Movie stars don’t retire like legendary athletes do. They just fade away, taking parts of less magnitude or working less frequently, or stepping out of the spotlight altogether, leaving us to wonder whether they’ll ever be seen again. And as we get further away from his last film role, it seems less and less likely that Jack Nicholson will ever grace us with his grinning presence again. Nicholson hasn’t appeared in a film since 2010’s clunker How Do You Know, and has made only a handful of public appearances since then. It’s a sudden departure from the public eye for a man who spent decades sitting courtside in our imaginations.
But maybe it’s inevitable. Nicholson’s persona—let’s just call it “Jack”—was uniquely of its era, and doesn’t fit tidily into this one. A rebellious, wisecracking, and womanizing white male garners much more scrutiny in 2020 than one did in the ’70s and ’80s, when Jack was at the peak of his powers. Maybe some movie stars leave because they know it’s time to.
To understand why he left, we have to travel back to when he arrived. Fifty years ago on Saturday, Jack officially arrived in the American consciousness. 1970’s Five Easy Pieces is a fascinating glimpse into how the successful construction of a star depends on both the individual charisma of an actor and their unconscious ability to reflect the zeitgeist. It wasn’t Nicholson’s first film, not by a long shot. He spent 10 years in the cinematic wilderness, searching for the right fit—starring in B movies and grindhouse horror as part of the Roger Corman repertory company, then writing, producing, and starring in the low-budget acid Westerns Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, neither of which found an audience in the U.S. Honestly, Nicholson just didn’t look right on a horse.
As the counterculture invaded Hollywood, Nicholson was one of the first on the bus. He wrote The Trip, a psychedelic freak-out starring his friends Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and cowrote Head, an attempt by the Monkees to make their version of a Beatles movie. Neither was a hit. His third counterculture film, however, was 1969’s Easy Rider. The world finally noticed him. As ACLU lawyer George Hanson, Nicholson hints at the star he would become—he wears sunglasses for the first time here—but still, something is off. His guffaws are a little too loud, his gesticulations too exaggerated, his accent a little too Southern. He earned his first Oscar nomination for Easy Rider, but he still wasn’t Jack.
Everything changed the next year when Nicholson’s friend and frequent collaborator Bob Rafelson, who cowrote Head and produced Easy Rider, cast him as the lead in his next film. It would earn four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and the first of Nicholson’s eight career nominations for Best Actor. In his review at the time, Roger Ebert called it simply “one of the best American films,” full-stop. Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, a wandering loner who, when we meet him, is basking in the failure of Manifest Destiny. Bobby works in a California oil field by day, drinks with his friend Elton (Billy “Green” Bush) at night, and cheats on his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) as much as possible. He seems content with the minor pleasures of his working-class life, but there are signs he’s about to crack. Stuck in traffic one morning, he gets out of the car and starts roaming up and down the freeway, yelling at commuters and barking like a dog. He spots an upright piano sitting on a pickup truck, and he climbs up and starts playing a classical piece. His chops are evident. The truck starts pulling away, but Bobby hardly notices, continuing his song as he is driven off into the distance.
Movie history is full of actors who became stars in a single scene. Rita Hayworth throwing her hair back in Gilda. Eddie Murphy taking over a redneck bar through sheer confidence in 48 Hours. Brad Pitt showing his abs in Thelma & Louise. Margot Robbie bringing Leonardo DiCaprio to his knees in The Wolf of Wall Street. In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson has two such moments. The aforementioned piano scene is the slightly lesser known one. The other is so iconic it can be summed up in two words: chicken salad.
After Bobby learns that his father is gravely ill, he decides to drive up to Washington with Rayette to visit him. They stop for lunch at a diner, and when the waitress refuses to give Bobby a side order of toast—no substitutions, she tells him—he stubbornly orders a chicken salad sandwich, hold the chicken salad. “You want me to hold the chicken?” she asks. “I want you to hold it between your knees,” he snarks back, before sweeping a table full of glasses and plates onto the floor and walking out.
In this moment, Jack is born: rebellious, angry, and misogynistic, and fully liberated from social norms. He’s charming and dangerous. He’s the Cheshire Cat who’s always got one eye on your parakeet. He’s the guy in high school who never does homework but gets straight A’s anyway. Then one day, you find out he has an awful home life. You start to feel sad for him, and you understand the world a little better. And you never forget him.
That’s what happens between us and Bobby Dupea. When he gets home, Bobby’s working-class cool is revealed to be a complete facade. He actually comes from a dysfunctional upper-class family of classical musicians. He has a younger sister (played by the great Lois Smith) who is infatuated with him; an older brother, Carl (Ralph Waite), who demeans him; and a cipher of a father who cannot move or speak after suffering two strokes—not that it would matter. “I get the sense that if you could talk, we wouldn’t be talking,” Bobby tells him in an poignant monologue, just before breaking down into tears. Worse still, there is a woman there—Catherine, Carl’s girlfriend (Susan Anspach)—who sees through all his bullshit. She sleeps with him, yes, but she also refuses his advances for something more meaningful. She knows he doesn’t have it in him.
If you see Bobby as an avatar for his generation, it’s a bleak judgment. Made in 1969 and released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is a totem of the historical moment the counterculture turned dark. Bobby holds all the values associated with the hippie movement: an itinerant lifestyle, free love, and an innate resistance to the old ways. Except it’s not cute anymore. In time, his nomadic, unattached existence starts to look like a child’s fantasy of running away from home. His insistence on bedding every woman he meets comes off more like a misogynistic power play than an aspirational sexual appetite. And his treatment of Rayette in the film’s final scene is the stuff of villains. The conclusion finds him headed north, to some unknown place where it gets “cold as hell”—without a friend, a dollar to his name, or even a coat.
The archetype of an angry, rebellious young man with unfulfilled promise and issues with women didn’t begin or end with Jack. It was the defining character of New Hollywood cinema, from The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon to Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. If Pacino was the decade’s smoldering prince and De Niro its weird uncle, Nicholson was its mad king. He held the crown for at least a decade, rebelling against every American institution he could find: the Navy in The Last Detail; government corruption in Chinatown; an evil mental health system in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; domesticity itself in The Shining. It was an archetype that reflected the national mood. New Hollywood cinema was born aesthetically from the French New Wave, but its themes and values came from the American political disillusionments of the late 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The old ways weren’t working anymore, but by 1969, the new hippie dream was already dead.
All that was left was Jack, whose righteous anger was a corpse left to rot. Like many counterculture figures, Jack got lost in the late ’70s. He directed a misbegotten Western (Goin’ South) and starred in a couple of forgotten misfires (The Last Tycoon, The Missouri Breaks). In the ’80s, he found renewed relevance by becoming a joke. In The Shining, Terms of Endearment, The Witches of Eastwick, and Batman, his previously incisive performances gave way to mugging and self-parody. He became larger than life. He started wearing his sunglasses everywhere, closing himself off to the outside world. He gave a few more great performances in the ’80s in films like Ironweed, Heartburn, and Reds, and in the ’90s showed the world that Jack could be a straight villain in A Few Good Men. A few years after that, Jack showed up again in As Good As It Gets, intact yet slightly evolved. He still wore the shades and charmed the younger woman, but he seemed woefully out of place having brunch in colorful Upper West Side eateries. Worse still, he became a better person in the end. That’s not the Jack we knew.
At least we got one last glimpse. At the 2013 Oscars, as Jennifer Lawrence was giving a televised post-victory interview with George Stephanopoulos, Nicholson appeared behind her. For a moment, he looked unwell. He patted his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. Then he sidled up to J-Law. Seeing him, she literally swooned. “You remind me of an old girlfriend of mine,” he said. Lawrence, channeling Mae West, quipped back, “Do I remind you of a new girlfriend?” “I thought about it,” he flirted back, and then disappeared behind her. Then, in one last gasp of pure Jack-ness, with all of its charm, self-assuredness, and self-awareness, he came back once more and whispered in her ear: “I’ll be waiting.”
It was like seeing a ghost. Here was a 76-year-old man flirting with a 23-year-old starlet, and it wouldn’t have been half as adorable with anyone else in the lead role. That wasn’t quite the last we’d ever see of Nicholson, but it stands as the last time Jack ever showed his face.
Noah Gittell is a film critic and journalist based in Connecticut.