In the late sixties, Jack Nicholson was a fresh-minted rebel smeared on the dark of cinema-charisma, a smiling moon wet with stars. He fashioned a lupine beauty over a kiln-dry wit, a receding Gorgon with a languid burr. His upbringing was the stuff of high-soap: born in 1937 to a showgirl mother and an unknown father, he learned from Time magazine of all people that his real mum was in fact his sister and his “mother” was his aunt. Voted class clown at New Jersey’s Manasquan High School, Nicholson turned down a job as an animator at the venerable Hanna Barbera (creators of Scooby Doo, The Flintstones et al) to pursue acting. Soon enough he would become the most nominated male actor in Oscar history and (with Peter Sellers) one of only two actors the notoriously controlling Stanley Kubrick ever let improvise.
He was the quintessential seventies iconoclast. In 1969, the year of the moon landings, three other American adventurers rocketed into the cultural consciousness with Easy Rider, a post-Kerouac odyssey in shaggy leathers and an extension of the Nicholson-scripted 1967 film The Trip. The split reaction the trio elicit in a diner – disapproval from conservative men, bewildered wonder from teenage girls – summed up the polar spirit of the age. Though Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were the film’s front-and-centre Armstrong and Aldrin, Nicholson has since had the most sustained influence thanks to his immaculate taste. “I like to play people that haven’t existed yet. I have that creative yearning. Much in the way Chagall flies figures into the air, once it becomes part of the conventional wisdom, it doesn’t seem particularly adventurous or weird or wild.” He flourished as misunderstood virtuosos (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) and with the finest European directors in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, for which he won his first Oscar.
The watershed to the middle age of Nicholson’s career was The Shining, a nightmarish, heaving performance in one of the most code-strewn, obsessed-over films of all time (Kubrick also wanted to cast him in his film of Napoleon, but it was sadly never made). Nicholson evolved into a villainous character actor, from A Few Good Men via The Witches of Eastwick (in which he literally played the devil) to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but most fascinatingly in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman as The Joker. It is a coiled, sinister, cartoon-as-reality performance of which Nicholson is especially proud (“I consider it a piece of pop art”) and a role he prophetically warned Heath Ledger does strange things to your mind. He won two Oscars in James L Brooks comedy-dramas – as a former astronaut in Terms of Endearment and an OCD racist in As Good As It Gets – and deserved another for About Schmidt, a throwback to the texture of Five Easy Pieces and a masterclass in melancholy restraint.