Jack Nicholson in the early 1970s

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Right now, Jack Nicholson is one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. If you have him cast, and a project which otherwise seems halfway viable, you should have no problem raising money.

And yet, when one looks a little closer, this is curious. He is, for better or worse, no Robert Redford, and few of his films have been blockbusters either in intention or in achievement. Even his present situation is paradoxical. It sounds pretty impressive – new films by Antonioni and Polanski completed, to be followed by films from Ken Russell and Mike Nichols – but one must remember also that the last films of Antonioni and Polanski have proved very disappointing com:mercially, while after Day of the Dolphin even Mike Nichols cannot be regarded as commercially infallible.

This interview originally appeared in Sight & Sound’s Summer 1974 issue

Not that this is particularly surprising in the light of Jack Nicholson’s career to date. Despite his recent Oscar nomination (his fourth) for The Last Detail, he has never in any way played it safe, and he remains the sort of actor who gets nominated but never seems to get the Oscar. 

Ever since he graduated from playing colourless, fresh-faced juveniles in Roger Corman movies to writer-producer-star status on Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, he has had respect; and since Easy Rider he has had a name and some pull as well. The way he has used this situation so far is a spectacular instance of the pattern which became very familiar in the cinema of the Sixties: filling in the blank cheque.

Always, of course, within the limits of the ‘possible’ – the art is to know what the limits of the possible are. When he began as an actor with Corman, Nicholson had no defined ambitions to be anything else. 

He began writing, like so many actors, in the hope of bettering his position, by collaborating with another actor on a script for Lippert, the last of the B-feature units. He wrote another script with Monte Hellman, which Corman did not want to do, regarding it as ‘a non-exploitation, quality piece of writing.’

But Corman suggested that if they could come up with two action westerns at a certain figure he would finance them. From then on Nicholson continued, first of all to create employment for himself, with writing and producing. 

Hence Easy Rider. 

Jack Nicholson: I became involved in that primarily through production. At that time I was co-producing Head with Bob Rafelson at BBS. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda brought the property in. They showed it to Bob and myself first. We ushered it through the financing, bringing a deal in and so forth. 

Then they started shooting in New Orleans, had production problems and had to change crews. And I got in my crew, that I had been working with independently, to make up the nucleus of Dennis’s crew for Easy Rider. I don’t know what happened between Dennis and Rip Torn, who was originally supposed to be playing my role; but I was approached by Bert Schneider, I always assumed, as much to oversee the production as to play the part. 

When they were shooting I didn’t do anything on the production side; I was just there, and mainly paid attention to my acting job. Afterwards, at everyone’s request, I had a go-through of the editing of the film, from where my character entered to the end. Henry Jaglom had a similar job with the first half of it at the same time. That was the next-to-last stage of editing. It was just a very close collaboration of a lot of people.

Nicholson and Peter Fonda in East Rider (1969)

Did the success of Easy Rider have much to do with your getting to make Drive, He Said?

It probably had something to do with it, though I already had it set up in principle as part of the deal I had to co-produce and co-write Head. Of course every little bit of power and pull helps. 

At the time I didn’t think the film would be commercial. There were already other college milieu films on the market, and though I felt certain I would make the best of them, I didn’t think that would be enough. 

Also, I realised that if you have a drama with two central characters, neither of whom is totally right or totally wrong, and the interest is divided very evenly between them, you are breaking one of the first rules of financing: the first thing anyone asks is, where’s the rooting interest? The people to whom I had submitted this as one of three projects I would like to make disagreed with me. They were thinking college film positive, while I was thinking college film negative.

My view at the time was that I wanted to make this film. I wasn’t particularly concerned as to whether it was commercial. I felt it was a subject through which I could say a lot I wanted to say. One of the things I like about the college film is that when people are naive and young, for me they have the licence to state a philosophy; it never plays right with older characters. 

If you’re working with an academic community as a microcosm, it is more organically right that characters can speak dialogue with a more philosophical turn. The milieu does not make it overly pedantic, as it would be if you had two milkmen walking along talking about the poetics of playing baseball or the psycho-sexual dynamics of taking part in a team sport.

Those are topics actually discussed in the film. But they are also central to the drama: they are what it is about. You have these two central characters, Gabriel and Hector. Gabriel is a Reich-influenced, young, politically revolutionary character, who believes what Reich said about politics. His action through the film is the life of Reich: he was right, what he was saying was right, no one believed him, it drove him crazy, and he was institutionalised.

Nicholson on the set of Drive, He Said (1971)

I had a stand-up, knockdown fight with your Trevelyan over censorship of the film, because he wanted to cut just one line, which is when at the climax of a lovemaking scene between Hector and the Karen Black character she says ‘I’m coming’. 

I believe he thought I was crazy to argue over, in his view, such a small capitulation, but for me this line is the crystallisation of what the whole film is about: the battles of the characters, and their varying abilities, to release this sexual power. Olive is the freest of the characters. Gabriel goes crazy under the stress of his vision. Hector is not too intelligent, and his natural drive is towards conformity; he has difficulty making the necessary connections between his physical abilities and his place in society. Hector and Gabriel represent totally opposed philosophies, but they are living together, and neither is completely wrong or completely right, neither is meant to be wholly sympathetic. It would be foolish to try to force one of them into an unquestioned hero position: they are living in the same room, involved in the same activities, and they are totally opposed.

And yet even Hector, when he tries to do something in the scene where he is negotiating his contract, does try, within his own terms, to be revolutionary. Within Hector’s realm of actual expression, he tries to go ahead with the career of a professional sportsman and yet do something new in line with his own private code of ethics. The film might almost be called the Bill Walton story. Walton has expressed the very philosophies that Hector Bloom expressed in relation to his professional career. 

What other films do you know that produced immediately afterwards the archetypes which were only projections when the film was made? It has streaking as well; it has all sorts of things which speak, I now feel rather immodestly, for the vision of what we were doing at the time. I wish it had been more successful then. I would probably be closer now to directing again if it had been financially successful. But I’m almost totally pleased with the film, whether many people got to it or not.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Both Drive, He Said and The King of Marvin Gardens have had very restricted releases. Is there any way, in the present pattern of distribution, that films like this can work commercially?

Not unless there is some way of merchandising films as one would fine art, with a film playing in one or two theatres only and the price of admission adjusted to the degree of specialisation of the market and the intensity of demand. If I were not economically dependent on this film business I would love to try it. 

But it does not even work out too well in the more traditionally established arts. For instance, The King of Marvin Gardens is essentially very Kafkaesque. Everyone knows Kafka, everyone pays lip-service to him as a great writer. But he’s not exactly a publishing item to make anybody rich. Now I honestly feel, to put it naively, that if I were Kafka’s agent, or if I published Kafka, I would have found some way to achieve some sort of proper remuneration for what he was and what his writings are.

I think that the actor’s responsibility is to support a film like The King of Marvin Gardens, which otherwise simply wouldn’t get made.

In the film, I consider the character I played a one-roomer, which is what Kafka was, a man who lives in one room – that’s a very specific image, and one that relates to more people than we would care to think about. When I act I try honestly to represent the peer-group, and that’s what the peer-group is there. 

But we don’t like to look at them in life, so you can’t expect a film audience that is used to riding the back of a hero, or revelling in the audacity of a villain, to identify with these people in a conventional way. But at the same time, this doesn’t mean that the film shouldn’t be widely available to people who might want to see it. It’s a process, really, of educating the audience as you go. 

On a panel I was part of recently we had a lot of questions about the actor’s social responsibility. Now I think that the actor’s responsibility, more than supporting a candidate or something, is to support a film like The King of Marvin Gardens, which otherwise simply wouldn’t get made. That is an actor’s way of influencing the system; it is what he can do to help in educating people, which as we all know is finally the most important way of affecting society.

This sort of education of taste is perhaps especially necessary because both Drive, He Said and The King of Marvin Gardens are rather un-American films, in that they don’t use narrative to articulate their meaning.

The narrative in both films is implied, while the meanings are more explicit. Which is perhaps more characteristic of European films. And you know, the education of popular American taste through increasing familiarity with foreign-language films has not happened as people predicted it would: audiences for foreign movies have been declining in the last couple of years. 

Despite his great success in distributing Cries and Whispers, Roger Corman maintains that much of the apparent advance of foreign movies in America came about quite simply because of their greater sexual explicitness, and once the American cinema caught up with that the new audiences melted away, leaving only the specialised film buffs. 

That’s a chilling point to me. But it seems to be true: all the American audiences’ supposed greater education, through Jules and Jim, and so on, to more sophisticated formal approaches to viewing narrative, to viewing character, to viewing observations about humanity, seems to have evaporated. 

It now seems that the reason for the success of Blow-Up was that it included the first beaver shot in a conventional theatre. It’s a success such as Antonioni had never had before and hasn’t had since.

The Passenger (1975)

And what do you think is going to sell the new Antonioni, The Passenger, to audiences?

The new film is a risky film; all the films I’ve done in the last few years have had huge risks attached to them, though fortunately people are willing to gamble on the possibility that they just might bring the big one in. The risk of this one is that the strength is in the structure of the film. There is a narrative, but it’s fragmented in a particular way which makes still a second or third narrative point. 

The basic theme of The Passenger is an identity change: it deals with the area of fantasy and the subconscious in a man who says ‘Why don’t I just walk out of my life and become someone new tomorrow?’ It deals with the releasing of all the super-psychic energy which is locked around that fantasy, and makes the comments about why you can and why you can’t do this, how far it’s real and how far it’s a fantasy. 

Its success depends on whether it can express a very high-flown and esoteric theme compellingly. The structure is that of a mystery; the man who chooses the change is in a very mysterious situation, and the film tries to reach out and capture an audience by shaping itself fundamentally as a very long and elaborate and elusive chase.

I found working with Antonioni a tremendous discipline. It was very hard work, and there was tension between us at times, because that’s the nature of work on this kind of thing. And of course Antonioni is always very much the master. 

With some filmmakers you feel that maybe the films have happened by some sort of accident, that perhaps critics have read into them things that aren’t there. But with Antonioni what is in the films is exactly what he meant to put there. He deserves his position, and people working with him accept it – he’s not holding it like a dictator, in many ways he’s very open. He told me that he approaches every scene as though it were a documentary on the material of the scene; he doesn’t want to have too much of a preconception of the scene.

Now Truffaut is mild; I’m sure he’s as firm as this automobile we’re sitting in, but he doesn’t make you afraid to ask these dumb questions.

Every way of working produces its own obstacles. Here’s a man of whom everyone is always saying ‘What the hell is Antonioni up to? What is it, Michelangelo?’ Well, he almost can’t tell them, because once he tells them, that’s all he’ll get. He’ll get no input. 

His real function is to inspire input, and so fill up the outline of his images. If you see a flat image that goes dead in one of his films, it’s probably because he has been unable to turn his collaborators on. And it’s a problem, when you have such a huge reputation. I mean, people are scared to ask simple little questions like ‘Do you mind if I wear my own belt?’, because there are so many other, bigger things involved. 

Mike Nichols has some points of similarity. I took note of Truffaut’s process, which is direction as the answering of all these uncertainties. Now Truffaut is mild; I’m sure he’s as firm as this automobile we’re sitting in, but he doesn’t make you afraid to ask these dumb questions. His work is much more baroque than any of these other people we’re talking about, because he has this multiplicity of contradictions within his very shooting unit which has evolved from his style as a person. Any approach can work: you pay your money and you take your choice.

Antonioni’s basic approach to his actors is ‘don’t act, just say the lines and make the movements.’ He doesn’t make dramatic constructions, he makes configurations. And the simpler you can be, the clearer will be the configuration. 

If you mess the interior up, and so break up the interior part of your character, you will in fact be working at cross-purposes with him, because he is looking for clarity in that area, so that the configuration can be seen. If you break that up, you are working against the style in which he is working. That was hard for me to learn, but I’m glad I did it. It made it easier for me to work with Roman Polanski when I moved on to his film, Chinatown.

Nicholson and Roman Polanski on the set of Chinatown (1974)

Roman is another kind of dictator. He loves arguments, he wouldn’t know what to do if he had no arguments. And by that I don’t mean fights. Arguments. But he never loses any, so there is no real argument. That’s his creative problem. 

The average person, he has two arguments, he feels he’s had a good argument, and if there’s no movement he stops having the arguments. But Roman will go on for ever. So his problem is to keep people caring and stimulated enough to bring him the Truffaut questions. And this time he managed to do it. 

We were the only picture at Paramount this year that came in under schedule. He was very reasonable. The only shots that ran to a large number of takes were a very few which required some little action to be done exactly right.

And you know, these directors are right. If you are going to make a shot which depends very precisely on what you decide to turn the camera on at a certain instant, there is absolutely no reason for quitting until you’ve got it exactly right. 

I believe I can do takes as long as the camera can shoot them. It is one of the qualifications of a professional film actor. Granted, you meet the end of your abilities at some point. But I think that will be apparent to everyone, and any perceptive director will either say ‘maybe I’m on the edge of the subconscious’ and try to drive you beyond it to see if there’s something in the area of frenzy, or he will stop at that point.

In your career you have nearly always worked with directors who are cinematically your contemporaries. I suppose Minnelli is the major exception, and of course Antonioni, but then he is a very modern sort of filmmaker. Is this something you chose deliberately?

Sort of. But then not many of the older directors I respect and would like to have worked with ever asked me. The problem is that once you reach a certain point of eminence and experience you lose touch with who the new actors are. 

Mike Nichols has often chastised Buck Henry, who was an old friend of mine, for not bringing me to his attention when he was casting Catch 22. Immediately after that he was one of the first people to see Easy Rider, and that made him aware of me, and he cast me in Carnal Knowledge. Mike is older than I am, but in cinema terms he’s my contemporary – I’ve actually been working a long time in films. 

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

I’d like to work with anyone whose work seems to me to have some validity in its own terms, and that has to be true of anyone who can survive long enough in this business to be regarded as an old hand. That’s why I want to work with Ken Russell, though I’ll only be doing a few days on Tommy, as the Doctor. Russell’s films intrigue me, some I like very much, some I don’t like at all, and I want to find out what makes him tick.

And I like working with new people, young people. One thing that interests me is that I must be coming to the point where I shall find myself working with someone who would be considered obviously younger than me. That’s something I’m looking forward to with an odd trepidation because, you know, I feel their contour already…

Further reading

Hollywood icon/oclast: the art of Jack Nicholson

By Leigh Singer

Hollywood icon/oclast: the art of Jack Nicholson

Six classics in six years: Jack Nicholson’s golden run of the 1970s

By Lou Thomas

Six classics in six years: Jack Nicholson’s golden run of the 1970s

Dennis Hopper: the last director

By Brad Stevens

Dennis Hopper: the last director

Karen Black, 1939-2013

Karen Black, 1939-2013

Auteur at sea: Mike Nichols’ docu-thriller The Day of the Dolphin

By Brad Stevens

Auteur at sea: Mike Nichols’ docu-thriller The Day of the Dolphin

Roger Corman’s lockdown diary

By Roger Corman

Roger Corman’s lockdown diary

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy