He turns 80 in about a week’s time – the 22nd, if you want to send a card – but Jack Nicholson has been noticeable by his absence for some time. Described by some as a “retired actor”, he last graced UK screens in 2011 in How Do You Know, which pretty much sunk without trace. Can we expect anything more from an actor who’s appeared in 66 films and won three Oscars over the best part of 50 years?
If the rumours are to be believed, he’ll be back in the re-make of last year’s hit German comedy, Toni Erdmann. Whether the howls of anguish that greeted the announcement of an Americanised version of such a European film – and such a recent one – will put paid to the idea remains to be seen. We live in hope. And, in the meantime, we can immerse ourselves in what, for Nicholson and for movie fans, has been fifty glorious years.
He started as he meant to go on, with a breakthrough role in Easy Rider (1969) and stealing the film from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. It earned him what was to be the first of his 12 Academy Award nominations, the record among male performers: only Meryl Streep, with her 20, has more. Yet it could all have been so different. He only landed the part because Rip Torn, the original choice to play drunken lawyer George Hanson, had fallen out with director and co-star Dennis Hopper. But it was the other way round some years later, with Nicholson turning down opportunities to be in what became iconic movies: Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Rain Man (1988).
While the bulk of Nicholson’s work has been in front of the camera, he’s kept company with contemporaries like Robert Redford (80) and Warren Beatty (80 last month) by directing, but only has a handful of titles to his name, most notably the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes (1990). Since then, he’s concentrated on acting, with the occasional foray into producing. Redford, on the other hand, continues to direct but is more frequently seen in front of the camera. Once Nicholson’s neighbour on what was known in Hollywood as Bad Boy Drive, Beatty has kept a tight rein on both acting and directing: Rules Don’t Apply, out in the UK on the 21st of this month, is the first film he’s directed since Bulworth, nearly 20 years ago. As well as directing, he plays Howard Hughes in what is his first major acting role since the disaster that was Town And Country in 2001.
But back to Jack. Six years is a long time in Hollywood and before How Do You Know, he was making fewer films – certainly a lot less than in the 80s and 90s when he was nothing short of prolific. It meant that, while he was around significantly less, he was also avoiding falling into the trap of making movies that were well beneath his talents, preserving the reputation he’d built up over the years.
It was based on a hugely magnetic screen presence, coupled with a sense of danger, risk-taking and unpredictability. The recently re-released One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest brought them all together in a role that, even now, is regarded as one of his best, if not the best. As his career progressed, he developed a reputation for over-acting but usually got away with it: in The Shining’s (1980), “heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” was in tune with the film’s heightened gothic atmosphere, and it marked the start of a purple decade for him, which also included Terms Of Endearment (1983) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). In A Few Good Men (1992) – altogether now, “You can’t handle the truth!” – he hammed it up to the max, but with such relish that he completely stole the film. The obsessive-compulsive Melvin in As Good As It Gets (1997), the more low-key Warren in the title role of About Schmidt (2002) and the menacing Frank Costello in The Departed (2006) all followed, demonstrating both his range and capacity for showing the complications of later life.
But where does he go now? In 2010, his reported refusal to read film scripts sparked rumours that he had retired, but the following year brought reports of him preparing to co-star with Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty in a film about a band of retired superheroes. It never happened. He also turned down the lead in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), leaving Bruce Dern to pick up the role, Best Actor at Cannes and an Oscar nomination. And Peter Fonda’s pronouncement at the start of this year that “I think he is basically retired” seemed to confirm what everybody had suspected – but it was qualified with the suggestion that the right role could tempt him back.
Is Toni Erdmann the one? Regardless of the answer, anybody who’s admired Nicholson’s performances over the years will be hoping that, if he does return to our screens, it’ll be in a role that’s worthy of him. For now, his back catalogue awaits. Spoilt for choice or what?
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is currently on re-release.