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Thread: The Nicholson Phenomenon

  1. #1

    The Nicholson Phenomenon

    The glorification of a celebrity's star persona is one of the more disturbing and depressing characteristics of our society; when the critics and the public unite and honor the star for a limp achievement like 'About Schmidt', it's like a giant red flag for why our culture needs change; it's something that's almost never welcomed or accepted or even easy to admit.


    Nicholson was undoubtedly one of our finest actors and gave performances in the early to mid-seventies (Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail, Chinatown) that rank along side the best work of artists like Chaplin, Olivier, and Brando. Even when his acting was mediocre and the films were less than perfect (The Fortune, The Last Tycoon, Goin' South, The Missouri Breaks) he showed -and continues to show- an impressive list of directors and films that help define his great talent. But somewhere after he won his second Academy Award (for Terms of Endearment ironically) he became 'Jack'. Even with a weak Brooklyn accent (Prizzi's Honor) or a hobo's garb (Ironweed) or white pancake make-up (Batman) or turning in an absolutely hideous performance that proves he's weak as a character actor (Mars Attacks), he's always 'Jack'. He still has an eye for strong directors and projects that make him look good -it's no surprise he's in an upcoming Adam Sandler comedy (!)- but he's always 'Jack'. It was a wave that rose to a crescendo with his work in As Good As It Gets and climaxed when Madonna ripped open the Golden Globe envelope and announced the winner of the Best Actor in a Drama: she just simply smirked, looked out into the audience, and said "Jack." It didn't matter that he strolled through that role on star charisma alone, oh no, he won his third Oscar and had the entire Hollywood community and a bandwagon of critics at his feet. And now it's happening again with About Schmidt.

    Why?

    Just for the record, Gene Hackman's work is by far more consistantly superb (and he doesn't appear stoned out of his mind at every awards show), Nick Nolte -prior to the ecstacy bust- keeps getting better, Pacino may have his eye-rolling moments but he still retains a small flicker of greatness; but most importantly, they're all better character actors! And there are far more interesting young actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, maybe Ed Norton or Jude Law, Billy Bob Thorton, or even Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci. (I gave up long ago on DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman or they would be mentioned somewhere around here.)

    The film itself is a grueling and grisly disappointment chock full of stereotypes (Warren's future son-in-law, Kathy Bates's character's family, etc.)and painfully labored comic set pieces: Warren's reaction to painkillers is an old cheap gag used in everything from Best Friends with Goldie Hawn to a Seinfeld episode with Julia Louise Dreyfus and his struggle on a waterbed is an even older, cheaper gag used in every trashy sitcom like Love American Style or Three's Company. The film's sledgehammer sublety is at its worst when the camera slowly moves into the end of a vacuum cleaner after Warren's discovers his wife on the floor (get it?) and when he makes his first stop in a small town, the film's message is displayed like a headline as the title of the movie showing at the local theater: Kill to Live. I didn't find About Schmidt to be as dull and slow moving like other viewers but it's an obvious piece of filmmaking and a perfect representation of what would have happened if Brett Ratner had directed Wild Strawberries. For the record, a man's self discovery and struggle with spiritual emptiness and regret caused from living the hollow corporate lifestyle was handled with much more insight, pathos, and humanity in 13 Conversations About One Thing with Alan Arkin, who gave a superb performance that's hardly even been acknowledged by any critics circle!

    Warren's final moment is talked about as if Nicholson had achieved some sort of extraordinarily new height in the art of acting when actually he pulls the old actor's trick that's been used for applause and awards for years: he cries for us. Kathy Bates's inspiring bravado in her nude scene is the only sign of life in this Republican 'A Trip to Bountiful'.

    Alexander Payne showed great film editing rhythyms, a tremendous sense of humor, and a wonderful observational style with Citizen Ruth and Election but his smug direction lacks the strong humanity and magic touch of Robert Altman (Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye), Paul Mazursky (Harry & Tonto, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Enemies, A Love Story), Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold & Maude, Shampoo), Johnathan Demme (Melvin & Howard, Handle with Care, Something Wild) and Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, King of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry). Yet About Schmidt has bewitched almost the whole east and west coast critical community. This one-man's-journey-to-find-himself is a classist, almost condescending view of middle America - a place I'm sure no New York film critic has ever seen; a narrow minded generalization I take full pride in writing- that fails as both a satiric social commentary and an insightful character study. As for Nicholson, he's in and out of character in almost every other scene and his mugging is shameless. (When he doesn't play towards the camera he's fine but when he does he's like a hammy theater actor who doesn't know when to quit.)

    This film may be the critics darling at the moment and is already considered a modern classic by some but maybe one day its cracks will be more visible to those who are able to step back and take an objective view of 'Jack'.




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    Last edited by dave durbin; 02-11-2003 at 02:45 PM.

  2. #2
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    We got a film buff in the house
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  3. #3
    Amen!

  4. #4
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    Originally posted by Johann
    We got a film buff in the house
    Even better Johann, we got an 'agent provocateur' willing to tick people off(guy just ripped one of your faves) and generate posts with stronger opinions than I could muster and a passion for 70s Hwood. Welcome dave durbin, but don't dis ma Queen, y'hear! (Latifah)

  5. #5
    I hear. Will do and thanks for the welcome!

  6. #6
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    About Schmidt

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your post on About Schmidt. My friend and I, when we saw it, thought it was horrible, but since have feared we are the only ones with this opinion.

    I wanted to walk out - it seemed we were amongst an audience of circus freaks: all the hooting and laughter. They thought it was a great comedy.

    Why hasn't the film Lovely & Amazing been mentioned for the Oscars? That was a far better film than About Schmidt.

  7. #7
    Thanks for responding. I know the feeling, by the way. The crowd I saw the film with chuckled occasionally at the movie but my friend and I sat there in bewilderment. Granted, I enjoyed the opening scenes and really found some great things in the retirement party sequence but then it just sort of went downhill from there. I left the theater feeling a bit betrayed after having sat through it and I never thought the movie's popularity would have snowballed the way it has. Go figure.

    Lovely and Amazing was very good by the way and I loved the scene where the girl tells Dermot Mulroney to critique her body. I don't think I've seen a scene like that in a movie before -it was so honest. He was fantastic, for the record. As far as the Oscars go, check the threads under Far from Heaven. Jump in.
    Last edited by dave durbin; 02-13-2003 at 10:32 PM.

  8. #8
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    Dual audience, all aliens

    I agree with those who find this movie totally unappealing, exceptionally overrated, and think Dave Durban's very smart review and description of what's happening with Jack Nicolson is right on target. Sure, the director is an original and worth watching, but so is Shyamalan, and that doesn't mean they're to be relied upon to turn out imperishable masterpieces. In this case the movie seems to appeal and push buttons for two demographic groups. The young find it a hilarious spoof and chortle at the insensitivity to New Agers and aging retired people and Middle Westerners, etc.; the old (unbelievably) find it a sensitive portrayal of the problems of the spouse-deprived no longer working male, adrift in his own twilight years -- with a few chuckles, to be sure.

    This is one of those rare movies when you may feel like the rest of the audience is from another planet, and I felt quite alienated from both groups, unable to see anything to sympathize with but also alienated by the negativity and cruelty of the movie. The audience at the matinee I attended was predominantly older, and they were intent and worshipful, and only laughed out loud once or twice. Somehow Jack anchors both the young mocking and old sympathizing groups, satisfying both by really just walking through the role with his body and face doing the work of letting both groups identify or mock, as they choose.

    Maybe this is why the movie has become so overrated: it pushes buttons for two completely separate groups with completely different reactions to the movie, and they all think Jack does a great job being Schmidt -- or just being Jack, as the case may be; and that certainly cuts both ways. For some he's just Jack; for others, who see a different movie, he's submerged in this Schmidt slob, whom they pity or sympathize with.

    The trouble with the idea that Jack is submerged in Schmidt is that there is no Schmidt: the man's a cypher. The trouble with his being just Jack is that the character wasn't written for Jack, or if he was, it was a huge miscasting idea. And because the role really isn't a Jack Nicolson role, people think Jack's doing a great job of acting just being in it. But there's a difference between stretching and just being miscast.

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    A New Jack Finally

    I was just relieved to finally see a movie with Jack Nicholson in which I like him as an actor. I had been loathed to see this movie, thinking perhaps, I'd have to sit through another of his weird characters. But no, this timely movie really hit home with the aging theme and Jack's reserved acting really made his performance stand out for me. I loved the more naturalistic, less polished style of cinematgraphy in this movie. The Dairy Queen scene was fabulous in its realism - I'm assuming that the counter help were really workers at the Dairy Queen.

    Jack was fresh in this movie with good facial expression instead of wacko dialogue. This movie has a lot going for it in this age of aging baby-boomers and the reality is at hand that this movie starts to face something that a majority of television America is now facing. There is something to learn from this movie. I can see why Jack was nominated for an Best Actor Oscar, it wasn't just because of his cult status, it was because he did something worthy.

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    I don't think so.

    To many of us, this is just the same old Jack, 'swinishly lolling' through every scene (in Anthony Lane's phrase). Quite amazing how people see what they want to see in this unpleasant movie. Mind you, Nicholson is an important Hollywood actor who's done wonderful work.

  11. #11
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    Jack is Different

    Most movies that I've seen Jack in "As Good As It Gets (1997)," "Mars Attacks! (1996)," "Wolf (1994)," " Few Good Men, A (1992) ," "Batman (1989) ," "Witches of Eastwick, The (1987)," "Prizzi's Honor (1985), ""Shining, The (1980) ," Jack has played eccentric men who are a bit off, with some maniacal bent - such parts are easier to play because they do not require as much acting or performance - the behavior and exaggerated script just outshines the star. However, in "About Schmidt," Jack plays an ordinary man, towards the end of his life, a fragile, lonely man - with more facial expression and silent acting, Jack demonstrated in this movie a different demeanor, a quiet, not cocky person. I avoided seeing "About Schimdt" thinking that I'd see another dorky Jack, in a role I couldn't stand, but instead I found a Jack performing a human role, a sincere man with faults and doubts. It was an Oscar nominee performance! It's so easy for people to make statements but I don't read anything into them that offers much support.

  12. #12
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    Portrait of the artist as a young man

    Performance appreciation is so subjective I'll sit this one out. Especially because I don't feel as strongly, either way, as other members posting here. I do remember thinking during the speech-at-the-wedding scene that Nicholson was on. Anyway, looking back, has anybody had this kind of run:

    1969 EASY RIDER
    1970 5 EASY PIECES
    1971 CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
    1972 KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
    1973 THE LAST DETAIL
    1974 CHINATOWN
    1975 ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST

  13. #13
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    Indeed. Strong personality, strong actor. Perhaps The Shining (1980) was a turning point toward self-parody. It's been up an down since, with great roles and mediocre ones, selfless performances and self-serviing ones.

  14. #14
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    Chris - I'm interested to know where you're getting this "negativity and cruelty" in the movie. Whereas Warren Schmidt didn't exactly get an easy time, I never got the feeling that the movie was just building him up to tip him over. Quite the opposite, in fact.
    Perfume V - he tries, bless him.

  15. #15
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    Perfume V: About Schmidt is one of those litmus tests in which everyone sees the movie they choose to see, and the audience I viewed it with walked out with a totally different impression than mine. As Dave Durbin has said, it's surprising how the popularity of this movie has "snowballed." I would never have expected that, and I can't understand it. The presence of Jack Nicholson must be the central factor. He has a wide following. The movie is not negative and cruel exclusively toward Schmidt. He is a nonentity and all his efforts to become something more after his retirement and his wife's death are ridiculous and futile, but the movie gives him the sympathy of implied interest by its focusing on him throughout. You may ask yourself at the end what evidence the movie has offered that Schmidt has made his life worthwhile, but it is the secondary characters who are dealt with most cruelly. Each one is successfully made repulsive and foolish. Anderson Payne is a severe critic of Middle America in this movie. I can't see the warmth and humanity that others find here. But do not expect me to convince you, because you saw a different movie. By perusing published reviews of critics, however, I have found that I am not alone in what I see there. My review on IMDb: http://us.imdb.com/CommentsShow?0257360-18

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