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Nicholson is a classic late bloomer

The actor remains one of the most popular and versatile stars in Hollywood. By John Hartl

Jack Nicholson made his film debut playing an alienated kid who turns criminal in Roger Corman’s 1957 cheapie, “Cry Baby Killer.” Variety’s reviewer complained that the whiny young actor with the New Jersey accent was “handicapped by having a character of only one dimension to play.”

It was the starring role, and it was partly inspired by James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” yet it would be a dozen years before Nicholson’s name meant anything on a marquee. When he finally connected with the public, however, there was no stopping him. He’s still in constant demand, often co-starring with much younger actors.Nearly half a century after “Cry Baby Killer,” with his wicked eyebrows ascending to his receding hairline, he found himself sharing billing with Adam Sandler earlier this year in the hit satire, “Anger Management.” And this month he co-stars with Keanu Reeves in the racy new romantic comedy, “Something’s Gotta Give.” While both movies indulge Nicholson’s rakish, eyebrow-raising nature, there’s a more nuanced side to his acting, visible most recently in the movie that in February earned him his 12th Academy Award nomination: “About Schmidt.” It was something of a throwback to his work in the 1970s, when he turned in one extraordinarily complex performance after another in such landmarks as “Chinatown” and “Carnal Knowledge.”

A classic late bloomer, Nicholson was more interested in screenwriting than acting when he started out. And it’s true that his hallucinatory scripts for “The Trip” and The Monkees’ “Head” earned more attention in the 1960s than his performances as a hired gunman in “The Shooting” or as a dedicated masochist in Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Nicholson gets on a roll   
All that changed in the spring of 1969, when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hippies-on-motorbikes classic, “Easy Rider,” proved a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival and later at the American box office. While Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern earned Oscar nominations for their script, the movie made a star of Nicholson, who earned a supporting-actor nomination for his work as a doomed ACLU lawyer.The following year, he was back to play the difficult starring role in Bob Rafelson’s novelistic portrait of a bright loser, “Five Easy Pieces.” Unlike the lovable pot-smoker Nicholson played in “Easy Rider,” this moody, explosive musician seemed to take pride in alienating nearly everyone in his immediate and extended family.

Somehow, Nicholson managed not to alienate audiences, who turned the picture into a sleeper hit. It remains one of his most deeply felt performances, and deservedly earned him his first Oscar nomination for best actor. He took a similar risk the following year, playing an unrepentant sex addict in Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge,” and still he didn’t turn off the fans. Today it seems especially remarkable that these movies were once part of the American mainstream, playing most theaters and cities.

The winning streak couldn’t last. Nicholson briefly lost his audience with the arty experimentations of Henry Jaglom’s “A Safe Place” and Rafelson’s obscure character study, “The King of Marvin Gardens.” He chose not to appear in his directing debut, the daring if utterly uncommercial “Drive, He Said” (he later directed himself in “Goin’ South” and “The Two Jakes,” which were not much more successful).

But the fans were back in their seats for Hal Ashby’s darkly funny service comedy, “The Last Detail,” in which Nicholson owned the role of a foul-mouthed, big-hearted career sailor. He followed it with Roman Polanski’s modern film noir, “Chinatown,” about a weary 1930s detective who learns his limits.

Oscar recognition
He was nominated for both films, and was widely expected to win for “Chinatown” (that turned out to be Art Carney’s year). Next came Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” in which Nicholson gave perhaps his subtlest performance, as a down-and-out reporter who takes another man’s identity. It was an art-house success, mostly on the strength of Nicholson’s name.  

In 1975 he co-starred with Warren Beatty in Mike Nichols’ surprise flop, “The Fortune,” then reached his largest audience to date with Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The picture won Nicholson his first Academy Award, for playing the confrontational, aggressively gregarious asylum inmate, Randle P. McMurphy.

Although today “Cuckoo’s Nest” seems less like a star turn than an ensemble piece, with Louise Fletcher’s scarily credible Nurse Ratched frequently drawing attention away from Nicholson, the rebel hero of Ken Kesey’s allegorical story would prove a perfect fit for the movie’s star. There’s nothing over-the-top about this performance, though the role certainly tempts an actor in that direction.

Nicholson would win two more Oscars, also for playing crowd-pleasing rebels: a promiscuous Houston astronaut who has a lusty midlife affair with Shirley MacLaine in James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment,” and as a cranky writer who redeems himself in Brooks’ “As Good As It Gets.” The former now seems a trifle (he won in the supporting category), while the latter proved more of a challenge. The character is such a Scrooge that it’s difficult to believe in his transformation, and some are still unconvinced.

There’s an argument to be made that Nicholson did more memorable work in several films for which he was merely nominated: “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Reds,” “A Few Good Men,” “Ironweed” and “About Schmidt,” in which his character’s Scrooge-like characteristics seemed more believable. Some fans prefer movies for which he was passed over: “Hoffa,” “The Border,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and two obstinately downbeat films directed by Sean Penn: “The Pledge” and “The Crossing Guard.”

Self-parody trapAs with any actor who’s lasted a few decades, the trap of self-parody is always a problem. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have been known to succumb, and so does Nicholson. Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” were immensely popular (Nicholson earned $60 million from “Batman” alone), and they only encouraged Nicholson’s excesses.

While it’s impossible to forget The Joker once you’ve seen Nicholson’s version, and his insane “Here’s Johnny!” declaration in Kubrick’s film has become an inescapable pop-culture reference, there’s something too easy about this brand of scenery-chewing.

Now 66, he does seem to be moving in a fresh direction. The idea of pairing him with younger, more popular actors proved a winner in “Anger Management” (even if critics found the script more concept than comedy), and box-office success again seems assured with “Something’s Gotta Give,” one of the most anticipated of the year-end comedies. But here’s hoping he’ll get another opportunity to carry a picture on his own.       John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com