Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Jack Nicholson - MasterClass

Five Easy Pieces - 1970 - Bobby Dupea
The King of Marvin Gardens - 1972 - David Staebler
The Last Detail - 1973 - Billy "BadAss" Buddusky
Chinatown - 1974 - J.J.Gittes
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - 1975 - R.P.McMurphy
The Passenger - 1975 - David Locke


Between 1970 and 1975 Jack Nicholson completed 13 movies, one of which he directed. Most of the films are top quality but I have singled out the above for special mention. As an art form acting is often considered to be a bit below par but when we are greeted with virtuoso performers like Nicholson, Brando or De Niro it is hard not to credit the skill achieved in conveying both a sense of narrative depiction and realistic flavour.


From Brando's sublime performance in 'Last Tango in Paris' to De Niro's Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver' the art of portrayal came of age in these years and the definer of these characteristics on a level few of the others achieved with regularity is Nicholson. His subtle portrayal of Bobby Dupea is usually rated as a crystallizing moment in cinematic flow. That is not the only film though where Nicholson manages to rise above the pretensions of a "bogus" profession. The nuances he employs in 'The King of Marvin Gardens' and Polanski's 'Chinatown' are always going to appreciated by an audience who enjoy the tightness of a good script and characterization.


What I really wanted to detail was the seeming inconsistency in one or two scenes where the perception of the narrative is open to question and is as a direct result of interplay between director and actor in accord with the script. There is a scene in 'The Last Detail' where the sailors are drinking coffee and it is so obviously cold. Because of set-ups the actors are not acting but the stress on Nicholson's features with regard to the dialogue is as real as you are ever going to get in celluloid. People say De Niro's famous Bickle "mirror" monologue is when the viewer is being asked to see beyond the actor and see that the actor (De Niro) looking into the mirror, threatening apocalyptic violence, has become character (Bickle) in motion. The same could conceivably be said of Billy Buddusky's depiction. Nicholson leads us on a trip where we are infected with the casualness of the character to the extent a lot of viewers have said they too feel the cold and the frustration behind Nicholson's eyes. The actor has ceased to act and has become the autonomous character, with the life of its own.


The other scene is in 'One flew over the cuckoo's nest'. Towards the end Nicholson is sitting on a bed and we are treated to a few seconds (they feel like a lifetime) where McMurphy is seen thinking to himself. The eyes stray into a daydream and he shakes himself out of his reverie with a knowing laugh as if he was enjoying a private joke. This scene is pivotal in understand Nicholson's approach to the character and indeed to our assumptions about the nature of the film. On the initial viewing one believes this subtle scene shows a certain abnormality in the subject so as to confer our suspicions that perhaps he is actually mad, or that the electro treatment has caused damage. This may not be the case for we all have done what is depicted by Nicholson. Day dream and laugh to ourselves for losing ourselves. The intention may be to convey to the viewer the subjectivity of McMurphy's condition but it actually conveys to us the nature of our own prejudiced views in relation to the subject of mental illness.


After these films Nicholson has gone on to greater parts from 'The Postman always rings twice' to 'The Shining' and 'Batman' but he never attained such a concentrated degree of acting in such a short space of time. This is acting of the highest order and any study of the art should begin with a careful evaluation of Nicholson's six films.

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