Smiling nervously, a stocky man in his late 30s lies back on a hospital table. A doctor gives him an injection, and four beefy orderlies pin down his arms and legs. Then a nurse fastens an apparatus to his temples resembling a set of cheap earphones. A switch is thrown. Like a pumpkin caught between two sledgehammers, the man’s face compresses in a horrific wince, then shatters to twitching bits of neural disorganization as convulsions flail his limbs.
The man on the table is actor Jack Nicholson, and the only force that clamors between his temples is the power of imagination. Yet with that power he has created in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie version of Ken Kesey’s novel, a mimetic epiphany that conveys the full monstrosity of electroshock. Volted by talent at the highest tension, Nicholson plays scene after scene in this comedy for the kind of laughter that begins and ends in shudders. Stroke by stroke he creates an endlessly mysterious and fascinating portrait of a meathead Hamlet who wanders the wavy line between sanity and insanity but speaks like a trumpet to the human spirit. Cuckoo’s Nest, the trade figures, should bring Nicholson his long overdue Oscar and public acceptance as the first American actor since Marlon Brando and James Dean with the elemental energy to wildcat new wells of awareness in the national unconscious.
Like Brando and Dean, Nicholson speaks in his best work for the single soul in its uphill struggles with mass civilization. The backslidden intellectuals he played in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, the feisty proles he created in The Last Detail and Chinatown and now again in Cuckoo’s Nest have all exemplified the modern blend of romantic victim and amateur redeemer. But Dean and Brando were soulfully beautiful young men. Nicholson is an icon of ordinariness, a cabbage that burns like the Mystic Rose. At 38, he has a workman’s body: medium height and chunky, with broad hips, no waist, and shins so short he can almost kneel on his own toes. His hair is infrequent, and his face is a face in a crowd. Little curtains of carefulness cover his eyes, and his mouth wears a compulsive smile of the kind that gets one in the door but reveals nothing. What is the man holding back?
Even when he acts, Nicholson closely restrains his expressions. Mystery is at the heart of his art; the spectator can only guess what goes on behind the features on the screen. From Brando and Dean he learned that hidden feelings affect audiences more than revealed ones. Yet the men he portrays are socially far more sophisticated than earlier romantic rebels. As a survivor of the ’60s, Nicholson knows that rebels are often self-destructive fools and that the U.S. social order is a devil any thoughtful man can sup with—though sometimes with a rather long spoon. In effect, Nicholson has become a realist/ironist who assumes a wary attitude toward the fairly desperate characters he portrays. He plays their tragedies as comedies and lets the darker meanings fall where they may. In art as in life, one never quite knows which way this cat is jumping, and that’s the way he likes it.
“Damn near got busted up there one night,” Nicholson begins in an easy murmur, scratching his chin grizzle and grinning at four other cattle rustlers sitting tensely in a log hut at the bottom of a sun-smashed arroyo in eastern Montana. The moment is crucial. The scene about to be filmed in Nicholson’s next picture, Missouri Breaks, is brutally difficult, and all the actors, Nicholson included, have been wound up so tight about it that nobody has slept the night before. Nicholson is making a sly move to restore the creative atmosphere.
“Me and my Mary Jane,” he rambles on, “are sittin’ there at a corner table and by this time there’s maybe nine roaches in the ashtray and the air so blue around me you could cut it up and make pea jackets, and there I am doin’ lazy eights in the old ineffable when suddenly through the haze I see this large uniformed figure advancing with a look on his face that promises to reduce my options for several years. But damn if the son-of-a-bitch didn’t walk right past me and not even wrinkle his nose. Either he had a helluva cold or he was as stoned as I was!” As Jack finishes, the actors, laughing softly, move to their marks. Director Arthur Penn smiles benignly and, when the scene goes off like a rocket, thanks the Lord for Jack Nicholson.
“A star on a movie set is like a bomb,” Nicholson muses late one night in a Manhattan bistro. He is there for an after-theater snack with Anjelica Huston, 24, director John Huston’s actress-daughter, and Jack’s closest companion for more than two years. Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and David Geffen are sitting at the same table. “That bomb,” Nicholson goes on, “has got to be defused so people can approach it without fear. Because if a living reality doesn’t exist between the players in a scene, the scene won’t play. For instance, I never think of the actors I’m playing with as actors. I think of them as the people they’re pretending to be. That way, if an actor makes a mistake, I don’t feel it as a mistake. I see it as a quirk in that person’s behavior, and I react to that quirk.”
“What bothers me about my acting? Well, I don’t like my smile and sometimes I get into too much physical business. But the biggest difficulty right now is that I’m in too many pictures. People complain that they see too much Nicholson. So in Cuckoo’s Nest I’ve developed a new technique. I pull my hat over my eyes, turn my back to the camera—and disappear within the very movie I am making!”
Nicholson developed slowly as an actor. His father left home before his birth, and he was raised in Neptune, N.J. by an “astute” mother who ran a beauty parlor in the living room. A fat boy, Nicholson became the school clown and got high marks without trying. Balking at college, he went to live in L.A., got a job in MGM’s mail room, paid for acting classes and in six years was playing leads in B movies. He also ran with a pack of gifted young filmmakers, and took off on several kinds of trips that didn’t require wheels.
Nicholson’s reputation as a drug freak has been overblown. He smokes cannabis, occasionally snorts cocaine and has dropped a good deal of acid—at first under medical supervision, later mostly for kicks. No speed, no heroin. “Drugs are a social thing with me, a pleasant evening now and then. Nobody’s ever seen me slack-mouthed. I’m not an advocate of decadence. I’ve seen friends extremely negatively affected by coke and heroin. But with marijuana, on the other hand, you’re making outlaws of an enormous percentage of the population for no good reason.”
Nicholson feels that his early experiences with LSD released new energies that still fuel his work. With the help of a therapist he relived all the sensations of his birth and confronted in a nightmare session the classic terror of penis amputation. One of the major things LSD therapy gave him was an understanding of how he relates to women. “I got back to a terrible realization I had as an infant that my mother didn’t want me—remember, my parents had separated just before I was born—and along with that came desperate feelings of need. Basically, I still relate to women by trying to please them as if my survival depended on them. In my long-term relationships, I’m always the one that gets left.”
Most of Nicholson’s relationships—his 1962-66 marriage to actress Sandra Knight, his subsequent affairs with model Mimi Machu and singer Michelle Phillips—have been long-term. Rumors of his prowess on the orgy circuit are totally unfounded, he says. “I know where that button is but I don’t press it. Too wasteful. I’m actually a fairly conservative guy.” A conservative guy who paused long enough while on location for The Last Detail to drop his pants and make a moon at a passing commuter train.
What next? “In the last two years I’ve made six pictures in three countries. No time to lay back and let the juices flow. So I’m goin’ to Aspen for the winter, ski a lot and work on a script I’m going to direct, a mystical Western called Moon Trap. After that, who knows? If you have a sense of direction you don’t always have to be pointing. I’m ridin’ high now but it could all crumble. I’ll be ready if it does. In New York you have to make $50 a week to keep from freezing to death, but in California you can sleep on the ground. I may be doin’ that yet. Of course, there’s the mosquitoes. But I really like mosquitoes. I live a tense life, and there aren’t too many things I can just reach out and kill without getting in trouble.”