Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Birthday Take: Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)

Jack Nicholson
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Jack Nicholson
Born: April 22, 1937 (78 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest (won) as R.P. McMurphy

The Take

It is a film that went on to define a generation in a lot of respects. With a subtext about society, this story about inmates at an insane asylum remains one of the most iconic films about a generation who was growing to rebel against the class system that had define their predecessors. With their hopes, they would be the new leaders. All it takes is a leader. And that leader was someone who was so charismatic and would go on to become one of the best actors of his generation. Wearing a beanie and featuring a bratty attitude towards hospital staff, there was Jack Nicholson as the lead of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was a performance so anarchic and raw that it came to define him as an actor during a period where he churned out such memorable roles in The Last Detail and Chinatown.

What makes the film more impressive given the status that Nicholson has earned in the decades since, is that this was his first Oscar win and wasn't even from his third or fourth nomination. His role as R.P. McMurphy was actually his fifth nomination. However, it is impressive to look at the roles that came before and would otherwise have made this a career retrospective award in most other hands. He was facing heavy competition in those years and despite racking up plenty of nominations, had managed to become an icon of New Hollywood and the rebellious American spirit. For as great as Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces were, it felt like the first win was save for his best, which he has matched but inevitably hasn't topped since.

To understand why that is, one must simply look at the film beyond its subtext. Along with Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratchid, he was the singular force in the movie. It may have been a drama that focused on a mental asylum, but there is something to the magic of Nicholson here. He isn't a rebel in the way that Marlon Brando or even James Dean before him was. He was physical, moving around the set wildly and raising a question about his character that adds depth to the movie. Was McMurphy insane, or did he eventually become that way? The context is a little tragic in this regards and only adds to the charisma that he brought to the character. If everyone else was in a jar, he was the one who unscrewed the top and let them free. He was a force of energy that nobody knew how to control.

A lot can be said about the film, including how the book's author Ken Kesey really dislikes the filmed version. However, there's no denying the influence that One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest actually had on the public. It wasn't just great cinema, it was great commentary without being obnoxious about it. It spoke volumes and the Academy recognized this with five Oscar wins, all in the main acting, directing and Best Picture positions. Much like how one watched Inglourious Basterds and feels like they discovered Christoph Waltz, one watches this and feels like they found Nicholson at the top of his game. It felt like acting couldn't get any more anarchic. In fact, it really hasn't in a way that has been this interesting since. Even Nicholson toned down, only occasionally coming out for weird roles like The Shining.

It is really hard to overpraise Nicholson simply because he has an astounding record of hits to his name. He is an actor who consistently churned out memorable roles and much like Clint Eastwood of the previous generation, he defined how his audience aged and began to accept their maturity without losing their spirit. Even in his last Oscar nomination for Best Actor in About Schmidt, he expresses a youthful sense of passion before realizing what he truly wants out of life. While we haven't heard from Nicholson in years, his films will continue to remain exciting returns in ways that Meryl Streep's recent oeuvre has lost. He is sly, charismatic and manages to pack a punch emotionally when he needs to. There is a reason that he is considered one of the greats and doesn't need to do much at this point to prove it. It is because of performances like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that he redefined acting and made the stakes more interesting for performers to come.

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