Passions: Love and Hate




Shining example of smug and smarmy

TWELVE OSCAR NOMINATIONS. Three Oscars - for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment and As Good as it Gets. The great film critic David Thomson called him "the most beloved of movie stars". The acerbic US reviewer Judith Crist hailed him as "superlative". Does John Joseph - "Jack" - Nicholson, Hollywood's lupine libertine, deserve such acclaim? Surely the answer is yes.

He served his time in 1960s B-movies, learning his craft and contributing to screenplays. In the 1970s, in Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Goin' South and The Shining, he played a gallery of characters as discrepant and relevant as American cinema gets. By the mid-1980s, not yet 50, he already seemed bigger than the films in which he starred. A decade later his reputation was so singular that at the Oscars he was introduced simply as "Jack".

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But think about what he is on screen and Nicholson's achievements unravel. Some of his individual performances are very good but each presumes a bogus outersiderness. For many of his fans, Nicholson's integrity lies in this rebelliousness. But against what does he rebel? The deep themes in his career are sexual arrogance, boredom and belief in nothing. He celebrates male sexual confidence. For many of his (male) fans, this is great, one for the lads, a sign that as they get older their attractiveness will remain magically intact. This is not rebellious. This is right bang in the mainstream, self-satisfiedly so. Not a very brave place to be.

But to see the values of the stag night in Nicholson is perhaps to pay too much attention to the tabloids. What about his vaunted professionalism? Consider this story from Prizzi's Honor - a crime comedy not dissimilar to the recent Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. The book's author, Richard Condon, and some of the cast and crew had been offered a percentage of the profits if the film did well; a Hollywood trick for keeping front-end costs down. Pre-production was under way. Then Nicholson was cast, and demanded $4.5 million - a hefty sum in 1985 - plus 15per cent of gross. That's 15 cents of every dollar. The result? Everyone else had to give up their percentages, to fund his. Hollywood deals in funny money so the $4.5 million doesn't stick in the craw. It's the greed at the expense of others that does.

Then take this. Nicholson was offered the role Jack Lemmon later accepted in one of the great political pictures of 1970s America - The China Syndrome. Its story of a nuclear power plant's malfunction and cover-up eerily prefigured the Three Mile Island incident. The film was made in 1979. Nicholson did not release a film that year. He was riding high after a good decade - a bigger star than Lemmon. But it was Lemmon who cared enough to play the part. What, by comparison, does Nicholson care about?

To ask the question will rile his legions of fans, who will reply that that's the point: what's so great about Jack is that he refuses to take himself seriously, refuses to take anything seriously. In this way he's in the tradition of Humphrey Bogart. But hold on a minute. Think of the end of Casablanca, or of Key Largo, for example. Yes, Bogart on-screen was hard-boiled, cynical and slow to conviction, but that made his final, reluctant espousal of something all the more convincing. Nicholson's characters don't undergo such reversals, because they don't have self-doubt, not even deep down. They are impervious to world views beyond their own.

But, his supporters will counter, I'm missing something crucial: Nicholson's charm. Charm? What charm? Charm is what Jack Lemmon had. Physical modesty, intellectual uncertainty, curiosity about others, especially women. Nicholson has none of these. For charm read smarm. Nicholson learnt a lot from James Coburn, whom I knew a little. Coburn had the same wolfish grin, the same way with women, but throughout his career he was searching for ideas, stories and ways of acting. Is Nicholson searching for anything? If we go to see a new Nicholson film, do we see a new Nicholson? An evolution of his craft or personality? A sense that the world is changing around him? No. Nicholson's is one of the most inert acting careers. He celebrates dominant masculinity like Ulster protestants marching on 12 July. Without variation, to assert authority. This is the deadness at the centre of his career. This is the source of his smugness.




Something to write home about

THE BOOK I HAVE IN front of me as I write this is intelligent, perceptive, and moving. It is meditative, unpretentious and written with the emotional precision of great poetry. Its author is from Northern Ireland, but he studied at two universities in Scotland and now teaches at one in Wales. But even though he has written two equally luminous books already, you won't have read a review of them in any other British newspaper. Why not? There's one simple reason. They're essays.

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In the country of Hazlitt, Lamb, Stevenson and Orwell, we no longer know what to do with essays. They're too long or not quick-fire enough for today's newspapers, and the kind of magazines that used to print them folded decades ago. Unless a big-name author is involved, big-name publishers aren't interested, which is presumably why Findings, Kathleen Jamie's superb collection of nature essays, was brought out by an imprint that publishes just three titles a year.

They do things better with the essay in America, which is why the book I was referring to at the start - Irish Haiku, by Chris Arthur - has just been published there and not here. There are annual American essay collections and essay prizes, and literary journals are still prepared to set aside the necessary space for essayists to wander and wonder. Unlike here, where it is all but dead, in America the essay remains a cherished genre.

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So what are we missing? In a word, reflection. The kind of thought that doesn't automatically spring up in response to a deadline, that is idiosyncratic, subversive of easy certainties. ("The essay's innermost law," wrote Theodor Adorno, "is heresy.")

Chris Arthur's essays offer more, even, than that. They explore the minutiae of life as well as its depths. A neighbour is remembered, a fossil paperweight contemplated, a century-old family murder investigated, a stillborn child movingly mourned. Whatever his subject, Arthur uses language that pares away at the core of experience with a care and precision we have grown unused to, chasing away clichs of thought as well as of phrase. Even in a rare genre, he's a rare writer indeed.

David Robinson is The Scotsman's books editor. Irish Haiku is published by The Davies Group, $20, ISBN: 1-888570-78-4.

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