A key to the subject of this intriguing biography is the word "abandonment," which crops up several times in different contexts in the book.
Patrick McGilligan (author of "Cagney: The Actor as Auteur," among others) writes that even in the low-budget origins of what became an extraordinary career, actor Jack Nicholson excelled at an acting technique called "abandonment." It's the equivalent of a tantrum, which, Mr. McGilligan writes, requires "the pulling out of all the emotional stops to convey a deeper level."
He writes that "abandonment" can be difficult for even the most seasoned actor because it means risking loss of control. Yet "the higher the pitch, the headier the momentum, the more Jack seemed to pick up confidence and gain power. It was a quality he had honed in life and would exploit in some of his best, most memorable work."
It appears that, in a sense, Mr. Nicholson had to master abandonment. Abandoned himself in childhood by his father, he was told that his grandmother was his mother and that his real mother was his sister.
If he mastered abandonment, though, Mr. Nicholson doesn't take kindly to it, especially by women. After the making of "The Missouri Breaks" in 1976, a woman who had worked with Mr. Nicholson and also had been a close friend and helpmate for 20 years accepted a costume designer's job on a movie project at twice her previous salary.
Mr. Nicholson, who had no job to offer her, crushed her by telling her, "You're abandoning me." She protested that she wasn't and beggedfor his blessing, but he repeated, "You're leaving me." She says he hasn't spoken to her since.
In his personal life, the book says, Mr. Nicholson abandoned himself to gratification, sometimes with sex, sometimes with drugs. His philosophy was expressed in an adage attributed to Nietzsche: "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."
Fortunately for moviegoers, Mr. Nicholson also abandoned himself to his instincts for acting on the big screen (he largely shunned television). He can be riveting, as, for example, in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in the famous chicken-salad sandwich scene in "Five Easy Pieces," in "The Shining" and in "Batman."
His most artful abandonments may have occurred in "Five Easy Pieces," not only in the sandwich sequence but also in a climactic scene in which he cries over his lost relationship with his father, a stroke victim.
Although Mr. Nicholson was flattered by a characterization of him as "Bogart with tears," he doesn't like to cry.
He resents being told to go for an emotion when he doesn't feel it's appropriate to the situation. There's a revealing moment in the book in which Mr. Nicholson is taunted for being afraid to cry by "Pieces" director Bob Rafelson -- a friend who compared Mr. Nicholson to actor John Garfield's "alienated man." Then follows the actor's own analysis of how Mr. Nicholson, to give his director what he wanted, withdrew and worked himself up into his own poignant crying game.
Besides being Mr. Nicholson's biography, the book is an elegy for the lost skill of Hollywood filmmaking, for an era in which films were made by filmmakers instead of marketers and demography mavens.
"Easy Rider," the 1969 film that launched Mr. Nicholson, was an example of personal filmmaking. Its pull-out-all-the-stops personality made it a seminal film for its era. Not coincidentally, it brought Mr. Nicholson to public attention. The story of how he wangled his role and then wound up stealing the picture from its stars, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, would make a book in itself. The film propelled Mr. Nicholson into what would be a long and profitable career as movie star-cum-existential hero.
As this biography shows, Mr. Nicholson has been a star who assiduously and misleadingly cultivated a cavalier, laid-back image. It's a camouflaging technique that successfully disguises all the hard work and calculation he has put into his film work and his persona.
His deception has also concealed a more subtle technique, that of merging his performances with his persona to the point that his trademarks -- the smile, the smirk, the grin, the elevated brows and the drawl -- are reference points in the popular culture. This is the kind of thing that the best or at least most successful movie stars do. Self-serving as it may seem, it may be what acting in the Hollywood movie is all about.
Title: "Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson"
Author: Patrick McGilligan
Length, price: 478 pages, $25