Jack Nicholson’s Regal Purple Patch and “The King Of Marvin Gardens”.

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

You can judge a man by the company he keeps. And nothing defines an actor quite as distinctly as the roles he choses and the directors he decides to work with.

In the eight years between 1969 and ’76 Jack Nicholson made fifteen films, nine of which make for a truly remarkable roll call. And even the six among them that don’t quite work reveal an exceptional if restless intelligence.

He began in 1969, with the seminal and still surprisingly watchable Easy Rider. And finished up in 1976 with The Missouri Breaks, where he plays a conventional, down to earth cowboy to his great friend Marlon Brando’s lawless maverick.

Brando was the only actor who possessed an even greater talent, and whose spirit was even less securely moored. It’s hardly surprising that the pair should have gravitated toward one another.

In between, he played the cocky misogynist in Carnal Knowledge for Mike Nichols in ’71. The salt of the earth sailor in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail in ’73. The down at heel private investigator, trying to stay afloat in a sea of corruption in Polanski’s peerless Chinatown in ’74. The introspective existentialist in Antonioni’s The Passenger in ’75. And the archetypal non—conformist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, also in ’75.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

And amongst all of which, he made two films with Bob Rafelson. The more famous of which was Five Easy Pieces in 1970, where he plays a man who is in many ways a combination of all of the above. A brilliant pianist who turns his back on his bourgeois upbringing to take to the road and head west, in the vain hope of giving his life direction and meaning.

The following year he paired up with Rafelson again, in The King Of Marvin Gardens. This time he plays an intellectual whose only outlet are the weekly broadcasts he makes on night-time radio to his handful of faithful listeners.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

But he’s lured east to Atlanta by his brother, played by Bruce Dern, in pursuit of the American dream. But that, as everybody knows, lies west. And all he finds instead is a rain-trodden, out of season, seaside purgatory. And from there, the only way is down.

All of the above are outstanding films in their own right. Each and every one of them, and they all merit repeated viewings. And those nine performances of his exhibit a staggering range, remarkable depth and an incredible determination to work with the most exciting and challenging people he could find. More than anything else, it shows an unrivalled willingness to explore the Greek maxim inscribed above the ancient temple at Delphi;

Know thyself.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is on at the end of May in the IFI in Dublin. And, if there’s any justice in the world, at a cinema near you.

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