Norwich hosts season of classics to mark Jack Nicholson turning 80
- Credit: Archant
With One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest re-released and a season of his 1970s classics being shown at Norwich's Cinema City we hail a true Hollywood legend as he celebrates his 80th birthday.
One of the most iconic actors of his generation, who rose from bit parts in Roger Corman B-movies to triple Oscar triumph, the incomparable Jack Nicholson is turning 80.
Born on April 22, 1937 in New Jersey — where famously the woman he thought was his sister, turned out to be his mother — the slow drawl, trademark eyebrows and the shark's grin helped him rise to the top in Hollywood.
Having first arrived in Los Angeles aged just 17, working in the offices of famous animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, he got his on screen break thanks to Corman who cast Nicholson in films like The Little Shop of Horrors, where he played a masochistic dental patient.
His anti-authority attitude was tailormade for the 1960s however. And after a brief spell as writer — he penned counterculture cult classic The Trip and The Monkees surreal oddity Head — his big break came in 1969 with Easy Rider.
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It was the start of a run of films that made him arguably the actor of his generation — a string of 1970s classics, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail and ending the decade with The Shining, a period now guilded as a golden age in Hollywood.
The collapse of the old studio system had left the way open for a new generation; producers like Robert Evans (who produced Chinatown), outsider filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Milos Forman, and upcoming actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Nicholson.
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In celebration of actor's milestone 80th birthday, the BFI is re-releasing arguably his crowning glory from this period, the magnificent 1975 tragicomedy One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, back on big screens from this weekend.
Nicholson's unforgettable performance as the ingenious, heroic free spirit RP 'Mac' McMurphy, who leads an uprising in the men's ward of a mental hospital run by callous Nurse Rached (Louise Fletcher), won him his first best actor Oscar.
The film is part of a special Jack Nicholson Season taking place at Norwich's Cinema City from April 16-May 21 that includes a rare chance to catch some of his other great 1970s films.
With 66 films to his name, a record 12 Oscar nominations — he one of only two actors to be nominated in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s (the other is Michael Caine) — and three wins (1998's As Good As It Gets and best supporting actor in 1984's Terms of Endearment as well as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) – Nicholson's Hollywood career is almost unparalleled.
And while his later career could be seen as patchier, with overblown roles like his Joker in Batman, but his knack of working with some of the most interesting filmmakers around — like Mike Nichols, Bob Rafelson and Kubrick, and later Tim Burton, Alexander Payne and Sean Penn — ensured he has always been watchable.
It had been assumed he had retired after 2010's underwhelming How Do You Know, but it was recently announced he is to return in a Hollywood remake of the Oscar-nominated German comedy Toni Erdmann, playing a music teacher who creates an elaborate alter ego – the titular Toni Erdmann – in order to become his daughter's life coach.
It is a fascinating prospect and may yet see the 80-year-old go out on a high. But in the meantime take the opportunity to see some of his 1970s classics.
• Jack Nicholson Season at Norwich's Cinema City includes The Last Detail (April 23), One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (April 30), Chinatown (May 7), Easy Rider (May 14) and The Shining (May 21).
• One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is also being screened at Abbeygate Cinema, Bury St Edmunds (May 7)
Eight classics from Jack's golden period
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
He was already 33 and a decade into his career when he starred in Bob Rafelson's freewheeling story of an upper class dropout who picks up work on oil rigs and is trapped in a toxic relationship with a diner waitress and would-be country singer. While Easy Rider saw him riding the last waves of 60s counterculture, this was the first sign there was more to him.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Mike Nichols's raw, controversial, sexually-charged film saw Nicholson cast opposite Art Garfunkel as two friends who find their sexual attitudes and aptitudes changing as they move from college to middle age. Pushing his loveable rogue persona to breaking point, his character gives tips on women, only to conduct an affair behind his friend's back.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Following up Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson reunited with Bob Rafelson for this flawed-but-fascinating film that digs even deeper into the crushed dreams of wayward America. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern play estranged siblings David and Jason, the former a depressive late-night-radio talk show host, the latter an extroverted con man. Jack is cast against type in a passive persona.
The Last Detail (1973)
He is in his element as Billy 'Bad Ass' Buddusky, one of two Naval Petty Officers assigned to accompany a young Naval prisoner (Randy Quaid) on his way to incarceration. Showing his predilection toward anti-establishment characters in Hal Ashby's underrated classic he is like a man who wasn't in the least bit interested in his own fate yet always knew deep down he was destined for stardom.
The film that cemented his reputation as the best American actor of his generation, and it was the last film Roman Polanski would make in the US before he fled the country in disgrace. This classic is a Chandleresque 'neo-noir', with an Oscar-winning script by Robert Towne and a superlative performance by Nicholson as detective JJ Gittes, opposite a career-best performance from Faye Dunaway and legendary film-maker John Huston as Noah Cross.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
His Oscar-winning R.P. 'Mac' McMurphy is the role he was born to play. Adapted from Ken Kesey's best-selling 1962 novel and produced by Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas (his first producer role), it was only the second film ever to win the 'big five' Oscars. The brilliant supporting cast includes Danny DeVito, in his first major role, Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit) and Christopher Lloyd (future star of Back to the Future).
The Passenger (1975)
In the year when he also made One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he also found time to star in this cinematically brilliant romantic thriller from Michelangelo Antonioni. He gives a tour-de-force performance as a burned-out journalist who assumes the identity of a fellow traveller, only to become involved with dangerous gun runners and falling for a beguiling young woman (Marie Schneider).
The Shining (1980)
He ended the 1970s wielding an axe and shouting 'here's Johnny!' as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's superb essay on fluorescent-lit horror, with its combination of bleak comedy, creepy atmosphere and sumptuously horrible visuals. An unfortgettable classic that feature the Nicholson charisma to full effect, though it perhaps marked a point where he tipped over into playing 'Jack'.