Jack Nicholson – What Happened?

How did this once fine actor go from one of the most energetic, original and unpredictable talents of the ’70s to the tired showman that he is today?

Nicholson started out modestly� playing bit parts in biker movies and Roger Corman horror flicks. He got creatively involved in some experimental 60s productions (writing and directing� also for Corman) and then he got his big break with a bit part in Easy Rider. Critical acclaim (including an Academy award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) propelled him to the top ranks of new Hollywood stars. Unlike many other bankable names from that era (Elliot Gould, George Segal) Nicholson seemed to have an eye for quality material.

Even if some of his movies didn’t turn out to be huge box office successes there was always a certain respectability about themâÂ?¦ Nicholson seemed to maintain his integrity, passing on seemingly commercial fare like The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox or The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark and trying his luck at risky ventures like Antonioni’s The Passenger and The King of Marvin Gardens (the opening ten minutes of which showcases perhaps Nicholson’s greatest screen monologue). Nicholson’s movies always seemed to mean somethingâÂ?¦ not only to the audience but to himself.

Jack’s career took off in leaps and bounds via such star-propelled films as The Last Detail, Chinatown and, of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After a long streak of doing challenging and critically-acclaimed work “Batman” happened and everything seemed to turn around. Nicholson made no bones about the fact that he got rich off his role as “The Joker” and that he didn’t intend to be only doing variations of that same cartoonish role from here on inâÂ?¦ but that seemed to be exactly what has happened. The lunatic Batman villain was a perfect role for Nicholson and he did a remarkable job with itâÂ?¦ playing to the audience and yet maintaining his dignity. It didn’t hurt him as an actor whereas Anger Management, wellâÂ?¦

Nicholson tried to keep exercising his acting talent in more challenging, serious roles post -Batman (The Crossing Guard, Hoffa) but somehow they weren’t connecting with audiences or even critics anymore. Somehow he had transformed from an actor of stature into something akin to a carnival geek. Audiences had forgotten how great an actor he truly was and, even sadder, they didn’t even seem to realize what had been lost. The Jack Nicholson who starred in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown is simply not the same Jack Nicholson who starred in Mars Attacks. Watching his performances in some of these later motion pictures, one rarely sees anything but shtick.

The Witches of Eastwick was the first film where it really seemed like the role was being shaped to fit Nicholson rather than having Nicholson work to create a character. Even so, the movie had a veneer of quality to it that was only slightly marred by the FX-laden thrill-ride finale. When Batman came along two years later its overwhelming success sealed Nicholson’s fate. Never again would Nicholson be able to rein his wild side in and still gain the widespread audience approval.

They demanded the crazy and intense Nicholson and would accept no substitutes. Sometimes even that ceased to satisfy movie-goers. A later film, Wolf, also seemed to be tailor-made to fit Nicholson’s bad-boy persona, was much less successful than it was hoped to be, both artistically and at the box office. Nicholson seemed to be on auto-pilot and it was a sad thing to behold.

Nicholson made a few missteps early in his career: The Fortune with Warren Beatty, The Missouri Breaks with Marlon Brando and Goin’ South which Nicholson directed himself. The thing about these “failures” is that, low in audience appeal as they may have been, they could be forgiven because Jack was trying something different. He didn’t want to be just “that guy” who stood up on table and railed at the moon. He thought he had more to offer than that and as long as he kept trying to stretch his talent he kept himself sharp and his career on track

As Good As It Gets, Anger Management and Something’s Gotta Give are decent enough video fodder but negligible in the context of Nicholson’s earlier work. Written in a facile sort of TV-sitcom way, they are only elevated to watchable status by the mere fact that Nicholson has deigned to be in them.

The characters Nicholson plays in these movies have been crafted by the screenwriter to cater to Nicholson’s perceived personaâÂ?¦ the aging rogue, the womanizer, the scenery-chewing crazy man. Nicholson tries to find some depth in his characterizations but, sadly, the scripts don’t give him much to work with. He may as well be performing in dinner theater presentations of Neil Simon.

Nicholson has proved that there is still hope for his career in the recent About Schmidt where he played against type as a quiet, repressed husband and father whose life falls apart after his retirement. The constant problems that befall his character lead one to expect that this performance will be a slow build to a typical Nicholson moment where he vents his frustration in a fit of scenery-chewing exuberance. Nicholson holds back beautifully� playing Schmidt more realistically than any character he has played since Ironweed.

If Jack Nicholson has any hope of regaining his acting stature in his remaining years he needs to stop pandering to those who expect him to just “be Jack” and keep choosing those projects that are going to challenge both himself and the audience.

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