Happy 80th Birthday Jack Nicholson! 22nd April 2017

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Is there anyone who doesn’t like this man? The legendary wild man of the American cinema turns an unbelievable 80 this weekend. The self-proclaimed Irish Democrat from the Jersey shore has never given anything less than an interesting performance and there’s a lot to choose from as you can see from the posters – chronicling sixty years of his films from his beginnings with Roger Corman and the first decade where he really paid his dues and wrote several screenplays into the bargain. We all have our own favourites amongst his work and there are the great films like Five Easy PiecesCuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown (written by Robert Towne for him – they became friends at an acting workshop) and The Shining.  And there are the not fully great ones where he crafts truly hilarious or interesting or moving characters, like The Border or Ironweed, Blood and Wine, The King of Marvin Gardens or The Pledge. He’s been pleasurable in truly terrible films like As Good as it Gets or a challenging one like Carnal Knowledge. His forays into directing have been fascinating – Drive, He Said, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, The Two Jakes. He will hopefully return to the screen in the US version of Toni Erdmann, recently announced, but until then he has a truly magnificent back catalogue to plunder. Choose your own Jack Nicholson Adventure. Happy Birthday to a great star and an astonishing talent.

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The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Happy Birthday Roger Corman! 04/05/2017

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Aside from being a great opportunity to look at 50 years of wonderful poster art and titles to die for, today is trash-horror-exploitation maestro Roger Corman’s 91st birthday. The legendary Pope of Pop Cinema started life as an engineer but lasted just 4 days in the job. After a spell studying literature and reading scripts for Hollywood studios he got into the whole filmmaking thang himself and created a company that eventually served as a film school for some of the most notable directors in American cinema, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Stephanie Rothman to Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich to Penelope Spheeris. The most acclaimed of his work is the Edgar Allan Poe series, adapted by top-class scenarists like Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. His own best work as director (The Intruder) was so controversial he steered clear of such subject matter (racism) again and passion projects like Von Richthofen and Brown aka The Red Baron eventually gave way to serial producing:  his last directorial effort was a quarter of a century ago (Frankenstein Unbound). He audited acting classes with blacklistee Jeff Corey to understand performance and meet talent – which is how Jack Nicholson got his break in Cry Baby Killer and Robert Towne started writing screenplays. What I love about his early work is the way the women come to the fore:  June Kenney, Fay Spain, Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot are some of my favourite ladies and some of his alumni like Paul Bartel, Ron Howard and Demme have called upon him to act in small character parts in their mainstream successes. I once presented him with a project on biker movies and it was returned to me with the dry comment ‘Very accurate.’  High praise indeed! A scattering of my own fave raves from this renaissance man would include Gunslinger, Sorority Girl, A Bucket of Blood, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wild Angels and Cockfighter. So much choice! Happy Birthday Mr Corman!

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

The Missouri Breaks

Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Shampoo (1975)

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The unthinkable death of Carrie Fisher prompted me to put on one of my favourite Seventies film and the one which marked her striking debut.  She’s the spoiled precocious teenage daughter of Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lester (Jack Warden). The former is screwing her Beverly Hills hairdresser, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and it is one of their couplings that opens the film in radical fashion – in the dark. Lester meanwhile is having his own adulterous affair with Jackie (Julie Christie) whose former BF is George, who is currently co-habiting with Jill  (Goldie Hawn). All the women think they are unique in George’s affections but one of the film’s good visual jokes is that he gives them all precisely the same hairstyle (and that’s not all he gives them…) They all meet up at a party  on Election Night 1968 and their complex roundelay of relationships and infidelities unravels piece by piece. Some of this arose from screenwriter Robert Towne’s experiences with a dancer whose former boyfriend was a Beverly Hills hairdresser, who, far from being gay, was like a rooster in a henhouse. Apparently there were quite a few of them around Hollywood at the time. The other influence was Restoration comedy.  Towne regretted giving co-writing credit to his star, Warren Beatty, but it does have a political component not evident in his other work. Directed with great finesse by Hal Ashby and boasting a host of marvellous performances in a naughty, caustic tragicomedy that just improves on every viewing, this is a key film of the period. You can read more about it in my book about Towne, https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482705700&sr=8-3&keywords=elaine+lennon. Rest In Peace, Princess Carrie.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more  you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Reds (1981)

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Warren Beatty is emerging from his shell with another film this Fall (about Howard Hughes) and it’s been a long time coming. He takes his time (over some things, apparently) and it’s always worth waiting for. This epic film about American radical John Reed took a very long time to make – weather conditions were part of the problem, the script was the other. The spine of the story is his romance with a married woman, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who was a dilettante journalist who left her husband to shack up with him,  and their love triangle with poet (later playwright) Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). He travels to Russia to document the Revolution and returns a Bolshevik. In any dimensional epic a romance is inscribed as the secondary line of narrative but this is really dominated by the personal story because it’s principally about characters who are diverted by ideas and ideologies – free love is just about escaping responsibility, not assuming it. Discovering too late in the day that Soviet rule is corrupt and corrosive and murderous (with Jerzy Kosinski a suitably intimidating Zinoviev), our heroes are incapable of being saved from their own foolishness. Notable for its cinematography (Vittorio Storaro who got an Oscar) and a score by Stephen Sondehim and Dave Grusin, this includes ‘witness’ interviews with personalities as diverse as Henry Miller and Rebecca West and is perhaps the kind of film Godard would have made if anyone had been silly enough to give him Beatty’s budget. Maureen Stapleton won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her no-nonsense Emma Goldman and Beatty won for Best Director.