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Million Dollar Movie

We are familiar with Nicholson’s greatest performances. Here’s a list of worthy ones that are less celebrated:

The Missouri Breaks, Reds, Heartburn, Hoffa, and The Pledge. There are others, of course. He’s funny in a cameo role in Broadcast News.

But one of my favorite Nicholson movies is The Border. He’s coiled but not a ham. It’s a wonderful performance.  Put it on your Netflix queue.


[Photograph by Annie Leibovitz]

Million Dollar Movie

From the collection “When The Lights Go Down,” here is Pauline Kael on Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

Nicholson is an actor who knows how to play an audience; he knows how to get us to share in a character. In The Last Detail, his sweet-sadastic alternating current kept us watching him, and we followed his lowlifer’s spoor through Chinatown. Nicholson is no flower-child nice guy; he’s got that half smile–the calculated insult that alerts audiences to how close to the surface his hostility is. He’s the people’s freak of the new stars.

…Since Nicholson doesn’t score when he plays unmagnetic characters–and he must it by now–the danger in Cuckoo’s Nest is that he’ll take over: that he’ll use his boyish shark’s grin, the familiar preening, brutal one-upsmanship. He’s won the audience with his cocky freaks, and this is the big one–the bull goose loony. Nicholson can be too knowing about the audience, and the part he plays here is pure temptation. Before Kesey went to Stanford to study writing, he’d gone to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actor, and role-playing is built into McMurphy’s character: he’s swept up by the men’s desire for him to be their savior. Except for the red-haired-giant externals, the authority-hating hero of the book is so much of a Nicholson role that the actor may not seem to be getting a chance to do much new in it. But Nicholson doesn’t use the glinting, funny-malign eyes this time; he has a different look–McMurphy’s eyes are father away, muggy, veiled even from himself. The role-playing is still there, in the grandstanding that McMurphy does when he returns to the ward after shock treatment; it has to be there, or there’s no way of accounting for why he’s sacrificed. But Nicholson tones it down. As McMurphy, he doesn’t keep a piece of himself out of the character, guarding it and making the audience aware that he’s got his control center and can turn on the juice. He actually looks relaxed at times, punchy, almost helpless–you can forget it’s Nicholson. McMurphy is a tired, baffled man, and with his character more unresolved he gains depth. [Director, Milos] Forman hasn’t let the McMurphy character run away with the picture, and it’s Nicholson’s best performance.

And from the same book:

Despite his excessive dynamism (and maybe partly because of it), this satirical actor has probably gone further into the tragicomedy of hardhat macho than any other actor. He exposes cracks in the barroom-character armor and makes those cracks funny, in a low-down, grungy way. With his horny leers and his little-boy cockiness and one-upmanship, he illuminates the sources of male bravado. His whole acting style is based on the little guy coming on strong, because being a tough guy is the only ideal he’s ever aspired to. This little guy doesn’t make it, of course; Nicholson is the macho loser-hero. (In an earlier era, Nicholson would probably have played big guys.)

Million Dollar Movie

Here’s a selection of some of Jack’s Greatest Hits, the temper-temper blowups. They are obvious, and perhaps uninspired, highlight reel selections, yet  still damned entertaining.

Easy Rider:

Five Easy Pieces:

Carnal Knowledge:

The Last Detail:


Here’s the ballgame scene in Cuckoo’s Nest.

The Shining:

Terms of Endearment:

Million Dollar Movie

Prizzi’s Honor lives that most uncomfortable space – the black comedy. It’s uncomfortable because to set and maintain the proper tone, the entire production operates on a razor’s edge. If any part of the process falters, from John Huston’s direction all the way down to the selection of condiments at the craft services table, the delicate artifice collapses.

Most important of all is the acting. For a black comedy to succeed, the actors must maintain constant earnestness with the comedy not coming from punch lines but from something inherent in the character himself.

When a black comedy fails, it’s almost always easy to pinpoint the culprit. But when it succeeds, it’s possible to glide right past the great performances that made it so. Jack Nicholson’s Charley Partanna in Prizzi’s Honor is just such a performance.

Partanna is gruff, almost monosyllabic. But he’s not stupid, he just knows that talking too much often leaves you overextended. He’s a competent gangster on the way up and he’s centered in that world with a heavy anchor. And as the movie unfolds, and absurd situations ripple the surface, he never strays far enough from the boat to get lost. He surprises us with literacy, curiosity, passion and ingenuity along the way, but without deviating from his solid base.

Bouncing off Jack’s steady foundation are Angelica Huston and Kathleen Turner. Irene Walker (Turner) pretends to be an outsider, but she’s busy trying to run scams on gangsters. Huston took home an Oscar for turning the screws behind Partanna’s back as Maerose Prizzi. Maerose is the one character in the movie that really seems dangerous.

I remember this movie from my childhood because of William Hickey’s strange voice. His Don Prizzi stretches words like hand-pulled noodles until the innocuous is threatening. But Jack’s Partanna isn’t just holding up the tent for these fine supporting characters.

He seems a poor match for Irene on the exterior, but his devotion, shot straight, wins her over. We’re not sure where Partanna fits in the hierarchy of the Prizzi family at first, but his intelligence and resourcefulness prove his worth.

Alex loves Jack’s line, “Marxie Heller so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?” Not only is it a fantastic reading, an argument ender but spat out of the side of his mouth, it’s also the start of the slow leak leads to disaster for Partanna and Irene. Partanna has killed Irene’s husband, Marxie Heller, before learning of the connection. Irene swears she was going to leave him anyway, but she has enough nice things to say about the guy to get under Partanna’s skin and cause that great line.

Partanna could never trust Irene completely. Did she come with him because she loved him or because all her other plans were turning to crap and he represented her best chance at survival? He couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily so when stab came to shoot, he hurled a knife through her throat.

The movie works because Jack is great. But Jack is great without doing a lot of the things that he’s usually great at. He’s neither hip, cool nor sarcastic. He’s a lug. And he plays the lug straight up and down the edge without ever missing a step.


Million Dollar Movie

At first glance, Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni would seem a mismatched pair: Antonioni, the gloomy, solemn, European master of existential alienation and Nicholson, all Irish-American brashness and energy — the most charismatic and aggressive movie star since James Cagney. However, with Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, the odd couple proved to be a formidable team. Though the film failed to deliver to producer Carlo Ponti’s box-office hopes in the 1970s and was initially dismissed by many critics as a minor outing for both the director and star, its stature has grown and deepened over the decades, helped by a 2005 theatrical rerelease and subsequent DVD. Over thirty five years later, it stands as an artistic high water mark for both men. However, for those who can only envision Jack Nicholson as a hyper, wild-eyed madman, The Passenger offers an opportunity to see the depth and subtlety of his work, before he became hemmed in by audience expectations.

Nicholson, the quintessential star of 1970s “New Hollywood” spent the first half of that decade on an extraordinary run of iconic roles – including Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea, Chinatown’s  J.J. Gittes, The Last Detail’s Buddusky and, of course One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s R.P. McMurphy (the part that finally landed Nicholson a Best Actor Academy Award).  Nicholson’s performance as David Locke in The Passenger stands up to his work in any of those films, while finding the actor in a far more subdued mode.

Locke is an English born, American educated journalist researching a story about guerrillas in an unnamed African desert country. After a particular hot and frustrating day in the desert, he returns to his hotel to find that he has no soap for a shower. He knocks on the door of his neighbor, looking to borrow some and finds the man lying dead.  Through flashbacks and an audio recording made by Locke, we see that the man, Robertson, was a fellow Englishman, roughly the same size and build as Locke, and with a similar hairline. Locke mysteriously and impetuously decides to switch identities with the corpse and disappear from his life, assuming the life of Robertson. While this snap decision to leave his wife and career behind, and start anew as a stranger in a strange land happens easily enough for Locke, he finds himself a pursued man – both by the producer and philandering wife he’s left behind in England and by people who want what Robertson had to sell or want him dead or arrested. It seems Robertson was not simply a travelling businessman, but an illegal arms dealer, supplying the guerrillas.

By evading the narrative of his own existence, Locke now finds himself thrust deeper into the story he was attempting to cover.  It’s a set-up that could easily be the plot of a very different sort of film, a suspense thriller made by Hitchcock, Polanski or DePalma; in Antonioni’s hands, it becomes a hypnotic, meandering investigation of identity, destiny and narrative itself. We’re never quite sure what has driven Locke to leave his life behind. Scenes of his wife back in London, and flashbacks to their life together hint that the marriage was unhappy, but his wife spearheads the search for Robertson once Locke is officially “dead.” We watch him have a frustrating time researching his story in the desert, but it’s also made clear that Locke is successful and internationally known as a writer and broadcaster.  In “Jump Cut,” Martin Walsh wrote of the film:

“At one point early in the film Nicholson points out that ‘we translate every experience into the same old codes’…Its importance for our understanding of The Passenger is of crucial significance. On one level, it helps make sense of Nicholson’s desire to cease being David Locke, to adopt a new identity, to escape the tyranny of the co-ordinates of his present existence, to re-open his life to new experiences. However, the way in which David Locke attempts to recharge his life proves fraught with unanticipated, uncontrollable dangers…”

Locke/Robertson leaves Africa for Europe, where, in Barcelona, he finds an unexpected travelling companion and lover, played by Maria Schneider (Last Tango In Paris). Together they become a couple on the lam, as Nicholson allows himself to be swept along in this new narrative he’s entered, despite its dangers. The girl follows suit, following Locke on his odd journey as if on some sort of scavenger hunt.

Locke continues along Robertson’s path, using the dead man’s datebook as his guide and talisman, until things meet their inevitable end in a dusty Spanish hotel courtyard, where all the main characters converge and Antonioni pulls off one of the most incredible shots you’ll ever see in a movie.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to watch Nicholson play this character at this point in his career. He’d played quiet, brooding characters before (e.g. Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens), but the success of Cuckoo’s Nest and relative failure of The Passenger (and of Arthur Penn’s western The Missouri Breaks, which paired Nicholson with Marlon Brando in the following year) may have pushed Nicholson into the relative safety of his more familiar screen persona, which Stanley Kubrick was soon to push to an extreme in his film of The Shining.

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