Nicholson, Jack

Nicholson, Jack
(1937– )
   Actor and director Jack Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, New Jersey. He began as an office boy at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer while still in his teens. He trained at the Players Ring Theater in Los Angeles, and eventually got into film via independent producer-director Roger Corman, who made lowbudget pictures for the youth market. His first film for Corman was The Cry Baby Killer (1958). Nicholson came into his own in Easy Rider (1969), a counterculture film in which he played a failed lawyer. His directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1970), a movie about nonconformists, fizzled. Still, his portrayal of a hapless private eye in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) proved an early peak in his career, as did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), in which he played a mental patient and for which he garnered an Academy Award. He directed another film, Goin’ South (1978), a Western, before playing Jack Torrance in STANLEY KUBRICK’s film THE SHINING (1980), based on the STEPHEN KING horror novel. Jack becomes the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a summer resort in Colorado, during the winter months. Jack, his wife,Wendy (SHELLEY DUVALL) and his son, Danny (DANNY LLOYD), become ensconced in the caretaker’s quarters, where Jack hopes to achieve his ambition of composing a novel in the free time which his job affords him. It develops that Jack was a guest at the Overlook in a previous existence a half-century earlier, when he was a distinguished author.
   As time goes on, Jack learns of the hotel’s lurid past history, in which a previous caretaker killed his family and himself. Jack gradually begins to “shine,”—he experiences visions that propel him back into his former life. As Tony Williams writes, Jack “begins to experience past manifestations from the Overlook’s history, such as a masked ball” held in the Roaring Twenties in the Gold Room, the hotel’s swanky ballroom. There he meets a waiter and a bartender who knew him in his previous incarnation. (Indeed, Jack appears in a 1921 photograph hanging in the hotel lobby, picturing him among the guests at the Fourth of July celebration in the Gold Room. ) By contrast, the ghosts Jack encounters later on are hideous ghouls, and these apparitions undermine Jack’s already tenuous hold on sanity. To make matters worse, Jack experiences a severe case of cabin fever from being imprisoned in the Overlook during an interminable snowstorm. That, plus his writer’s block, begin to drive him to insanity.
   Moreover, Jack’s obsession with the previous caretaker’s slaughter of his family and subsequent suicide finally push him over the edge. He becomes a monster, pursuing Wendy and Danny, even attempting to break down the family bathroom door while yelling a cliché from American TV,“Here’s Johnny!” Finally Jack, pursuing his family outdoors, dies of exposure, while his wife and son survive.
   As Kubrick conceived the character of Jack Torrance, he is already slipping into lunacy when he arrives at the hotel. He explained to MICHEL CIMENT, “Jack doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. ” Indeed,Wendy seems to be precisely the sort of woman “who would marry Jack and be stuck with him. ” In addition, Jack and his son hate each other. Kubrick directed Nicholson to play Jack as emotionally unstable right from the beginning of the movie. When Jack is haunted by ghosts from the Overlook’s past, he spirals downward into insanity.
   Kubrick intended these specters to be actual apparitions of spirits from the dead, and not mere hallucinations produced by Jack’s fevered imagination. This is evident from the fact that Wendy, who is manifestly sane, at times sees them too. There is, Kubrick concluded, no other explanation but the supernatural. In an early press release, Nicholson states that when Kubrick phoned him about playing Jack Torrance, he accepted automatically, because he wanted to work with Kubrick. After he read the book, he thought it a great opportunity for him as an actor. When choosing a role, he explained, “I look first for something that holds my attention in the story, and then for the overview of a great director. ” “I believe that Jack is one of the best actors in Hollywood,” Kubrick told Ciment. “His work is always interesting, clearly conceived. . . . Jack is particularly suited for roles that require intelligence. ”“In The Shining you believe he’s a writer, failed or otherwise. ” Kubrick acceded to the request of his daughter VIVIAN KUBRICK to film a half-hour documentary, The Making of The Shining (1980). In her short film and also in JAN HARLAN’s documentary STANLEY KUBRICK:A LIFE IN PICTURES (2001), Nicholson concedes that the director could be tough to deal with at times. Kubrick did 36 takes of the scene between Jack Torrance and the ghostly bartender. After finishing the picture, Nicholson said, “I’m glad to be off that one; that was rough duty. ”
   MATTHEW MODINE, who starred in FULL METAL JACKET, told Peter Bogdanovich that he once asked Kubrick why he did so many takes. Kubrick replied that it was because the actors did not know their lines. When Jack Nicholson came to rehearsals, Kubrick recalled, “he kind of fumbled through his lines. He’d be learning them while he was there and then you’d start shooting. ” After 14 or 15 takes, “he started to understand what the lines meant. So by takes thirty or forty” he would be going great. In the scene with the bartender, Kubrick continued, “Jack produced his best takes near the highest number,” adding that actors “don’t do their homework. The only thing I can do is spend time doing multiple takes,” while the actors are learning their dialogue. “Stanley’s demanding,” Nicholson comments in NORMAN KAGAN’s book. “He’ll do a scene fifty times. Stanley’s approach is, how can we do it better than it’s every been done before? It’s a big challenge. A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don’t, he’ll beat it out of you—with a velvet glove, of course. ” Be that as it may, Nicholson states in Vivian Kubrick’s documentary that he had enormous respect for Kubrick and wanted to follow his direction. When he comes across a good director, he says,“I want them to have the control. ”
   Once an actor had mastered the dialogue for a given scene, Kubrick would encourage him to improvise if he were so inspired. One of Nicholson’s legendary improvisations on this film was his bellowing, “Here’s Johnny!” as he smashes the bathroom door with an ax to get at his wife. The line was a reference to the way the announcer introduced Johnny Carson on his long-running late-night talk show. Nicholson was preoccupied with projecting Jack Torrance’s psychosis. The book implied that Torrance was deranged, he pointed out;“and I just blew it up. ” Nicholson actually modeled his performance on Charles Manson, the cult leader whose followers had murdered actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, and her friends in 1969. Patrick McGilligan observes in his biography of Nicholson that, as Jack Torrance descended into lunacy, Jack Nicholson’s hair became mangier, “his eyes zoned out, his tongue lolled around inside his mouth. ” He grinned evilly “as he lunged down empty corridors running from ghosts and chasing his victims. ” Nevertheless, Frank Manchel reports that Stephen King found Nicholson’s performance to be over the edge and overdone; some critics concurred. Richard Jameson complained that Kubrick “encouraged Jack Nicholson in the most outrageous display of drooling mania. ” It is true that Kubrick directed Nicholson to play his role over the top, and then selected Nicholson’s most overwrought and manic takes for the final cut of the film. But in the years since the film was released, Nicholson’s performance has been assessed more positively.
   MARIO FALSETTO notes that initially, Nicholson’s performance seems “wild and extreme, verging on the hysterical. ” On the contrary, “it is precisely these risky, over-the-edge qualities that make his performance and the film so invigorating,” as Nicholson strives to communicate the frustration and seething anger of the character, which leads ultimately to his complete mental collapse. Similarly, Luis Mainar affirms that Nicholson’s performance is on target in expressing “the character’s madness, his incapacity to escape from his fantasies, to stop being ruled by his decaying mind. ”
   In summary, McGilligan confirms that “time has sided with the minority, who even then felt that The Shining ranked with Kubrick’s finest. ” It is a clever, unsettling horror movie, which, although it requires the audience to believe in ghosts, rewards them with an intelligent and satisfying thriller. Thus, he concludes, in some eerie manner the movie seems to get better every year.
   After The Shining, Nicholson began to take supporting roles as well as leads, if they were challenging; he received a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a former astronaut in Terms of Endearment (1983). John Huston directed him as a hit man in Prizzi’s Honor (1985). He both directed and starred in The Two Jakes (1990), the disappointing sequel to Chinatown; but he won another best actor Oscar for a comedy about a chronic malcontent, As Good as It Gets (1997), opposite Helen Hunt.
   Nicholson and Kubrick remained friends after The Shining was completed. When Kubrick was awarded the Life Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in 1997, he sent a videotaped message to the DGA and asked Nicholson to accept the award for him at the festivities in Hollywood.
   The Shining is still acknowledged to be among Nicholson’s finest roles. In a poll conducted of its readership by Premiere magazine in 1999, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance was voted one of the 10 most memorable villains in cinema history, along with HAL, the malevolent computer in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
   ■ Bogdanovich, Peter, “What They Say about Stanley Kubrick,” New York Times Magazine, July 4, 1999, pp. 18–25, 40, 47–48;
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 180–197;
   ■ Falsetto, Mario, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis (Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 1984), pp. 164–173;
   ■ Jameson, Richard, “Kubrick’s Shining,Film Comment 16, no. 4 (July–August, 1980): 28–32;
   ■ Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, rev. ed. (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 203–216;
   ■ McGilligan, Patrick, Jack’s Life:A Biography of Jack Nicholson (New York: Norton, 1994);
   ■ Mainar, Luis, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, N. Y. : Camden House, 2000), pp. 52–61;
   ■ Manchel, Frank, “Family Relationships in The Shining,Literature/Film Quarterly 33, no. 1 (winter 1995): 68–78;
   ■ Williams,Tony, “The Shining,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 204–205.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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