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


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.