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Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson, Star of “Easy Rider” and “The Shining”

April 22, 2010
by Devin Felter
One of the premier actors of this generation, Nicholson has become well-known for his wry, energetic performances. He has shown to be particularly adept with characters attempting to rationalize an outmoded or alienated American society.

Jack Nicholson’s Early Days

John Joseph Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, New Jersey. Raised by his grandparents John and Ethel May, Nicholson had believed that his mother June was his sister until a reporter for Time magazine uncovered the information in 1974. The charade was intended to mask the fact that the unmarried June had given birth.

After high school, Nicholson headed to California where he performed briefly for the Players Ring Theater ensemble and ventured into film acting, appearing in small films through much of the ‘60s.

Nicholson’s Notable Accomplishments

He received his major break in 1969 with “Easy Rider,” a meditation on 60s counterculture that attained enormous box office and critical success. Nicholson received his first Academy Award nomination for the role of the alcoholic, idiosyncratic lawyer George Hanson. His work in the following year’s “Five Easy Pieces” prefigured his reputation for tackling disillusioned characters who rely upon wit and caustic humor to confront social ironies.

By the time “Chinatown” was released in 1974, Nicholson could no longer straddle the line between stardom and art house outsider. Playing J.J. Gittes, a private investigator who stumbles upon conspiracy after taking a seemingly innocuous infidelity case, Nicholson channeled his rebellious persona into the form of a traditional noir protagonist.

It wasn’t until his performance as R.P. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that viewers were privy to a completely unbounded Nicholson. The 1975 film provided him with another opportunity to explore the often fruitless struggle of the social outlier—this time as a patient in a mental institution—and prompted the Academy to award Nicholson his first Oscar, for Best Actor.

Eyeing a veteran actor who could balance outright mania with cold disconnect, director Stanley Kubrick tapped Nicholson for the murderous Jack Torrance in “The Shining”. While his acting was criticized for being erratic, Nicholson stole the show when he was on his mark. His explosive delivery of “Here’s Johnny!” in the midst of an ax rampage has become one of the more iconic images in recent cinema history.

The Rest of the Story

Nicholson maintained a consistent output in the ensuing years, during which he struck success in “Terms of Endearment” (a Best Supporting Actor win), “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Batman.”

Though his work in “A Few Good Men” attested to his continued ability to handle emphatic characterizations, he began to take on roles demanding less flair and more sensitivity: “As Good as it Gets” depicts a thawing cynic; “About Schmidt” follows an aging man coming to terms with regret; “Something’s Gotta Give” traces the maturation of a Don Giovanni.

In an interview with Total Film, Nicholson conceded that the similarities between his movie roles and his private life are more than coincidental: “I assume most of the characters I play are exactly like me, so I don’t have to act about that.”

But Nicholson also makes it clear that he is averse to stasis. After years of playing himself (or various selves), he senses that a life devoted to understanding and entertaining through acting has only grazed the surface of the knowable.

“I envy people of faith” he told Esquire in 2003. “I mean, I want to believe. I do pray. I pray to something … up there. I have a God sense. It’s not religious so much as superstitious. It’s part of being human, I guess.”

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