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Jack Nicholson: The Wolf of Hollywood

The wolffish is its nature. You can see him with a distorted, flaming face on the movie posters: the insanity in “Shining”, the Joker’s grimace in “Batman”, the diabolical glow in “The Witches of Eastwick”, the outrage in “It couldn’t be better” and still with “The Departed” and “Die Wutprobe”. One film is called “Wolfsmilch”, a later one is called “Wolf – The Animal in a Man”. Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) has the German distribution title “A man seeks himself” – but that is probably not the case for Jack Nicholson: The instinct itself drives him, the unconscious and the game, the desire for eroticism and pleasure Unruly. Nicholson is the decisive actor of New Hollywood, the completely unleashed, the boundless one, with whom even hedonism has to surrender and turns into the Dionysian duty to rage.

That Nicholson tends to exaggerate is a cheap remark. He is best of all when he depicts the suppressed, boiling, threatening resentment of a man on the verge of the outbreak: In “About Schmidt” and “The Promise”, in “A Question of Honor” and “Jimmy Hoffa” you can see how his anger almost blows his body. When, after a long, cumbersome, measured film with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon, at the end of “A Question of Honor”, the general explodes in the courtroom and tells the unsuspecting, narrow-minded pack who is out there at the fence at Guantanamo Freedom protects, then everything has paid off. Nicholson is the least military guy of all time – but you take your general’s word for it.

In Kubrick’s “Shining” Nicholson shows what is perhaps the most famous grin in film history.

John Nicholson was born into disorder, so to speak, on April 22nd, 1937 in Manhattan. His mother June was not yet 18 and kept silent about the child’s father, which is why the son grew up with the grandparents who passed him off as their son and his mother as his sister. Nicholson believed so until 1974 when a magazine reporter researched his origins. The father may have been an Italian immigrant who went out with June in 1936 – Nicholson no longer pursued this, probably in two senses of the word. In 1974 “Chinatown” made him world famous, and he worked on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, which made him proverbial. Anjelica Huston recalls being utterly beside himself, utterly obsessed, and utterly unbearable. Nicholson knew his moment had come. It had taken almost 15 years.

The hippie lawyer with the brooding presence

In 1954 he left home with his mother / sister in Neptune, New Jersey, and went to Los Angeles, where he worked as an errand boy in MGM’s animation department. He wanted to be an actor, took classes, and in his class were James Coburn and Richard Chamberlain. In 1960 he got a role in “Little Shop Of Horrors”, already disinhibited; then he became the, well: star in Roger Corman’s B-films: alongside Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, he starred in horror ham at the beginning of the 1960s, then he was one of the heroes in the fashionable motorcycle films that Corman had produced. Nicholson now also helped direct and wrote the psychedelic drug film “The Trip” in 1967. He was the weirdest. And he was also there when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda improvised “Easy Rider” in 1968: In the unlikely role of a hippie lawyer, Nicholson has a brooding presence and in the end is shot off a motorcycle by a redneck.

Left to right: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), Peter Fonda and Nicholson

He then starred in Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1971) and The Last Command (1973), directed by New Hollywood entrepreneurs Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby. In 1972 he dabbled with “Drive, He Said” as a director. Even more interesting than the films he plays in are the films he turned down: “The Godfather”, although he admired Marlon Brando (and had been his neighbor on Mulholland Drive since the early 1970s), “The Clou” and “The Great Gatsby”. Jack Nicholson could have played ANY role back then.

Obese killer in a woman’s dress

For the “Cuckoo’s Nest” he received the Oscar in 1976, for which he was nominated five times within seven years. In addition to Brando, he then played in the strange late-western “Duel on the Missouri” – he withdrew once, while Brando, a stout killer in a woman’s dress, trots with relish through the film on horseback. In Elia Kazan’s dreary Fitzgerald illustration “The Last Tycoon”, Nicholson has a small role alongside a lot of stars who stand around pointless. His western “Der Galgenstrick” (1978) should have stopped him from directing, but in 1990 he failed with the confused “Chinatown” sequel “The Two Jakes”.

Nicholson worked with Stanley Kubrick on “Shining” (1980) for a year and a half and ended up being about as crazy as the writer at the Overlook Hotel. For “Zeit der Tärtlichkeit” (1984) he received the second Oscar, this time for a supporting role. In the 80s he waved between the trivial like John Huston’s “The Honor of the Prizzis” (with his lover Anjelica Huston) and the more trivial like “Heartburn”, “Spurge” and “The Witches of Eastwick”. The wild card in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) earned him $ 60 million through profit sharing. But he was already rich.

Later only feel-good cinema

In addition to the serious Helen Hunt, he looks like a vain clown in “It couldn’t be better” (1997), who ostentatiously shows off his numbers again – that was irresistible for Hollywood and earned him the third Oscar. He held the acceptance speech so drawn out, overly clear and smugly, as if he had to explain something to the dumb-eyed – which was also true. The audience was ecstatic.

With Sean Penn’s films “Crossing Guard” (1995) and “The Promise” (2001) and Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” (2003), Nicholson achieved grandiose age roles beyond his clichés and mannerisms. In “The best comes to the end” (2007) and “What the heart desires” (2009), well-being cinema for the golden generation, are just clichés and mannerisms. While filming The Departed (2006), Martin Scorsese had given up telling him something and later cut out the most exaggerated appearances – but what you see in the film is still very exaggerated. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon look like Strindberg actors compared to Nicholson.

Nicholson has not been seen in any film since 2010 – that is the incredible part of his career, only comparable to Gene Hackman’s departure from film.

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