Jack Nicholson: The Art Of Anger


♪ When you’re smiling
When you’re smiling ♪ – Oh, shit!
– I SAID OVER EASY! – Now, why did I do that? [Music] When people evaluate great actors,
what often gets mentioned most is range: how many different characters they can play; how many different emotions
they can realistically, movingly show. But I think a criterion
that’s just as telling as range is depth: how many different ways an actor
can portray the same emotion. I spent the last few weeks watching
pretty much every film Jack Nicholson ever made. And it’s clear that the man can do it all, but it’s also no mistake that
intensity is his calling card. Today I’d like to explore the ways that
Jack Nicholson conveys and uses anger in his work; the angles he approaches it from, the spins and emphases he puts on it in order to see what makes
Jack Nicholson so great. [Screaming] Anger is an emotional response, a reaction to something. That reaction manifests psychologically
but also… physically. Everyone’s had that sensation of being… convulsed with anger. What Nicholson shows
again and again in his roles is how anger can literally
possess the body like a spirit. – Because I really want to know. Because if it’s a mistake,
maybe we can do something about it. This is the moment when
anger becomes aggression. Half the time, that aggression
in Nicholson’s work is realized as actual violence
against someone else whether it’s psychotic violence
or in some way… justified. The other half of the time, this
theatrical anger takes place in Nicholson’s own personal space. He flails around— sometimes as a threat or
a suggestion of violence to come. A lot of the time, it’s just a release—
a discharge of pent-up energy. To me, these moments (the weird contortions and spasms
that Nicholson makes) are more poignant than actual attacks on people. They’re a kind of exploration of… the relationship between body and mind. And it never feels like overacting. I think that’s because these gesticulations
are all unique to the particular anger that they spring from; whether it’s focused, pointed anger
or generally frustrated anger or petulant childlike anger. – You see that sign, sir? Yes, y’all have to leave. I’m not taking any more
of your smartness and sarcasm. – You see this sign?! For Nicholson —and everybody else, for that matter— anger can be a form of desperation, a noise so loud that you don’t
have to hear your own insecurities. In Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge” for example, Nicholson plays a playboy
who objectifies women and refuses to commit. One of his lovers asks him to get married and he…explodes. – Where the fuck is my shoehorn?
This place is a mess! There’s not any food in the house. Half the time, you look like
you fell out of bed. Nicholson acts a kind of anger here
that it’s easy to see right through. The larger and louder it is, the closer he is to recognizing
a vulnerability in himself. – You want an extra $50 a week? TRY vacuuming! You want an extra hundred? MAKE THIS GODDAMN BED! TRY OPENING SOME GODDAMN WINDOWS. That’s why you can’t stand up in here. THE GODDAMN PLACE SMELLS LIKE A COFFIN. That’s the challenge for an actor
playing this emotion. You’re not just playing anger; you’re playing what’s under it. Most anger isn’t psychotic. It’s only a thin veneer
for what’s brewing below, and you have to be able
to turn up the volume while preserving traces
of this deeper motivation. That’s what Nicholson excels at. In “The Border”, for example,
Nicholson plays a border agent who gets caught up with
his partner’s human smuggling operation. When the partner starts killing his competition,
Nicholson realizes that he’s gotten in too far. The key emotion in this exchange isn’t anger but fear. Fear at what he’s gotten himself into. Fear that he won’t be able to get himself out. Nicholson bursts with anger here. But it’s in the silent moments
where the actual feeling lies. – I don’t care about your fucken money. – But you took it… – Your fucken life is gonna be fly shit
before I ever get involved ‘n murder. You understand what I’m saying to you? Do ya? This is why Nicholson’s characters
seem real in their anger. Even with great writing
and great direction, it’s only the actor who can make a character… polyphonic; like more than one thing
is happening at the same time. And even when you do that,
the particular expression of anger has to rise out of
the particular character’s personality. For example, take these two examples of anger
which are both underlaid with a strong sense of superiority. – You can’t handle the truth. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded
by men with guns. Who’s going to do it? You? You Lieutenant Weinberg? – Never!
Never… interrupt me.
okay? Not if there’s a fire. Not even if you hear
the sound of a thud from my home and one week later… there’s a smell coming from there
that can only be a decaying human body. And you have to hold a hankie
to your face because the stench is so thick
that you think you’re going to faint. Both of these men feel smarter and more important than
the person they’re lecturing to. But the first is a lifelong military man in a court of law. Nicholson barely moves his body or head. Every swivel of the neck
is measured and exact. He’s so restrained that
a simple lean forward feels like… he’s lost it. – I did the job
– DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED? – YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID! The second man is smug
and in his own space. His movements are freer, looser. And they even seem to mock
Greg Kinnear’s homosexuality. – Don’t knock! Not on this door. Not for ANY reason. Do you get me, sweetheart? No two expressions of anger are the same; not in real life and not in Nicholson’s work. Sometimes his anger is comedic, sometimes…cartoonish. Sometimes it’s quiet. Sometimes it’s misplaced and sometimes it’s deeply, deeply wounded. – Freddy, whatever you’re doing stop it. – Freddy, whatever you’re doing stop it. – I hope you die. – I hope you fucking die. Watching so much of Nicholson’s acting, you start to get a sense
of the larger shape of anger as a human phenomenon; its extremes, its physicality
and its dangers, but also its… necessity in the course of a life. None of us can avoid anger. You can’t remove it
from the constellation of feelings. But you can understand it. Jack Nicholson has a wide range of talents,
as wide a range as an actor as anybody else. And yet if all he ever did
was give us these sixty years of insights into anger,
it would still be a career well spent. [Music] Hey, everybody.
Thanks for watching. That was a lot of
Jack Nicholson movies to see. But it was totally worth it.
You learn a lot by watching a master. Thanks for watching that
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the rest of you next Wednesday.

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