Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson is one of my favorite living actors. Here’s a piece I wrote about The Cry Baby Killer, from 1958. It was Nicholson’s film debut.

In the late 1950s, producer and director Roger Corman took an acting class. From what I gather, since he was working with actors all the time, he wanted to get a better understanding of their process and how they work. A good tip for directors, by the way. There was a young actor in the class named Jack Nicholson and Corman thought he was far and away the best actor in the bunch. It was through that association that Nicholson got the lead in the Corman-produced Cry Baby Killer in 1958. It was Nicholson’s film debut. He was 21 years old.

Nicholson plays Jimmy Wallace, a good kid, who goes nuts when the girl he loves throws him over to go out with the local thug bad-boy. A fight ensues between Jimmy and a bunch of goons in the parking lot of a seedy club that serves alcohol to minors. One of the goons has a gun (the rest have brass knuckles), and in the scuffle, Jimmy gets the gun. It goes off, hitting one of the goons in the stomach. Cops hang out on the periphery of the club, because of its bad reputation, and so they are on the scene immediately. The situation escalates into a standoff. Jimmy, distraught, stands there holding the gun, unsure of what to do. He’s not a hardened criminal. Finally, he backs into a nearby storeroom and slams the door, not realizing that there is already a kitchen worker as well as a woman with a baby, hiding in there from possible gunfire. So what was just a spat between a bunch of boys is suddenly now a Hostage Situation.

Filmed almost entirely in real-time, except for the opening, Cry Baby Killer shows the situation unfolding, as cops gather, improvising solutions, and crowds gather, and Jimmy’s devastated parents hover, and a news truck shows up, and witnesses are questioned … the tense situation intensified because a baby is involved. Jimmy Wallace, caught up in a crisis of his own making, is in way way over his head. He can’t back down. He is afraid if he opens the door of the storeroom he will go down in a blaze of bullets. “I’m not ready for that!” he cries.

Directed by Justus Addis, Cry Baby Killer is filmed with a dark gleam, the entirety of it taking place at night, with shadows crowding in on every scene. Rather than feeling overtly stylistic, it seems realistic. Nobody can quite understand what will come next, what to do, how to handle things. People cluster in the dark, either worried, or ghoulishly waiting for the tragedy. Primarily a television director, Addis keeps the pace moving, but also knows when to insert small human moments, eloquent moments, moments that have nothing to do with the unfolding plot but add texture and characterization, and he helps keep the melodrama to a minimum. It plays like a hard-boiled cop show, without the histrionic “what is the youth of today coming to??” vibe of other films about teens-gone-wild at that time. Because of that lack of hysteria, the film has dated quite well (unlike, oh, say, Too Soon To Love, which seems like it comes from another planet, let alone another generation). As a matter of fact, watching it, I thought of our current 24-hour news cycle, with the press racing to the scene of an unfolding tragedy, where we get real-time updates (even if nothing is happening), as well as the mob mentality of the people watching at home and on the sidelines. At one point during the standoff, a guy shows up with a hot dog stand, and the folks huddled behind the police barricade crowd around to buy hot dogs. It’s insane, a media circus. The spectators, while putting on a show of being horrified, actually want to see blood spilled. That’s why they’re there. At one point, the TV reporter (played by Roger Corman, actually) interviews people in the crowd for their feedback, even though they have nothing to add or offer. One woman giggles and says, “Am I really on TV?” One guy seethes into the microphone, “These kids today, I tell ya, if I had done something like this when my father was alive, he would have set me straight.” Useless commentary from the unwashed masses. But hey, the cameras are there, and since nothing is happening with the standoff, the reporter has to report something.

With a fine script by Leo Gordon, all of the characters here are fleshed out, from the sleazy nightclub owner (Frank Richards) and his slick mob lawyer, to the no-nonsense middle-aged waitress at the joint (played beautifully by Lynn Cartwright, Gordon’s wife) and the camaraderie (perhaps love?) she shares with Officer Gannon (John Shay), the cop who works the beat outside the club. Tough Lieutenant Porter (Harry Lauter), organizing the police response, notices Julie touch Gannon’s arm at one point, and he glances at another cop and says, “Gannon’s in love. For the first time in his life. And he has to pick a time like this.” I liked the script very much for the little human details, such as that one.

Even Julie has a moment of revelation, when she realizes that she is part of the problem. She works at this terrible joint, doesn’t she? How can she sleep at night knowing that her employment supports a crooked operation? So she’s a widow and she’s got kids, that’s no excuse. Unlike many of the other more directly-related participants, she is willing to look in the mirror and see her own part in it. An insightful element to the script, which, again, doesn’t generalize about “teens gone WILD”. Whose fault is it? It’s the question everyone wants the answer to. We still see that today, when tragedies like Columbine unfold. Who did this? Why wasn’t it stopped? Jimmy comes from a good home. He’s a good kid. What did his parents do wrong? Well, sometimes life isn’t that simple. There is such a thing as a “perfect storm” of events, a multitude of different factors spiralling into a whirlpool from which it becomes impossible to extract oneself. It’s never just one person’s fault. The cops, hovering outside the storeroom, seem to blame Carole, the girlfriend, primarily. Carole is played by Carolyn Mitchell (an actress who had an interesting crazy life and a tragic end). Held in the club as a witness, she is not allowed to speak into the megaphone to try to get Jimmy out. “Haven’t you said enough to him already?” growls one of the cops.

Jimmy’s parents arrive, a couple beaten down by worry about their son. His mother says, “He was fine … until he fell in love.” Often love gets the better of us, especially when we are new to it. There’s a terrific confrontation between Jimmy’s parents and Mr. Maxton, husband and father to the woman and baby being held hostage in the storeroom. When Jimmy’s parents arrive, Jimmy’s mother says to Mr. Maxton, “Oh, Mr. Maxton, I’m so sorry.” Mr. Maxton, out of his mind with worry, snaps, “You’re sorry?” Jimmy’s mother says, “Our baby’s in there too.” This, naturally, does not go over well. Their “baby” is a criminal. Who should feel sorry for them? If their son dies in a shootout, is that a tragedy or is it justice? How dare she compare her child to his? This subtle scene, showing the torment of parents whose child does something horrible, reminds me of the recent novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, (my review here), and its terrifying look at the aftermath of a school massacre, seen from the eyes of the mother whose child did that awful thing. She has become a pariah in her own town, her house vandalized, the grocery store become a gantlet of taunts and rage. Was it her fault? Could she have … done more? Cry Baby Killer, an insightful portrait of many parts of society (teenagers in love, police procedures, the media), doesn’t leave out this important element: How do the parents of the criminal teen handle their situation? How are they seen? How do they defend themselves and do they even need to?

It was a nice touch that the parents were not angry or defensive. They were worried out of their minds. And their worry pre-dated the events of that particular evening. Jimmy had been slipping off the rails ever since Carole broke up with him. It gave them a nice beaten-down aspect, as opposed to portraying them in a more-cliched manner. There’s a real humanity to this film. It gives it humor: I love the guy in the crowd who says, “Bet the fire department will be coming down soon”, and a nearby woman asks, “Why?” and he looks at her with scorn and says, “Don’t you watch TV, lady?” Yes. He knows how these procedures go! He saw it on TV! So it must be true then!

Nicholson is an intense young actor here, hunched over, coiled, uptight. There is not a smidgeon of humor in his performance. He is a kid at the end of his rope. He just needs to talk to Carole, but her thug boyfriend won’t let him near her. He is out of his mind. Early on in the movie, before the standoff begins, as he has confrontations with his friend as well as with the group of thugs, he tends to stand hunched forward, his breath coming shallow, his blinking rapid. It is a conscious effort, all about “showing” his inner emotions (no less effective because of that effort, he has a strange passion here that helps you overlook the sometimes-apparent strain). With the standoff, when Jimmy finds himself holed up with three strangers, the real story begins. Barbara Knudson plays Mrs. Maxton, holding her sleeping baby, and the wonderful Smoki Whitfield plays Sam, the kindly kitchen worker. If you were in a hostage situation, you would do worse than to be hostages with a guy like Sam. He is frightened of the gun, and of Jimmy’s impulsiveness with it, but he keeps enough presence of mind to try to manage the situation, and also to take care of Mrs. Maxton. At one point, he takes the baby from her – “Just long enough for you to get a rest,” he says – another example of the sensitivity of the script to nuance, and small moments. Sam doesn’t plead for his own life, but he pleads repeatedly for Jimmy to “let the woman and the baby go”, especially once the baby starts fussing due to hunger. Sam’s a stand-up guy.

The bond between the two hostages form immediately. They keep their eyes on Jimmy, at all times, and most of the time, he just sits in a corner, deep in thought, trying to figure a way out. It’s a terrific part for Nicholson, because the majority of it is closeups on his face, watching him think. There is no better way to make someone a star than to put the camera on them close, and watch their brain work. He looks so slight, so slim, his shoulders narrow and hunched, and while he is young here, there is that slightly-grizzled aspect to him, which has just gotten more pronounced over the years. Nicholson was never a starry-eyed youth. As my brother says, “He was born 35 years old.” It works for this part. He is troubled. Interior. And while Nicholson is one of our most extroverted actors, period, here he internalizes all of that highly social energy into a whirlwind in his own mind. It makes him fascinating.

Much of what he does here could have been done by any other young promising actor. It’s somewhat cliched: the tormented passionate youth, blinking rapidly and talking intensely. It’s a good performance, but it’s not, say, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, where Dean puts his own personal stamp on the character, so much so that we cannot imagine another actor in the role.

However, Nicholson has two moments in particular which are quintessential “Jack”, moments where his individual talent shines through, and it yet again proves to me that acting teacher Stella Adler was onto something when, in reply to the question, “What is talent?”, said, “Talent is in the choice.” A lot of people don’t like that statement of Adler’s. Surely there must be something more to it? It’s only in the choice? But if you think of, say, Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire (he was a student of Adler’s), and the delicate way he plucks a piece of fluff off of Stella’s sweater in the middle of a marital argument. What other actor would “choose” to do that with a character like Stanley? What other actor would “choose” to give Stanley the freedom to be not just one thing (a sexy brute), but also many things (a considerate husband, capable of great gentleness)? Brando himself probably did not feel that that was a ‘choice’; he didn’t sit down the night before filming the scene and plan it out: “On this line, I will pluck a piece of fluff off of Kim Hunter’s sweater.” But it was indeed a “choice”, conscious or no, to allow Stanley Kowalski that freedom. He excluded nothing. Other actors exclude things all the time, and say things like, “My character wouldn’t do that.” Well, why not? Nicholson, here, is playing a certain type of role: intense lovelorn boy, and so his behavior follows in a manner we would recognize, no surprises. But, as I mentioned, there are two moments where you can see him “exclude nothing”, and “allow” for anything to happen. He has made no decisions that limit him. He has not said, “No, no, Jimmy wouldn’t do that.” And that is what I believe Adler was talking about, when she talks about talent being in the choice. Choices are made every step of the way when one is developing a character. Some are conscious, some are not. But it is when an actor is determined to exclude, as opposed to include, that he can get himself into trouble, that he will then just be doing what every other actor would do with the part, a series of cliches and generalizations.

Nicholson’s first moment of this kind is when, during a tense moment, his mother is given the megaphone outside by the cops, and she screams at the storeroom, “Jimmy, we love you, we’re not angry, please come out, Jimmy, let those people go, please come out and let’s talk about this!” The camera is out in the crowd, showing the mother with the megaphone, and then there is a cut to a close-up of Nicholson’s face. At the sound of his mother’s voice, something softens in him, his face slackens. It makes him seem rather mad, like Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M, a personality with the edges blunted down. The sound of the mother’s voice. No longer is Nicholson coiled-up with the two hostages; suddenly, at that moment, he floats off into the world Before all this happened … when he knew his parents loved him, when he was innocent. Can he get back there? Slowly, without looking out the window at his mother, he stands. He stares before him, lost in his own short past. He says quietly, simply, to himself, “Hi, Mom.” It is a beautiful and chilling moment, and more than any other scene shows the gap in his life, shows how from this point on nothing will ever be the same for this poor young boy. “Hi, Mom,” says Nicholson, with a slack soft face, dulled edges, his pain and panic flowing out of him, alarmingly. Then he slowly and dully walks to the window. Terrific moment.

The other moment comes when Carole finally convinces the cops to let her talk to Jimmy. She is in a frenzy, screaming out, “Jimmy, please, please, come out, let’s talk, PLEASE come out!”

Nicholson is up against the wall, and when he hears her voice, the only thing he has wanted to hear all this time, he stops as if someone shot him. Pain comes into his face. Not the panic and desperation we have seen in him throughout the film until this point, but real pain. The pain of lost love. Lost young love. Suddenly, he looks like a little boy. And the lines that follow come out of him in a voice very different from what he has used all along, a desperate pleading voice, the voice of the Good Boy he was up until this moment. He calls back, “Carole? I want to come out. That’s what I want to do!”

It was that second “want” that got to me. He sounds so young. His shoulders are so narrow, he is just a boy, and I suddenly wanted to hug him, and tell him everything was going to be okay. Even though it’s not. Nicholson never makes the mistake of playing him as a calculating teen villain. He doesn’t “suddenly” have a change of heart; it is clear from the getgo that Jimmy Wallace never meant for any of this to happen. He is ferocious at times with the hostages, but that is only because he is completely unprepared to be a leader. He makes it up as he goes. When the baby starts crying, he melts a little bit. “I forgot about him being hungry. We can’t let him get hungry, can we?” he pleads with the mother.

And so when he cries out to Carole, “That’s what I want to do”, you believe it. Nicholson has been showing us that all along.

It’s a terrific debut, and a good film. Nicholson’s ship wouldn’t come in as an actor for another 11 years, when Easy Rider came out in 1969. That’s a long time to wait, when you are hungry and ambitious. But I think it worked well for him. By the time he started making that string of great movies in the early to mid 70s, he was in his 30s. He had grown into himself. He was a man. He had been knocked around. He had no illusions. He already was a man at 21, that is obvious, Nicholson never really had innocence. Once the pressure was off him to have to play “kids”, he could soar. And soar he did. The time was right. It just took a decade of waiting. Not many actors can withstand that kind of wait. It’s heartbreaking. But Nicholson did, and when his moment came, he was ready for it.

But there are glimpses of it here, in 1958. Watch his face go slack, as he says to himself, as he says to his own past flashing before his eyes, “Hi, Mom”. And listen to how he emphasizes the second “want”: “I want to come out, Carole. That’s what I want to do.” It’s all there already.

This entry was posted in Actors, On This Day and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson

  1. Kate says:

    So often I can’t read your reviews because I don’t read about things before I’ve seen/read them myself so now I have this movie coming and We Have to Talk About Kevin ordered from the library and THEN I’ll come back and see what you thought. Thank you for guiding my literary life Sheila!

  2. sheila says:

    Read the book of We Have to Talk About Kevin – don’t see the movie first! The movie was not good! Tilda was great – but the book is so much better!

  3. Milt says:

    I’d written you recently about reading Bruce Dern’s memoir, and have since been catching up on some of his past movies. I saw King of Marvin Gardens, and you were right about how good his performance is. It’s beautiful to see Dern and Nicholson play off each other. Director Bob Rafelson cast Nicholson completely against type, as the quiet, philosophical brother. I was blown away right at the beginning with Nicholson’s monologue as the radio story-teller (a la the late, inimitable Jean Shepherd). The scene is shot in extreme close-up, and Nicholson’s use of his face, his head and his understated voice is a tour de force of acting.
    I don’t agree with your view that Dern overacted in Coming Home. His emotions seemed entirely justified, to me, for the situation. He played a somewhat similar role in Black Sunday, and instead of just offering a stereotype befitting a thriller, created a real flesh and blood character. The suspense build-up stops when he gives his poignant monologue telling how he received a photo from his wife while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and of how he was most concerned about the person who took the photo and cast his long shadow on the grass. He also tells how the Navy sent an officer to prepare his wife for his return: that he would be mentally off center for a while, probably impotent, etc. And he explains the anger that caused him to agree to take part in the terrorist action. It’s top notch acting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *