Notes on Brando and Nicholson (from The Secret Life of Movies)
During the period of his prime, from 1969 to 1976, Nicholson represented the outsider, the rebel outlaw/existential man, in revolt at the most mundane, restricted level. Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, Buddusky in The Last Detail, David Locke of The Passenger, and finally MacMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, are all ordinary men with extraordinary levels of energy and passion (albeit of the negative variety) who lack the insight or the imagination to express themselves in anything but petty, occasionally poetic but finally impotent acts of revolt. Above all their frustration takes the form of an absurd kind of posturing, what Pauline Kael called “a satirical approach to macho.”Kael was referring to Nicholson’s persona rather than that of his characters, and yet (as she also pointed out), the two often seem inseparable. It is the knowing manner in which Nicholson inhabits his roles, while at the same time staying outside of them, as if winking at the audience, that make so much of what he does a kind of “turn.” Nicholson mocks his characters’ frustration, their impotence, but he also gives them enough self-awareness to appear to be mocking themselves. The machismo of his characters is the machismo of a male too sophisticated not to know how hollow and childish such posturing really is. At the same time, they are too contemptuous of their own sophistication and awareness to do anything but mock and degrade it with empty acts of machismo.
Nicholson—whose “specialty is divided characters”—was the necessary counterculture hero who mixed the sensitivity and vulnerability of James Dean with the uncouthness, roughness, and virility of Brando, while adding something entirely his own to the mix—irony and satire. It is there in the devilish leer of his grin and the mischievous tilt of his eyebrows. At times, this deviltry was indistinguishable from mere clowning, the wild, unpredictable, possibly psychotic (definitely dangerous), but undeniably seductive mystique that made Nicholson the biggest star in the world (perhaps not in box office terms, but in terms of status as a movie actor). Of course, “mystique,” so far as any actor has such (and it’s what makes a mere star into a kind of legend, along the lines of Brando, Dean, and few others), is entirely particular to the method of the actor in question; above all, I think, it depends on the feeling that we are seeing only and exactly what the actor intends us to see. On the one hand, it’s the undisclosed depths—and early Nicholson suggested this as much as early Brando—on the other hand, it relates to the superficiality of what the actor is actually doing, the awareness that he is greater than the role, that the role is but a single facet of the actor’s total personality.
When we think of Brando we think of Terry Malloy and Stanley Kowalski, or we think of Don Vito, Paul from Last Tango in Paris, and of other, more peripheral performances that added body and texture to these personas (young and old Brando, respectively). Nicholson never really succeeded in creating a second, more mature persona after his ’70s peak, but during the seven years between Easy Rider and Cuckoo’s Nest, he attained a consistency and integrity of performance that perhaps no other movie star ever has before or since. All these portrayals—George Hanson, Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, his less successful but still noteworthy turns in The King of Marvin Gardens and Carnal Knowledge, Buddusky from The Last Detail, David Locke in The Passenger, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, and finally MacMurphy of Cuckoo’s Nest—fuse into a single persona. Nicholson, in a sense, completed the work of Brando and Dean in bringing the once-untouchable male movie god into the everyday milieu of our lives. Via the “method performances,” and the sordid anti-romantic nature of the movies themselves (at least compared to old Hollywood product), Nicholson ensured that the aloof, superior perfection of Cooper, Gable, and Grant became forever a thing of the past. Those actors who upheld the more mythical or idealized image of the male—Newman, Eastwood, Redford, Beatty—may have had more commercial clout, but they lacked the authenticity and credibility of the new, post-Brando breed—Hoffman, De Niro, Pacino, Hackman, Duvall, et al.—none of whom were really “leading men” in the old Hollywood sense. Of this new breed of anti-heroes, it was Nicholson who was the closest to being conventionally handsome, and beyond doubt he was the most sheerly charismatic. One felt with Nicholson that, although he was certainly capable of the same depth and subtlety as these other performers, he tended to opt instead for the more theatrical “turn,” partly, one suspected, to draw attention to the illusory process of acting in which he was involved. To this extent, Nicholson, by both portraying and embodying a rejection of hypocrisy (lies and facades), spoke directly to his audience. He was the male in revolt, and what Nicholson communicated, once the excitement of revolt had died down and the sober reality of impotence had sunk in, was fatality, resignation, and despair.
Marlon Brando—for different reasons than Jack Nicholson—is a quintessentially schizoid actor. Nicholson reconciled himself to the absurd, unmanly posturing of his profession by taking a satirical approach to it: however brilliant he is, he almost never lets us forget that he is acting. In the end, he got so outside his performance—and filled it so full with knowing winks and conspiratorial leers—that he had become a clown, Hamlet playing the court jester. Brando spent a large chunk of his career playing the clown also, but in a very different fashion. Brando was the first movie star to bring the “method” to the general public, to make it fashionable, hip. When he exploded onto the screen with The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront, there could be little doubt even among untutored viewers that they were seeing something unprecedented. If you’d have asked these viewers at the time what made Brando different, they might have said he was more “real,” that he represented them, the common man, in a way previous generations of movie actors had not (not Cagney or Tracy, and certainly not Gable or Wayne). All this came from Brando’s “method”—he dug into himself and found the living equivalent (the embodiment) of the character, he merged with the role. Yet he was not a character actor, his presence was too strong for that; Brando didn’t disappear into the role, he transformed it.
Following his heady peak, unable to sustain either his focus and commitment or the audience’s good will towards him, Brando began to take on ever more inappropriate roles, to get sucked into misguided projects until he became, not just the shadow of his former self, but a parody—a buffoon. Brando was the active agent in his own debasement, however, and at root was a basic insecurity, not as an actor but as a man making a living as an actor, by pretending. Not only was it “womanly,” it was (perhaps synonymous to Brando) duplicitous, deceitful, phony. It was fake: a pose. This doubt seems to have eaten away at Brando’s core of self-respect until the only way he could cover his embarrassment was by making a deliberate ass of himself, showing that he was above it all, that he was only in it for the money. A string of flops (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Ugly American, Bedtime Story, A Countess from Honk Kong, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Chase) ensured that by the time of The Godfather, Brando was all but washed up in his own profession.
Nicholson’s final and best role in this seven-year excursion into schizophrenia was the full expression of the actor’s preoccupation and the most complete realization of his talents to date. It has been thirty-five years since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, with the exceptions of The Crossing Guard and The Pledge, the actor has never even come close to the degree of intensity, commitment, and depth which he showed in his earliest roles. In fact Nicholson’s career has been something of a travesty from this time onwards, almost as if the passivity of the schizophrenic roles which he embodied so superbly left him at the mercy of greater forces, helplessly swept away on a tide of mediocrity.
With Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson became for a brief moment more than a mere actor, he became an archetype, a symbol (specifically, the Nicholson seen on the movie poster, straining upward as he attempts to lift the marble shower unit). What this archetype symbolized was freedom, revolt, the undying will to prevail no matter the obstacles, and no matter how impotent the revolt may initially appear to be. (“At least I tried, goddamn it!”) Despite his grandstanding and rebelliousness, however, MacMurphy was also in a sense a passive character. He enters the lunatic asylum not on a mission but simply taking refuge from the hardships of prison life, expecting an “easy ride.” Once there, something takes over and he becomes, against his own better instincts (and certainly against his interests), a sort of schizophrenic crusader. Finally (as Kesey’s novel has it), he becomes a martyr. Nicholson/MacMurphy was the schizo trickster who unwittingly sacrificed himself for a cause he never believed in. It was something that Bobby Dupea had to head for Alaska to find, something that Buddusky and Gittes in their world-weariness lost sight of altogether. This “cause,” most simply encapsulated under the banner of “Freedom,” relates to the liberating allure of non-conformity, which finds its apotheosis in madness. It is more subtly and obliquely signified by the emblem of silence—the unconscious. In Cuckoo’s Nest this alternative, the possibility of freedom, is represented by the Chief, the Indian, the Other, who is for most of the movie passing himself off as a deaf-mute. The Chief abides in silence partially because he has nothing to say, but mostly because he knows whatever he says would be wasted on the world. He has taken refuge in the appearance of imbecility, and this is his greater wisdom. Knowing that in an insane world any sane man will be thought mad, he feigns insanity instead. But of course he gets locked up anyway, and this also is his refuge, the madhouse offering a more organized, peaceful kind of insanity than that of society at large. The Chief (read: unconscious) abides in silence until MacMurphy (the ego) comes along to stir his inner fire into life again, to reawaken his will to live, to partake in the madness rather than simply observe it passively from a safe distance. The chief, by biding his time, is also (as the film has it) gathering the power to act, while MacMurphy, for all his conscious striving, is impotent. But it is MacMurphy’s (the ego’s) powerlessness—or more precisely his struggling in spite of it (“At least I tried!”)—that serves as an example to the Chief and an inspiration, an incentive, to the unconscious to move. It’s MacMurphy’s insane bid to accomplish the impossible that inspires the Chief to act, and so (with the strength of silence behind him) make the impossible possible. This in turn stirs up the fires of revolt in the other inmates (though in the movie they stay safe in their incarceration, they at least cheer the Chief on his way), and, potentially at least, it starts a chain reaction by which (ego overrun by Id) the lunatics take over the asylum.
MacMurphy’s example is an unstoppable motion. What makes him an authentic martyr, and Cuckoo’s Nest a genuine parable of its time, is how he uses the (growingly collective) schizophrenic experience as a cover for his messianic (apocalyptic) pretensions. Society is a madhouse. The sane man is called mad, and crucified—or lobotomized—by such a society. This is ostensibly to suppress his message, but it also allows the other inmates to see for themselves the truth (that society is a madhouse), so that, potentially, this truth may set them free. When the Chief breaks out and returns to the wilderness, swallowed up by darkness, it’s the unconscious taking over again, the stirring of the Other, the awakening of the Id, by which the ego is inevitably and fatally smothered, and so finds release. Now the trickster’s mission has been accomplished, he is no longer of any use and must return whence he came: to non-existence.
It’s no wonder, perhaps, if Nicholson’s career seemed to be smothered in its cradle after this. As spokesman for the schizophrenic experience and avatar of impotent revolt, his work was done.
Perhaps this is the price that Nicholson paid for his earlier, phenomenal success, and for his at least partially realized Brechtian aspirations? After Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson moved steadily further into a kind of self-parodic style of acting which—much like Brando before him—helped to distance him from the paucity of his material but also consigned him to the reluctant, if not entirely unintentional, role of clown. Nicholson’s clowning was up there with most other actors’ sincerest efforts, however, and somehow he survived with his legend—if not integrity—more or less intact. It seems a given, however, that he will never again regain the kind of power, or artistic relevance, which he enjoyed in his heyday.