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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

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