Jack Nicholson in a scene from The Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo via)
There are few living people who seem to transcend their own existences. Those who become more than just their own flesh and blood, instead becoming human representatives of periods of time, ideas and movements. Muhammad Ali is more than just a heavyweight, Madonna is more than just a pop star, Tony Blair is more than just a politician. These are people who, like them or not, have come to embody something, to define something or to haunt something.
John Joseph “Jack” Nicholson is, undoubtedly, one such person.
But last week, his reign as Hollywood’s resident force of perpetual chaos seemed to have come to an end, with reports suggesting that he will be retiring from acting, supposedly due to memory loss, presumably due to a lifetime of debauchery.
He hasn’t even been acting that much in the last ten years, but it still represents the end of something. Firstly because having a man like him not only still alive, but still working, provides a link to a kind of old school Hollywood darkness so beloved of the likes of James Ellroy, Kenneth Anger and Billy Wilder. It began with the Black Dahlia murder, reached critical mass with the Manson family and now perhaps ends with Nicholson’s retirement. All we have now is Ryan Reynolds going jogging.
The second reason for sadness is that, for years, Nicholson appeared to be a kind of cocaine Superman – a beacon of virility and over-consumption, a man who seemed intent on telling the world that maybe the doctors are wrong and that you could do exactly as you fucking wanted. But here he is now, apparently unable to remember his lines any more, perhaps realising in his quieter moments that, while 76 is a fine age to be doing the things that he does, his professional life could have been extended had he not indulged quite so much.
That said, Nicholson's legacy is more than secure. Icon is a vastly overused word, but Jack is one in its truest sense. He hasn’t achieved this status by being in a few good movies and having a good face. Harrison Ford did both of those things, yet we remain largely uninterested in him. A great actor though he is, Ford's face tells us only of his films, whereas Nicholson’s wild, grinning stare – his face, if we're honest, like Satan's – tells us something more.
It tells us about that period in history when America lit the fuse to its own tinderbox and completely blew its shit – the era of Charles Manson, Roman Polanski, Brian Wilson, Watergate and Vietnam. The American Berserk, as Philip Roth once called it.
As an icon, Nicholson sums up a time and a place. As an actor, his presence is unmatched. More likeable than De Niro, less prone to being embarrassing than Pacino, not as mawkish as Hoffman, less pretentious than Brando, more charming than Walken. His run of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining – made over a span of just 11 years – contains more masterpieces than many of his contemporaries' entire filmographies.
Many actors can do tough, romantic, scary, funny or dignified. But Nicholson’s genius was that he could do them all at the same time. Even in a hammy courtroom drama like A Few Good Men, he knocks it out of the park. But in my opinion (and I’d imagine many other people’s), it's Chinatown that will come to be seen as his magnum opus. Not just because it’s an incredible movie and he’s superb in it, but because it’s a tale about the dark, chaotic side of California, just as the tale of Jack Nicholson is one of the dark, chaotic side of California.
Because while he's a genius who we all love, definitions of him will come to rely on ad hominem descriptions as much as they do the substance of his roles. Nicholson is not just an actor, but one of the late 20th century's most enduring forces of creative darkness, a constant entity of unease, intrigue and excess. He existed at the fringes of our culture, in that murk of the Hollywood Hills where Mark Robson made Valley of the Dolls, where David Lynch made Mulholland Drive, where Paris Hilton and Britney Spears sped through the twisting roads in Hummers upholstered with Louis Vuitton print and where 1920s starlet Peg Entwistle threw herself to her death from the world's most famous sign.
By the time I was born, he was no longer the leading man he was in the 70s, but by the time he retired he was still capturing the public imagination. Creeping back into the popular consciousness through telescoped shots of his well-fed physique nestled among playmates on mega-yachts, trashing cars with golf clubs, becoming a kind of strange party godfather to the likes of Lindsay Lohan, hitting on Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars and being snapped with a polo nose well into his sixties.
From a lot of people, this kind of behaviour would be embarrassing – an affectation to appear young and relevant. But from Nicholson, it just seemed natural. This was him. For all his time spent in the company of women the only marriage of his life lasted six years, he was somebody who had rejected yoga and chosen chaos. He still exists now as a sort of balding, maniacal Peter Pan for the nameless decade we currently find ourselves in.
There should be no retroactive mollifying of Nicholson by biographers, no softening of his hard edges. After all, his darkness was what attracted directors. Nicholson could bring edge to a universe. Had Robin Williams actually landed the role of the Joker in Batman, he would have been a silly, pantomimic creation – Patch Adams with a machine gun. But under Nicholson, he became weird, creepy, violent, sexualised. When he held Kim Basinger hostage at the end of the movie, you believed he was capable of doing something terrible. You wondered if perhaps she would let him.
And that was what was so great about Nicholson – he could portray all of our darker, baser instincts with a smile, with a human ease and a whole lot of talent. This was – is – a combination that can be utterly charming when necessary, but also terrifying when not.
But now he’s apparently gone, off to indulge himself fully in what he does best, knowing he won’t ever have to wake up to be on set or remember whether the script says “You fucking asshole,” or “Fuck you, asshole,” ever again.
Though he hasn’t been a leading man for many years, the imitators we’re left with now are pale to the point of translucency – the Tatums, the Worthingtons, the Hemsworths, they don’t even bother to attempt what Nicholson could do at his peak. They just lunk their jaws around the screen, looking confused and buff, remembering their lines and sticking to their marks.
With the retirement of Jack Nicholson, cinema has lost one of the greatest things it had going for it. He wasn't just a link to the old school, but someone who retained a sense of old school danger at all times – an actor who wasn’t going to do a broadband advert any time soon.
Jack Nicholson, we’re gonna miss you.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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