Tuesday, June 27

Nicholson in the 70s

Jack Nicholson has spent his long career being one of the great movie stars... in my estimation, one of the greats of all time. When it comes to comedy, he's one of the best and his turns at drama render him positively riveting.  As of this writing he has made 60 movies as an actor, three as a director, six as a writer and eight as a producer.  He has been nominated for 12 acting Oscars (the most of any male actor) and won three of them.  He made 19 films before he came to worldwide attention in 1969s Easy Rider. Every decade since he has made a collection of memorable films. Here are those from the 1970s.

The Rebel Rousers (1970)
Clearly an interloper in this basically shiny collection of films, it should have been released in 1969 because it belongs in those largely exploitation films he had been making, many out of the poverty row studio of its day, American-International.  He had a supporting role (playing Bunny) in another motorcycle mess of a film.  The less said, the better.

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
I don't think Streisand has made six films worth praising and this musical-comedy (so-so music, scatter-brained comedy) is certainly not one of them.  I'm being kind not delving into the plot but I should tell you, I suppose, that JN plays the her brother in surely the one film that seems unimaginable he is part of.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Now we're talking... the great counter-culture movie that defined what early 70s movie-making was all about.  In an electrifying performance, a handsome JN displays his trademark disaffected outsider with great flourishes of winning charisma and volcanic rage.  He plays an aspiring concert pianist who drops out, works in oil fields and along with a ditsy girlfriend goes on a road trip to see his ailing father.  The trip is a panoply of cinematic delights. Chicken salad, anyone? There is no doubt that JN deserved his first best actor Oscar nomination.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
This one gave me some added carnal knowledge... and I thought my development was coming along very well.  If some films before it provided some frank sexual chatter, this was the Big Kahuna of bold. I have always remembered the patrons who dashed out of the theater and also the obscenity laws that were challenged in some parts of the country.  Europe must have been yawning.   Spanning 25 years, it concerns the sexual lives and attitudes of two best friends (JN and Art Garfunkle) who lead very different lives and whose attitudes on women couldn't be more opposite.  Although provocative, the film has a lot to say and says it well.  An additional coup is Ann-Margret's first great performance.

A Safe Place (1971)
I suspect this one was made before the previous two films and released after Pieces and Knowledge became hits.  It was made by buddies of JN's and his role is not the lead but one of two boyfriends of the lead, played by Tuesday Weld.  She is why I saw it and I wished I hadn't.  She played a messed-up flower child and while she was fine, the movie was a major disappointment.  Oddly, Orson Welles is also in it.  He usually badly needed money.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Filmed in Atlantic City around the time it was morphing from a decrepit resort spa into an east coast gambling mecca, it is a piece about two estranged and depressed brothers who reunite at the time one brother wants to con a Japanese syndicate.  Bruce Dern was working with his buddy, JN, for the third time in this piece that was likely too depressing for the masses.  

The Last Detail (1973)
For many, I suspect, this film contains JN's best performance.  I have no problem with that.  He copped his second best-actor nomination as an outrageously over-the-top shore patrol escort, one of two, assigned to take a young sailor to prison.  The decision is made to have a very good time along the way.  At the time, it was the most profanity-laden movie I had ever seen.  But I and most of those who saw it loved it.  A great movie about bad boys... a JN specialty. 

Chinatown (1974)
Of all his films, this is the one I most often come back to as my favorite but then I see another and another and it's a whirlwind of shifting alliances.  But we shall resist going over the same attaboys again because I showered JN and the film in an earlier post.  

The Passenger (1975)
Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni apparently wanted to work with JN and the feeling became very mutual.  The result was this little art house film that certainly found an admiring audience but it was never one of those monster huge JN hits.  He plays a war correspondent without a war and happens to latch onto an intriguing story in which he takes on the identity of a dead acquaintance with unpleasant results.  The title, a change from the original story, The Reporter, focuses on the character played by Maria Schneider, which never made much sense to me.  

Tommy (1975)
Not one of my favorite musicals, that's for sure, but I realize that in some circles, folks went wild for it.  It is a British musical fantasy drama based on The Who's 1969 rock opera about a psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind young man who becomes a pinball wizard and becomes the target of a religious cult.  Ann-Margret had a great time as the mother and JN was one of several in small roles.

The Fortune (1975)
Two inept con artists attempt to fleece as heiress who is in love with one of them. Mike Nichols needed a hit and was convinced this would it be with real-life pals JN and Warren Beatty in the leads.  JN probably thought so, too, but regardless, he loved working with his pals.  It's neither as bad as some have claimed nor as good as one would have it and it certainly wasn't the hit Nichols was looking for.  The best thing about it was Stockard Channing as the duped heiress.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
His fourth film of 1975, seeing this movie today one realizes the film and JN's performance are as powerful as when the film was originally released.  He inhabited the role with such a force of nature that he knocked most audiences senseless with his fearlessness and audacity.  He was born to play Randall P. McMurphy, a criminal misfit who trades jail time for what he thinks will be a piece-of-cake stay in a mental institution. While rallying the inmates to his side, he incurs the wrath of a vengeful head nurse. JN won his first Oscar (highly deserved) as did Louise Fletcher, chilling as Nurse Ratched, and also the director, writer and the film itself.

The Last Tycoon (1976)
F. Scott Fitzgerald's uncompleted final novel has always been rather dismissed as a good film, which it mainly is.  JN joined such notable actors as Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Dana Andrews and Ray Milland as various employees of a movie studio run by Robert DeNiro in the lead as an executive working himself to death.  It is an homage to onetime MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. JN's small role as a writer helped make this movie about Hollywood worth a look.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Most western fans know this is an underrated film.  Why it never got more attention than it did is beyond me.  It had two stars (and friends and nextdoor neighbors), JN and Marlon Brando.  Both had made such blockbusters that perhaps few were interested in seeing them in some routine western.  The fact is, however, these two together made the film not at all routine.  It concerns Brando tracking down a horse-thieving, daughter-stealing JN.

Goin' South (1978)
This is JN's second directorial effort and the first one he also starred in.  He must have felt comfortable in the saddle because this was his second oater in a row although this one is largely a comedy.  A small Texas town has an ordinance that says a man convicted of any crime except murder can be freed if a woman will marry him (presumably setting him on the right path). A woman with some designs of her own does just that.  The laughs come mainly from watching the two adjust to one another.  Mary Steenburgen made her film debut.  Not particularly successful at the time, it has since found a bit more favor.

Like it or not, we are not done waxing rhapsodic about Jack Nicholson.  He's worth mentioning in every decade and we will visit him next when we get to the 1980s.  Maybe, if I can corral the energy, one day I may write about his personal life.  It's even more fascinating than his superb films.

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Movie review

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