What Makes Jack Nicholson A Film Legend?

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 Even before he saw the 1970 film “Five Easy Pieces,” which help launch Jack Nicholson’s career, Scott Edwards became a fan of the actor when he saw one of the movie’s most famous scenes.

“Leading up the Academy Awards on every local and national news story, they showed that diner scene. I saw that probably a hundred times before I saw the movie, so without knowing who this guy was it a made an impression on me.” Edwards said.

He went on to write a book about the actor’s career, Quintessential Jack-“The Art of Jack Nicholson on Screen” (McFarland and Company). “

It’s actually based on something that happened to Nicholson in real life when he was a struggling young actor. He’s in a diner and he’s trying to order a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast which wasn’t on the menu. He tried to negotiate with the waitress to make the components come together from various things that were on the menu. She finally sees through all this and says ‘Do you see that sign?’ The sign talks about ‘No Misbehaving.’ Nicholson says: ‘You see this sign?’ He then sweeps everything off the table.”


That scene led to Edwards deep interest in Nicholson’s work. He said he would go to see Nicholson’s films even of the subject matter didn’t interest him.

“There was always something happening in his approach to the role, even if it was the smallest role or if the film didn’t turn out well. It’s a testimony to his dedication to the craft of acting and how much he puts into it. “

Edwards said Nicholson’s talent as an actor combined with being the right fit for the new kind of filmmaking that was happening in Hollywood the 1970s with an emphasis on realism helped lead to his success.

“It was a combination of the right place and the right time, and he was one of the people who made it the right place,” Edwards said. “The films talked about things in everyday life instead of escapism or something based on a famous play or book which had often been the case in the old Hollywood system.”

Edwards says among the roles where Nicholson shines is as immigration enforcement agent Charlie Smith in the 1982 film “The Border.” The movie features Nicholson as a man whose wife’s unrealistic lifestyle demands force him to take a job at an El Paso, Texas border agency.

“He really is out of sorts there. He doesn’t believe in the issue. It’s all about getting quotas. He’s put in a difficult position in that agency. People are taking money and trafficking. He just reaches his own border,” Edwards said.

Edwards says that Nicholson’s character, who has to decide whether he should commit crimes in order to finance the life his wife wants, is a classic example of the kind of part at which Nicholson excels.

“Nicholson’s famous roles don’t end in a positive way. You don’t have a ‘happily ever after’ kind of story with his most important and famous roles. Randall McMurphy in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Shining” with Jack Torrance, this film, “Chinatown” with J.J Gittes character, they don’t dance off the screen happily. They have bad stuff happen to them, yet we remember them. He’s perfect for that kind of thing because he doesn’t look like that typical leading man. He looks like someone who could be put in a difficult situation. He somehow handles being able to be in those roles and come across convincingly and draw you in,” Edwards said.

Sunday at 3:15 p.m., Scott Edwards will introduce the film “The Border” at a special showing at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. Following the screening, Edwards will lead a post-film discussion.

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