Jack Nicholson - Part 1: "Hold It Between Your Knees"

After investigating the paranoid cinema of Alan J. Pakula; guest writer and co-host of Phoenix Film, Ray Hyland, explores the early work of one of the most prolific actors in American cinema, Jack Nicholson.

Jack in Carnal Knowledge

There is a scene in Carnal Knowledge (1971) where Jack Nicholson's Jonathan is talking with Candice Bergen's Susan while the pair are sitting in his car. He is wistfully explaining his troubled adolescence to her, eliciting sympathy not only from his date but also from the audience.

By this time we already know that Jonathan is seeing Susan, his best friend’s girl, behind his best friend's back. And yet it's not hard to root for him, to hope it's him and his deviousness which will win out over Art Garfunkel's strait-laced and honest sophomore.

It has often been argued that this is Nicholson's weakness. No matter how evil, how unsympathetic his character is, the viewer still wants to see him triumph.

Given what we know about the man now, perhaps that's no surprise.

There have been thousands of words written about Jack's private life. Very little of which, he ever denied. Yes he walked naked around his home for three months in front of his young daughter. Yes he took copious amounts of drugs in the late 60s and different ones in the early 70s. No, he didn't ever marry Angelica Houston, but he kind of regrets that. And yes, he definitely has mommy issues but he earned them. Now that's all cleared up let's leave that kind of tattle to someone else.

Jack Nicholson's first taste of Hollywood came in the late 50s as an apprentice cartoonist. His superiors saw talent in the young man from New Jersey, but despite their offer of a full time position Nicholson told them he was keen to pursue an acting career.

Jack in The Little Shop of Horrors
What followed was a frustrating period of near misses, poorly produced Westerns and little promise, save perhaps an appearance in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

By 1967 Nicholson had been persevering with his acting career for almost a decade before deciding his future might lay with script writing.

He teamed with Roger Corman to produce The Trip (1967), a psychedelic weekend lost for lead star Peter Fonda. With its frenetic editing style and acid induced subject matter the film was never going to go mainstream, but it left a mark on many who seen it, not least Dennis Hopper.

The production of Easy Rider (1969) has been well documented as somewhere between troubled and apocalyptic. In the end Nicholson came in as a replacement for Rip Torn who like almost everyone else had fallen out with it’s bat-shit director.

The feuds between the two main leads of Hopper and Fonda are the stuff of legend. But before Dennis took Peter to New Orleans and made him cry, he already knew that no matter how the rest of it turned out he had at least twelve minutes of greatness.

Playing alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, Nicholson drawled his way into the hearts of American audiences for the first time. Whereas the two bikers divided opinion with their hypocritical capitalist drug dealer/happy go lucky stoner duality, George conveyed something altogether more tangible.

His educated man of the law sees the country for what it is and is happy to live amongst the cracks, a guy just living day to day, aware of his place in society, hoping to earn enough to pay for his next quart of whiskey.

Jack in Easy Rider
The performance instantly put Jack onto the radar of every casting director in town. By the time the film won the Palme D'or he was by-passing casting agents and receiving phone calls from the directors themselves. This is the way Nicholson's career was going to be for the next fifty odd years. He was in the club, fully paid up with a view to being chairman at some point.

Covering Jack's entire oeuvre in one sitting would not do it justice. For every decade he has worked, there's been plenty of high notes. Maybe covering the first six odd years after Easy Rider might be sufficient this time around. Even that might take two parts.

Bob Rafelson had been around Hollywood for a few years as an associate producer before hitting on a winning formula with a weekly TV show about a fictional pop group. Such was the success of The Monkees that the group actually became a real living thing, with numerous top ten hits to go along with a range of questionable merchandise.

The Monkees

It is maybe difficult to reconcile how a man can go from Mickey Dolenz to a tale of a virtuoso piano player but Rafelson was about to create one of cinema's great contradictory icons.

Five Easy Pieces (1970) is often considered the most autobiographical of Nicholson's work but given his modest upbringing that might be a stretch.

What probably does ring true is that Jack has done and continues to enjoy the company of the working man as well as pseudo intellectuals. Here he plays Robert Dupea, a child prodigy piano player in a family of musical hermits.

Dupea has eschewed his artistic gifts to live life as a drifter, making his living with manual labour instead.

After being estranged from his clan for a number of years, Robert is called back from his roughneck duties to visit his dying father one last time.

Jack in Five Easy Pieces

The visit is not without incident as Robert blows into the family home like a hurricane, destroying the peace like some malevolent teenager. There are themes of polygamy and his inability to cope in long term relationships. This time it's Karen Black trying to pick up the pieces.

Despite its sombre nature there are a couple of scenes in 'Five' that are bordering on slapstick. Think singsongs, sandwiches and wrestling matches with a Herculean male nurse.

It was to be the first of four collaborations between Rafelson and Nicholson.

'Carnal Knowledge'

Mike Nichols had his ups and downs during the 1960s. Despite success with The Graduate (1967) and the on the job marriage counselling sessions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the one albatross around his neck was the amount of money Catch-22 (1970) had lost.

Still smarting from that misfortune, Nichols had decided to go back to basics and more comfortable territory; sex.

Enlisting one half of the biggest pop music duo in the country was a big enough coup. And while many who had seen Art Garfunkel in Catch-22 were confident he could perform, the real capture was the firebrand Nicholson however.

In the film the pair begin as college boys plotting out their days as entitled lotharios who will dominate their female companions for years to come.

The story spans twenty odd years and some praise must be given to the make-up artists who managed to make the 33 year old Nicholson appear like a guy still in University.

The film makes for uncomfortable viewing even now. The misogyny and abuse hurled around render Nicholson's character as almost sociopathic, certainly contemptuous of traditional American life. He has little interest in making a family and less still of taking a wife.

Jack in Carnal Knowledge

It is a picture that often sparks and sizzles. Nicholson's character is accused by his buddy Sandy (Art Garfunkel) of trying to screw everything his eyes land on. This, Jonathan feels is the only reason worth living.

When he finally settles down with a dream girl, in this case air hostess Bobbie, he becomes frustrated that he is no longer able to function as the cold hearted alpha male he always has been.

One scene set in their bedroom sees Jonathan launch a tirade on her. It's callous and perfectly captures the dangers of an unfulfilling relationship. Unable to see the sacrifices she has already made for him, Jonathan's petulant outburst is the first of many 'Jack goes nuts' scenes we all know so well now.

This scene took almost a week to film but is near faultless. No doubt Nicholson would've attempted to break the ice by inviting everybody to his hot tub after wrapping. He had earlier got great laughs out of the crew by christening his manhood 'Steve'.

All in all however it lacks the innovation of The Graduate. There is little in the way of mise en scéne or high production values and while a lot falls on Nicholson's shoulders to drive it along, he copes brilliantly.

It was around this time that Nicholson was evolving from a talented up and comer to fully fledged A list material. Kubrick signed him up to play the lead in his ill fated production of Napoleon. He was also cast as the priest in Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) before a last minute change of heart.

In the interim Nicholson moved to a well appointed home in Mulholland Falls. His new neighbours were Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Jack's new home became a place of relaxed hedonism, a refuge for close industry friends to come and recharge their batteries after their latest meltdown and/or divorce.

The only thing that would coax Nicholson out of his cocoon was a project back on the east side of the country.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) was his second of four films with Rafelson. This time his co star was Bruce Dern, a talented actor from the Midwest who the world still hadn't forgiven for killing John Wayne.

Jack & Bruce in The King of Marvin Gardens

The pair are cast as brothers. David, played by Nicholson is a radio DJ, financially comfortable but underwhelmed by his profession. Dern plays Jason, a perennial schemer who lacks the patience to see any of his get rich quick ideas through to fruition.

They shack up with a couple of broads inevitably. Ellen Burnstyn, brilliant as always acting as a surrogate older sister both on screen and off to the inexperienced newcomer Julie Ann Robinson.

Marvin Gardens was a film that highlighted the first great commercial decline in America, that of Atlantic City. It also gave somebody Jack could really bat around with in Bruce Dern.

The pair had long been friends since the mid sixties often working on screenplays together whilst they drank, smoked and acid dropped the night away. Dern nowadays is a super fit seventy something with an obsession for long distance running.

Filming took place in a number of locations that were torn down soon after, adding as a portent of ill fated doom for Jason's property development business plan.

By 1973 Nicholson was perhaps the most sought after actor in the world. He had received multiple award nominations without yet quite managing to capture the big one. That was soon going to change.

He would also manage to maintain critical acclaim whilst the films became more commercial.

And of course, he fell in love...

Words by Ray Hyland - Part 2 coming soon!