News and Commentary – Jack Nicholson, The New Hollywood Years
On April 22, 2017 Jack Nicholson turned eighty, and although he has been a big-time, world famous, larger-than-life movie star for over a third of a century, he holds a revered place at Mid Century Cinema for an earlier phase of his career. After ten years of struggle, at the end of which he was on the cusp of abandoning acting altogether, Nicholson put forth a body of work in the decade that followed which stands up to comparison with any ten year stretch by an actor in the history of cinema.
For most of the 1960s Nicholson was scuffling along – if in circumstances most of us would savor – taking acting classes with a remarkable cohort of colleagues and friends (including writers Robert Towne and Carole Eastman, director Monte Hellman and most of the then cool-kid actors you can think of) and working here and there in low-budget pictures (like The Raven, alongside an on-his-last-legs Peter Lorre) for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures. With Hellman directing, Nicholson appeared in a pair of ambitious-if-threadbare Corman-backed Westerns: The Shooting, written by Eastman, and Ride in the Whirlwind (written by Jack). Nicholson also had a hand in two of Corman’s flirtations with psychedelica, writing The Trip (which featured Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern) and appearing in Psych-Out (alongside Strasberg, Dern, and Dean Stockwell). He was also featured in the Biker Picture Hells Angels on Wheels, but by the end of the decade a frustrated Nicholson seemed destined for multiple behind-the-camera roles, as his acting career failed to take off. He gravitated towards Raybert, the company formed by his friend Bob Rafelson and producer Bert Schneider—and when Corman, who had recently directed Wild Angels, passed on yet another biker picture, Nicholson suggested that Fonda bring his project, which would become Easy Rider, to Raybert. (Jack was originally attached to the production mostly to keep an eye on things for Raybert, and only took the role of George Hansen after Rip Torn left the picture.)
Well the rest, as they say, is history, but it is history worth repeating. Easy Rider was a sensation at Cannes and eventually a runaway hit, and it would prove a breakthrough for Nicholson—and for Raybert. Joined by Steve Blauner the company morphed into BBS, which signed a six-picture contract with Columbia that was the holy grail of the New Hollywood—the deal traded low budgets in exchange for no studio interference whatsoever. (And so when Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that The Last Picture Show absolutely must be shot in Black and White – then seen as disastrous for a movie’s commercial prospects – an initially skeptical Schneider backed his young director, and Columbia was not asked for their opinion on the matter.
Nicholson was more or less an informal partner at BBS, and he participated in four of its six productions: starring in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens (both directed by Rafelson), performing in Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place, and writing and directing Drive, He Said. Drive, with Karen Black, Dern, and a fine turn by Towne in a small role, is an intriguing effort with strong performances and is well worth seeking out. Five Easy Pieces, written by Eastman, and King, which paired Nicholson with Dern (each actor playing against type) are landmarks of the New American Cinema and remain essential viewing—the latter includes what is arguably Nicholson’s finest performance.
But wait, there’s more: between 1971 and 1975, Nicholson also appeared in Mike Nichol’s riveting Carnal Knowledge alongside Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail—scripted by Towne, as was Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown (written expressly for Jack), Antonioni’s brilliant The Passenger, and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the second Hollywood production by Czech New Waver Milos Forman). And that doesn’t even cover all of Nicholson’s output in this period, which closed with initially promising misfires from two leading directors of the movement (perhaps anticipating the looming eclipse of the New Hollywood): Mike Nichols’ The Fortune, written by Eastman and co-starring Warren Beatty, and Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western The Missouri Breaks, with Marlon Brando.
Many great performances would follow in the ensuing years and decades (we would single out his work in Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard from that group), and, yes, perhaps a few in which he played Jack Nicholson, chewed the scenery, and (as he reportedly advised on one occasion), “let the costumes do the acting.” But without qualification he sits prominently in the pantheon of the New Hollywood, and years from now he will be remembered as one of the greatest there ever was.
FIve Easy Pieces (with Karen Black)
Carnal Knowledge (with Art Garfunkel)
The King of Marvin Gardens