It means a great deal to claim that Jack Nicholson is the most natural man among our actors. Because acting is in many respects not natural.
Actors look after themselves in intense ways so that mere health can be smothered in self-regard. Twenty years ago, just after they had made The Postman Always Rings Twice together, the director Bob Rafelson told me he was worried about Jack - the way he was letting himself go. What he meant by that was that Nicholson in his forties was content to look his age. He was losing his hair, putting on weight, gathering jowls - to say nothing of the sadness that often goes with middle age.
Movie stars - women more than men - are not supposed to be so casual. Yet I have heard Nicholson sigh, drop that fabulous lop-sided grin and say something like "Well, I didn't have a lot to lose in the first place." And I suppose it's true that next to Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Paul Newman, Nicholson didn't seem like a movie star. He wasn't good-looking in that odd usage we have, which often assumes a lunatic equation between handsomeness and virtue. With Jack, you got what you saw - a rough, confused, tricky tease.
You can study him now in the National Film Theatre's retrospective, as well as in his latest films, About Schmidt and teamed up with Adam Sandler in Anger Management. I didn't much like About Schmidt, though I admire its director Alexander Payne and I could appreciate the very flat concept, with Jack as a retired, disgruntled and not very interesting insurance man. But one of the things Jack has always had trouble with is being uninteresting.
Anger Management is something else. Yes, it's a cute and all too obvious box-office ploy, putting the old-timer with one of the hottest kids in pictures. And it's not nearly as good as it could be, which leaves you feeling that box office ruled. But Jack is a shrewd, tender watcher of young talent, and I think he hoped to play with Sandler in just the same spirit that led him to make that fascinating failure, The Pledge, with Sean Penn and the terribly neglected Hoffa, with Danny DeVito.
You have to remember with Jack that he has directed a few times himself (Drive, He Said; Goin' South; The Two Jakes), and that he came of age in a group that took film-making very seriously. Yes, he's been a star for decades who had the pick of good scripts. Still, it's worth recollecting just how many radical departures he has made: The Shooting (for Monte Hellman); A Safe Place (for Henry Jaglom); The King of Marvin Gardens (for Rafelson); The Passenger (for Michelangelo Antonioni) - a picture that Jack owns outright; The Shining (for Kubrick); Ironweed (for Hector Babenco); and The Crossing Guard (an earlier Sean Penn venture).
Maybe some of you are flinching at The Shining. You do find people who think that film is lurid; that Jack overplays; that it's the first time where he phoned in the eyebrows as a performance. See The Shining again. It's a brilliant, comic portrait of madness and a piece of acting that easily surpasses (in my opinion) As Good As It Gets and Terms of Endearment (two of his Oscar-winning pictures).
The winner in Jack is our pleasure - we have always liked him. Yet few actors have been drawn so irresistibly to losers: Five Easy Pieces; Chinatown; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Very few actors are so smart about playing guys less intelligent than they are (Prizzi's Honor; The Missouri Breaks; and even Easy Rider). In the end, of course, the list is sufficient. Just as we trust that he's going to get that fourth Oscar, equalling Katharine Hepburn. More important, with every new film he's in, you grant him this: that he's done it because he reckoned there was something new, dangerous and scruffy in the role - and because he wanted to goose his own great reputation.