Jack of all trades

Profile - Antonia Quirke on Hollywood's figurehead for the corruption of stardom

"I was planning on being a director, but the showing of Easy Rider in Cannes changed my mind. While I was sitting there, I knew I was a movie star." This is one of my favourite quotations. It's Jack Nicholson. Look at that "sitting there". So passive. As though whatever happens has nothing to do with the superimposition of his will. "Director", or indeed "actor", are nouns derived from their verbs - professions. But "movie star" is only a noun. Something that just gets filmed, inert, something that doesn't act.

The loveliest thing about the young Nicholson (I say young, but although he is most remembered for his breakthrough work in the 1970s, he has been acting in films since 1957) was this quality of being uncommitted. He really did seem to bowl along getting filmed. Especially in Easy Rider, in which he played the boozy southern lawyer who briefly took to the road with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. While the dullard narcissist (Fonda) and the less dull but evil narcissist (Hopper) set great store by the idea of simply playing themselves, they couldn't help but seem like actors giving performances, people acting fictional roles. Nicholson, however, actually given a part to play, appeared totally real. I can never remember (my finger always being hard on the fast-forward button at this point) whether his character actually dies or just leaves, because Nicholson hardly ever excavates much narrative or analysis from his characters. His men are unknowable. They have nothing to give.

As McMurphy, the hero of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson put humanity before allegory and made everyone's day. He was gently amoral. Good at chaos. Think of him, in Five Easy Pieces, as a failed concert pianist (playing this squandered talent is, fittingly, his best role) pretending to play the piano at the dinner table, then deciding to do a little dance while standing still, then ripping open his shirt for the hell of it, then imagining he has breasts, then touching up those imaginary breasts, all the time singing a bubbly little number.

Moving through the classes is as difficult for an actor to accomplish successfully as it is for us all. Anyone who can do it really is an actor. Nicholson was brilliant at it. Was he Pittsburgh or Princeton? Another thing: he always acted much less handsome than he was. People who say that Nicholson was never handsome are wrong, or just confused by how, whenever you look at his face, you're always mentally cleaning it up (not to mention the hair, which has been taking a Sinatra-esque farewell of us for 30 years). But those mordant cheeks, the peeled-back gun-dog smile, the sulky jaw. Like the classless Gatsby, Nicholson was "an elegant roughneck". His cool wasn't hard, but open. His slowness was unmatched, the slowest pulse in Hollywood.

But "hard cheeses indurate, soft cheeses collapse" (Flaubert's Parrot). People don't change, they set in. Nicholson's tempo changes became operatics, the slowness became self-regard, the menacing sexual confidence became sated sexual confidence, the quiet unhappiness became noisy happiness, the wet lips became dry.

By the time The Witches of Eastwick came out in 1987, he had descended to this: right leg crossed golferishly over left, hands held up at shoulder height, fingers out, palms up as if carrying two trays on which are perched the sun and the moon; facial expression saying: "Incorrigible me!" And that wasn't just Darryl Van Horne, that was in The Shining, Terms of Endearment, Batman, The Two Jakes and As Good As It Gets - like one of his regal courtside waves at a Knicks game, for two hours.

Jack. What a simple, modest, snappy name. You could hear his decline in its vowel. Over the years, that "a" has hypertrophied into the "a" one says with Italian-American hands, chin held into windpipe. A fat goodfellas vowel. Jaaaack.

That's why The Pledge is an interesting film. Sean Penn inadvertently detonates Nicholson by countercasting him as a dull country cop. Somebody very civil. Very straight. Someone with no sides. And if you've ever imagined a deflated Jack, the dog brought to heel and forced into precision, then here he is, like a behemoth pop star fumbling through the unplugged set he has condescended to grant us. He is a hole in the screen. Watching Jack Nicholson in The Pledge just confirms his status as the figurehead for the corruption of stardom. The love that knocks off surnames is the enemy of talent.

Antonia Quirke is writing a book on Jaws for the BFI Modern Classics series

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.