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Director Hal Ashby (left) on the set of The Last Detail (1973) with the film's stars, Otis Young and Jack Nicholson. This was regarded as one of Nicholson's top performances, and it earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Photo source: Patrick McGilligan, Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, page 3 of photo plate section 2, just after page 320.
...Nicholson jerked himself back on course with his agreement to take a leading role in The Last Detail [which was released in 1973], written by Robert Towne from Darryl Ponicsan's bestselling novel. Towne sent him a proof of the book before it was published, along with an outline for the script. It was a powerful story with strong characters. Jack knew immediately that audiences would like him in it, and events proved him right. The audiences loved him as Billy "Bad A--" Buddusky, one of two career sailors given the task of transporting a seventeen-year-old recruit from their base in Norfolk, Virginia, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to begin an eight-year jail sentence for theft. On the five day journey, Billy decides to give the young man one last look at life out of sheer disgust at naval officialdom.Thompson, page 173:
The journey develops into a long party of whoring and drinking and swearing, and, largely due to Nicholson's riveting performance, the film achieves a near-perfect balance between tragedy and comedy. It also earned him another Academy Award nomination, but not the Oscar itself--which turned out to be one of the few acting accolades he did not receive for his treatment of this part. Billy Buddusky ran up against the establishment because of his foul language. Columbia, which was financing the movie and releasing it onto the national circuit, even postponed production because executives were nervous over the amount of cursing; they wanted the number of swear words trimmed. Robert Towne refused. Servicemen swore. There was not getting away from that; for some men, every sentence contained an expletive and he could not see the point in cutting the number of "[strong expletive]" from forty to twenty... If the word... caused offense, it would cause it whether it was used once or forty times, and the script called for it to be used forty times.
Director Hal Ashby and Nicholson both agreed, and eventually the film went ahead without any major surgery to the script.
...when Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for her role in Melvin and Howard [the story of Latter-day Saint gas station owner Melvin Dumar and Howard Hughes' co-called "Mormon will"], she said in her acceptance speech that she owed everything to Jack Nicholson, who cast her as his costar in Goin' South when everyone else said he was crazy to do so. Without his generous support, she would have gone back to waiting tables in New York. The next day, after the Oscar presentations, Mary received a huge bouquet of flowers from Nicholson with a message reading, "Dearest Chair"--his nickname for her because her film character hung chairs on the wall--"Congratulations on Oscarhood, motherhood, and for me, sainthood."Thompson, page 174:
Those who cooperated with Woodward found themselves tainted by association with a morbid and awful tale. Nicholson's contribution [to Woodward's book about the death of John Belushi] was a fairly innocuous account of the Belushi he knew. He recalled that on one occasion Belushi had turned up about 5 A.M. "on a terror and trashing the place." He used the Jacuzzi and then sat around in a bathrobe, talking about how he wanted to do a musical with Ken Russell with himself playing God.Thompson, page 248-250:
It was during the filming of The Crossing Guard that Nicholson's own roadside behavior brought him into serious trouble with the law. At 11:30 A.M. on February 8, Robert S. Blank was waiting for a red light to change at an intersection in Toluca Lake when a black Mercedes pulled up beside him. Two men got out, and then driver, whom Blank recognized as Nicholson, told him: "You cut me off." Sensing danger, Blank locked the doors of his car.A scene is described from Children's Heaven, a highly personal and autobiographical screenplay that Jack Nicholson commissioned in 1983. From: Thompson, page 251-253:
Nicholson took a two-iron [golf club] from the trunk of his car and repeatedly struck the roof of Blank's 1969 Mercedes before moving to the front of the vehicle and shattering the windshield with another blow while the thirty-eight-year-old salesman cowered in terror... The attack was weirdly reminiscent of the famous "Heeeeeeeere's Johnny" scene in The Shining. Black reported the attack to police and named Nicholson as the assailant.
..."This case went beyond property damage," said deputy city attorney Jeff Harkavy. "Mr. Nicholson assaulted the victim, who suffered some minor injuries."
As Blank had also filed a civil action for damages, Nicholson's criminal lawyer, Charles English, had the opportunity to negotiate a settlement with him. With the aid of his client's checkbook, English persuaded Blank to settle for an undisclosed sum believed to be around $500,000. English and Blank then trotted off to Van Nuys Municipal Court and asked Judge Martin Suits in chambers to drop the charges. His Honor did so. He ruled that an 1872 law permitted many misdemeanor charges, including assault and vandalism, to be dropped if the accused paid the victim.
English said Nicholson had "some extraordinary circumstances going on his life on the morning this happened," citing the rigorous shooting schedule on The Crossing Guard and the death of one of his closest friends. Jack said later: "I was out of my mind. A good friend of mine, Harold Schneider, who produced all the movies I directed, had died that morning, and I was playing a maniac all night. It was a shameful incident on my behalf. I am very vociferously against violence."
What remained a secret from the press was that, on the day of Schneider's funeral, his widow received a demand for repayment of $125,000 that Nicholson had advanced to the producer for a movie project. "Several of Jack's old pals were astonished," said my source. "It seemed such a cold-blooded thing to do."
The city attorney's office wasn't happy with the outcome of the case of the People of the State of California vs. Jack Nicholson. Jeff Harkavy claimed that the prosecution should have gone ahead because Nicholson had swung the golf club toward Blank's face and Blank's nose had been cut by the flying glass. "A crime of violence toward a person takes on a very different dimension than a crime against property," he said. "In this case, Mr. Nicholson, whether or not he intended it, placed Mr. Blank in danger of injuring his eyesight."
Susan Anspach said: "Jack is a typical example of the spoiled celebrity syndrome that makes gods of people who were not bred to it and who can't handle it. You can walk up and smash somebody's Mercedes and scare the driver to death and not even know what that means to that person. All you know is that you are a god and gods are supposed to have the lane that they want on the freeway.
"It didn't even occur to him what that man must have been feeling. To Jack, it was like a movie: 'The guy knows that after I bash his window, the scene ends. He doesn't have to worry about dying.' Everything is part of a script."
Jack's final word on The Crossing Guard struck a poignant note that had more to do with his own private life than with the movie. "I've had several friends who've had this experience, about which it says in the Bible that when a child dies before the parents even God weeps," he said. "Five or six people have said to me after The Crossing Guard, 'I'm going to go home and call my child.'
"When you have a child [the film] affects you differently."
The location is Heaven, right by the Pearly Gates. Improbably though it seemed, Jack Nicholson was reading a scene in which God's girlfriend talks to a twelve-year-old boy who has just been run over and killed. God, however, did not weep; he was incommunicado. His girlfriend explains to the boy: "Ordinarily he'd be here himself; there'd be no problem, he'd let you in even though you're not really qualified. You never knew your father, so you were sort of robbed a bit. But he's so upset with his creations that he's absolutely refused to reveal his tenderness. He simply won't show his face. You can imagine how tough this is; I mean, living with him is the greatest, but he's so sick and tired that he just wants to abandon the whole thing. It's the father thing which is the problem here."As of 1996, Jack Nicholson had fathered at least eight children, only one of whom was born to a woman Nicholson was married to. Thompson, page 254:
Fatherhood, illegitimacy, and mortality weighed so heavily upon Jack's mind that he had commissioned the screenplay, Children's Heaven, from Blaine Novak in 1983...
Twelve years later, in August 1996, a copy of Children's Heaven arrived mysteriously at Susan Anspach's home... in Santa Monica. "I had heard whispers about Children's Heaven and was anxious to read it," she said. "All I knew was that it was about Jack, Caleb, and me... After she read the script, she said: "We sure know what the first speech was about. Not being able to show tenderness--it's justification for behavior. God just can't show affection and tenderness to boys who have imperfections, and this boy's imperfection is that he never had a father. That's what this is saying."
The central character in Children's Heaven is named Edward Towne (as in Robert Towne). Edward is a philandering entrepreneur who owns a basketball team and several office buildings. Other people in Jack [Nicholson]'s life are also represented: Alan Finkelstein thinly disguised as Lowenstein; Colbert and Somer as a couple of Irish sidekicks who protect their boss, often by paying off women to have abortions and to leave Edward Towne alone.
Susan said: "To get into Heaven, the kid has to come down to Earth and win his father's love. He has to audition for his father, so to speak. Luckily, the father likes the kid and really wants to be close to him, but he wonders how he's going to fit him into his life. He brings women into the hotel room, hides them, and makes the kid sleep on the couch while he has sex with them. However, the kid is going to die and go to Heaven unless Edward can find his [the boy's] mother. But he can't remember who the mother is, so he auditions all these women he was screwing at the time to see which one is the mother.
"If this is not a paean to sexism, I don't know what is. Mother--she doesn't get a name--is now trying to find the father, and she writes from hotel rooms the way I used to write letters to Jack. The woman who's running the show for God is called Girlfriend. She's eighteen or nineteen and gorgeous. God isn't seen for most of the movie--he's heard as a voice-over--but when he does appear, he's this middle-aged, frazzled man.
"A lot of it was right from our lives, incredibly close to home, and it was gross to read it... Edward Towne is the guy Jack would like to be..."
Mercifully, Jack slung Children's Heaven into a bottom drawer and there it remained...
[Children's Heaven screenwriter Blaine] Novak's character was out of sync with Nicholson in one important respect: Jack has never been in favor of abortion. "I think it would be comically incorrect for someone in my position to be for abortion," he said [meaning, had abortion been available at the time he was born, he would have been aborted and would never have been born]. "But I am pro-choice. People always say, 'How can you be pro-choice and against abortion?' Well, I tell them, this is one of the ways." One of the few people who seemed to understand what Jack was talking about was Sharon Stone, who claimed to be "moved by his vulnerability."
...there were in 1996 eight offspring from Nicholson's innumerable unions with women to prove that, when he slipped between the sheets, he let nature take its course. Referring to [his children] Lorraine and Raymond, he said: "I didn't plan the children. It's chance. It's life."Thompson, page 256:
[Hermine Harman, a psychologist who was a close friend of Susan Anspach, the mother of Jack Nicholson's son Caleb, said:] "He [Jack] has a lot of hostility toward his mother, his aunt, all women. This hostility is beyond male chauvinism; it's his misogynistic way of getting even for being abandoned as a child by his mother." Actress Sharron Shayne supported this view. "I don't think he has ever worked out that basic rage at his own mother," she said. "It's all transferred to Susan. He's making Susan, a.k.a. his own mother, crawl and beg. He's punishing her."Jack Nicholson was apparently the product of statutory rape. He was the daughter of June Nicholson, who was sixteen years old, and an adult man. From: Donald Shepherd, Jack Nicholson: An Unauthorized Biography, St. Martin's Press: New York (1991), page 3:
Although [Jack Nicholson] has never gone into detail about those circumstances [the circumstances of his birth], there is evidence that June Nicholson [Jack Nicholson's birth mother] was not only unwed but also very young when she gave birth -- perhaps in her early teens. In any event, the introduction of an infant into the Nicholson household under such strained conditions undoubtedly had an unsettling effect. Certainly Ethel May regarded her own circumstances with ambivalence; she was middle-aged, her marriage had foundered, and times were hard. Even so, she raised Jack as her own, while June went on with her life as though Jack was not her child.Shepherd, page 5:
It was on April 22, 1937, that June Nicholson, unwed daughter of Ethel May and John Joseph Nicholson, gave birth to a baby boy in New York City, where she had gone to have the child. It was decided that her mother would raise the offspring as her own, so June named him John Joseph Nicholson, Jr. Shortly thereafter, she returned to the Nicholson home in Neptune, New Jersey, where she placed the infant in Ethel May's care and where he spent his childhood raised in the belief that Ethel May and John were his parents and that June and her younger sister, Lorraine, were his sisters.Shepherd, page 6:
John Nicholson [Jack Nicholson's biological grandfather, who raised Jack as a son] was a kind and charming Irishman, a self-employed window dresser and sign painter by trade, who was often chosen as one of the best-dressed men in the Asbury Park, New Jersey, Easter Parade in his younger days. By the time Jackie [i.e., Jack Nicholson] arrived, John was afflicted with alcoholism and was out of control, slowly drinking himself to death. Even though he remained in Neptune after his separation from Ethel May, he was seldom seen by his family...Shepherd, page 40:
With John so afflicted and absent from the household, the burden of supporting their two daughters and the infant addition to the family fell to Ethel May. It was a task made more difficult by hard times in those late Depression years, but Ethel May was determined, resourceful, and independent; she had been born to a wealthy Dutch Protestant family that disinherited her for marrying young and to an Irish Catholic. She rose to the new challenge. She heard of a company in nearby Newark that sold permanent-wave machines and offered a course in cosmetology to anyone who bought one. Ethel May bought a machine, took the course to become a beautician, and opened a neighborhood beauty parlon in a bedroom of their rented house. Considering the times, she did very well as the family breadwinner, and it wasn't long before she moved her family to a larger, two-story house...
Jack and Sandra began dating soon after they met in Landau's class. Shortly thereafter, Jack moved out of the place he had been sharing with another actor (probably Harry Dean Stanton) and into one with Sandra. They were very much in love, and on June 17, 1962, after Jack completed his military obligations, they were married in Hollywood by a Unitarian Universalist minister. Jack was twenty-five; Sandra was twenty-two. Harry Dean Stanton was the best man at the ceremony.Shepherd, page 46:
 She [June Nicholson, Jack Nicholson's birth mother] was dying at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital when Jack was preparing to leave for the Ensign Pulver shooting at Mexico. "She looked me right in the eye," Jack said, "and said, 'Shall I wait? In other words, 'Shall I try to fight this through?' And I said no." June died the day he left for Mexico -- while he was en route.Shepherd, pages 47-49:
June kept her secret about Jack's birth even as she lay dying. "It didn't do her any good not to tell me," Jack said, "but she didn't because you never know how I would have reacted when I was younger. . . . Those women [June and Ethel May] gave me the gift of life."
After Jack learned of his parentage year later, he changed his stand on abortion. He now states he is against it, saying that he doesn't have a right to any other view, even though this is contrary to his usually liberal bent regarding the sanctity of personal rights.
Upon their return from the Philippines in late 1964, Jack and [Monte] Hellman had lunch with Roger Corman to discuss their Epitaph screenplay. By then, Corman had decided not to do the film. He thought it too downbeat and esoteric for his market, and suggested that they do a Western instead. When they agreed and figured the budget at only $75.000, Corman had them do a second Western while they were at it.Shepherd, pages 53-54:
They set up a production office and Jack wrote one of the Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind, while the other was contracted to his former acting-class friend Carol Eastman, who had submitted a scenario titled The Shooting. She wrote this under her pseudonym, Adrien Joyce. Jack is said to have done some writing on Eastman's script, too -- presumably on the dialogue. He pored over diaries of the Old West in preparation for writing his own script, looking generally at language usage of the day and specifically for speech patterns and idiomatic expressions to give his dialogue the flavor of authenticity. This was probably in reaction to the experience he suffered earlier in the making of his Western The Broken Land, in which he was called upon to deliver credibly such lines as (with regard to his 1890s surroundings) "This sure is a lousy atmosphere."
Both scripts were finished by February 1965, and Hellman and Jack spent the next three months casting the parts, hiring a crew, working out logistics, scouting locations, and working on the countless details involved with the preproduction planing for a shoot. They began filming in May at a desert location near Kanab, Utah, working with only a skeleton crew of twelve (which included two wranglers, who cared for the livestock) and with very little equipment: a sound truck, an old station wagon, two cameras, and a few reflectors. What they lacked in numbers and equipment, they made up for in enthusiasm and esprit de corps, however.
The films were a labor of love for everyone, not only because the cast and crew were close friends and away from the prying eyes of the films' backers but also because they knew they were creating something that wouldn't be thrown on the screen as "giant apes and moaning carrots," to use Jack's phrase. They were producing something they thought extraordinary and worthwhile, and few of them had ever had such an opportunity. Hellman and Jack took care to give the films a naturalistic look and feel. The characters wore clothes authentic to the early West. The focus on them was economical and objective, revealing a people isolated in time and space. Their small existential dramas are played out against and dwarfed by a wasteland as foreboding as the circumstances that set them against one another. The characters did none of the things that would have been expected of them in a stereotypical Hollywood Western, which is exactly why the cast and crew approached the making of the films with inordinate enthusiasm and cooperation.
By July, both films were wrapped. Hellman, with Jack's help. spent the next six months editing them. The finished prints came out of the processing lab in January of 1966, a full year from the date the project was begun, and both films were then screened for Roger Corman. He was troubled by what he saw.
Neither film followed the traditional linear narrative that fans of Westerns had come to expect. Each was more a slice-of-life incident than a story, and each opened with very little exposition and ended without apparent resolution. Carol Eastman's script, The Shooting, opens with a former bounty hunter named Gashade (Warren Oates) returning to a mine he is working and finding another miner (Will Hutchins) badly shaken and nearly hysterical. Gashade learns that in his absence a third miner, his brother Coigne, has run off after running down a man and child with his horse in a nearby town. Into this scene steps a woman on foot (Millie Perkins). She buys a horse from Gashade and then hires him to escort her across the desert. She reveals neither her name nor her destination. Both miners accompany her, and in time another rider, whom Gashade suspects has been trailing them, joins the party. He is Billy Spear (Nicholson), a gunfighter. Spear takes Gashade's gun from him and eventually kills the second miner before Gashade jumps him and smashes his gun hand. Meanwhile, the woman has entered a canyon alone. Gashade runs after her and finds her raising her pistol and taking aim at his brother, Coigne, who is revealed to be Gashade's fraternal twin. Shots are heard. Both the woman and Gashade fall from apparently mortal gunshot wounds, Gashade calling out his brother's name as he falls. At this point, the film ends.
The topography of Jack [Nicholson]'s career int he late 1960s, like his moods, was one of inconsequential peeks and colossal depressions. A dozen years had passed; he had turned thirty and was considered too old for stardom by Hollywood standards. He had appeared in fourteen films, had coproduced two and had written three. But he was still having to grub even for the exploitation films that he found so professionally, financially, and spiritually withering. He had been away from home very often, had been off to Mexico and then to the Philippines, and then had immersed himself for a year in producing two Westerns, including the two-month location shoot in Utah, followed by the trip to Europe. There had been little time for Sandra. Even when he was home, he was busy searching for solid footing, working on projects by day and writing at night, giving work his undivided attention and feeling unjustly intruded upon whenever Sandra broke his concentration with demands on his time, or complaints, or with even minor domestic problems. "I couldn't take the arguments," Jack said, "they bored me." This put an added strain on the marriage.Shepherd, pages 93-94:
Jack and Sandra's problems ultimately caused them to see an analyst together, an event that led directly to the total collapse of their marriage rather than helping them. Part of the analyst's treatment was the administration of the hallucinogen LSD, which alters one's perceptions Jack's experience with the drug was enlightening (it was the time that he reexperienced the impressions of his infancy), but Sandra's experience terrified her. "This therapist didn't really understand LSD," Jack said. "He had never taken it himself. He gave it to Sandra first, in connection with a five-hour therapeutic session, but he gave her the maximum dosage. At one point, the looked at me and saw a demon, a totally demonic figure. For whatever reason, either because it's true about me or because of her own grasping at something, it was pretty bad."
Perhaps owing to her natural inclination and partly to her bad experience with the drug [LSD], Sandra [Jack Nicholson's wife] turned to religion for solace. "She became stimulated in a mystical area," Jack said, "and I couldn't get with that. I didn't want to get caught in a situation where I was in competition with God, or something like that, and I felt that I would be and that I would do it myself, because I felt the strength of this new flow into [her] life." Jack claims that he isn't at all religious. He says the only time he ever prayed was when, at Bruce Dern's suggestion, he took up long-distance running to keep in shape. He often prayed while running, yet he doesn't know why he did so.
Sandra was horrified when Jack continued to experiment with the drug [LSD]. She finally ordered him from the house and told him not to return. Their divorce became final in 1968 and ended with mutual respect and without rancor. They remained friends. Sandra eventually moved to Hawaii with Jennifer [their daughter together], but as Jennifer grew up, she spent part of her summer vacations with her father.
Though he had been reluctant to commit to the project, Jack [Nicholson]'s next film was to be Three-Cornered Circle, a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Hal Ashby [the acclaimed Mormon film editor and director] was set to direct, and he wanted to cast Michelle Phillips as Jack's costar. Ashby thought Phillips very talented. He knew she had a large following among rock fans and thought they would be drawn to the box office. He felt, too, that Phillips's real-life relationship with Jack would add a dimension to the film -- that they would be very exciting together. The MGM studio executives didn't share his view and didn't like his casting ideas. They presumably didn't want to take a chance with a former rock singer -- newly turned actress -- costarring in a big-budget production. So they bridled at Ashby's casting; Ashby bridled at their inferference; and the project collapsed.About the movie The Witches of Eastwick, in which Jack Nicholson starred as the Devil. From: Shepherd, pages 154-155:
Meanwhile, Jack had signed to do a $2 million comedy drama for Paramount Pictures, The Last Detail, based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel and adapted for the screen by Robert Towne, Jack's friend from his acting-school days. Paramount had yet to choose a director for the film, so when the Postman deal failed, Jack suggested Hal Ashby, and Paramount signed him.
Jack had been interested in Ponicsan' novel for a long time. He had read proofs of it while making Five Easy Pieces, and had wanted to option the screen rights so that he could play the lead, but he didn't have the money to do so, and Paramount got it. It's the story of two Navy shore-patrol officers -- played by Jack and Otis Young -- who are charged with escorting a naive young sailor (Randy Quaid) to prison, and they decide to show him a good time before taking him in. Unlike some of the male stars before him who refused to work with anyone taller than they were, Jack had no second thoughts about working between six-foot-two Otis Young and six-foot-four Randy Quaid. In fact, Jack's such a commanding presence as Billy "Bad A--" Buddusky that no one really notices or cares about the differences in their heights.
Jack's letter of credit in the industry was more than a little shipworn by the time The Last Detail was released. He needed a big critical and financial success, and that's what Detail was. It is a fine film and one of Jack's favorite roles. His work in it brought him another Oscar nomination as Best Actor, but the award went to Jack Lemmon that year for Save the Tiger.
Michelle Phillips had left Jack by the time The Last Detail was wrapped. As he had when Mimi left him, Jack suffered a period of dark despondency that worried some of his friends.
"I've been studying to play the Devil," [Jack Nicholson] said. Then with what was described as a "demonic grin," he added, "Of course, a lot of people think I've been preparing for it all my life." The film was The Witches of Eastwick... Based very loosely on John Updike's novel, it's the story of three New England women who are dissatisfied with men who can't relate naturally to liberated women; they share with each other their fantasies of finding a man who can. Having had too much wine one night, the women, played by Susan Sarandon, Cher, and Michelle Pfeiffer, half-jokingly perform an invocation, and are later stunned to find they've summoned a satanic visitor in the person of Darryl Van Horne (Jack), who is certainly at ease with his masculinity and with females, and who proclaims himself "just your average horny little devil." Though charming and funny, Darryl is also unkempt and slightly smelly and more than a bit too earthy for their taste. Nevertheless, he seduces each of them, and they're dazzled and delighted until they realize that he has reduced their liberated state to the degree that, as a male, he has power over them. This, it's suggested, is a condition they want and also don't want at the same time. They don't want it more than they want it, however, so they initiate a rite to divest him of his power and send him back from whence he came. Darryl is bewildered when he realizes that they are destroying him because he is the embodiment of their fulfilled wishes. Even as he is being destroyed, he lurches into a church and rails at the heavens: "Women -- a mistake, or did He do it to us on purpose?"From: David Downing, Jack Nicholson: A Biography, Stein and Day Publishers: New York (1984), pages 32-34:
...Jack... read widely for the role. "I've read a lot of huge, studious books that deal with the Dark Ages," he said. "one of the things I came across is the big, long -- seems like a century-long -- debate about the definition of God. And the only thing they could come up with is that anything definite you can say about God must be supported by its paradoxical opposite. And that's what life is all about, this paradoxical situation." He was said to have had "high ambitions" for his performance. "When I played Carnal Knowledge," he said, "I knew that women weren't going to like me for a while. That was a given. I'm going to play the Devil. And I don't want to play him safely. I want people to think that Jack Nicholson is the Devil. I want them to be worried."
What finally appeared on the screen is at variance with the kind of film Jack suggested he was preparing for. It's also different in tone from the approach director George Miller had in mind. Miller's concept of the Devil was not as the stereotypical figure of evil incarnate but as a natural man. "My Devil had to be a Pan," he said, ". . . moving from community to community, causing all women to abandon themselves sexually to him, and so enraging the menfolk -- this despite the fact that he is not conventionally handsome. The men can't understand why the women do it, and neither for that matter can the women. But his total self-confidence is what allows him to enjoy their favors, impregnate all the women, then move on. To a degree, Christian concepts of chastity for women were created by a male-dominated society to protect themselves from such a presence."
Until a friend persuaded him to reconsider, Miller didn't want to cast Jack in the role. "My first instinct was: In getting someone for the Devil, you need an actor who is totally unlike the Devil, and Jack clearly has an impish quality. . . . Then, I realized he is like a two-hundred-year-old child: very wise in many ways -- even beyond his years -- but with a certain innocence and naivete we expect from someone younger. The moment I saw that, I knew he was the only actor to bring humanity to the role, to pull the Devil out of stereotype."
Back in America, Corman had had the time to reconsider the financing of Epitaph. "He was afraid it was too downbeat,' Hellman said later. 'At that time there was a prejudice that you could make that kind of movie in Europe but not in America. But he said that if we wanted to make something commercial he would finance that. So we said "What's commercial?", and he said, "Well, a western's commercial So we said "OK".' But being Corman, there was more. 'Then he said, "Well, if you're going to make one western, you might as well make two."' Of course. Who in their right mind would go all the way to Utah and make only one?Downing, pages 43-45:
Hellman continues: 'So we rented an office and decided that Jack would write one and we would get someone else to write another. Several friends submitted ideas. Adrien Joyce (the pen-name of Carol Eastman) submitted a script which wasn't producible but was very interesting, and I had faith in her talent so we decided to go with her.'
Meanwhile Nicholson had already got down to work, and his intentions were not exactly what their backer had in mind. 'Roger wanted some good tomahawk numbers with plenty of ketchup, but Monte and I were into these two films on another level . . . We thought of Ride in the Whirlwind as a kind of translation of The Myth of Sisyphus, the Camus essay where man's only dignity is in his return down the mountain after pushing up the stone. That's what our film was about: three guys back from a cattle drive getting mixed up in some fracas.'
Carol Eastman had picked Jack London for her inspiration. In one of his stories a man looks at a picture of a gunfight which is hanging over a bar, and comments that life's just like the picture -- you have no idea what led up to that moment and no idea what happened afterwards. This prompts his companion to recount an experience he once had. One day a woman had hired him to take her across the snows, never telling him of their ultimate destination, just pointing the way forward. Eventually they had caught up with a man on a sledge, and the woman had simply shot the man, paid off her driver and disappeared. He had never found out why she had shot him or what happened to her. This was the genesis of The Shooting.
In both films the verbal script was to be tailored to the intended mood. Nicholson in particular was delving into diaries from the period in question, and writing dialogue which reflected the semi-archaic modes of speech which he found there. The primitive level at which these people communicated, he felt, both reinforced and reflected the sense of man's isolation which the films sought to portray.
With the two scripts ready enough for shooting to begin, Hellman and Nicholson incorporated themselves as Proteus Films, accepted the necessary cheque from Corman, and headed out for the Utah Desert. They had a crew of only twelve, including two wranglers for looking after the horses. The equipment was equally rudimentary, consisting only of two reflectors, two cameras, one utility truck and a station wagon which had known better days. Neither truck could be used off the roads so the filming equipment had to be lugged everywhere on horseback. To complicate matters still further the terrain was none too solid, and the obvious foot- and hoof-marks left behind after each take meant that no two takes could be done in the same place.
But spirits were high. The two men were doing what they wanted to do, and what was even better, didn't feel responsible to anyone or anything for what transpired. As Hellman put it: I don't think we really thought that anybody would ever see the films. We thought they would be a couple more Roger Corman movies that would play on the second half of a double-bill somewhere. So any thoughts about doing something different were for our own personal satisfaction . . .'
...1966... the new lifestyle, for those who could afford it, seemed so full of self-righteous sense. Why not expand your mind with drugs, soft or hallucinogenic? Why restrict yourself to one sexual partner when all the world was love? Why not let it all hang out? Across California, in these years, you could hear the egos bursting out.Downing, page 63:
...Nicholson, radically-inclined in any case, was more at home in this new world than his marriage, which reportedly expired, amicably, when his and Sandra's life-priorities began to diverge. His career was influenced just as dramatically. The film industry, and particularly [Roger] Corman, soon came alive to the enormous possibilities inherent in the 'youth revolution'...
Hell's Angels on Wheels and Rebel Rousers, the two 'bike movies' made in 1966-67 [starring Jack Nicholson], were about as memorable as a takeaway hamburger. Full of hackneyed images, constructed around hackneyed plots, they sunk beneath the weight of the illusion that a pleasant sensation can somehow be constructed as a meaningful lifestyle. If this was the youth revolution then society had got its wires crossed again.
Nicholson himself was not immune to self-deception in this matter, as he demonstrated when talking to Rolling Stone... '...the American Way, man. The way to get it, he just wants to show that a small group of people can form their own society, based on their own morality, and not have to take sh-- from anyone.'
Hardly a definition of the compassionate society, but then a lot of Californians in the late sixties were expressing sentiments which now seem merely crass. In the same interview, given in 1971, Nicholson went out of his way to explain the 'happening' at Altamont -- someone was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels for daring to touch a motorbike -- in tones that seemed to justify the outcome. For someone who was to become the intellectuals' favorite film star it was a strange line to take.
Easy Rider [starring Jack Nicholson] was one of the first major commercial films to give expression to that sense of failure which, in its many and varied ways, was to dominate the seventies. To understand the mainstream cinema of that decade, and Nicholson's starring role within it, it is necessary to comprehend,however sketchily, just what that failure had been.Downing, pages 74-76:
This is obviously not the place for an in-depth analysis of capitalism, socialism or, for that matter, seventh-day adventism. Suffice it to say that during the years 1945-68 most of the world had experienced a period of unprecedented economic growth. Indeed, the youth market which sprang into prominence in the western industrialized world during the sixties was very much an offshoot of that growth. But hand-in-hand with material prosperity there has grown a dissatisfaction with the uses to which it was put and with the political powers which decided those uses. This phenomenon was not confined to the West; parallel movements were occurring in the industrialized East, if with a rather different emphasis.
The 'women in his life' tended to change with rather more frequency between the break-up of his [Jack Nicholson's] marriage in 1967 and the beginning of his long relationship with Angelica Huston in 1973... Nicholson had a lot of 'anti-family feelings', and thought that 'a lot of the things that people are [screwed] up about at this moment can be traced back to family structures.' He was interested in a 'new kind of family', but saw his efforts in this direction as 'a lot of the reasons for my chaotic relationships'. His relationship with his ex-wife was cordial enough, and he saw his daughter Jennifer, now seven, frequently.Downing, pages 102-108:
His lifestyle, according to the gossip columnists, was marked by a heavy appetite for sex and drugs. He both agreed and disagreed. 'I've taken all the drugs, balled everybody, gone everywhere,' he is reported to have told Newsweek. 'I'd love to be able to say I've balled everybody, indulged in every kind of sh--, gone everywhere, although I haven't,' he told Rolling Stone. His love of marijuana has never been disguised, and it was presumably hallucinogens he was referring to when admitting to 'giving up drugs' after finding himself and Dennis Hopper 'up a tree after spending the night on D H Lawrence's tomb'.
He was definitely a man of his generation, albeit a rather older member of it than most. In the late sixties he actually bought land for a commune in New Mexico, without ever living there himself. The inhabitants were driven out by armed locals after six months, then replaced by a new group of young settlers some time later. According to Nicholson in 1976, the land had eventually become a bandit haven. He seemed amused by the whole story.
Politics, for him as for most of the American 'movement' during this period, were 'just a part of living'. He was also 'into influencing people subtly', he said in 1971. 'I won't go on any political bandwagons . . . I'm into affecting the society in which I live but not overtly, not by carrying placards telling everybody what to do. In the long run, I just feel that would limit my own sense of what is useful.'
The same attitude was brought to bear in his choice of films to admire and to make. He eschewed the direct political approach of [Jean-Luc] Godard [a devout Maoist at that time] and other like-minded directors. Godard, Nicholson said, 'thought that 'to make an entertaining movie while Vietnamese are dying for what he considers to be piggish social reasons is to be a totally decadent artist. And he certainly is not going to be entertaining in the face of that. He's making movies now exclusively as essays.' Nicholson doubted that these 'essays' would achieve the desired effect. 'Who is it that he would have to change? . . As I say, I'm totally respectful of it, but I don't think it's accomplishing a lot . . . it's not propagandizing an audience . . . he's working in a very refined style . . . you don't make this kind of movie for a mass audience. Everybody makes movies and hopes everyone sees them and everyone likes them. And that they're helpful to everyone, entertaining to everyone, or something to everyone. But in essence -- you know -- movies have different styles. And he certainly is working for a more intellectual audience than average, and he doesn't give them newness. You know, they already either agree or disagree with him.'
...Nicholson's next two movies, The Last Detail and Chinatown.Downing, pages 168-169:
The former was based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel of the same name, which came out to much critical acclaim in 1970. Gerald Ayres, an ex-bigwig at Columbia now producing independently, read the novel before it reached the printers and snapped up the rights. Looking for someone to share the screenwriting with, he fixed on [Robert] Towne. Both men considered the central character, Billy 'Badass' Buddusky, was really for Nicholson.
At least, this was the story the way Columbia told it. According to Nicholson he himself had seen the novel in proof form. 'It was when we were shooting Five Easy Pieces. I didn't have the money to buy it but the producer was a friend of mine. The director, Harold Ashby, was going to make another movie with me so we made this one instead.' [sic: There is no director named "Harold Ashby." The director of The Last Detail referred to here is Hal Ashby, the acclaimed Mormon film director.] Nicholson was particularly attracted by the idea of playing a 'professional person', something he hadn't done before. Ashby was presumably attracted by the fact that Nicholson's name would improve the film's chances of a large audience, something not shared by his first two movies The Landlord Harold and Maude, both excellent flops in the fast-developing tradition of the Hollywood 'New Wave'.
The Last Detail follows the episodic journey of a convicted sailer and his two escorts from Norfolk, Virginia. The prisoner, a teenage recruit named Meadows (Randy Quaid), has been caught trying to steal forty dollars from the polio collection box -- it happens to be the CO's wife pet charity -- and sentenced to eight years incarceration with a dishonorable discharge to follow. Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), the two life-service sailors detailed to escort him northwards, first resent the job and then come to see it as an excuse for a paid vacation. With seven days to deliver their package, they should manage to spend at least four in the big, bad cities of the eastern seaboard.
But the kid's plight and attitude gets to them. It's quite obvious that he's more of a kleptomaniac than a hardened criminal-in-embryo, and the severity of the sentence is equally clearly a gross miscarriage of Navy justice. The 'lifers' feel sorry for Meadows, feel outraged by both the injustice and the boy's lack of resentment of it. He isn't playing the game; he should, like them, be railing impotently against his fate. Still, he's just a kid, so perhaps it's not his fault. They decide to spend the week making a man of him, and in the process to leave him with some warming memories to carry through the years that lie ahead.
So the kid learns. How to answer back, how to semaphore, how to return his eggs when they're not just right, how to brawl, how to have 'fun', how to enter what Buddusky calls 'the wonderful world of [female genitalia]'. He learns so much that he tries to give his escorts the slip, thereby causing the enraged Buddusky to pistol-whip him. The movie ends with delivery done and the two lifers walking away down an empty street.
It's a film of episodes, many of them hilarious, and all spattered with the densest spray of foul language ever to hit the screen. But beneath the 'fun', the energy, the mood remains thoroughly bleak, and the sense of blasted lives extends far beyond the central fact of Meadows' victimization. The plot may place the kid's fate in the spotlight, but the film is ultimately more concerned with the situation of the two lifers. The kid's basically an innocent, a victim of the neglect apparent when the threesome visit his mother's bottle-strewn home. The lifers are the victims of the game they - and, by implication, most of us -- play, the game that says you can bite the hand that feeds you so long as you don't draw blood. They know the sentence is absurdly unjust, but they're not about to jeopardize their own positions in a Navy they claim to despise by letting him escape.
For the black Mulhall this instinct for self-preservation makes sense; his choices have doubtless been circumscribed from birth. And, in any case, he seems more aware of the dilemma, telling Buddusky at one point that there is no middle ground; they have to either deliver or release Meadows, they can't have it both ways, salving their consciences by giving him a good time and then handing him over to the keepers of misery.
But Buddusky won't accept this, can't accept it, and his non-acceptance is the mark of the inner devastation which he represents and which lies at the heart of the film. Here we have an uneducated Bobby Dupea, but no less complex for the unorganised pattern of his self-beliefs. It is interesting to note that Towne actually re-wrote Ponicsan's Buddusky, moving him away from Dupea. In the book Buddusky is something of an intellectual, a secret Camus-reader with a beautiful wife in New York and a 'Whitmanesque appreciation of the sea'. Yet still the parallels remain. Towne's Buddusky, like Dupea, is a fountainhead of manic energy, doomed to misdirection by the lack of a commitment to anything save himself. Just as Dupea could neither stay with nor truly leave his family, was trapped within his alienation from it, so Buddusky can only come to terms with his own 'life sentence' in the Navy by leading a schizophrenic existence, on the one hand accepting the rules, on the other condemning those who do likewise and casting himself as the 'badass', the rebel. He's the man who shakes the bars of his cell in the belief that he's impressing the other prisoners.
He fits perfectly into, characterizes in the literal sense, the film's metaphorical picture of America, and Western society in general, as a giant institution dehumanising the humans it supposedly serves. No one wins in The Last Detail. Like so many of the movies being made in America during this period it epitomises the mixture of sadness and self-hatred which followed the souring of the sixties' dreams. As Towne put it: 'Without saying it, or trying to be pushy about it, I wanted to imply that we're all lifers in the Navy, and that we will go along and be helpful to someone if our kindness or our courtesy doesn't cost us too much and if it natters our vanity. We'll get this kid laid, we'll buy him a few beers, we'll let him have a good time if that makes him think more of us, but we won't risk our neck. And all we'll do is feel a little guilty, and cover it up by saying "I hate this chicken-sh-- detail.'"
Towne also added, interestingly in view of the problems to come on Chinatown, his views on the way the film ends. In the book Buddusky is killed, in the film his suffering is only psychological. 'I thought it would be dishonest to let the sailor off or to have the others feel so badly that they would go AWOL or get themselves killed. I also thought that this would let the audience off the hook. "Gee, we're not so bad. We let the guy go" . . . The Last Detail ends badly, but along the way there is a certain amount of warmth, friendship, good times, a concern for each other, people being decent. This serves to accentuate that in the end all those things go by the board: if there's going to be a tunnel at the end of the light, you want to have some light before you get there.' Ashby obviously agreed with him;, Polanski would have other ideas.
The Last Detail has faults, many of them inevitable carry-overs from the novel. The story structure is contrived and feels it. You know there'll be the fight and the whorehouse scene and so on, with each piece guaranteed to elicit the appropriate emotional reaction. The musical score, for which Ponicsan could not be blamed, only emphasised this problem, pointing out the ironies of each situation with all the subtlety of a Michael Winner film. Most of this could perhaps be put down to Ashby's relative inexperience; certainly such weaknesses were not to be apparent in later films like Being There.
Nicholson's performance was showered with praise, and quite rightly so. Nevertheless one reviewer did offer an interesting, dissenting opinion. John Simon considered Buddusky just one more airing of the actor's 'customary turn, which consists of delaying the reaction time to most stimuli in order to accelerate it in one or two others, and letting the emotion either seep or hurtle to the surface towards a slightly exaggerated, distorted climax - sometimes even an overstated indifference. Most of this derives from Brando, and often misfires even for him. And one cannot get around the feeling that the basic pigment of all Nicholson performances is an impasto of smugness.'
Sticks and stones? Well, whether Nicholson took such reviews to heart or not, he could certainly afford to ignore them career-wise. He won every national acting prize on offer for Buddusky, with the single, glaring exception of an Academy Award. More important to him perhaps, he'd won the respect of the people he thought mattered when it came to judging a performance: 'Whenever the film has been shown, old Navy men have come up and said: "Yeah, that's how it was."'
[Jack Nicholson is] quite clear about the link between his varied passions. Movies, sex, sports, literature, art -- 'there's poetry in all those things. When I look at a painting I get involved. There is a moment of truth somewhere. And basketball: when you miss a play, it's a matter of microseconds. Little moments of truth . . . I was talking to Michelangelo Antonioni, and he had just done Red Desert, which is about technology encroaching on man. Antonioni was firmly on the side of nature, of a more natural existence. And every day while he was doing that film, he drove to work along the Adriatic. On one side was the mountains, unspoiled, beautiful. The other side was encrusted with factories, all rust and corrosion. Antonioni said that he couldn't help it, he found himself looking at the factories rather than the mountains. Because that is where man was. Maybe that's how all those things tie together: they are the efforts of human beings to step out into the ether."After the surprising success and popularity of Easy Rider (1969), in which Jack Nicholson played a supporting role, many film directors wanted to work with him. From: McGilligan, pages 197-198:
Before the year was out, Nicholson had agreed to do a film with Mike Nichols. He had spoken on the phone with Michelangelo Antonioni and Stanley Kubrick. He and Roman Polanski had gone skiing and talked about working together. He had met for the first time with a former editor named Hal Ashby [the successful Mormon film editor who would become one of his generation's most critically acclaimed film directors, and would later direct Nicholson in The Last Detail.]McGilligan, pages 234-237:
He told Bob Rafelson [who had directed Nicholson's screenplay Head (1968) just prior to the making of Easy Rider] that any film Rafelson wanted him to act in, he would be happy to act in, script unseen.
Virtually the next ten years of work -- some say Nicholson's seminal period -- was lined up. The choices reflected, for the most part, favorite filmmakers, compatible friends, and cherished projects that had settled in his mind during the decade when he had felt most alive.
 He [Jack Nicholson] was juggling three embryonic projects that revolved around Michelle Phillips and director Hal Ashby [the acclaimed Mormon film editor-turned-director], writer Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans.McGilligan, pages 242-245:
One the front burner for Nicholson, in 1971, was a remake of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice for MGM. "The poet of the tabloid murder," as Edmund Wilson once called him, Cain was a prolific writer of hard-boiled murder mysteries... Censorship had sanitized the 1946 version [of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but a contemporary film of the tale of lust and murder would give Nicholson another opportunity to attack screen limitations of sex and morality. Of course, Jack would recreate the John Garfield role, a drifter in love with a sultry roadside waitress, while Michelle Phillips would play opposite him as the boss's wife.
Hal Ashby, whose second film, a morbid comedy called Harold and Maude, had attracted a cult following, was scheduled to direct. Another product of Sixties counterculture influences, Ashby was one of the New Age Rat Pack, though less of a social animal than most. One of the most agreeable people of all time, Ashby was agreeable to letting Jack's girlfriend do the Lana Turner number [i.e., play the part of "Cora Smith" that Turner had played in the 1946 version of the film] (later on, he agreeably inherited Jack's old girlfriend, Mimi Machu, as his girlfriend). But MGM wasn't sure it wanted to let a mere rock-and-role songstress [i.e., Michelle Phillips] don the immortal mantle of Lana Turner.
[Eventually, Bob Rafelson (rather than Hal Ashby) directed this remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Jessica Lange starred in the Lana Turner role as "Cora Papadakis," with Nicholson starring as Jack Nicholson. The film was released in 1981.]
...Over at Columbia, Gerald Ayres, one of the executives behind the scenes during the making of Easy Rider, had come across the galleys of a new novel by Darryl Ponicsan. The Last Detail was about two Navy lifers who take a wild detour through bars and whorehouses while escorting a young sailor to the brig.
Ayres knew [Robert] Towne from the days when the writer had ghosted a Western, The Long Ride Home, for Roger Corman to direct at Columbia... Ayres sent Towne the galleys of The Last Detail and made sure that Nicholson too received a copy of the new novel.
The enthusiastic Towne wrote an adaptation of Ponicsan's novel that made significant and artful changes int he book. For one thing, the title refers to the fact that Billy "Bad-A--" Buddusky, the character earmarked for Nicholson, has a heart attack and dies after completing the prisoner detail. In Towne's script, there is no death. (Nor, therefore, is there any concrete explanation for the title.)
...Nicholson loved the novel, loved the script even more, and gave Ayres and Towne his wholehearted commitment. He recognized himself in the swaggering swabbie who confessed to reading "lots of books" (one favorite author, mentioned in Ponicsan's novel, is Camus)...
Postman was going to be filmed first -- especially after Columbia took one look at the in-your-face vernacular [i.e., excessive vulgar and profane language] of Towne's script for The Last Detail and retreated from commitment. Towne refused to alter the language, wouldn't budge on principal. So Columbia put The Last Detail on hold while putting pressure on the screenwriter and producer.
Town had dinner with [producer] Robert Evans one night, during this unsettling limbo, and told the Paramount production boss that he had been mulling over an idea for an original screenplay. It was a murder mystery with a divorce [sic] detective thrown into the middle of a water rights dispute in 1930s Los Angeles. Of course, the detective, a Bogart type, would be played by Jack Nicholson, their shared friend.
Instantly, Evans recognized the potential of Chinatown, as Towne had titled his idea... Towne started in on Chinatown, only to be interrupted by a call from Gerald Ayres. MGM had finally made up its mind about Postman. The studio said no to Michelle Phillips. The James M. Cain remake was summarily canceled. Columbia, anxious to have Nicholson now that his schedule was clear, had given in to Towne's script. And Ayres had invited Hal Ashby to move over to Columbia as director of The Last Detail.
With that,and Chinatown looming on the horizon, Nicholson was fully committed as an actor for the duration of 1973 and 1974.
A sweet-natured, highly eccentric individual, Hal Ashby had hitchhiked in from Utah as a young man to get his first film industry job, out of the state unemployment bureau, as a Multilith operator. He had risen up, after years of working in cutting rooms for William Wyler and George Stevens, to win an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night. When, finally, he graduated to director, his sensibility proved attuned to the times and his career peaked with a remarkable series of movies, including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. Ashby proved one of the great American directors of the 1970s, before self-destructing, one of the most unfortunate victims of the fast-lane life-style.McGilligan, page 313:
When Rupert Crosse was diagnosed with terminal cancer (he died in March of 1975), the production team of The Last Detail had to scurry to find another actor to portray the black sailor, Mulhall (or "Mule"). Otis Young, a solid enough actor, took over, but he did not have the same intimacy with Jack, and the film's focus gravitated to Nicholson. In this fashion, partly circumstantial, The Last Detail became even more of a star vehicle.
Ayres, Ashby, and Nicholson preferred an unknown for the third member of the trio, the kleptomaniac Meadows, who is sentenced to eight years in the brig because he steals from a polio collection box, the favorite charity of the commander's wife. Ashby and Ayres auditioned numerous people for the part. A tall, goony-looking young actor named Randy Quaid captivated them. However, no final decision could be made unless Quaid proved compatible with Nicholson.
A meeting was arranged at Ashby's beachfront house. Nicholson was elaborately polite, as he always was on professional occasions. He was lying on a daybed during most of the meeting, watching television out of the corner of his eye and idly shooting the breeze. Just as Quaid was leaving, Jack jumped up to shake his hand. Ashby had warned Nicholson' that Quaid was very tall (six feet four), but now, for the first time, Jack (five feet nine and a half) realized just how tall.
That physical mismatch is emphasized in the film when Meadows, sitting down with his arms in cuffs, meets his two custodians and stands up for the first time. "Jack is so courageous, not protective of himself in star ways," said producer Gerald Ayres. "Not only was he conscious of that disparity, but he used it in the movie, playing off of it."
The Last Detail started filming in November 1972 at locations in Toronto, Washington, and various locales along the Atlantic Coast, Nicholson's home turf.
Where actors were concerned, Ashby's method was laissez-faire (the kind of method Jack preferred). The director set up the environment and let the actors do their jobs. Ashby had a visual simplicity whereby he let the scene more or less create itself. His style was to observe through an open frame and to let the actors move freely through that space. His close-ups were modest, his pullbacks and other camera moves unobtrusive. Almost patriarchal, Ashby would lean back in his chair on the set, saying nothing, watching. To the casual observer the man in charge might seem almost invisible.
Nicholson took tremendous care with the creation of the lifer Bad-A-- Buddusky, with his short-cropped hair, geeky mustache, and rolling gait. For some scenes he stuck a little cigar in his mouth. The bird tattoos were also his idea. All his life Nicholson had observed salty characters like Buddusky around the Jersey shore -- characters like Shorty, his "uncle." Robert Towne had lowered Buddusky's IQ, deleting the bookworm aspect and the references to Camus. Jack could hit the dumbed-down notes yet evoke tremendous compassion for the type.
Towne's script was followed very closely. One of the few scenes where Nicholson tossed in some dialogue takes place in the hippie pad, with actress Nancy Alien. When she compliments his uniform, he says, "They are cute, aren't they? You know what I like about it? One of my favorite things about this uniform is the way it makes your... look, eh?" That was made up on the spot -- a uniquely Jack ad lib.
Buddusky was a character as preoccupied by sex as the actor who played him. Whorehouses and one-night stands crop up in most Nicholson films, from Five Easy Pieces through A Few Good Men. "The Wonderful World of [female genitalia]" -- as Buddusky rhapsodizes to Meadows -- was also Nicholson's subtext, an almost obligatory refrain in his films.
One of the things a Navy career has built into it is a release from domestic responsibilities. At one point Mule asks Buddusky if he was ever married. "Not so you'd notice," answers Buddusky, spinning a yarn about the wife he left behind. She had "great tits" but wanted him to become a TV repairman. "I just couldn't do it," Buddusky sighs. Here too, Nicholson could find a correlation with himself.
Buddusky develops a rapport with Meadows, the kind of person Nicholson would have taken under his wing in real life (indeed, Quaid became a mid-seventies fixture in Nicholson movies). And by the end of the story, when Meadows is dropped off at the brig, Buddusky has been sucked unwillingly into almost a father-son relationship, which is one of the moving aspects of the film.
When filming was completed, the producers knew they had an outstanding picture: muted, haunting photography by Michael Chapman, a script that validated Towne's mystique, a stellar performance from Nicholson, and worthy support from the rest of the cast.
However, the film's humor, dependent on foul language and sexual situations, made Columbia nervous. Perversely, the studio decided to minimize the humor. At one point, Robert C. Jones (Ashby's invaluable editor and collaborator and later his writer on several films) even did a three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film, stripping out the humor, to see how The Last Detail would play as straight drama. It didn't.
Studio management held up release of The Last Detail for several months, fidgeting and worrying. Then the studio managed to release the film in the same month, December 1975, as another sailor-themed motion picture also adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, Cinderella Liberty.
The Last Detail was never a box-office bonanza, and the undiluted language probably cost Nicholson the award when he was nominated for his third Oscar, as Best Actor. Though he lost the Academy Award in America, he triumphed as Best Actor at Cannes and won glowing reviews from critics worldwide. It was one of his top jobs, as revealing of his depths as the Rafelson films, a crucial clue to the hard-shelled, soft-centered persona that was emerging.
...to revive the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The sudden availability of Rafelson made plausible another teaming of the director with Jack Nicholson... Whatever script had been crafted ten years earlier, when Hal Ashby was on the film [slated to be the director], was set aside. Rafelson, "more abstract and less linear" than most directors, in his own words, wanted a fresh script, and launched auditions by having actresses read pages from Cain's novel.McGilligan, pages 314-315:
Preparing for the part [in The Postman Always Rings Twice], Nicholson read Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner's Song. The actor was struck by what he perceived to be similarities between the character of Frank and Gary Gilmore, the central character in Mailer's mammoth tome, a ruthless and empty killer who was executed by the state of Utah in 1977. [Gilmore, who was executed for murdering two Latter-day Saint men, had been raised in Utah by a lapsed Mormon mother and an abusive lapsed Catholic father. Eventually Gilmore came to regret his violent anti-social and anti-religious behavior, at least to some extent, and he made national headlines by welcoming his execution rather than contesting it endlessly.]McGilligan, page 341:
...As always with Rafelson [the director of The Postman Always Rings Twice], Nicholson was more than usually immersed in the filming, consulting on script changes, working closely with the director on the set. Nicholson was at Rafelson's side for video playbacks of difficult scenes, discussing camera angles and options. Jack had discovered video during Goin' South, and he successfully urged it on several directors -- Hal Ashby, Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick.
Nicholson kept trying to get back together with Hal Ashby, the director of The Last Detail. In the early 1980s it was announced that Ashby and Nicholson would reteam on a film version of Richard Brautigan's Hawkline Monster; then that Jack would play a fictional detective on the trail of a serial killer in the adaptation of Truman Capote's Hand Carved Coffins, to be directed by Ashby; then that Jack would play the businessman who winds up an African tribal chief in Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King to be directed by Ashby.
None of these films ever got past the publicity stage, however, and Ashby became increasingly withdrawn, one more reason why Nicholson, almost grudgingly, was opening up to new and younger directors.