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Getting to Know Jack Nicholson

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Over a decade has passed since Jack Nicholson last graced the silver screen. Rumours have abounded about the reasons why and the projects that might have lured the three-time Oscar winner back on to a movie set. It wouldn't surprise fans if the 84 year-old had one last performance up his sleeve. But, while we wait, Cinema Paradiso is content to look back at a master in action.

With 12 Academy Award nominations to his credit, Jack Nicholson is the most cited actor in history. Along with fellow actors Walter Brennan and Daniel Day-Lewis, he is alone in having won three Oscars and joins Michael Caine in being one of only two actors to have been nominated in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. He's also in good company alongside Caine, four-time winner Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Frances McDormad in having been nominated for their performances in five different decades.

No wonder director Mike Nichols once claimed: 'There is James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and Henry Fonda. After that, who is there but Jack Nicholson?' According to producer friend Don Devlin, Nicholson has spent his career being 'a punctuter of the balloons of pomposity'. Yet the onetime king of the counterculture became accepted as Hollywood royalty without once compromising his convictions or his image.

As Clear As Mud

In 1974, a reporter from Time magazine made an unexpected discovery. John Joseph Nicholson knew that he had been born on 22 April 1937. Some accounts have the birth taking place at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, while others reckon Neptune City, New Jersey. But the actor had been in no doubt that his mother was Ethel May Nicholson, who had been disinherited by her Pennsylvania Dutch Protestant family for marrying an Irish Catholic.

Along with sisters June and Lorraine, Nicholson had adored 'Mud', who ran a beauty parlour in Spring Lake on the Jersey Shore. However, the year before he won his first Oscar, Nicholson discovered that Mud had been his grandmother and that June was his real mother.

The 16 year-old had been working as a showgirl when she became pregnant and opinion is divided as to whether her child's father was manager Eddie King (aka Latvian-born Edgar A. Kirschfeld) or Italian American showman, Donald Furcillo. June married the latter and treated Jack as her nephew until she died in 1963. Mud passed away in 1970, but Lorraine and her husband, Shorty Smith (who raised the boy like a son), survived to confirm the truth when the devastated actor called them after being informed by a reporter.

A still from The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
A still from The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

As a boy, Nicholson attended Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School, where he palled up with John O'Brien. Each Saturday, they would go searching for beer and soda bottles to reclaim the deposits in order to see the matinee at the Palace Theater in Bradley Beach. The morning show cost nine cents and the boys felt cheated when they were made to fork out 25 cents for an evening performance of Leo McCarey's Going My Way (1944), which earned Bing Crosby the Academy Award for his performance as Father Chuck O'Malley. It's not known whether the duo bothered with the 1945 sequel, The Bells of St Mary's, which saw Crosby become the first actor in Oscar history to receive nominations for playing the same character in two different films.

On moving to Manasquan High School, Nicholson made his mark by becoming the first student to get detention every day for a year. He also appeared in a few school productions and was voted 'best actor' in a poll run by the school's Blue and Gray newspaper. In his final year, 'Nick' was also designated 'class clown', while also having the dubious distinction of being acclaimed the 'class optimist' and the 'class pessimist'.

In 1957, Nicholson joined the California Air National Guard. But, having completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, he was only required to put in occasional appearances with a firefighting unit at Van Nuys Airport. Consequently, he was free to pursue his ambition of becoming an actor.

Don't Stop Now!

On arriving in California, Nicholson landed a job on the MGM lot in the office of animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. They were known at the time for their cartoons, which won seven Academy Awards, although producer Fred Quimby always took the credit for himself. Six volumes of their knockabout cat-and-mouse antics can be rented from Cinema Paradiso in the Classic Collection, So can the original Hanna-Barbera TV series starring The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Top Cat and Scooby-Doo.

Nicholson was offered the chance to become an animator. But, as cartooning was in the process of switching from cinema to television, he opted to take acting classes instead. While at the Players Ring Theater, he studied under Joe Flynn before Judson Taylor introduced him to Jeff Corey, whose own acting career had been derailed by the infamous Hollywood blacklist. Among his many celebrated students are James Dean, Jane Fonda, Bruce Lee, Anthony Perkins and Robin Willams.

Initially, Nicholson was simply thrilled to be earning $14 a week to appear in the Players Ring production of Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy. On getting his first agent, he also started cropping up from 1955 in daytime TV shows like Tales of Wells Fargo and Matinee Theater. But his big break came when independent writer-director Roger Corman noticed him at Corey's class and offered him the lead of Jimmy Wallace in The Cry Baby Killer (1958).

Made on a shoestring, Corman's exploitation flicks were aimed squarely at the youth market. But he had an eye for talent and would snap up the young Francis Ford Coppola, who had co-written the script for Nicholson's second outing, Richard Rush's Too Soon to Love (1960). Corman also encouraged newcomers to stay busy and Nicholson found himself playing delinquent dirt track racer Johnny Varron in Harvey Berman's The Wild Ride before he came back inside Corman's enchanted circle to essay Wilbur Force in The Little Shop of Horrors (both 1960).

He's only on screen three minutes, but Nicholson's turn as a masochistic patient who screams out, 'Oh my god, don't stop now!' when a klutzy dentist hits a nerve gave him a certain cult cachet. Steve Martin would reprise the role in Frank Oz's remake, The Little Shop of Horrors (1986). He was rewarded with the part of Weary Reilly in Studs Lonigan (1960), Irving Lerner's bargain basement take on a bestselling James T. Farrell trilogy, which critic Pauline Kael cautiously saw as a 1920s variation on Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953).

As Nicholson would later recall about his sudden success, 'This is it - I'm meant to be an actor.' But, as he continued: 'Then I didn't work for nine months, a year. I didn't make another penny. I'm living on unemployment.' Having broken his lean spell as Will Brocious in John A. Bushelman's Western, The Broken Land (1962), Nicholson was rescued by Corman, who paired him with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in The Raven (1963), the fifth of the eight pictures that formed Corman's legendary cycle of Edgar Allan Poe stories, Of course, the others are available on high-quality DVD and Blu-ray from Cinema Paradiso. Just click on the links for The Fall of the House of Usher (1960); The Pit and the Pendulum (1961); Tales of Terror; The Premature Burial (both 1962); The Haunted Palace (1963); The Masque of the Red Death; and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964).

A still from The Terror (1963)
A still from The Terror (1963)

In The Terror (1963), Nicholson played André Duvalier, a soldier in the Napoleonic Army who falls into the clutches of Hélène (Sandra Knight), a shapeshifting demon who resembles the wife of Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff), who had died 20 years earlier. As the production was such a cobbled job, Corman agreed to Nicholson's new wife playing his nemesis. But this curio did little for Nicholson's prospects and he started wondering whether he might be better off concentrating on writing after he took credits on Jack Leewood's Thunder Island (1963) and Monte Hellman's Flight to Fury (1964). He also took the key role in the latter of Jay Wickham, a shady operator landing in the Philippines in search of some stolen jewels. But, while the picture only did modest business, Nicholson made a lasting impression on its director.

Get Your Motor Running

Heading into the Utah desert, Hellman and Nicholson collaborated twice on a pair of Westerns that were executive produced by Roger Corman. In addition to headlining The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), Nicholson also co-produced the pair and co-scripted the latter. The former saw him clad in black leather as ruthless bounty hunter Billy Spear, who trails Warren Oates and Will Hutchins as they escort Millie Perkins through treacherous terrain. By contrast, the latter sees Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell and Tom Filer being suspected by an angry posse after outlaw Harry Dean Stanton's gang attack a stagecoach.

Looking back on this project, Nicholson confessed, 'The thing I originally wrote so pretentiously as a young person, Ride in the Whirlwind, was about the Sisyphean mountain. You push that boulder up, it rolls down. You push it up again.' For all his misgivings, the picture became a cult success in France and the US, although the theme must have occurred to Nicholson when he found himself going uncredited for his walk-on as a gangster named Gino in Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), which starred Jason Robards as Al Capone and Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran.

He wasn't down for long, however, as Richard Rush cast Nicholson as Poet, the gas station attendant who gets to ride with Adam Roarke's biker chapter in Hells Angels on Wheels. Moreover, Corman hired him to write the script for The Trip (both 1967), in which commercials director Peter Fonda decides during a rocky patch in his marriage to Susan Strasberg to take LSD and enlists Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper to act as his guides. Very much a product of the 'Summer of Love', the film includes a pastiche sequence from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).

Nicholson also used the project to work through his divorce and he reunited with Dern on another biker movie, Martin B. Cohen's The Rebel Rousers, which was made in 1967, but remained on the shelf for three years. The fact that he had to settle for another bit part again left Nicholson pondering his future. As he later mused: 'It's the worst possible position for an actor. I was making a living, everyone who knew me, said I was good, but everyone who knew me said I wouldn't make it because I hadn't made it so far. I think that's worse than being totally unknown.'

In an effort to stay busy, Nicholson teamed with director Bob Rafelson in writing Head (1968), a trippy feature starring Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith, who had found fame on Rafelson's TV series, The Monkees (1966-68). Once again, Nicholson slipped in a reference to an old picture, as the Bela Lugosi line you can hear comes from Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934).

Once again, Richard Rush rode to Nicholson's rescue, with the lead of Stoney in Psych-Out (1968), which sees a hippie band from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district help deaf runaway Susan Strasberg find her missing brother. Once again, however, it did little to advance Nicholson's acting career and he had no visions of landing a role when he tried to convince Rafelson and producing partner Bert Schneider to bankroll a screenplay that he felt could be 'the Stagecoach of bike movies'.

A still from Easy Rider (1969) With Jack Nicholson
A still from Easy Rider (1969) With Jack Nicholson

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had created the roles of cocaine-dealing bikers Billy and Wyatt for themselves and had sought out Rip Torn to play alcholic laywer, George Hanson. However, when Torn and Hopper (who was also directing) had a blazing row, Nicholson was offered the role and his inspired performance in Easy Rider (1969) made him a star and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Costing a mere $40,00, the film amassed $40 million at the box office and became the cinematic totem of the counterculture, with Nicholson's line about the establishement being 'scared of what you represent to them…and what you represent to them is freedom' doing much to shatter ingrained concepts of deference.

Having directed one of the decade's other major mind-expanding movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick plumped for Nicholson over David Hemmings to headline his epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. Audrey Hepburn turned down the chance to play Josephine de Beauharnais and, ultimately, quandaries behind the scenes caused Kubrick to abandon a much-cherished bid to outdo Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), the silent masterpiece that Kubrick dismissed (wrongly, in our humble opinion) as a 'really terrible...crude picture'. Steven Spielberg, Baz Luhrmann and Cary Fukunaga have all since been linked with the reviving the project and hopes are still high within Kubrick's estate that his vision will eventually materialise as a TV mini-series.

The Knave King of New Hollywood

Taking a giant leap from the exploitation ghetto to the Hollywood mainstream, Nicholson was cast as Tad Pringle in Vincent Minnelli's adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Despite playing Barbra Streisand's wayward stepbrother, he had to endure the frustration of having many of his scenes cut, including a duet with Streisand on the haunting 'Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?'

A still from Five Easy Pieces (1970)
A still from Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Music would also play a key role in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, as Bobby Dupea is a concert pianist who turns his back on his rich family and privileged lifestyle to become an oil rig worker. He does get to tickle the ivories in an iconic scene on the back of a truck. But it was his encounter with diner waitress Lorna Thayer that left a deeper impression, as Nicholson and co-star Karen Black earned Oscar nominations, only for the Best Actor prize to go to George C. Scott for Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton (both 1970) and he refused to accept it.

Installed as 'the new American anti-hero', Nicholson moved on to partner Art Garfunkel in Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge (1971), after John Boorman had refused to accept his agent's pay demands to join the gun-toting male ensemble in Deliverance (1972). Jonathan Fuerst is one of the most reprehensible characters in 1970s American cinema, with the shameful way he treats women being summed up in a tirade against girlfriend Bobbie (Ann-Margret). Yet Nicholson is compelling alongside Garfunkel, who shows what a fine actor he might have been had he been more inclined.

The male duo landed Golden Globe nominations, while Ann-Margret added an Oscar nomination to her Globe win. But it was Nicholson who stole the show and old colleague Francis Ford Coppola sought him to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). However, Nicholson declined, as he believed the role should be played by an Italian American. Instead, he took the unexpected step of joining Orson Welles and Tuesday Weld in debutant Henry Jaglom's undervalued study of flower power fallout, A Safe Place (1971).

This was released by the same BBS company (run by Rafelson, Schneider and Steve Blauner) that sponsored Nicholson's first outing as a writer-director. He also produced, Drive, He Said (1971), which was adopted from a Jeremy Larner novel about campus adultery and Vietnam draft dodging. The same outfit also issued Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), in which Nicholson and Bruce Dern excel as brothers David and Jason Staebler. The former is a depressive New York radio host, while the latter is a manic Atlantic City con man with grand ideas of opening a casino in Hawaii.

The contrast couldn't have been greater than with the explosive turn that Nicholson contributed as Signalman First Class Billy L. Buddusky to Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973), which was adapted by Robert Towne from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan. In escorting court-martialed sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison in Maine, Badass and Mule Mulhall (Otis Young) give their teenage charge a few days to remember while he's in the brig for trying to steal $40. Having missed out at the Golden Globes and the Oscars, Nicholson won a BAFTA and the Best Actor prize at Cannes for a display that's as deceptively tender as it is saltily coarse.

Now firmly on the map, Nicholson drew another Oscar nomination for his exceptional display as 1930s private eye, J.J. Gittes, in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). Inspired by the California water wars, Robert Towne's screenplay recalled the hardboiled noir classics of the immediate postwar period and there was more than a hint of Humphrey Bogart about Nicholson's shamus. The original plan was to make a trilogy about water, oil and land. But the protracted production of The Two Jakes (1990), which Nicholson wound up directing, led to Gittes vs Gittes being shelved.

A still from The Passenger (1975)
A still from The Passenger (1975)

Collecting a Golden Globe to go with his Oscar nomination, Nicholson decided to step out of the Hollywood goldfish bowl and fly to Africa to make The Passenger (1975) with Italian auteur, Michelangelo Antonioni. In one of his most interiorised performances, Nicholson is mesmerising as David Locke, a reporter in Chad to cover a civil war, who impulsively switches identity with a man who dies at his hotel, only to discover that Robertson is a wanted gun runner.

He followed this by cameoing as The Specialist in Ken Russell's take on Pete Townshend's rock opera, Tommy. This time, Nicholson's song ('Go to the Mirror') made the cut. In what was proving a busy year, he also teamed with new buddy Warren Beatty in Mike Nichols's The Fortune (both 1975), as 1920s con artists Oscar Sullivan and Nicky Wilson seek to fleece sanitary napkin heiress Fredrika Quintessa Bigard (Stockard Channing). But bigger things were to come, courtesy of a role rejected by James Caan, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds.

Kirk Douglas, who had originally played Randle Patrick McMurphy on stage, was desperate to front Miloš Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). However, his producer son, Michael Douglas, decided that he was too old for the role and cast Nicholson as the prison inmate sentenced for the statutory rape of an underage girl, who gets himself transferred to a mental unit to avoid doing hard labour. However, he more than meets his match in Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The pair won the hat-trick of Golden Globe, Oscar and BAFTA, as the film became the middle part of a trinity of Big Oscar winners, along with Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

A still from The Missouri Breaks (1976)
A still from The Missouri Breaks (1976)

Yet, having packed the first half of the decade with timeless performances, Nicholson drifted through the remainder of the 1970s. Having co-starred with his hero and Mulholland Drive neighbour, Marlon Brando, in Arthur Penn's revisionist Western, The Missouri Breaks - in which Irish regulator Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by a landowner to bring cattle rustler Tom Logan to justice - Nicholson collaborated with Brando's frequent director, Elia Kazan, as the union organiser Brimmer in The Last Tycoon (both 1976), the unfinished novel that F. Scott Fitzgerald had based on Irving G. Thalberg, the wunderkind MGM production chief who had died at the height of his powers in 1936.

Nicholson claims to have such an academic grasp of Method acting that he can do it without audiences noticing. However, he was accused by Variety of impersonating old Western ham George 'Gabby' Hayes in the self-directed Goin' South (1978), which sees inept outlaw Henry Lloyd Moon escape the gallows in 1860s Texas after spinster Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen) agrees to marry him. Nicholson also hoped around this period to direct another Western, entitled Moon Trap. Various names were linked with the project, including Jon Voight, John Travolta, Tommy Lee Jones, Richard Gere, Frederic Forrest, Dennis Hopper, George C. Scott and Lee Marvin.

Francis Ford Coppola also tried to persuade Nicholson to play Dean Moriarty in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Beat classic, On the Road. Ultimately, Garrett Hedlund played the role in Walter Salles's 2012 version, which Coppola executive produced. As for Nicholson, he took a two-year sabbatical and was next seen heading towards the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies.

A Shining Example

Stanley Kubrick finally got to work with Nicholson on The Shining (1980), which has been forensically decoded by Rodney Ascher in the compellingly challenging documentary, Room 237 (2012). Cinema Paradiso has already explored this film in the Instant Expert's Guide to Stanley Kubrick and the Top 10 Stephen King Films. So, we shall content ourselves with urging you to watch Nicholson's supremely unsettling turn as Jack Torrance and figure out why the Academy deemed either Robert Duvall in Lewis John Carlino's The Great Santini or Jack Lemmon in Bob Clark's Tribute to be worthier contenders for the Best Actor Oscar alongside Peter O'Toole in Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, John Hurt in David Lynch's The Elephant Man and deserving winner, Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.

Stephen King didn't think much of Kubrick's interpretation or Nicholson's performance. However, it clearly took it out of him, as he did nothing else for the rest of the year and only teamed with Jessica Lange in Bob Rafelson's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice - John Garfield and Lana Turner had taken the leads in Tay Garnett's noirish 1946 take on James M. Cain's 1934 novel - before drawing a Best Supporting nomination for playing his first historical character, playwright Eugene O'Neill, in Reds (both 1981), Warren Beatty's adaptation of Jack Reid's account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World.

Indeed, Nicholson was no busier over the next four years, as he turned down the role of Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). This eventually went to Harrison Ford, of course, who picked up another couple of Nicholson cast-offs in Peter Weir's Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986).

In 1982, Nicholson battled director Tony Richardson over how much less was actually more in playing California immigration enforcement agent Charlie Smith in The Border. Richardson might have reined him in a fraction, but Nicholson made his case the following year by winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in James L. Brooks's Terms of Endearment (1983). The focus falls on the mother-daughter relationship between Aurora Greenway (the Oscar-winning Shirley MacLaine) and Emma Greenway-Horton (Debra Winger). But Nicholson is larger than life as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (who doesn't appear in Larry McMurtry's source novel) and his cameo is the undoubted highlight of Brooks's sequel, The Evening Star (1996).

A still from Prizzi's Honor (1985)
A still from Prizzi's Honor (1985)

Following a two-year break, Nicholson co-starred with long-term partner Anjelica Huston in her father John Huston's darkly comic insight into Richard Condon's crime novel, Prizzi's Honor (1985). Having already directed father Walter Huston to a Best Supporting Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Huston completed a unique double when Anjelica took Best Supporting Actress for her brilliant work as don's daughter, Maerose Prizzi. Nicholson was also nominated for his wry turn as New York Mafia hitman Charley Pantana, but Kathleen Turner was unlucky to miss out for holding her own as rival assassin, Irene Walker.

Rumours had been rife that Nicholson was going to work with Meryl Streep and they were cast opposite each other twice in two years in Mike Nichols's Heartburn (1986) and Hector Babenco's Ironweed (1987). Parachuting in after Mandy Patinkin departed after the first day's shooting, Nicholson's third collaboration with Nichols pitched him as the philandering bad guy in a film à clef based on Nora Ephron's marriage to Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who had been played by Dustin Hoffman opposite Robert Redford's Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula's Watergate thriller, All the President's Men (1976).

By contrast, Nicholson and Streep cling together as Francis Phelan and Helen Archer, who forge a link in Albany, New York on Halloween 1938 in a gruellingly poignant adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In between his Streep liaisons, Nicholson also guested as scene-stealing news anchor Bill Rorish in James L. Brooks's Broadcast News and cheerfully romped his way through George Miller's adaptation of John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick (both 1987), in which the devilish Daryl Van Horne seduces the bored Rhode Island trio of sculptor Alexandra Medford (Cher), music teacher Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon) and local paper columnist, Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer).

It was almost as if Nicholson was revving himself up to take on the role of mobster Jack Napier, who is presumed dead after a tumble into a vat at Gotham City's Axis chemical works. But, while The Joker concocted plenty of manic mayhem for Michael Keaton's Caped Crusader to deal with in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), Nicholson was proud of his controlled psychotic villainy in what he considered to be 'a piece of pop art'. It's now hard to imagine David Bowie, Tim Curry, John Glover, Robin Williams, Ray Liotta or James Woods in the role, let alone John Lithgow, who reportedly talked himself out of contention at his audition. En route to Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, however, Nicholson made no such mistake in reducing his standard $10 million fee to $6 million in return for a cut of the box office and merchandising profits, which has supposedly earned him something between $50-90 million, Nice work if you can get it.

Treading Water

Jack Nicholson has made 15 features over the last 31 years. A couple were sequels we've already mentioned, while he made little more than glorified cameos in three others. Two more earned him a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Actor. He wasn't in prime form as guard dog supplier Harry Bliss opposite Ellen Barkin in Man Trouble, his fifth collaboration with Bob Rafelson. But it seemed harsh that the Razzies considered his performance as notorious Teamsters president James Riddle Hoffa in Danny DeVito's Hoffa (both 1992) to be in the same category. Indeed, there was something Cagneyesque about his pugnacious display as the union leader who never stood down in a fight during a 40-year career that culminated in his mysterious disappearance in July 1975.

A still from A Few Good Men (1992)
A still from A Few Good Men (1992)

His third assignment in 1992 saw him deliver a line that has gone on to become a super-meme. As Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, Nicholson is only in four scenes in Rob Reiner's court martial saga, A Few Good Men (1992). But he relishes every word of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue and erupts with fury in responding to a repeated Code Red question from Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) with the immortal line: 'You can't handle the truth!' He never stood a chance of beating Gene Hackman to Best Supporting Actor for his vicious turn as Little Bill Daggitt in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), but Nicholson served notice that he could still command the screen if the mood took him.

In fact, two years were to pass before Nicholson could be tempted back in front of a camera as book editor Will Randall in Mike Nichols's Wolf (1994). Having been bitten by a black wolf in Vermont, Nicholson comes to rely on boss Christopher Plummer's daughter, Michelle Pfeiffer, to help him cope with his increasingly lycanthropic tendencies. Beside the plaudits for Rick Baker's make-up, the reviews were mostly polite rather than enthusiastic and Nicholson decided to return to his independent roots to play Freddy Gale in Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard (1995), in which a broken man seeks vengeance when the drunk driver who had killed his young daughter is released from prison.

Nicholson remained on the mainstream margins for his final collaboration with Bob Rafelson on Blood and Wine, in which he played a Miami wine merchant who attempts to clear his debts by stealing a diamond necklace from a client's home, with the help of safecracker Michael Caine. Yet, despite some largely supportive notices, the film failed to hook an increasingly youthful audience who demanded comic-book adaptations and effects-laden blockbusters. Going along with the trend, Nicholson took a couple of cameos, as President James Dale and Las Vegas property developer Art Land in Tim Burton's sci-fi romp, Mars Attacks! (both 1996).

A Long, Slow Fade

While no one dreamed of writing Nicholson off, the accepted wisdom was that his best days were behind him as he turned 60. Typically, he came up with another unforgettable characterisation in As Good As It Gets (1997), his third assignment for director James L. Brooks. As New York-based romantic novelist Melvin Udall, Nicholson manages to turn a cantankerous obsessive compulsive into somebody vaguely loveable, as he befriends single mother and part-time waitress Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) and takes care of Verdell, a Griffon Bruxellois dog belonging to his hospitalised gay neighbour, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear).

Despite each having misgivings about their age gap, Nicholson and Hunt produced Oscar-winning chemistry and became the first co-stars to triumph since Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. Nicholson admitted that playing such a misanthrope left him emotionally exhausted and four year elapsed before he made a comeback as Jerry Black, the retired Nevada detective who becomes fixated with catching a child killer in Sean Penn's The Pledge (2001), a sombrely noirish reworking of a 1958 novella by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

The same year saw Nicholson become the first actor to win the prestigious Stanislavsky Award at the Moscow Film Festival for 'conquering the heights of acting and faithfulness'. He also featured in a clutch of documentaries that are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso, including Hollywood Bad Boys; John Lennon: Gimme Some Truth (both 2000); Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001); 30 Years of Academy Award Winners (1972-2002); The Kid Stays in the Picture (both 2002); Cher: The Farwell Tour; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; and A Decade Under the Influence (all 2003).

In 1991, Alexander Payne offered Universal a screenplay with the pitch 'The Graduate at age sixty-five'. The studio turned up its nose. But, when Louis Begley published a novel in 1996, Payne decided to merge the two under the book's title, About Schmidt (2002). Nicholson was the only choice to play Warren R. Schmidt, an Omaha life insurance actuary, who has to cope with retirement and widowhood in short order. Confiding his thoughts in long letters to sponsored Tanzanian boy, Ndugu Umbo. Schmidt takes to the road in his Winnebago to try and prevent daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from marrying fiancé, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney).

Determined to 'unJack the part' of a man who refuses to be crushed by life, Nicholson earned the 12th and last (to date) of his Oscar nominations, having also won a Golden Globe. Given the brilliance of the writing here and in Nebraska (2013), it's a shame that Payne hasn't been able to find a way of reuniting Nicholson and Bruce Dern in a last hurrah.

A still from Anger Management (2003) With Jack Nicholson And Adam Sandler
A still from Anger Management (2003) With Jack Nicholson And Adam Sandler

Rather than resting on his laurels, Nicholson took on two roles in the same year. He matched Adam Sandler in the mugging contest that took place when milquetoast Dave Buznik is sent for counselling with the unconventional Dr Buddy Rydell in Peter Segal's Anger Management. Then, he turned on the charm as record company owner, Harry Sanborn, who falls for divorced playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton) in Nancy Meyers's Something's Gotta Give (both 2003).

Any fears that Nicholson was going to drift into the sunset playing quirky comic roles were dispelled when he delivered a ferocious display as Boston mobster Frank Costello in The Departed (2006), the remake of Hong Kong auteur Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs (2002) that finally earned the Academy Award for Best Director for Martin Scorsese, who is the subject of one of Cinema Paradiso's Instant Expert Guides.

However, Nicholson ventured back into whimsy in Rob Reiner's The Bucket List (2007), which sees billionaire Edward Cole (Nicholson) and mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) decide to tick off some of the things they have always wanted to do after meeting shortly after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Not everyone was swept away by the feel-good intentions and three years were allowed to pass before Nicholson took the supporting role of Charles Madison, the father of disgraced executive George Madison (Paul Rudd) who forges a relationship with benched softball player Lisa Jorgensen in James L. Brooks's How Do You Know (2010).

Some have cited the harsh reviews in explaining Nicholson's decision to duck out of the spotlight, even though he continued to crop up in documentaries like Inside Deep Throat (2005), Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), I'm Still Here (2010), and Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011). However, he had told Rolling Stone in the early 1990s, 'I won't go on working just in order to work. It wouldn't be like I'm retired. It would just be...a kind of fade-out.'

Amidst rumours he was having problems learning lines, gossips linked him with David Dobkin's The Judge (2014), Stephen Spielberg's Ready Player One (2018) and Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep (2019), which advanced the story of The Shining. He was also mentioned as Kristen Wiig's co-star in an English-language remake of Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann (2016). Yet, while he doesn't consider himself to be retired, Nicholson admits to no longer feeling driven to 'be out there'. The loss is all ours, but few have left a richer legacy in the post-studio era.

A still from The Shining (1980) With Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall And Danny Lloyd
A still from The Shining (1980) With Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall And Danny Lloyd
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