But whether Jack is actually retiring or—as the 76-year-old legend says—concentrating more on emotional roles, he will never be Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. Thank god. Because he almost was.
The three greatest actors of their generation had startlingly similar career launches. All broke into the public consciousness in the late ’60s and early ’70s as products of a new wave of cinema that shattered the puritanical studio system. Led by Nicholson’s supporting turn in Easy Rider, they logged performances unlike anything audiences had seen before.
All three skyrocketed to fame, but it was Nicholson’s smaller choices that captured the cultural zeitgeist: He personified the plight of the scholarly drifter in Five Easy Pieces and the conflict between a sailor’s soft heart and hard ass in The Last Detail. He could be the hard-boiled Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s serpentine Chinatown. He could be crazy, as in Cuckoo’s Nest. But Nicholson, with his wild grin and cartoon eyebrows, could never fully disappear into a role. In a way, that made him the perfect avatar for the audience. His bug eyes weren’t just his reaction. They were ours.
Then, in the ’80s, Jack just said “fuck it” and played an exaggerated version of himself. While De Niro and Pacino continued to hone the Method acting they would later come to squander, Nicholson did whatever the hell he wanted, whether it was scaring the shit out of everyone in The Shining, paving the way for De Niro and Pacino to ham it up as Satan in The Witches of Eastwick or igniting the comic-book boom with his turn as the Joker in Batman.
Jack as Jack coasted through the ’90s with some exceptional performances in films like The Crossing Guard and crowd-pleasers like As Good as It Gets. But then, in 2003, something terrifying happened. His name was Adam Sandler, and he appeared to be taking old Jack down the Meet the Parents route with the horrible Anger Management. With De Niro working in a post-Focker world and Pacino transitioning into a spastic impression of himself, it was alarming. Jack had made a career playing an exaggerated Jack. Could we take him as a caricature of the caricature he’d already established?
Nope. Jack just cashed his check, washed his hands and probably hit on a 19-year-old. Then he played Jack with a Boston accent in The Departed.
While De Niro is stuck in a series of Viagra jokes in Last Vegas and Pacino is wearing atrocious wigs and screaming (in between also being stuck in Viagra jokes in schlock like last winter’s Stand Up Guys),
Nicholson will enjoy a much more sterling legacy than his fellow
pioneers, his hits not sullied by horrible late-career nonsense. Hollywood Theatre. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest plays Nov. 22-24. Chinatown plays Nov. 29-Dec. 1. The Shining plays Nov. 29-Dec. 4.
- For a closer look at what makes De Niro one of our greatest actors—Viagra jokes notwithstanding—watch his brilliant supporting performance in Goodfellas. The Man with the Mole transitions from charming snake to paranoid psychopath so seamlessly, you wonder if his late-career nosedive is part of an elaborate performance piece. Laurelhurst Theater. Nov. 22-27.
- ’Tis the season…of endless coverage of the JFK assassination. If you’re not overloaded with conspiracy theories already, Oliver Stone’s JFK will certainly do the trick. Academy Theater. Nov. 22-28.
- With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a power couple—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—managed the feat of acting together in a legitimately great movie, a feat not repeated again until Gigli. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7 and 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 22-24.
- Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is undeniably the greatest samurai film ever made. Its American remake, The Magnificent Seven, is arguably the greatest Western. That the NW Film Center is showing them on the same weekend is a gift to film lovers. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Friday-Sunday, Nov. 22-24.
- Too high to remember the insanity that was last week’s revival of 1979’s psychedelic thriller The Visitor? Don’t worry. It’s back. Get high again. Hollywood Theatre. 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday, Nov. 22-23.
- Will the Hollywood’s screening of The Last Unicorn with
a Q&A with writer Peter S. Beagle result in mobs of 30-something
women storming thrift stores looking for Lisa Frank gear for the author
to sign? Probably. Hollywood Theatre. 2 pm Saturday and 7 and 9:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 23-24.
- Continuing its love of cheese and garbage, the Grindhouse Film Fest does a double feature of The Winged Serpent and Alligator, which are about, respectively, a winged serpent and an alligator that eats people. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 26.