From Five Easy Pieces to The Shining to A Few Good Men and even the latest Lakers home game, Jack Nicholson’s intensity consistently burns through.
Nicholson can be romantic, funny and even likable, but in his anger is where his most complete depiction of the human condition lies. In this video essay from Evan Puschak, (aka Nerdwriter) “Jack Nicholson: The Art of Anger,” Nicholson’s body of work is drawn up as a fascinating case study of how on-screen rage can expand an actor’s range.
What Puschak examines is the physicality of Nicholson’s performances—his displays of bodily contortions that work to convey the wide spectrum of emotions being felt by his rageaholic characters. Throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a “sane” inmate in a mental institution, McMurphy’s outbursts are not just about expressing rage, but are a coping mechanism for his greatest frustrations, a show of compassion for his fellow inmates and a cover for his deep-seated insecurity with the world around him. In the moments of his purest anger, we don’t feel as if we are watching undiluted fury but, rather, are seeing a fully developed character force himself through a state of perpetual self-doubt and unrest.
Halfway through the video, speaking of Nicholson’s performance in Carnal Knowledge, Puschak says, “Anger can be a noise so loud that you don’t have to hear your own insecurities.” In Carnal Knowledge, the direction that Nicholson’s character is aiming his anger—outward—is the exact opposite of the source of his frustration. He lashes outward, but the desperation in his voice—something that only Nicholson could bring to the character—is a key signifier of how far from the surface his internal turmoil dwells.
Puschak points out that, in the famed courtroom sequences of A Few Good Men, it is not Nicholson’s verbose dialect that shows how he is feeling, but rather everything else. Nicholson barely moves his body when he speaks, and while he burns with passion, he is composed and precise. It is the slight changes in his body language that show when he has flown off the rails—not necessarily when his Colonel Jessup devolves to attempting physical violence. Only during the silences between these moments of anger, the video explains, is when audiences are able to get a handle on exactly what Nicholson’s characters are feeling.
Eventually, the video pulls back from its micro studies to give a macro picture of how Nicholson’s entire filmography can be pieced together to form a larger view of what anger is. Anger is as complex an emotion as any other and it can be expressed in a number of different ways—whether in an emotional context, as with Five Easy Pieces, to evoke laughter, as in Batman or to intimidate, as in Nicholson’s role in The Departed. In this way, Nicholson paints with what appears to be a rather broad brush—”anger”—to express facets of humanity that are each distinct from the next: psychosis, insecurity, depression, frustration, disgust, fear, shame, jealousy, love. MM