Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jack Nicholson Deserves a Better Biography Than This

The Hollywood bad boy is taking on fewer roles—and dating less. Now would seem the time for a great biography to salute him. What we have instead is Marc Eliot’s dismal effort.

Nicholson? The title of Marc Eliot’s latest movie star biography is counter-intuitive to say the least. Who but an irate headmaster ever referred to Jack Nicholson by his surname? Surnames, you can almost hear one of his infectiously insolent characters saying, are for assholes. For the past four decades and more, since he shot to fame in Easy Rider, he has been known to all and sundry simply as “Jack”. It’s an absurdly connotative name: Jack the lad, Jack of Hearts, Jack Daniels, jack a car, jack up, jack… well, you can fill in the naughtier bits yourself. The point is that Nicholson is “Jack” or he is nothing—and that even before opening “Nicholson” you suspect Eliot knows Jack about “Jack.”

Jack Nicholson
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Which is a tad unfair. As a glance through Eliot’s Notes and Sources shows, he’s read (and relied heavily on quotations from) the many biographies of Jack already published, as well as pretty much every lengthy interview Jack has granted journalists down the years. True, Eliot has talked to a few of his subject’s friends and colleagues, too, but few of them have anything ear-popping to relate. Aside from the late Karen Black’s revelation that despite their mutual attraction for one another she and Jack never got it together, the closest the book gets to a scoop is Mickey Dolenz’s recollection of how Jack, turned away from a Bahamian casino for being tie-less and shirtless, didn’t explode in fury but merely showed “patience and reasoning” and went quietly on his way. The nice man cometh.

Not that he hangs around long. No biography of Jack Nicholson could long skirt the issue of his prodigious appetites. The bulk of Eliot’s book is given over to envy-filled accounts of its subject’s down and dirty bad boy antics. Of Nicholson’s early days in Los Angeles, in the mid-Fifties, Harry Dean Stanton says he “always see[s] him with a cheap red wine on his lips”. There was more on them than that, though. Shacked up with a bunch of fellow wannabe stars in what Eliot gleefully relates was “the wildest house in Hollywood”, Nicholson spent his days and nights on “round-the-clock partying, drinks, drugs, sex, lots of tea (the smoking kind), and beautiful, hot, willing girls who loved to get just as high as the boys”. Bliss was it in that dawn to be a-jive. Still, even as wide-eyed an acolyte as Eliot ought perhaps have wondered whether the story of Nicholson’s having smoked 155 joints during the shooting of one scene of Easy Rider might be, like, you know, a little far out, man.

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