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Jack Nicholson, Existentialist Cowboy: Revisiting His Weird Early Years

As quoted in Peter Biskind's 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the mighty Bruce Dern recalled the ascent of a fellow biker-movie alum thusly: "Jack Nicholson? I gotta pay attention to Jack fuckin' Nicholson, he's gonna be a movie star? Sure enough, six months later, he was."

With a breakout role as a dope-smoking lawyer in a chin-strapped Notre Dame helmet in 1969's Zeitgeist-revving Easy Rider, Jack ascended overnight from b-movie purgatory into superstardom. Better-known now as the amber-glassed zombie sitting courtside at Lakers games, his body of work was unparalleled for decades—the span from Easy Rider into the '80s is still revered as one of the hottest runs ever, his performances veering from subdued to wired to psychopathic. Alongside a motley crew of actors (Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Monte Hellman) and the three-man BBS studio, Nicholson was among those practically handed the keys to the studio system for awhile, a hell of a trip for Hollywood that soon wore off thanks to subsequent, less electrifying counterculture films like The Last Movie, The Hired Hand, and Two-Lane Blacktop.


But in the years leading up to Easy Rider, Jack was just another two-bit actor pinballing between roles as WWII grunts, bikers, and cowpokes, with peculiar appearances on The Andy Griffith Show and in The Little Shop of Horrors (as a drill-fetishizing dental patient). At one point in the sixties, Nicholson had all but given up his dream of being an actor, instead focusing on working behind the scenes. Last month came the official DVD release of two obscure 1966 films that featured Nicholson as actor and, in one case, writer: Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, both cranked out by director Monte Hellman and producer Roger Corman in an 18-day span. Neither film ever saw the inside of an American theater, though, relegated instead to European circuit television, where more existential fare no doubt had a bigger audience.

"They were too quiet for westerns," Corman recalls nearly 40 years on in one of the set's extra interviews. "There was not enough action in the scripts." Positioned between Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy and Sam Peckinpah's violent The Wild Bunch, these films nonetheless endure as two strange, thoughtful Westerns that destabilized the genre's rigid White Hat vs. Black Hat moral binary. And rather than invoke the dizzying drama of Leone's or Peckinpah's red rivers of blood, both films instead tighten screws, letting their characters sweat bullets amid a ratcheting sense of dread as the plot crawls on.

Ride in the Whirlwind is the lesser of the two films, by dint of Nicholson playing an innocent rather than a malevolent antihero. His own script explores a mistaken-identity theme: He plays one of a trio of young rodeo riders who get mixed up with another gang, and falsely accused of robbery and murder by a lynch mob serving up blind justice. These innocents, unable to shake their fate, are forced into becoming murderers and thieves themselves in order to outrun that posse, the film inconclusive as to Nicholson's fate. But his screen presence here can't compare to that of another Western bit player named Dean Stanton (he'd add his first name, Harry, to future credits), who shines as a one-eyed bandit with the handle "Old Dick."

The Shooting is better, and remains one of the more enigmatic Westerns of the '60s, one that some commentators suggest reflects the American psyche in the wake of the JFK assassination. Taken from Carole Eastman's impressionistic script (under the pen name Adrien Joyce), it's a meditation-on-vengeance sort of affair, to the point of madness. Exhaustion courses through the film, from a pony executed at the onset to all the subsequent humans hell-bent on revenge at all costs, stumbling through the harsh desert toward their fate. Character actor Warren Oates is the heart of this one: an enigma of unspoken emotion who would go on to deliver some of the most sphinx-like performances on film for Hellman and Peckinpah both. In Two-Lane Blacktop, he played the ascot-and-sweater foil to two stone-faced drivers (courtesy of pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson), and a few years on, he played the willfully mute inscrutable title character in The Cockfighter.

But Nicholson is the connective thread here, and The Shooting in particular anticipated his emergence as a live-wire psychopath of the highest voltage. He plays gunslinger Billy Spear, and even though it takes more than a half-hour before he even shows up onscreen, it's quite the introduction: an extreme close-up of Jack's jade eyes, his colophon of a nose sunburned from 18 days of desert filming. He's a black-gloved sadist of a hired gun, and he delivers his lines with a sneer that would soon underlie many of his iconic roles: Hearing him deliver such threats as "I'm gonna blow your face off" and "You're brain's gonna fry out here, you know that?" foreshadows the long lineage of nutjobs crazily smiling just over the horizon.


Andy Beta writes at Pitchfork, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal, and tweets as@betaworldpeace.


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