- Cecil B. DeMille
Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence – Jack Nicholson, 1999
Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Cecil B. deMille recipient Jack Nicholson’s performances are so vividly etched in our memories it’s inconceivable to realize that he hasn’t made a movie for ten years!
His much-anticipated return in the Hollywood remake of the acclaimed German film Toni Erdmann is no longer happening. He’s walked off that project. Granted he has had more ups and downs than any star in movie history. Not even Frank Sinatra can match his peaks and valleys, but the thought of never seeing him again on screen is more than one can bear.
Say it isn’t so Jack. After toiling in several low-budget cult films, principally at the B-movie court of Roger Corman in the early 60s, he arrived full-blown, in a supporting role, in the anti-Establishment classic, Easy Rider, which earned him his first Golden Globe nomination. He was 32 at the time.
From that moment on he was a star.
Academy Awards eluded him for a number of years even though he was considered the frontrunner in 1970 for Five Easy Pieces, in l973 for The Last Detail, and especially in l974 for Chinatown. Not for the Golden Globes – he was nominated for all three and won Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama for Chinatown.
When, in fact, he did win an Academy Award and a Golden Globe the following year for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it looked like the decade would belong to him, but that was not to be; in fact, for a time it was all downhill.
That is, until late in the 80s when he re-emerged as the highest-paid actor in the business, having cut a deal with Warner Bros. that gave him not only a percentage of the gross but a chunk of the ancillary rights as well. Batman no doubt made him a very rich man. Despite his superstar status, throughout his career he has accepted supporting roles, notably in Reds, The Last Tycoon, Broadcast News, A Few Good Men, and of course Terms of Endearment for which he won his third Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Let’s face it. De Niro, Hoffman, Pacino are great actors, but none of them can electrify the screen as Nicholson can. Those moments in Five Easy Pieces, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Shining, who can forget them. All we can say is: Jack, please come back. You are irreplaceable.
His early appearances were in Roger Corman movies – notably in The Little Shop of Horrors when he played the dentist – led to a number of guest shots in TV series. It was Monte Hellman who elevated him to leading actor with The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, both singled out by Sight and Sound as classic westerns. Which obviously impressed Dennis Hopper when he needed someone to replace Rip Torn in Easy Rider.
The film became an instant classic, a huge moneymaker, and established Nicholson as an actor in a class with Brando, a status he has never relinquished. Because he was 32 at the time, he wanted more. He had written scripts for Corman and had written some of his idiosyncratic speeches in Easy Rider, but now he wanted to direct. His first effort Drive He Said was well received, and it provided Bruce Dern with a star-making role.
He accepted a bit part in Barbra Streisand’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, a chance to work with the hottest star in Hollywood at that moment as well as Yves Montand and Vincente Minnelli. The project fizzled but left Jack unscathed. His follow up role in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces established him as a bona fide star. Jack was now the banner bearer of the new Hollywood, Young Turks who were displacing the old guard. He was their star.
Mike Nichols signed him for Carnal Knowledge a provocative movie about sexual hangups, which the public failed to embrace. His followup movies Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place and Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens were critical successes but spurned by the public.
Wasn’t it about time he made a movie for them? The Last Detail was just that.
What turned the trick was not Rafelson and his cadre but screenwriter Robert Towne, who provided him with one of his greatest roles, one which the public ate up, and he followed it with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, also written by Towne, arguably one of the greatest movies of all time. Chinatown made him the new Bogart, and every director wanted to work with him.
First up was Antonioni, at that moment the premier director working in film. Their movie The Passenger wasn’t well received at the time, but is today considered a masterpiece. Mike Nichols thought casting him with Warren Beatty in the screwball comedy The Fortune, written by his Easy Rider screenwriter Carol Eastman would work, but it bombed.
However, his third release that year, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became his biggest success, both critical and financial. Jack had been nominated for Golden Globes five times in six years, winning consecutively for Chinatown and Cuckoo’s Nest. With Cuckoo’s Nest, finally, the Academy followed suit. It also became the first film in 40 years to win all five top Oscars.
After that triumph where could he go? He co-starred with Brando in Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks which did nothing but guarantee them huge paychecks. He attempted directing again, but his second effort, Going South, was a failure remembered only for Mary Steenburgen’s Golden Globe-nominated debut performance.
A supporting role in Kazan’s The Last Tycoon led to one of his most famous roles, Jack Torrance in The Shining. Although dismissed at the time it is considered a masterpiece today, arguably Stanley Kubrick’s most flawless film. The film didn’t do well at the box office, but 40 years later is there a film lover who hasn’t seen it?
Back with his cadre he made The Postman Always Rings Twice, attempting to better the 1946 Garfield-Turner version but it failed on every count. Joining his friend Warren Beatty on his ambitious Reds he earned strong reviews in a supporting role playing Eugene O’Neill. Tony Richardson‘s The Border furnished him with one of his better roles, but the public showed no interest. Ironically it was his supporting role in James Brooks’s Terms of Endearment which earned him his third Golden Globe and second Oscar, this time in the supporting category. The film also won both as best picture.
Taking a two-year hiatus, he won again for John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, this time as best actor in a comedy, which launched the career of Anjelica Huston his then live-in companion.
He starred opposite Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ disappointing Heartburn, worked with Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer on George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick, another misfire, but one the public embraced.
And then working again with James Brooks he had a memorable cameo in Broadcast News, which earned a fistful of Golden Globe nominations but no wins. The much laureled Argentine/Brazilian director Hector Babenco chose him and Meryl Streep to star in his first English language film, based on an acclaimed novel. Ironweed was the misbegotten result, but Jack was nominated for both the Oscar and the Golden Globe (it was an especially weak year.)
It was at that point that Jack made his deal of the century, playing the Joker in Batman. After that, he seemed to work only as a favor to his friends. He did a Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, for Robert Towne, which he also directed, Man Trouble for Carol Eastman and Bob Rafelson, Hoffa for Danny DeVito, Wolf – the third time wasn’t the charm for Nichols –, The Crossing Guard for Sean Penn, Blood and Wine again for Rafelson, a Terms of Endearment sequel, Evening Star, for Shirley MacLaine, and Mars Attacks for Tim Burton.
The only favor that worked in his favor was Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, which earned him both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
Somehow he seemed to be doing better in supporting roles, but then James Brooks came to the rescue. He furnished him again with an award-winning role in As Good as It Gets which won four Golden Globes including one for best comedy or musical and one for Jack as best actor.
For the next ten years, there was rarely a misstep. He was impressive in Sean Penn’s second directorial effort The Pledge, gave one of greatest performances in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, was the perfect foil for Adam Sandler in Anger Management, was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Something’s Gotta Give, and then finally got to work with Martin Scorsese on The Departed which earned him his 14th and final Golden Globe nomination. The film was an upset best picture Oscar winner.
His follow-up film The Bucket List appealed to audiences rather than critics. Three years later, again as a favor to Brooks, he did How Do You Know, and that was the last we’ve seen of him.
We can only repeat: Please come back, Jack. You are irreplaceable.
His classic movies? For starters, Chinatown, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, The Shining, The Last Detail.