Book Review: Jack Nicholson is interesting; Marc Eliot’s biography of him is a bit less so

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There is no way to make Jack Nicholson dull. And Marc Eliot’s new bio does not succeed in that regard, happily. Still, it does not add much to the field of Jack-lit. I reviewed “Nicholson: A Biography” for the Buffalo News.

At the Kennedy Center ceremony honoring Jack Nicholson in 2001, one George W. Bush called the actor “one of the true greats of this or any other generation of actors. America cannot resist the mystery, the hint of menace, and of course, that killer smile.”

Although “W” was never known for his profundity, that quote, included in Marc Eliot’s “Nicholson: A Biography,” zeroes in on what continues to intrigue us about Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and several other actors who became stars in the ’60s, icons in the ’70s, and kingpins in the ’80s and ’90s: their air of mystery.

If Nicholson and Beatty, especially, had become stars in the Internet age, perhaps the zeitgeist would have been turned off by their sexual peccadilloes and cockeyed idiosyncrasies. The mysteries of who exactly they are is a chief element of their continuing allure.

Perhaps that is also why Eliot’s new Nicholson biography, or Peter Biskind’s flop tome on Beatty, are simply not that interesting.

They attempt to psychoanalyze figures who rarely discuss themselves in detail, and wind up following a dull line from film to film and girlfriend to girlfriend. They tell us things we already know, and attempt to explain things that don’t interest us.

That does not mean, however, that such bios are a complete bore. Eliot, after all, knows his way around a celeb bio, having previously documented the lives of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant and even Michael Douglas.

Therefore, he dutifully hits the highs and lows of Nicholson’s life starting from childhood, including the shocking, almost “Chinatown”-ian secret of his parentage:

“According to [film students and journalists] Robert David Crane and Christopher Fryer [who had researched Nicholson’s background for a thesis project] … ‘Jack’s mother was, in fact, the woman Jack thought was his much older sister, June. His ‘Mom,’ Ethel May, was really his grandmother and his older sister Lorraine was really his aunt.”

It’s fascinating stuff, but also well-known by any movie-brat scholar. The same is true of Nicholson’s Roger Corman years, the long stretch of time in which the wannabe worked as a writer and actor for the venerable B-movie master. (The anecdotes in Chris Nashawaty’s recently released “Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses – Roger Corman: King of the B Movie” are far more memorable than what is included in Eliot’s text.)

There is an unquestionable feeling of déjà-vu throughout the book. From the story of the disastrous first days of the “Easy Rider” shoot in New Orleans to the battles between Polanski and Faye Dunaway on the set of “Chinatown,” little feels fresh.

Eliot smartly spends time on a few of the more unique films in the actor’s canon, including the Nicholson-directed flop “Drive, He Said” (at Cannes, “it was hooted at by angry audiences”); the dark, bold, Bruce Dern-co-starring “King of Marvin Gardens”; and the flawed but fascinating Nicholson-helmed “Chinatown” sequel “The Two Jakes.” (Eliot rather churlishly opines that “everybody involved with ‘The Two Jakes’ knew the film was not very good.”)

Every so often, Eliot drops in a humorous bit of embarrassing material — “The next day, Jack underwent another round of hair transplants,” or, “Early in 1987, strictly for a lark, Jack, encouraged by U2’s Bono, decided to make a talking children’s album, with Bobby McFerrin supplying the musical background.”

But other than bringing us up to date, what’s the point? There are certainly no critical breakthroughs here, or insights into what makes the actor tick. It’s all armchair theorizing and backstage gossip. (Jack’s Winnebago was rockin’ on the Albany set of “Ironweed” – and Meryl Streep was the other party! Beanpole Lara Flynn Boyle started seeing Bruce Willis – when she was still with Jack! Etc.)

Hearsay and plot description dominates, and that’s a waste. For Jack Nicholson is an actor who worked with Corman, Kubrick, Antonioni, Forman and Scorsese. Those films, and the occasional sight of him grinning courtside at a Lakers game, tell us more about who he is and why we love him than one more bio.

The reader’s time would be better spent rewatching “The Passenger” or “The Shining,” and savoring the mystery that is Jack Nicholson.

Wednesday Round-Up: I Wonder What Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson Were Talking About …

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A diverse mix of links highlight this week’s round-up, including the U.K. debut of Shane Meadows’ new Stone Roses doc, the screening of a Woody Allen classic in Buffalo, and, of course, more on the box office failure of “After Earth.”

  • I hope you’ll be reading more from me soon on “Made of Stone,” Shane Meadows’ fly-on-the-wall documentary about the reunion of the mighty Stone Roses. It likely won’t get much play in the United States — and the meh reaction to the band’s Coachella headlining performances won’t help — but hopefully American anglophiles and Britpop freaks like myself will have a chance to see it soon. The film’s website has some cool details on the production and some great interviews, like this one, with Meadows. He seems to have a real understanding of how utterly important this group is to fans, and I’m sure that comes across in the movie; as the director of the great “This is England” puts it, “If you attach yourself to certain people at a certain point in your life, they never become human again, they’re always gods. The Stone Roses are like that for me.”
  • The web has been aflutter with David Lynch news this week, including word of a new album (featuring the lovely Lykke Li) and a strange piece of video that seems to indicate a new film is in the works. Lynch holds a special place for me, which I’m sure will come up on this site. Two of my favorite DL memories involve his 21st century classic, “Mulholland Drive.” The first is seeing it with my girlfriend (later wife) and friend while he smuggled in a messy Arby’s meal, and the second is staying up until the wee hours of the night with friends in college, breaking down “Mulholland” for our Paranoia and Film class. These five theories on WTF is happening in the film have been around for ages, but it’s always fun to revisit.
  • Coming this Friday and Saturday at the Screening Room in Amherst: “Sorry, Wrong Number” at 7:30 followed by “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” at 9:15. I imagine Woody Allen’s “Tiger Lily” would be a fun group watch.
  • I really enjoyed this piece on the horrendous “A Good Day to Die Hard” that Scott Mestow wrote for The Week. I’ve always been a big fan of the series; “Die Hard 2” was one of the first R-rated films I ever saw. And I even thought “Live Free or Die Hard” was moderately acceptable. But “A Good Day” … It was a stunner on every level, and not in a good way. The film is on DVD and Blu-ray now. See it, and you’ll agree with me.
  • New York Magazine has a cool slideshow featuring images from the Andy Warhol: American Icon exhibit in Maine; my favorite is the Jack Nicholson pic above.
  • I’m not sure anyone is truly shocked that “After Earth” flopped, but the complete failure on every level, from box office to reviews, is noteworthy. So for Sony, what now?
  • I’m on the Indiewire network of sites several times a day, and Shadow and Act is one of my favorites. Here, the site’s Tambay A. Obenson points out how a recent New York Times story on what he refers to as “The New York Times’ annual ‘state of black cinema’ (broadly speaking) nod,” is pretty much “the same damn thing” he wrote on the blog recently. As a longtime reader of the site, I can tell you that Shadow and Act offers a far superior analysis of these issues day-in and day-out than the Times does in one story.
  • Finally … What the hell happened to Mary Harron?