What set Jack Nicholson apart? On the blinding, now fading, jack of hearts

This relaxed, unoffical biography contains a between-the-lines longing not just for the subtler parts but for the genuine good times.

Born joker: Nicholson during the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975. Photo: Camera Press.

Nicholson: a Biography
Marc Eliot
Crown Publishing, 400pp, £20

This relaxed, unofficial biography of Jack Nicholson does one thing unusually well: it gives the impression of its subject living a life of ceaseless conversation and genuine interest in other people – surely the greatest virtue as an artist. Raised in New Jersey in the 1930s by a hairdresser who turned out to be his grandmother (his mother was the pretty showgirl he thought was his sister), the young John Joseph Nicholson was surrounded by women fussing and feeding him cake (“It’s a miracle I didn’t turn out to be a fag”). At 17 he was his full height, just under five foot ten (shorter than Steve McQueen but taller than Al Pacino), and chatting fascinatedly to the girls at school.

Arriving in his late teens in Hollywood, poor, well-read, buoyant and analytical, Nicholson continued gassing for over a decade in cafés, in brothels full of starlets and in pool halls. As an actor, working first with the on-the-hoof director Roger Corman, Nicholson’s New Jersey accent and over-demonstrative eyebrows hindered his rise. But by the time success hit – aged an ancient 37, delivering an ingenious, self-written, utopian monologue in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 Easy Rider – the buzz surrounding the actor was intense and his circle of acquaintances enormous. Quickly, he heaped up triumphs (1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), awards (he has won 64 globally) and money ($15m from Batman merchandise alone).

What set Nicholson apart? He was cool but open. He vaulted through the classes with ease and always acted less handsome than he was. And if you don’t think Nicholson was handsome, you’re wrong. It’s the kind of handsome you only recognise a couple of moments after you’ve looked (then you spend hours lovingly cleaning him up in your head – combing the crazy hair, wiping that peeled-back, gun-dog mouth).

Crucially, every moment of Nicholson’s best work was founded on a sense of humour. Think of how funny he is as the unsmiling Eugene O’Neill in Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds, trying to seduce the careless Diane Keaton even though his heart is breaking. Or in Five Easy Pieces (1970) – tinkling imaginary piano keys up and down on his own chest and belly in the kitchen – until the point in the film in which he painstakingly and terrifyingly stops being funny and you feel as bereft as his co-star Karen Black, looking appalled under her false eyelashes.

No wonder everybody loved him. Everybody, perhaps, bar his hero, Marlon Brando, who lived next door to him on Mullholland Drive – leading it to be known as Bad Boy Drive. One day, the studio executive Peter Guber pulled over to ask a fat man digging up roses on the side of the road, “Mister, mister. Where’s Jack Nicholson’s house?” The fat man, not bothering to turn around but with every syllable revealing himself unmistakably as Brando, murmured, “I ain’t Jack Nicholson.”

Like Brando, Nicholson got fat. He has a weakness for Mexican food and ate too many chimichangas. His hair kept falling out (the regular transplants never worked) and what was left of it was teased to stand above his head like a depiction of electricity in a cartoon. In case you were wondering, Marc Eliot reveals that Nicholson has always suffered from premature ejaculation. Not that women minded a jot. There is nobody, including the saintly Meryl Streep, that Nicholson didn’t go to bed with. He fell hardest for the otter-sleek Anjelica Huston, who for 17 years loomed over him adoringly, despite his infidelities (she called him “the hot pole”).

Fatally, Nicholson got noisy. By the age of 50, with the $64m-grossing Witches of Eastwick (1987), his on-screen tempo changes had turned into operatics and his once infinitely witty face had hardened into the “incorrigible me!” expression first hinted at in The Shining (1980) and worn all the way though As Good as It Gets (1997) and The Departed (2006).

Am I imagining a drop in temperature in the book here? There is a between-the-lines longing not just for the subtler parts but for the genuine good times, when the actor might buzz about humming, a copy of Camus in his back pocket, and bump into Muhammad Ali or take Bob Dylan for cognac. That’s another thing about Nicholson – he’s always had good taste. He knows his books, his paintings, his music. If you listen to his commentary for The Passenger, it sounds like a film critic speaking, not an indulged icon settling into his memories.

At his best, Eliot is convivial and sometimes more understated. The book memorably features snippets of an entertaining interview with the late, great Karen Black herself, who confesses that she always felt a little too plump for Nicholson. It seems Anjelica Huston never felt gorgeous enough either – the thought of all these sexy, high-wattage Hollywood stars weeping into mirrors is rather depressing. But then you find yourself flicking back to a photo of Nicholson chomping down on a cigar in 1973 as “Bad-ass” Buddusky in The Last Detail with a terrible moustache and a particularly Nicholsonian expression. Of all actors, it is Jack Nicholson who understands that the only proper response to life is delight.

He is 76 now, though, and freely admits his memory is shot and that the scripts he reads are all rotten anyway. He may never act again. Bad Boy Drive is quieter these days. And the movies are so much drabber without Nicholson’s menacing confidence.