Hollywood icon/oclast: the art of Jack Nicholson

From New Hollywood rebel to arch Hollywood devil, Jack Nicholson has been our gold-standard baby boomer, on the run from his demons even as he upends the world – and hounds down the last laugh. As he turns 80, we look back at the art of Jack.

Leigh Singer

To be called ‘Jack’ (as opposed to the more rarefied likes of Elvis, Madonna or Beyoncé), yet still instantly assumed to be the only celebrity being name-checked, means that you’ve imprinted yourself onto popular culture. For John Joseph Nicholson Jr., the distinctions between screen and real-life personas have often – deliberately – been blurred until they appear interchangeable. That could be an insurmountable burden for an actor looking to continually reinvigorate his career. And yet, despite almost 50 years viewed simultaneously as Hollywood renegade and royalty, it’s hard to envisage a more successful, beloved, venerated and, yes, versatile performer.

Nicholson is the eternal enigma. Hollywood insider and outsider. Character actor and movie star. Forever front row at the Oscars supporting his industry, yet seldom waiving his hefty fee, and never breaking his rule not to act or be interviewed on television. ‘Jaaack’ impressions usually entail either the wild-eyed showboating of The Shining, Batman or The Departed; or the seductively charming rogues of Chinatown, Terms of Endearment and, perhaps his signature role, R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Heaven knows he’s played up to both these roles in a (highly public) private life whose more outré behaviour over the years would have scuppered many a rival’s reputation.

If these are the most widely celebrated images of Nicholson’s work – and he’s rightfully proud of a career that, with Clint Eastwood, has unparalleled box-office longevity among his peers – it also misses much of his more nuanced work. Despite the devil-may-care flourishes onscreen and off, Nicholson has always been a serious artist and intellectual. It’s what sustained him during the frustrating decade or so before his belated breakthrough in Easy Rider. In his early 1970s heyday, he was never afraid to mine seams of loneliness, confusion and inwardly directed rage that underpinned the era’s counter-culture revolutions. We somehow see him as the rebel who beats the system, yet it’s striking how many of these films, and his characters’ fates, end in failure, even death.

Our perception, then, of ‘Jaaack’ – shades locked down, eyebrows arched up, mile-wide grin – shouldn’t obscure the more prosaic idea of a expert, experienced professional at work. Nicholson has resurrected his career numerous times, playing both larger-than-life forces of nature and introverted sad sacks, broad comedy as well as heartrending drama.

Seemingly retired since 2010, Nicholson marks his 80th birthday with the announcement of a big-screen return in the North American remake of Maren Ade’s wonderful tragicomic Toni Erdmann. Those grimly anticipating Nicholson’s Joker as Ade’s practical joker father may yet be proved right. But if any American actor of his vintage has the ability to evoke that character’s puckish pranks and near-crippling spiritual malaise, it’s the man whose first name is both term of endowment as well as endearment.

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