Either way, it's an excuse to talk about one of our great actors. Know what Nicholson movie I really like? The Border.
There are others, of course. He’s funny in a cameo role in Broadcast News.
He was easy to watch even when he missed the mark.
Nicholson gave an odd performance in Bob Rafelson’s turgid 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. His character, an ex-con in his mid-forties, was 24 in James M. Cain’s novel. In the movie, though, he felt underdeveloped and it’s hard to tell if he was sinister or a sap. It is as if the actor and director never got a handle on who they wanted the character to be.
But what’s compelling about Nicholson’s acting in the movie is that he didn't chew the scenery. He fell back on his familiar screen persona in spots but he was restrained, too. Best of all, he was generous and let Jessica Lange dominate the movie.
The sexual charge between Nicholson and Lange was undeniable.
She's tough, man (as a side note, it's refreshing to see a woman play a femme fatal and not look like a waif). Early on, she shoots Nicholson a look while she pours wine for her husband that’s enough to stop any man–or woman–dead in their tracks.
You can see why she’d drive a person to do crazy things. The pulp is drained out of this version (written by David Mamet, photographed by Sven Nykvist)–it’s not nearly as appealing as the John Garfield original–but the electricity generated by Lange keeps you watching, and her sex scenes with Nicholson are savage and hard to forget.
For more, check out this article by Patrick McGilligan in American Film: The Postman Rings Again.
Also, be sure to dig Ron Rosenbaum's 1986 New York Times magazine profile on Nicholson:
The tendency of those who watch Nicholson on screen and read about his colorful private life is to see him as an ''instinctual'' actor, as opposed to, say, Dustin Hoffman, Nicholson's chief rival for recognition as premier film actor of his era, who is known for his methodical, cerebral approach to a role. While Hoffman has become known as some kind of demon for actorish preparation, Nicholson is merely seen as some kind of demon.
He jokes about it. ''I've been studying to play the Devil,'' he says of his next project, the role of John Updike's Mephistophelean rogue, Darryl Van Horne, in ''The Witches of Eastwick.'' ''Of course, a lot of people think I've been preparing for it all my life,'' he adds with a suitably demonic grin.
Still, the view of Nicholson as an instinctual, easy rider of an actor relying on some high-octane-powered ''natural gift'' misses an essential element of his creative identity: the side of him that would sedulously sing ''Three Blind Mice'' for two years, that is constantly ''diagnosing his instrument.'' This is a man who still analyzes his roles in terms of Strasbergian ''polarities,'' who, during those lean years, would sit around in Los Angeles coffee houses for hours discussing Stanislavskian metaphysics with similarly inclined cinema theorists, who would use their meager earnings from biker epics like ''Hell's Angels on Wheels'' to support themselves while making austere Beckett-like nouvelle vague ''westerns.''
If Nicholson's film persona tends toward world-weary disillusion and cool cynicism, Nicholson himself is still the kind of excitable acting-theory enthusiast who is capable of great earnestness on the subject; capable, for instance, of suddenly pushing back his dining-room chair and leaping up from the table to paraphrase Camus on the actor's life:
''The actor is Camus's ideal existential hero, because if life is absurd, and the idea is to live a more vital life, therefore the man who lives more lives is in a better position than the guy who lives just one.''
Here’s a selection of some of Jack’s Greatest Hits, the temper-temper blowups. It's an obvious, and perhaps uninspired, highlight reel, still, it's damned entertaining.