ByHolly Emmett, writer at
Film student and full time nerd
Holly Emmett

Three-time Academy Award winner and 12-time nominee Jack Nicholson is an actor, director, screenwriter and producer. Renowned for his demeanor that's equal parts cool, weird and wild, 79-year-old Nicholson has acted in a plethora of films over a career spanning almost 60 years, from the earliest The Cry Baby Killer in 1958, to his most recent, 2010's How Do You Know. So how has Nicholson adapted his roles to suit his age? And has he been typecast? Let's take a look at just a fraction of his classics: Batman, The Shining, Chinatown and The Departed.

Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown was released in 1974 and made before Nicholson was typecast as a crazy guy. This film contrasts with his later films (namely, The Shining and Batman) as Nicholson’s performance showcases his range as an actor. Many reviews of his performance as private investigator Jake Gittes were positive, such as this one from James Berardinelli:

Made before Nicholson started playing every role with an over-the-top sneer, this movie shows off multiple facets of his talent - tenderness, quiet intensity, bulldog tenacity, and bravery in the face of danger.

I love Nicholson’s acting in Chinatown. also reviewed his performance positively, stating; “Chinatown, often regarded as one of the best films of all-time, has often been lauded for Roman Polanski’s dreamy direction and Robert Towne’s flawless screenplay, but have we really given enough credit to the movie’s leading man, who carries us through the events of this complex picture with all the right levels of confidence, charisma, sleaze and tragedy?

Yes, as private eye Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson offers one of his more rounded performances. It also happens to be one of his most subtle, restrained turns, further adding to its power.”

This scene shows Nicholson as a serious detective, showing concern and apprehension about an investigation that he’s on. This contrasts with his later over the top roles in The Shining and Batman. Instead of menacingly intimidating Evelyn, like he did with Wendy in The Shining, Nicholson has a calm type of anger, as he makes his words sound sharp without having to raise his voice.

The proximity between J.J Gittes and Evelyn is pretty close, as Nicholson steps towards her to make his point come across in a detective demeanour. As Nicholson walks away, you can see how he’s tried to seem like he’s holding something back, as if he wanted to shout – but acted professionally. Nicholson pretty much nailed his role as J.J Gittes, and he enjoyed it so much that he took it upon himself to direct and star in the sequel “The Two Jakes”.

The Shining was released in 1980, 10 years after Chinatown. This film imprinted on the Horror genre as we know it today, using an internal monster rather than a monster outside of society. I read a review by James Berardinelli so I can compare what he thinks of this performance to what he thinks of his Chinatown performance. Berardinelli has a similar opinion on Nicholson’s performance as with his later film Batman (1989), he states; " Nicholson's centerpiece performance goes from good to over-the-top.

During The Shining's early scenes, the actor brings an edge to his character that hints at a disturbed mind. However, as Jack's grip on sanity loosens and eventually breaks, Nicholson starts "chewing on the scenery." The phrase "chewing on the scenery" has been used before by for his Joker performance, however Berardinelli deems it to be a negative quality. Berardinelli reinforces this comparison;

"we’re seeing Jack being Jack. There's no real difference between this portrayal and the one Nicholson would turn in nine years later as The Joker."

However, many other online articles view Nicholson’s performance positively, like an article on; “Would this movie be half as scary without Jack's near-comically arched eyebrows? I say, no. Everything about this confounding soak of pure terror is in its precise place, and while Stanley Kubrick's patented camera moves and Stephen King's eerie setting may be what's most important, it's ultimately Nicholson that has to sell it.

I don't think we've ever watched anyone slowly go bananas in a movie quite to perfection as it is done in The Shining.” Of course, all of these reviews are biased, but they show an insight into different interpretations of Nicholson’s performance. Personally, I agree with, without Nicholson selling the distressed ex-alcoholic father perfectly, the film wouldn’t have had the eerie atmosphere needed to execute Stephen King’s story faultlessly.

The baseball bat scene is the pin point in which the audience realise that Jack’s completely insane. Wendy, as a weak actress, only makes Jack seem even crazier, and his performance as Jack Torrance in The Shining is what gave him the typecast role as a lunatic. The long, P.O.V style tracking shot/reverse shot follows Wendy and Jack, as Nicholson harbours an intimidating atmosphere. Jack asks when Wendy would like to take Danny to a hospital, and as Wendy states the diegetic dialogue; ‘’As soon as possible”, Nicholson mimics this in an insulting manner which exemplifies the hatred that Nicholson’s character is forced to feel for his wife due to cabin fever.

As Nicholson paces menacingly towards Wendy, he uses his hands a lot whilst raising his voice as he’s speaking about his responsibilities. This shows a lot of anger in his voice and paralinguistic features. When Nicholson says the diegetic dialogue; ‘’what’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?” his voice breaks, and raises a pitch. He smiles afterwards and the break in his voice gives an eerie demented-ness to his performance.

After this, his performance becomes slightly humorous, as he plays up the craziness. As he reaches for the bat, he smiles and grabs the air, and after Wendy states; ‘’don’t hurt me’’ he ironically and famously states; ‘’I’m not gonna hurt you’’ repeatedly, then states; ‘’I’m just gonna bash your brains in” which gives a violent, comical twist to his performance as Jack Torrance. Also, if you contrast the first signs of madness in the typewriter scene with his iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene, you can see how his acting has progressed from angry father to psychotic killer.

Batman was released in 1989, 9 years after The Shining, and was directed by Tim Burton. Nicolson received pretty good reviews with his performance as the Joker, being some people’s favourite interpretation of the DC villain. An article on explains the brilliance of Nicholson’s performance contrasted with Heath Ledger’s recent portrayal in ‘The Dark Knight’;

“Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Batman’s greatest nemesis, The Joker, has been overshadowed somewhat by the sheer amount of praise and accolade that has fallen upon Heath Ledger’s take on the character in The Dark Knight. That’s not to say that Ledger didn’t deserve all the applause that his performance received; he successfully re-branded the character for 21st century movie-goers, injecting him with a grit and edginess that was less apparent in Nicholson’s own. That said, Jack Nicholson pretty much nailed The Joker back in 1989.”

WhatCulture then went on to describe Nicholson’s performance in a positive light;

"Nicholson plunges himself into the role, ensuring his Joker as what is arguably his most crazed character of all time. He mesmerizes in every scene, switching effortlessly between downright insane to downright terrifying at the drop of a hat. He’s also bloody hilarious!”

These are all valid comments that I agree with, as Nicholson was also my favourite joker (but I'm allowed to be biased). His over the top craziness contrasts with Keaton’s (Batman) cool calmness perfectly, showing two opposite ends in the emotional spectrum. This is explained in the article; "Keaton is restrained, reserved and slightly comedic in his performance. In a sense, he plays the straight man to Jack Nicholson’s over the top portrayal of The Joker.

With Keaton playing it straight, Nicholson is allowed to chew the scenery with relish (and boy does he ever). Perhaps this is the most fun any actor has ever had at portraying a role. The Joker is demented but goes about it with such an uncontrolled giddiness that Nicholson’s performance borders on flamboyant. Whereas Keaton needs to be the brooding, reluctant hero, The Joker adds flavor to an already spicy role.”

I agree that Nicholson chews on the scenery, but I believe if you’d read graphic novels such as ‘The Killing Joke’ the joker does tend to play jokes up in a 'sad clown' type of demeanor. James Berardinelli offered an alternate view to the previous two reviews, and his opinion is more prestigious than two website blogs. Berardinelli states; "this isn't great acting on Nicholson's part, but it is a lot of fun to watch. Like Marlon Brando in Superman, he was getting a lot of money to bring a top name to the marquee; unlike Brando, Nicholson approaches his work with gusto and seems to be in it for more than just the hefty paycheck.”

Berardinelli doesn’t totally discredit Nicholson’s acting as he praises the performance by stating that the whole film is focusing on the Joker, and that; "In fact, the entire movie belongs to The Joker, and, if there was a truth-in-titling policy in Hollywood, this picture would have been named after him. The character of Batman exists solely as a foil for The Joker."

This is my favourite scene from Batman, therefore I’ve decided to use it to analyse Nicholson’s performance. The scene epitomises’s review of Nicholson’s performance being ‘flamboyant’. The scene opens with a P.O.V shot, showing lift doors opening to several unconscious citizens lying on the gallery floor. A close up of Nicholson highlights his extreme smile, covered in skin coloured foundation. As he looks left and right (at what he caused) his diegetic dialogue states “..Let’s broaden our minds! Lawrence!”.

His speech alone creates a cataclysmic, humorous and ironic atmosphere and right from the beginning of the scene you anxiously wait to witness what the Joker has in store for the art gallery. As Lawrence plays the boom box, Nicholson begins to use up a lot of space in frame, twiddling his cane. Nicholson is shown knocking over pieces of art work and scribbling paint all over famous paintings.

This scene symbolises how the Joker doesn’t only want to destroy culture, he wants to create his own. Unlike any normal criminal, a close up reveals Nicholson painting ‘Joker was here’ on a piece of work, which culminates what the Joker is about – being televised, reported about and ultimately gain Batman’s attention. The end frame is a medium two shot of Bob and Nicholson, as he states "I kinda like this one Bob, leave it." This demonstrates how the Joker does what he wants, he goes as he pleases and he leaves chaos where he wishes.

I believe Nicholson executed this demeanor perfectly. Although Nicholson does ‘ham it up’ sometimes, he does still perform some quite menacing acting. The scene in which the newly formed Joker returns to his corrupt boss, Nicholson shows some evil, eerie facial expressions, and holds the perfect joker smile.

The Departed, released in 2006, is possibly the latest film where Nicholson’s provided a good role. Directed by Scorsese, Nicholson plays a mob boss whom is practically untouchable due to his adopted son/police man protecting him from inside the station. James Berardinelli enjoys Nicholson’s role in this film (finally), stating;

“Jack Nicholson is on top form, providing a diabolical villain who can deliver a monologue with unparalleled verve. His part is showy enough that it will be virtually impossible for him to be ignored at Oscar time.”

Berardinelli does yet another comparison to his role in Batman, “It's understandable - few actors can add more color to a bad guy than Nicholson, and he relishes every moment in front of the camera. Unlike in Batman, where he chewed the scenery, he avoids going over-the-top, and this makes Costello as frightening as he is magnetic.” Empire Magazine’s review on The Departed highlights Jack’s ability to become a character, by stating that they’re not sure which of his dialogue is scripted;

"It’s hard to say which of his words came from Monahan’s script and which were added by the actor, who, in familiar fashion, gives the character as much leery charm as genuine danger, using fear (be it physical, verbal or sexual) as a tool to get precisely what he wants."

Nicholson was known to have improvised some of the script, and this gives a greater immersion of character – we don’t see Nicholson being crazy or camp. Empire really praise the casting of Nicholson in this film, stating;

“It’s not GoodFellas or Casino, but, frankly, it doesn’t have to be. He’s got Jack Nicholson.”

Jack Nicholson is like a good wine, he only gets better with age. And this is apparent in The Departed, as the role of an aging mob boss is fulfilled with sheer perfection. His younger roles allowed him to play it up, go a little crazy – however for a role like Frank Costello, Nicholson knew he had to reel it back a little.

This scene shows Nicholson apparently improvising half of his lines. Costello finds out that somebody is ratting him out to the FBI, and this scene shows him interrogating the new kid Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nicholson uses the same techniques of intimidation as he did in Chinatown, slightly raising his voice and coming in close to show a calm anger. This technique works very well for a character like Costello, as he’s a reserved, cool villain with a terrifying reputation.

The ending was supposedly the parts he improvised, which show his dedication to the character. The moment in which Nicholson spots a fly on set, he bashes his fist down onto it, squashing it then subsequently shoves it in his mouth. This shows a certain insanity to the character, leaving the audience questioning his motives. Again, after he leaves the table, he comes back on set to scare DiCaprio in a further attempt of intimidation.

Personally, I believe that Nicholson used to play the role of a typecast character, due to his young age he was able to chew the scenery as many critics put it. However, he’s matured well within some of his later drama films giving the reserved edge that everyone seemed to enjoy in Chinatown, although we can forgive and forget about films such as Anger Management and How Do You Know. Nicholson has won many awards for his acting skills, and it shows. No one could ever forget such an iconic actor.

Holly Emmett, 23/06/2016

[Source: ReelViews]


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