Stephen McGinty: No need for prompting

Jack Nicholson in The Shining ' an iconic screen drama creation. Picture: AP
Jack Nicholson in The Shining ' an iconic screen drama creation. Picture: AP
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If Jack Nicholson has quit cinema because he can’t remember his lines, he leaves an explosive canon, writes Stephen McGinty

JAMES Cagney decided to retire from making movies in 1961. He was 62 years old and in West Berlin where he was filming One-Two-Three, a Cold War comedy directed by Billy Wilder about an executive from Coca-Cola, CR “Mac” MacNamara who, after being put in charge of the boss’s 17-year-old daughter, discovers that she has secretly married an East German communist and is bound for a new life in Moscow: “They’ve assigned us a magnificent apartment, just a short walk from the bathroom.”

The script was written by Wilder and IAL Diamond, who had collaborated on The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, and was packed with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. Cagney, who had danced and fought his way to the top of Hollywood in films such as Yankee Doodle Dandy and White Heat, prided himself on delivering exactly what the director required. Yet there was one scene in the film, a page and a half of dialogue in which MacNamara orders an office lackey to complete a list of complicated tasks, where his powers and memory seemed to slip.

If he delivered the lines correctly, he did so too slowly, if he delivered the lines fast enough, the words were wrong. Wilder was never a considerate director and at one point took Cagney aside and told him bluntly that he should be able to do better. It took 50 takes before Wilder finally got his shot, during which time Cagney decided to retire and spent the next 20 years summering in Martha’s Vineyard.

I thought of James Cagney and One, Two, Three when reading the news that Jack Nicholson had decided to retire at the age of 76. A source reported this week: “There is a simple reason behind his decision – it’s memory loss. Quite frankly, at 76, Jack has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him.”

Having once presented a documentary series in which I delivered a piece-to-camera wrong more than 50 times, I’ve always had the utmost admiration for an actor’s ability to remember lines, never mind give them life and meaning, and understand the fear of it all going wrong.

However, a day later, Maria Shriver reported on NBC that the news about Nicholson was wrong, that there were no memory-related illness or dementia and that the actor has no plans to retire. Whether Nicholson, who last appeared in a film three years ago, How Do You Know, has called “cut” on his own career we will have to wait and see. Yet it was mildly disturbing to think of Nicholson in a fog of words, so soon after Michael Caine raised concerns about Sean Connery, concerns that were also promptly denied.

While Connery has definitely retired, the idea of Nicholson bowing out has inspired a bout of conversations about his place in cinema history and his greatest roles over a career that accrued 12 Oscar nominations and three awards. But before moving on to this, one of the reasons I’ve always admired Nicholson was prompted by a conversation with the American author, Jim Harrison.

I spoke to Harrison back in 1994. He is little known in Britain but has a fine reputation in America as a poet and novelist in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Harrison had met Nicholson in 1977 on the Montana set of The Missouri Breaks, a western written by Harrison’s friend and novelist, Thomas McGuane. Nicholson, who was flush with the Oscar success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, asked if Harrison had any of his books to hand and was given a copy of Wolf. Nicholson liked it and said if Harrison had any ideas for a movie to get in touch. Harrison never did, the only author to whom the actor extended the offer who didn’t take him up on it. When Nicholson later learned that Harrison was broke, a poverty that almost drove him to suicide, he funded the book of novellas that made his career, Legends of the Fall, which was later turned into a movie with Brad Pitt.

The way Harrison spoke of Nicholson was separate from the playboy grinning from behind his Raybans, he was simply a bookish friend who had stuck by him and for whom he had now written what was then his latest movie, Wolf (1994) in which Nicholson played a publisher who becomes a werewolf but gets to devour Michelle Pfeiffer between the sheets before succumbing to a hail of silver bullets. While I enjoyed Wolf, it certainly wasn’t one to put up on a plinth as evidence of a great career. For that, you really have to whip out a gem loop and ignore the majority of his 64 films and focus instead on those few that sparkled during the 1970s.

Five Easy Pieces (1973), in which he played a concert pianist who rebelled against his artistic family, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail and Carnal Knowledge all show Nicholson at his finest playing complex, difficult men trying and frequently failing to do the right thing. But I’ve always found it hard to see past his role as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, the private detective who solves the mystery but fails to save the dame only to be comforted with that great last line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”. You also have to respect a leading man who agrees to wear a bandage on his nose for half of the movie.

I’ve even got a soft spot for the sequel, The Two Jakes, which I saw in a deserted cinema in San Diego on its opening weekend in 1990. Although nowhere near as good as Polanski’s original, I thought Nicholson made a decent job of directing and its often been overlooked that he’s also written scripts and toiled behind the scenes, particularly during his 13-year apprenticeship before his breakthrough role in Easy Rider.

I’ve always thought that David Thompson, the film writer and author, called it correctly when he wrote that Nicholson had the career James Dean would have enjoyed had he lived. For curiosity’s sake anyone given the opportunity of seeing The Terror should do so. In the film, Nicholson played a Napoleonic soldier who falls in love with a woman who keeps disappearing on him and who is later revealed to be the dead wife of mad count played by Boris Karloff. It was made in 1963 in four days by Roger Corman after he had finished The Raven. Karloff still had five days on his contract and as Corman explained: “I had planned to play tennis, but it rained.”

Those who loved his role as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) are, well, wrong. He was awful, a hammy caricature ad-libbing lines for which he was paid more than $60 million in profits on top of a $5m fee. I’d slot his Marine colonel in A Few Good Men into the same shouty, over-acting character, a pigeon-hole he just managed to avoid as the gangster boss in The Departed. The role of Jack Torrance in The Shining continues to divide people, with even Steven Spielberg thinking it was too over-the-top the first time he saw it but the image of his insane face pressed between the axe splintered boards of a bedroom door howling “Here’s Johnny!” is an iconic scene in the history of American cinema.

It’s strange to think we may never see another fresh scene from Nicholson and, just like Sean Connery, his scenes and roles are now locked in the past. But it’s also not surprising that Nicholson may be considering retiring for are there any great acting roles for the old? There should be. Life certainly gets more dramatic towards the end when the reality of life and death, one’s achievements and failures, come into even greater focus. Amour, the French film directed by Michael Hanke and starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuella Riva, who was 85, told a universal story, one of love and death, through a husband coming to terms with his wife’s stroke. To be fair, Nicholson did dip his toe into the same waters with The Bucket List (2007) but, this being Hollywood, it didn’t involve smothering one’s wife with a pillow but fighting against cancer.

Maybe we’ll yet see Nicholson back on the silver screen. After all Cagney was finally tempted back for a small role in Milos Foreman’s adaptation of EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime in 1981, a film in which Nicholson had an uncredited role. If not, anyone who loves Hollywood can only wish him well, and still, we’ll always have the movies.