witches of Eastwick.

As the 1990s approached, the cinema of the 70s was looked upon by a new generation of independent filmmakers as a golden age, in which European values briefly held sway over the system, in which the director was king before being undone by hubris. The leading lights of 70s Hollywood were to the Sundance generation monuments of possibility, exalted like the Nouvelle Vague before them. Ironweed points towards the kind of work Nicholson would do in the 90s and beyond with directors like Sean Penn and Alexander Payne; work which positioned him as the offbeat character actor he’d been before the cultural tide turned in his favour. Which is not to say that the Jack persona would become any less seductive.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.