Before he screamed “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!,” mugged as The Joker, and co-starred with Adam Sandler in Anger Management, Jack Nicholson made a reputation as an actor of fierce control and subtlety.
After spending a decade in the exploitation trenches with grindhouse compatriots Roger Corman and Monte Hellman, Nicholsonmade a sudden jump to stardom playing washed-up ACLU lawyer George Hanson in Easy Rider at the age of 32. The role set the pattern for the next glorious decade: with an Old Hollywood sense of star power and a scruffy, definitely R-rated attitude, Nicholson straddled generations.
Five Easy Pieces, 1970.
The hippies saw a genteel but like-minded rebel; their parents found a rough-edged, neurotic link to earlier Method luminaries like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Nicholson’s work with some of the foremost New Hollywood directors (Bob Rafelson, Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby) speaks for itself and stands capably for the strengths of the era. Nicholson and the films he made were ferociously adult — angry, righteous, ultimately mellowing out. Our sampling of Nicholson’s ’70s best— Five Easy Pieces, The Fortune, The King of Marvin Gardens, Chinatown, and The Passenger— documents a radiant personality breaking and re-making the rules of acting.
The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972.
Kyle Westphal is a recent graduate of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.