A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
Scott Edwards’s new book (McFarland, 2018) is anything but a garden variety biography of an American A-list actor. There’s no story here of a film actor’s breaking loose from a difficult childhood. There’s no straight-up chronological filmography for a discerning reader to trace that actor’s development. Nor is there an account of an early journeyman stage career prior to his move to Hollywood.
The author himself is also something of an anomaly. Scott Edwards comes to us devoid of academic credentials in film studies. He’s an award-winning advertising executive. You can’t readily accept this as a logical early career for a biographer, unless you’re a casual filmgoer who believes Nicholson’s legendary onscreen antics amount to self-advertisement.
Fair warning though. Unless you’ve seen most of Nicholson’s films, and remember them well, you may have difficulty following Edwards with his penchant for exhaustive detail. An honest reading of Quintessential Jack will of necessity immerse you relentlessly in the actor’s art – especially since Edwards frequently views a Nicholson character in one film as a continuation or version of a Nicholson character in another film. Here, for instance, is part of the beginning of his detailed analysis of Nicholson’s portrayal of Warren Schmidt in the 2002 film About Schmidt:
One long room separates two small men. Not small in stature, but in significance. At one end, the first is young and taut and straight-backed. At the other, the second is old enough for retirement and soft and slumped…. The other is doughy both inside and outside of his head. Attentive and active eyes contrast with dead and soulless one.
Yet they are the same person, 30 years apart.
Decades ago, Bobby Dupea effectively became Warren Schmidt and accomplished his goal of having no goals; assumed the identity of someone without one; and lived the life of the truly lifeless. (65)
There you have it. Edwards’s probing take on Warren Schmidt is that he’s simply Bobby Dupea, the inert Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces three decades later on his way to nowhere. Just when we think we know what Jack Nicholson is up to with his outbursts and rebellious ways, Scott Edwards prevails upon us to take at least a second look. Not an unreasonable request from a Nicholson fan who purports to have watched Five Easy Pieces at least 100 times.
Still, Edwards, at first blush, makes even more obscure comparisons of Nicholson characters – one, for instance, between his George Hansen character in Easy Rider and his Colonel Nathan R. Jessep character in A Few Good Men:
While Jessep informs Kaffee [Tom Cruise] that he can’t handle the truth, Hansen reveals that none of us can….Hansen lived the code of defending civil liberties to protect those unprotected misfits, while Jessep’s code was to defend the nation and protect an unprotectable freedom – whether it was real or delusional. (82)
The continuing Nicholson saga, regardless of the character the actor happens to portray, is a fascinating notion. One wonders whether Edwards is ultimately telling us that in each of Nicholson’s films, his characters are diabolically conspiring over the years to portray him.
The author has been dogged in his research and preparation. He claims either to have interviewed extensively or solicited “grab-and-go comments” (2) from actors, directors, and crew with whom Nicholson worked, including Shirley Knight, Joe Turkel, Millie Perkins, Nancy Allen, Jimmie Rodgers, and many more. Edwards even went so far as to interview the original TV Batman Adam West, a founding member of the Oakland chapter of The Hell’s Angels, and a reporter who covered the trial of Whitey Bulger, the infamous mob boss on whom Nicholson’s character of Frank Costello was based in The Departed (2006).
To tag Scott Edwards as a Jack Nicholson fan is an egregious understatement. He’s a living reminder that the word “fan” is the diminutive of the word “fanatic.” And true to the spirit of fanaticism, he’s coined his own word for the conspicuous screen outbursts which we’ve joyfully come to anticipate in the actor – “Jacksplosions.” During a Jacksplosion, Nicholson gives the impression he’s breached the fourth wall and is reaching out beyond the film narrative to his audience.
A manifest example of a Jacksplosion is that delicate moment in the 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give when the 60-something Jack Nicholson character, Harry Sanborn, a houseguest of the Diane Keaton character, Erica Barry, inadvertently catches his 50-something host in the buff as she dresses in the next room. Instead of walking away, or pretending not to see Erica, Harry clumsily stands firmly in place, waves his hands repeatedly in front of his eyes, and mutters.
On the one hand, his blundering reaction is a reminder to Erica he’s recuperating from a heart attack and can’t hurt her. On the other hand, Nicholson as Harry, is indulging a Jacksplosion. He’s signaling to his audience (you and me) that Erica need no longer worry, because the career rake has finally morphed into the manageable senior citizen.
It’s a distinctly different Jacksplosion from that psychotic “Here’s-Johnny” moment in The Shining (1980) where Nicholson, as Jack Torrance, takes an axe to the door to get to his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall); but the Harry-Erica scene is a Jacksplosion nonetheless. It’s a magnificent film moment, one in itself for which Nicholson could have claimed the Best-Actor Oscar he won for As Good as It Gets.
I came away from Quintessential Jack with several surprises. I plead guilty to having been fooled by Jack’s seemingly clownish onscreen shtick. His performances are anything but off the cuff. His preparation for his roles is painstaking – nay, compulsive.
Edwards informs us that Joseph Turkel, the actor who portrayed the bartender in The Shining, spoke of visiting Nicholson in his dressing room with a book in hand. The subject of the book was about “the effects of freezing on the human body.” Nicholson told Turkel, “I want to get it, feel it, show it as it is” (12).
According to actor/stuntman, Gary Kent, who’s worked often with Nicholson, he “always carried something in his pocket that he felt belonged to the character or fit the character that he could touch when he felt out of touch” (13). The actor Millie Perkins, who worked along Nicholson in Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), distinctly remembered arguing with him over the type of hat he should wear.
Clearly, then, Nicholson’s much-heralded improvisatory genius has come to him at the cost of exhaustive preparation and thinking before he’d take his role onscreen. He had to plan for a Jacksplosion if he were to get it to ignite.
My other big surprise from reading Quintessential Jack is the actor was slow out of the gate. His career did not simply take off. Hollywood was not taken with him. It had to learn to accommodate him. Early on, Nicholson was dumbstruck by the fact his friend, the mediocre actor Robert Vaughan (of the 1960s TV series The Man From U N C L E) could land work while he couldn’t.
Also, Edwards has gone to the trouble to include photographed class notes of Nicholson’s noted acting teacher Jeff Corey, who’d been blacklisted as an actor during the McCarthy era. Corey’s comments on Nicholson are anything but promising:
Too concerned with self – doesn’t care with acting as such – Quite disappointing – Won’t face his fear of acting maturely. Ought to discuss possible termination. Put up or shut up. (8)
Fortunately for film audiences, Jack Nicholson circumvented the possibility of “termination.” To discover just how he managed to do so, and how he developed his art film by film by film, you’d be hard put to read a more cogent account than Quintessential Jack.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.