In the same year as The Wild Ride, Nicholson appeared as the masochist in the dentist’s office in Roger Corman’s cult classic Little Shop of Horrors. Filmed in only two days (I look at this thing and think: Two days? I can see a week, but two days??), and filmed so Corman could utilize an already-built set before it was torn down Little Shop of Horrors gained a following that exists to this day, and inspired a musical of the same name which has been incredibly popular. Corman stated, “The reason that The Little Shop of Horrors worked is because it was a love project. It was our love project.” This is apparent in the finished film. The dialogue is hilarious (the script written by Charles B. Griffith). The schtick is shameless. Seymour even slips on a banana peel at one point. There are times when you would think you were watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island, or, if you were in a time machine, that you were sitting in the audience at the old Yiddish Theatre on the Lower East Side. There’s a New York Jewish comedic sensibility running through Little Shop of Horrors, broad and slapstick and yet smart. Little Shop plays like a bat out of hell. There are pratfalls, double-takes, ridiculous gags, and broad vaudeville characterizations. There are stupid jokes. Two people say “See?” in succession: “See?” “See?” And Mr. Mushnik, the flower-shop owner (played by Mel Welles), barks, “What is this, a tango?” Two high school girls come into the shop and announce they want to buy $2,000 worth of flowers. Mr. Mushnik asks, “Who died, the Chamber of Commerce?” These aren’t random moments of humor, the entire script is like that. It never stops. It is the silliest movie on earth, and it works.
The stories of the filming are legendary. Corman hired real winos to appear in the streets of Skid Row, for 10 cents a piece. They filmed at such a breakneck speed that Corman wouldn’t even yell Cut. They used three cameras and would film scenes in one take, mistakes and all. There are many master shots, and only a few closeups. Closeups would take too much time. The filming is classic sit-com style, with cameras on both sides capturing all the action.
The cast rehearsed for three weeks (a rarity in the film world), so by the time the cameras were rolling, they were a well-oiled machine. It’s like a play is being filmed. It has a big cast, with insane eccentric characters wandering in and out of the flower shop. There had to be very little blocking done, and people sort of just stand in their spot, and exhibit their insane characteristics, barking out the New York Jewish dialogue in a neverending rat-a-tat-tat.
The plant itself (Audrey Junior) is ridiculous and obviously fake, but it gets funnier and funnier as the film goes on, and as the gruff male voice of the plant gets angrier and angrier. “SHUT UP AND BRING ON THE FOOD!” bellows Audrey Junior. Corman loaded the cast with his friends and constant collaborators. Dick Miller, who had been the lead in Bucket of Blood, and later would appear as Boris Karloff’s ominous butler in The Terror, plays Burson Fouch, a dandyish guy who hangs out in the flower shop eating the plants, taking great chomps out of carnations, and stating, “I’ve got to get home. My wife is making gardenias for dinner.” Myrtle Vail (a woman with a long career) plays Seymour’s nutty hypochondriac mother. Vail also had appeared in Bucket of Blood, and her grandson was Charles Griffith, the writer of Little Shop. She is hilarious and awful, hooking herself up to blood-pressure machines, and cooking terrible dinners flavored with Epsom Salts, and wailing at Seymour, “You promised me you wouldn’t get married until you bought me an iron lung!” At one point, Seymour comes home on his lunch break, and the radio is playing as his sick mother lies moaning in bed. We hear the radio announcer say, in between songs, “You’ve been listening to Music For Old Invalids. Our next selection is entitled Sick Room Serenade.” If there is an opportunity for a dumb joke, Charles Griffith doesn’t miss it.
Jackie Joseph plays Audrey, the sweet stupid woman who works in the flower shop and takes a shine to Seymour. Her heart is in the right place, but her grasp of the English language is minimal, at best. She looks at the giant plant and gasps admiringly, “Isn’t it empirical?” There is a brief scene between two cops investigating the random murders on Skid Row, and their conversation is made of up of blunt one and two word sentences, a total nod to Sam Spade and Dashiell Hammett and every film noir movie ever made. They are smileless and tough, and neither one is able to speak more than two words at a time, apparently. It goes on for some time, and again, it gets funnier and funnier as the scene progresses, as you realize that these two actors (Wally Campo and Jack Warford) are not dropping the ball. It’s schtick, and there is nothing I love more than schtick done well.
Nicholson had only done three movies at this point, and all of them had serious aspirations: Cry Baby Killer, Too Soon to Love and The Wild Ride. Little Shop was something entirely different. So far, in his career, Nicholson hadn’t been asked to be funny. Or big. Originally, Corman hadn’t wanted him for the role of Wilbur Force, the giggling masochist at the dentist’s office, and it is not difficult to see why. Nothing Nicholson had done was anything remotely like this role. It required a broad campy farcical approach. It’s a short scene. Nicholson’s performance is a cameo. He doesn’t appear in the rest of the film, he has one memorable scene and we never see him again. Nicholson knew that he wasn’t Corman’s first choice, so he went into it with both guns blazing. He needed to be quirky and psychotic: a man who loves to be in horrid pain, and therefore visits the dentist unnecessarily in order to reach his goals. Nicholson, while early on in his career here, shows the sensitivity to story that would become one of his hallmarks. He always fits in to the story, even with his famous gestures and looks, and while there are times in his career when he has tipped over into parody, for the most part he is selfless in that he slips himself into the story. That is what interests him about making movies. And here, what is needed is a giggling lunatic, beside himself with excitement about getting a drill stuck into his gums. This is necessary to the story because the dentist (played by John Shaner) is a client of the flower shop, and eventually Seymour kills the dentist in self-defense during an appointment, and then is forced to impersonate the now-dead dentist for the next client (Nicholson), before bringing the Dentist back to Audrey Junior for “her” next meal. Wilbur Force is an undertaker who has a connection with one of the flower-shop regulars, and so it all dovetails perfectly. Nicholson understands the job at hand here, and doesn’t muck it up with extraneous or self-conscious behavior. He is a nerd, with hair slicked into a meticulous side part, he sits in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, reading a magazine called Pain, giggling to himself in a high-pitched alarming manner. He is eager, excited, and impatient. He can hardly wait.
You can’t be worried about looking silly in a project like this. Looking silly is the whole point. Nicholson is hunched over, he speaks in a nasal voice, he clasps his hands together in front of him, and his eyebrows are in overdrive to show his sexual pleasure at the thought of gangrene and gaping wounds.
The funniest thing is, he seems more unselfconscious here than he did in The Wild Ride, where the job was for him to be cool and cruel and wild and serious. We’re getting a glimpse, a glimpse of how Nicholson really operates: his gifts, his strengths. It’s stupid material, surely, but that’s the whole point: Nicholson doesn’t work well with top-heavy “important” stuff that wants to be serious, that has, as its reason for being, a serious message. Clearly, he has been in some important and serious movies, but he always seems to come at things from the side. When he is required to hit the nail on the head with a giant mallet (like he was in The Wild Ride), the results are often self-conscious. Here, he sneers and giggles and screams and is entirely phony (it looks like a performance), yet at the same time, he seems totally free. It’s one of the weird and special things about Nicholson, something that he had to grow into, something that required the right projects. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a serious film, and Randall Patrick McMurphy is meant to be iconic. He is written that way, from his first entrance in the book by Kesey. But instead of playing it in as Icon with a capital I, which would have been insufferable, he subverted it, twisted it, took the story being told and internalized it, so that he, at all times, just seemed like a guy, a guy whose head was screwed on straight, who was an Individual, and who was refusing, heels in the sand, to give up his sense of humor and his sense of life. The pitfalls in that role are everywhere. Nicholson avoids them all.
It is that commitment to story, and not Self, that separates him from the pack. Acting can be a very vain profession. You have cameras pointed at you most of the time and try not to be vain. It is not easy. Nicholson is a giant movie star and has been so for decades. But his eye is not on himself, his eye is turned outwards at the story being told. It helps make him fearless. You can see it. You can see it even here.
Seen in the context of Nicholson’s career, Little Shop of Horrors is important. It represents a giant leap forward.