By Jesse Crall
Counterculture sentiment once lionized the rebellious nature of Jack Nicholson characters in his first decade as a star. Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offer men at odds with authority, raging against constraints in a parallel nature to America’s broader societal upheavals from conformity. More than any other actor of the age, Nicholson presented an avatar through which a generation of defiant filmgoers could find some aspect of their idealized selves.
Today’s movie fans might hold a different reaction, one in which the “problematic” nature of Nicholson’s characters gives them a jaundiced view of the films and their supposed message. Liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s at least strove to run against prevailing mores that dominated the post-war landscape, achieving real gains in civil rights and individual expression. The censoring Hays Code began to dissipate in the mid-1960s, officially ending in 1968 and ushering in more subversive films. Nudity, harsh language and graphic violence entered into the cinematic landscape, often toward sensationalist ends but also in service of major artistic achievements. Bonnie and Clyde drew large audiences thanks in part to its novel approach to the gangster picture but it’s also a visually stylish masterwork with wonderful performances from a series of actors who would define this New Hollywood.
Since liberalism ultimately won many of our culture wars (Hollywood held a far more significant Republican presence throughout the 20th century), today’s youth enjoy less obvious targets for rebellion. Joe Biden, long a figure with reactionary views, won the 18-29 vote by 25 points. Some corners of the American left, once in favor of pushing boundaries, now play a leading role in moral condemnation. Trying to tease out cultural shifts toward film and representation is a dubious exercise and there were plenty of audiences that found Jack Nicholson characters obnoxious at the onset. But I think the bygone audiences lionizing these characters, as well as the modern reaction against them, miss critical points: The characters Nicholson plays in the three films I mention above are all abject failures.
In Bob Rafelson’s 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson plays Bobby, a roughneck in Central California who turns out to be the disaffected scion of a well-heeled musical family living on one of those remote, arresting islands in Washington. He attempts to play the role of a blue collar hard hat, palling around with his oafish co-worker, chasing tail at the local bowling alley and living with his waitress girlfriend, Rayette, who loves Bobby as much as he resents her. When his father’s illness prompts Bobby to make the drive up the coast to see him, he brings Rayette along, leading to the most famous scene in the film.
At a diner, he attempts to get some toast but a tired, stern waitress insists that there’s no substitutions, leading to an argument capped by Nicholson sweeping everything off the table and storming off in a huff. Fans of the film upon its initial release treated Nicholson as the tough hero who wasn’t gonna take any more crap, man. An audience today might offer a feminist rebuke, chiding Nicholson’s toxicity against the waitress. Or they might look at class dynamics on display, the restaurant worker now having to clean up after a rude customer thanks to enforcing a rule her bosses set.
Too much modern film reaction worries over morality. Who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy…in reality, this scene shows us something more complicated, a waitress long on her feet who doesn’t need one more problem making a low-wage day even harder but finds it anyways. A customer filled with self-loathing (and it’s telling that Bobby’s anger flashes toward a woman with the same profession as his girlfriend) who can’t even get pieces of toast even though he’s willing to pay the price of an entire chicken salad sandwich. They’re both “losers” of America, one from class and circumstance, the other through his own dissonance with a stifling upbringing and a working-class foray that feels deeply fraudulent. The waitress could have bent the rules and likely earned herself a decent tip in the process. The customer could have handled the situation with more grace and gotten his toast. Neither possessed the tools, in that moment, to achieve what they wanted. They aren’t good or bad. They’re failures. Audiences looking for positive representation on screen might warp the scene to aggrandize one of the combative characters. Those of us more comfortable assessing the realities of the world can find meaning in these failures, relate to them and appreciate the complex narrative at work.
A hitchhiker Nicholson picked up earlier yammers in the car ride afterward about how great it was that he figured out a way to show that waitress what’s what. Nicholson’s rejoinder about not actually getting the toast he wanted sums up much of the film. You have an objective, you argue for it, you cultivate a big display of emotion, make an asshole out of yourself and leave with nothing. For a lot of Americans, that just about sums up life. I think many of the film’s early champions recognized themselves in Nicholson’s character and puff him up to feel better about their own choices and fate. Five Easy Pieces *is* a great film, one of my favorites, but its depths lie in much sadder realms.
The Last Detail didn’t match Five Easy Pieces’ success at the box office but it was a critics’ favorite at the time and enjoys a well-deserved reputation as an under-seen triumph today. Based on the Darryl Ponicsan novel, The Last Detail involves two Navy lifers (Nicholson and Otis Young) tasked with transporting an 18-year-old Seaman (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to Maine to serve an 8-year sentence in the brig. His crime? Stealing $40 from a charity function.
Once again, we see Nicholson in the position of railing against the establishment. His most famous moment in the picture occurs in a bar. Trying to buy a beer for the underage Quaid, he runs afoul of the bartender, who postures as the tough guy and adds a racist dig at Young in the process. When the bartender threatens to call the shore patrol, Nicholson pulls out a piece and yells “I am the mutherfucking shore patrol, mutherfucker! I am the mutherfucking shore patrol!” Quaid insists that he doesn’t want the beer and Young guides them all out. Nicholson, known as “Badass Buddusky” in the film, starts cackling as they cross the street and the others join in. Though this scene ends in laughter and machismo, the result parallels the chicken salad sandwich moment in Five Easy Pieces. The objective, small as it was, couldn’t be achieved through persuasion or threats of violence. Nicholson has to keep loudly insisting that he’s “Badass” because his actions prove empty.
I’m gonna go into some spoilers in this paragraph, which might seem like a strange warning for a 48-year-old film but if you haven’t seen The Last Detail, I really recommend it. Anyways, Robert Towne was in the midst of a virtually peerless run of success enjoyed by any screenwriter since. Making his reputation as a script doctor (someone hired to edit existing scripts) on Bonnie and Clyde, Towne would go on to earn Oscar nominations in 3 straight years, winning for Chinatown in 1975. The Last Detail led to his first nomination. In the novel, the two lifers transporting the kid go AWOL, taking a measure of action against what they feel makes for an unjust system. Towne instead opts for them to do their duty as ordered. As Towne notes in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls “I didn’t want Buddusky and Mulhall to feel overtly guilty about transporting Meadows to jail…I wanted to imply that we’re all lifers in the Navy, and everybody hides behind doing a job, whether it’s massacring in My Lai, or taking a kid to jail” (Biskind 177).
Again, Nicholson’s outbursts and superficial rebellions can spur excitement from an audience looking for flashes of life but by the film’s end, he’s left fecklessly bitching about bureaucrats as he walks with his partner through a cold, barren landscape. Is he a good man for doing his job? A bad man for helping lock up a kid for a petty crime? Good for his fresh spirit? Bad for waving a gun around? Not the point. Most of our lives don’t fall neatly into such binary categories. We do bad things and twist ourselves trying to justify it. We do good things and find little reward in the process. We do complicated things, benefitting from destructive systems or trying to extricate ourselves to little effect. The Last Detail chooses complexity and realism over simplicity and a happy ending. It’s worth seeing.
Perhaps the greatest success of Nicholson’s career arrived in the form of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel that found significant responses from critics, awards bodies and a mass audience upon its release in 1975. In his Oscar speech, Nicholson offers a special thanks to Mary Pickford, the silent film actress who negotiated profit participation into her contracts. It was an arch nod to a deal that made Nicholson a helluva lot of money. Cuckoo’s Nest was the year’s 2nd-highest grossing film behind only Jaws, an achievement that looks remarkable today considering the downbeat and literary nature of the project. In 2019, the top ten grossing films were all franchise pictures.
In Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, charged with statutory rape and feigning madness to do what he thinks will prove an easier stint in the nuthouse. There, he locks horns with Mildred Ratched, the glacial head nurse played by Louise Fletcher. Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman fled Czechoslovakia upon the Soviet invasion in 1968; when asked about his relation to the American material, he argued that Ratched represented Communism in his home country. Many of the American audience members that made the film such a smash probably identified her with their bosses or the political leaders in the United States (Nixon resigned in disgrace about a year before the film’s release. The Church Committee was ongoing and high profile). At any rate, it’s easy to identify McMurphy with the kind of liberal expression against whatever model of calculating conformity Ratched represents. And it was liberalism that marked the prime form of rebellion against both communism in the Eastern Bloc and the more amorphous “Establishment” in the United States. The American Counterculture featured limited ties to labor movements and socialism remained at the fringes. The most prominent anti-Communist Czech dissident, playwright Vaclav Havel, later became president of Czechoslovakia and embraced Neoliberal reforms in the process.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the rebellion of Nicholson’s character in Cuckoo’s Nest remains at the superficial level of personal expression, all instinct and attitude with no coherent resistance to the structures of the hospital. Ratched is oppressive and cruel, at one point goading a young man to suicide. But McMurphy counters with little more than cheap hedonism, failing to build much of a movement against her will. He violently attacks Ratched and the low-wage orderlies come to her aid, not his. Keep that in mind the next time some Columbia graduate starts talking about guillotines. By the movie’s end, his efforts lead only to a lobotomy and then, in an act of mercy by fellow patient Chief Bromden, death.
The film predates the end of the Counterculture and America’s Neoliberal turn. Hell, Kesey’s book predates the Counterculture’s apex. But Cuckoo’s Nest still offers a salient parallel to Countercultural movements of the 1960s and their inability to produce much of anything in the way of material challenges to the concentrated powers of American industry and imperialism. The hippies at Woodstock either joined the rat race or burned out. The Vietnam protestors accomplished little; Nixon was reelected handily and troops killing their superior officers did far more to hasten the war’s end than some marches. Expansionary psychedelics gave way to harder drugs as cocaine tore through the music and film industry, leaving bad vibes and dead bodies in its wake.
I’m not condemning the Counterculture, understand. If I was 20 years old in 1969, I would have been at Woodstock and whining about “The Man.” That era featured more significant advances for black Americans than any since and I would argue that popular artistic outputs at the time were also remarkable. The previous generations didn’t stop the destructive systems in place across the American Empire, either, and blaming “Boomers” for our problems stupidly ignores the fact that the leaders hastening the Neoliberal turn came from earlier generations. Millennials at the forefront of the tech industry have made it abundantly clear that no generation owns a monopoly on greed. Still, I can’t help but look at McMurphy at the film’s end, forehead marred by the lobotomy scars, face blank and body catatonic and see the end result of whatever must have felt so bright and novel at the Counterculture’s onset. And the lobotomized Counterculture figures don’t necessarily mark the bleakest end; plenty of those kids marching, protesting, tuning in, turning on and dropping out became Nurse Ratcheds themselves.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a tremendous film, offering expert craft without compromise. But it’s a bleak, prescient look at what happens to rebellion against ingrained systems of power. Many contemporary progressives like to drag out John Lewis’ line about getting into “good trouble,” forgetting to note that after a laudable career in civil rights, Lewis spent his time in Congress protecting the interests of leading Neoliberals like the Clintons. By now, “good Trouble” really just means voting for Democrats along with high fliers in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. Artist Shepard Fairey recently produced a striking print of Lewis, signed copies of which can be yours for only $1998. Fairey also produced the famed Obama “Hope” poster. What kind of “Good Trouble” was Obama getting into when he dealt $115 billion in weapons to the Saudi regime?
My pessimistic and critical interpretation of Nicholson’s above characters isn’t meant to condemn the artistic merit on display; rather, Nicholson’s films are so powerful because they grapple with rebellion in such honest, probing ways. If Five Easy Pieces ended with Nicholson finding warmth with his family or driving back to oil country with Karen Black, joining her in singing a little Tammy Wynette during a ride full of smiles, the film wouldn’t play nearly as well. Bob Towne’s reworked ending for The Last Detail suits the banal nature found in brutal systems far better than some stab at insubordination. And for McMurphy to triumph over Ratched would have offered unearned hope to an already-waning Counterculture. The individual expression born from the Counterculture served people well at rock festivals and at Esalen. But human potential movements seldom helped anyone beyond those already well-positioned to succeed. Reactionary thrashing against the machine served no one. Our unjust and destructive systems didn’t simply continue humming. They grew.
Jack Nicholson loomed large over a generation on the big screen. But the men he played and the ideals they represented remain insignificant, easy to co-opt, dismiss, defeat. That he became perhaps our greatest star in the process speaks to an honest streak in mainstream American filmmaking, one too many audiences remain unwilling to confront. To do so would require grappling with far more than a handful of movies.
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.