Today marks the 72nd birthday of Mr. Jack Nicholson. In 1958, Nicholson made his movie debut in the title role of the 70-minute Roger Corman production Cry Baby Killer, which would lead to more than a decade's worth of solid employment in low-paying jobs in low-budget indie films, many of them for Corman, most of them exploitation and drive-in fare, though a few of them (such as Irving Lerner's 1960 Studs Lonigan and the pair of "existential" Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, that Monte Hellman directed back to back on Corman's nickel in the mid-'60s. (Nicholson also wrote the script for Whirlwind and had writing credits on a few other '60s films, including Hellman's 1964 Flight to Fury, The Trip, and the Monkees vehicle Head, with whose director, Bob Rafelson, he later made Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Blood and Wine.) The movie that made Nicholson a star, Easy Rider, was basically an art-house version of the biker movies that Corman had made, starting with The Wild Angels, which starred Easy Rider's Peter Fonda. Nicholson had come on board Easy Rider as an afterthought, when Rip Torn, who was set to play the good-hearted good ol' boy George Hanson, got into a bitch-slapping contest with Dennis Hopper and got his invitation to join the production rescinded. In fact, at the time, Nicholson thought that his acting career was over. He was tired of bashing his head against walls trying to break into the industry and had arranged to make his directing debut with an adaptation of Jeremy Larner's 1964 campus novel, Drive, He Said. It was only when he saw Easy Rider with an audience and picked up on the crowd's reaction to his performance that Nicholson realized that his career as a movie star had just begun.
Like Richard Farina's 1966 Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, Larner's novel (which takes its title from a Robert Creeley poem) was published early enough in the 1960s to later seem prescient about campus unrest in the Vietnam era, and both books were turned into movies that were released in 1971, by which time the campus protest movement had peaked in the wake of Kent State. Nicholson's movie was filmed in Eugene, Oregon on and around the state university. William Tepper, who looks here like a stork-legged cross between Abbie Hoffman and the Robert De Niro of Mean Streets, made his movie debut as Hector Bloom, a star basketball player who is called out by his coach (Bruce Dern) for having an attitude problem. Hector, who could have any girl on the campus he wanted, has pulled the genius move of having an affair with Olive (Karen Black), who is married to a professor played by Robert Towne, who had also labored in the Corman factory as a screenwriter (The Last Woman on Earth, The Tomb of Ligeia) before writing a couple of movies that gave Nicholson two of his most memorable roles, The Last Detail and Chinatown. (Towne took the name of his Chinatown hero, J. J. Gittes, from Harry Gittes, a friend of Nicholson's who co-produced Drive, He Said. Though the script for this movie is credited to Larner and Nicholson, both Towne and Terrence Malick are said to have taken an uncredited crack at it.) Things turn out badly, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. It turns out that Olive's husband is an overly cerebral, phlegmatic type who knows perfectly well that Hector is balling his wife--it's not easy to miss--but wants to impress everyone with how well he's taking it; a part of him is sort of proud that the great athlete deems him worthy of cuckolding. Olive eventually pushes both of them away, telling them that they're "both big babies" who "deserve each other."
The surprising crosscurrents between the actors caught in this triangle, and also between Tepper and Dern (whose tightly focused performance as the hard-ass coach is some of the very best work he's ever done) capture what's best about Drive, He Said and suggest what Nicholson might have been able to bring to movies if he'd stuck with it as a director. Tepper himself gives an extraordinary performance as an inarticulate but deeply troubled man with the manner of a put-on artist and a romantic soul. (After Drive, He Said bombed, Tepper did some TV but disappeared from movies for a decade. In the early 1980s, he turned up in Miss Right, a comedy that reunited him with his co-star Karen Black, and he had supporting roles in the 1983 remake of Breathless and the 1984 Tom Hanks-Adrian Zmed comedy Bachelor Party, and hasn't been seen on-screen since.) Nicholson shows a free but sure hand with the cast, which also includes Michael Warren (of the TV series Hill Street Blues) and, in smaller roles, David Ogden Stiers (lean and hirsute and recognizable only by his voice, even though he's attempting a cracker accent), Cindy Williams, and June Fairchild, beloved to many for her role as the woman who snorts Ajax in the Cheech and Chong movie Up in Smoke.
For all that's brilliant (or at least brilliantly promising) about Drive, He Said, it's easy to see why it tanked in 1971. Nicholson doesn't seem to have any idea how to shape the material into a cohesive hold, so it feels like a succession of sequences rather than a movie, and the audience is left to get its bearings on its own. Probably a lot of people sat through as much of it as they could stand without ever getting them. There's also the subplot involving Michael Margotta as Gabriel, Hector's roommate, whose character must have struck some people as embarrassingly dated even in 1971. Nicholson fails to establish any basis for a relationship or even any kind of emotional bond between Hector and Gabriel, but what does come through is that, while Hector resists bending to the demands of The Establishment, Gabriel can't even consider it, and the pressure is driving him crazy, at a time when it was fashionable to view going crazy as a noble quest. Gabriel never has a quiet moment in the movie; he's always attacking the M.P.s during his draft induction physical, taking a sword to a TV set after screaming, "They staged the moon landing in Phoenix, Arizona!", throwing commodes out of second story windows, etc. At the climax, he tries to rape Olive, during an assault on her house (and body) that he (maybe with a little prodding from the director) stages as if it were a night of bad experimental theater, and after that doesn't work out, he walks naked into the campus biology lab and sets free the various critters caged there. It must be said, though, that even here Nicholson keeps a tight enough rein on Margotta's performance that only intermittently does this stuff play as foolishly as it sounds. (And in the scene in the lab, there is one glorious caught shot of one of the freed mice appearing to try to make out with one of the frogs, which spurns its advances and hops away.)
Nicholson didn't direct another movie until 1978's barnyard comedy Goin' South, in which he also starred, and that wasn't until after he'd added The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor) to his resume. After he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Terms of Endearment, Nicholson began telling interviewers that his ultimate dream was to take home one more Academy Award, for Best Director. He pretty much stopped saying that after his third and, to date, last film as director, The Two Jakes, slithered out from under a rock in 1990. An attempted sequel to Chinatown from a fresh Robert Towne script that Towne had tried and failed to make himself five years earlier, it was the kind of movie that absolutely had to have propulsion and a clear plot line, and once again, Nicholson didn't know how to put it together so that the sum would amount to more than a pile of scenes strung together. Maybe it's not that surprising that, with so little practice sitting in the director's chair, Nicholson had gotten no better at what he had been hopeless at twenty years earlier, but he had also lost his touch at guiding his fellow actors: he couldn't even get a decent performance out of himself.
You'd have to be crazy to suggest that Nicholson took the wrong road after savoring that explosion of applause for his performance in Easy Rider. Chances are that Drive, He Said (which played at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival) wouldn't even have gotten as much attention as it did if its director hadn't been a movie star, and if Nicholson hadn't worked as hard as he did at his acting career in the early 1970s, he might not have stayed a movie star for long. (Peter Fonda, the real star of Easy Rider, sure didn't.) As it is, he became the biggest, most durable star of his generation. But he did have something special when he directed Drive, He Said, and it's a shame that, when he reached for it again, it had dissipated.