Nationality: American. Born: Neptune, New Jersey, 22 April 1937. Education: Attended Manasquan High School in Neptune; studied acting in Los Angeles with Jeff Corey, 1957. Family: Married Sandra Knight, 1961 (divorced 1966), child: Jennifer; two children with actress Rebecca Broussard. Career: 1957—office boy in MGM cartoon department; some television appearances; 1957–58—stage work with Players Ring Theater; 1958—film debut in The Cry Baby Killer ; 1963—first screenwriting credit for Thunder Island ; 1971—directed first film, Drive, He Said . Awards: Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics, for Easy Rider , 1969; Best Actor, British Academy, for Chinatown and The Last Detail , 1974; Best Actor,
The Cry Baby Killer (Addis) (as Jimmy)
Too Soon to Love (Rush) (as Buddy)
The Wild Ride (Corman) (as Johnny Varron); Studs Lonigan (Lerner) (as Weary Reilly); Little Shop of Horrors (Corman) (as Wilbur Force)
The Broken Land (Bushelman) (as Will Broicous)
The Raven (Corman) (as Roxford Bedlo)
The Terror (Corman) (as Andre Duvalier)
Ensign Pulver (Logan) (as crew member); Back Door to Hell (Hellman) (as Burnett)
The Shooting (Hellman) (as Billy Spear, + co-pr)
Hell's Angels on Wheels (Rush) (as Poet)
Psych-Out (Rush) (as Stoney)
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper) (as George Hanson)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Minnelli) (as Tad Pringle); Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson) (as Robert Eroica Dupea)
Carnal Knowledge (Nichols) (as Jonathan); A Safe Place (Jaglom) (as Mitch)
The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson) (as David Staebler)
The Last Detail (Ashby) (as Billy Buddusky)
Chinatown (Polanski) (as J. J. Gittes); The Fortune (Nichols) (as Oscar Sullivan)
Professione: Reporter ( The Passenger ) (Antonioni) (as David Locke); Tommy (Russell) (as Doctor); One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Forman) (as Randall P. McMurphy)
The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn) (as Tom Logan); The Last Tycoon (Kazan) (as Brimmer)
The Shining (Kubrick) (as Jack Torrance)
The Border (Richardson) (as Charlie Smith); The Postman Always Rings Twice (Rafelson) (as Frank Chambers); Reds (Beatty) (as Eugene O'Neill)
Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks) (as Garrett Breedlove)
Prizzi's Honor (Huston) (as Charlie Fontana)
Heartburn (Nichols) (as Mark)
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks) (as Bill Rorich); Ironweed (Babenco) (as Francis Phelan); The Witches of Eastwick (Miller) (as Daryl Van Horne)
Batman (Burton) (as the Joker/Jack Napier)
Hoffa (DeVito) (title role); Man Trouble (Rafelson) (as Harry Bliss); A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner) (as Col. Nathan R. Jessep)
Wolf (Nichols) (as Will Randall)
The Crossing Guard (Sean Penn) (as Freddy Gale)
The Evening Star (as Garrett Breedlove); Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton) (as President James Dale)
As Good As It Gets (Brooks) (as Melvin Udall); Blood and Wine (Rafelson) (as Alex)
Thunder Island (Leewood)
Ride the Whirlwind (Hellman) (+ pr, ro as Wes); Flight to Fury (Hellman) (+ ro as Jay Wickham)
The Trip (Corman)
Head (Rafelson) (co-sc, + co-pr, ro as himself)
Drive, He Said (+ co-pr, co-sc)
Goin' South (+ ro as Henry Moon)
The Two Jakes (+ ro as J. J. Gittes)
"Jack Nicholson on the New York Film Festival," interview with V. Wade, in Inter/View (New York), December 1972.
"Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston," interview with R. Kent, in Inter/View (New York), April 1974.
"Profession: Actor," interview with J. R. Taylor, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.
Interview with B. Walker, in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1985.
Interview with D. Caulfield and P. H. Broeske, in Stills (London), October 1985.
"Jake Jake: Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel," interview with Julian Schnabel, in Interview (New York), August 1990.
"Wolf, Man, Jack," interview with Nancy Collins, in Vanity Fair (New York), April 1994.
Crane, Robert David, and Christopher Fryer, Jack Nicholson—Face to Face , New York, 1975.
Dickens, Norman, Jack Nicholson: The Search for a Superstar , New York, 1975.
Braithwaite, Bruce, The Films of Jack Nicholson , Farncombe, Surrey, 1977.
Sandre, Didier, Jack Nicholson , Paris, 1981.
Downing, David, Jack Nicholson: A Biography , London, 1983.
Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray, Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll and Politics , New York, 1984.
McGee, Mark Thomas, Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1984.
Brode, Douglas, The Films of Jack Nicholson , London, 1987; rev. ed., 1994.
Parker, John, The Joker's Wild: The Biography of Jack Nicholson , London, 1991.
Shepherd, Donald, Jack Nicholson: An Unauthorized Biography , New York, 1991.
Bingham, Dennis, Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1994.
McGilligan, Patrick, Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson , New York, 1994.
Baratta, Tommy, with Marylou Baratta, Cooking for Jack: Delicious Low-Fat Italian Recipes from the Star's Kitchen , introduction by Jack Nicholson, New York, 1996.
Thompson, Peter, Jack Nicholson: The Life and Times of an Actor on the Edge , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1997.
Shiach, Don, Jack Nicholson: The Complete Film Guide , McMinnville, Oregon, 1999.
Cieutat, Michel, "Jack Nicholson, ou la vocation de l'abandon," in Positif (Paris), May 1973.
Eyles, Allen, "Jack Nicholson," in Focus on Film (London), Summer 1974.
Haskell, Molly, "Gould vs. Redford vs. Nicholson: The Absurdist as Box Office Draw," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Wolf, Jamie, "It's All Right, Jack," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January-February 1984.
Grimes, T., "BBS: Auspicious Beginnings, Open Endings," in Movie (London), Winter 1986.
Greenberg, J., "Forget It Jack, It's The Two Jakes ," in American Film (New York), February 1990.
Schruers, Fred, "The Two Jacks," in Premiere (New York), September 1990.
Current Biography 1995 , New York, 1995.
"Who's the Best Actor in Hollywood?" in Movieline (Escondido), October 1996.
Atkinson, M., "Jack Nicholson in The Passenger ," in Movieline (Escondido), July 1997.
* * *
It is surprising that an actor of such obvious charisma as Jack Nicholson remained mired for so long in low-budget films made about and for the fringes of American society. During his early years, he appeared in a steady stream of quickies for Roger Corman and others. His masochistic dental patient in Corman's classic two-day wonder Little Shop of Horrors remains a high point, although it did little to advance Nicholson's career at the time. Only when the counterculture became a less peripheral force toward the end of the 1960s did Nicholson begin to exert widespread appeal.
Nicholson's background (a broken home) and intense personality suited him for roles as an alienated, rebellious biker and as a horror film hero always on brink of slipping into psychosis. Significantly, his break came in Easy Rider , where he plays an alcoholic lawyer only too ready to hit the road and leave behind a meaningless settled life. Nicholson's tour-de-force performance in the role, which he took over at the last minute when the already cast Rip Torn himself hit the road, earned him a supporting Oscar nomination. Like Richard Rush's Hell's Angels on Wheels , in which he appeared two years before, Easy Rider presented bikers as the image of nonconformity. The difference was that the ideas of freedom from responsibility and a dedication to self-enjoyment now found a wider audience which Nicholson was at last able to tap.
In subsequent films, Nicholson has made his drifter character more resonant. In Five Easy Pieces his Bobby Dupea is a man caught between the claims of different cultures. At the end, he sets out like Huck Finn for the frontier. But the character will undoubtedly find only another dead end in Alaska, only another correlative of his own incapacities. For demythologizing the character he had so vividly etched the year before in Easy Rider , Nicholson earned his first Oscar nomination as best actor. He has since taken his screen persona in the direction of continuing popular appeal, determined not to find himself for the second time on the outside of mainstream cinema.
In Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge he played a successful, Ivy League-educated lawyer whose youthful joy in sex, poisoned by male chauvinism, becomes a pitiful impotence. For Hal Ashby's The Last Detail he portrayed a dim-witted military policeman who instinctively grasps the injustices of his world but is only able to stage an ineffective (if heartwarming) protest against them. In Polanski's Chinatown Nicholson is a jaded detective whose "matrimonial work" is nevertheless an attempt to preserve innocence and indict the guilty (he fails at both). As McMurphy in Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest he offers a variation on his character of the unrepressed outsider, who doubles as a healer of psychic wounds (a performance that won him an Oscar). In both The Missouri Breaks (opposite Brando) and Reds (as Eugene O'Neill, receiving another Oscar nomination), he is again an outsider battling or protesting against an unjust system. In Kubrick's The Shining , he returned to a character much like those he had played for Corman—the potential psychopath who goes over the brink into madness—but pulled out all the stops in a creatively daring performance.
His role in Terms of Endearment further softened the rebel character he had created for the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. As a womanizing, alcoholic former astronaut, he is a comic and not a tragic figure, a man who does his own thing, hurts no one, and can be melodramatically transformed into a sensitive human being. The part won him another supporting actor Oscar. His cameo reprise of the role in Brooks's even more melodramatic sequel, Evening Star , is a nostalgic gesture toward the bad boy charm that characterized much of his early work in mainstream film. This is an element of his screen persona exploited most successfully by James L. Brooks, who specializes in sentimentalizing quirkiness. Nicholson among contemporary actors could make convincing the inner changes demanded Brooks by in As Good as it Gets , where his misanthropic loner, trapped by compulsive behaviors, reaches out to love a young woman, befriend his gay neighbor, and even form an attachment to a hitherto pesky dog. His dedicated semper fi colonel in A Few Good Men , in contrast, restrains his anger at and frustration with confining regulations until prompted into self-revelation by relentless cross-examination.
In recent years, Nicholson has been taking his career in another direction, now conceiving himself more as a character actor. He is absurdly horrific, yet charming and sexy, as the devil in The Witches of Eastwick . The same engaging duality is evident in Batman where, like all the villains in that series, his Joker is a good man twisted toward evil by an unfortunate metamorphosis. In Wolf , a similar transformation is caused by a midlife crisis that is both professional and sexual. In Rafelson's Blood and Wine , an homage to James M. Cain, Nicholson's frustrated, unsuccessful businessman is unable to make a new life for himself; his elaborate caper ends in bloody disaster for nearly everyone. The antihero of his earlier career, it seems, can now only be recreated—as the nostalgic performances in The Two Jakes (a flawed sequel to Chinatown ) and Ironweed make clear. His impersonation of the union leader in Hoffa , however, is a mature tour de force , a demonstration of how rebellious dissatisfaction can be directed toward a good end, but then betrayed and squandered. Similarly, Nicholson plays a tragic figure in Sean Penn's underrated Crossing Guard , a man, undone by grief, who lets his life be ruined by the death of his young daughter; the performance is intense and affecting, a key to the film's devastating anatomy of love, hate, and deliverance. Nicholson's recent work shows that even in advanced middle age he continues to be one of the most talented and bankable stars in the American film industry.
—R. Barton Palmer