Celluloid Style: Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Image credit: Raoul Luoar / CC BY 2.0

If there is one actor from the last century who can reasonably be described as having ‘it’ — call it what you will: ‘the x-factor’, ‘star power’, ‘raw animal magnetism’, the works — that actor is Jack Nicholson. At first glance, Jack appears to be as much the everyman as his name suggests. He has, for the most part, fairly average looks, an unheroic build, a long-time receding hairline, and only achieved any real career success beginning in his early thirties. 

Look closer and you’ll find details that are less typical but no more revealing as to the key to his success. For one thing, he grew up thinking his biological mother was his sister, while his grandmother was cast in the role of his mom — the truth of which he only found out at the age of thirty-eight from a Time magazine reporter after the other parties concerned had already passed away. He was born in Neptune City, New Jersey, where he was voted class clown at Manasquan High School, then turned down a job as an animator at Hanna Barbera (the makers of Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, et al.) to pursue acting, before languishing in B-pictures until his breakout performance in the era-defining Easy Rider in 1969. 

From here, Nicholson’s fortunes changed for good. He went on to star in a string of critically acclaimed films throughout the remainder of his career, with the subsequent decade alone including such classics as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Passenger (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Shining (1980). The latter Kubrick classic would win him his first acting Oscar. Two more wins would follow from a total of twelve nominations, making him the most nominated male performer at the Academy Awards. 

Then there’s the notorious partying and philandering, a subject about which entire books have been written. Without getting too indelicate, there have long been rumours of thousands of sexual partners, mountains of cocaine, and (by Mr Nicholson’s own account) mornings where he woke up in trees or nearly dangling off cliffsides. The one-time neighbour on Mulholland Drive (aka ‘Bad Boy Drive’) of Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty, he used to drink with Hunter S. Thompson and once threw a television set at Roman Polanski. Robin Williams joked that Nicholson was the only man on earth to whom Keith Richards would say: ‘I have to go home now, Jack.’ 

Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty in The Fortune 1974
Jack Nicholson with Warren Beatty on the set of The Passenger
Image credit: Los Angeles Times / CC BY-SA 4.0

Yet, the mystery of the precise nature of his star power remains. Perhaps it’s just God-given, unquantifiable charisma. Or maybe it’s all down to that million-dollar grin (‘An icon of our times,’ George Miller called it. ‘Like those newspaper competitions where they just show you the smile and you have to guess whose it is.’) Who knows, maybe it’s the sunglasses? Whatever the source, one of the best accounts of it I’ve read comes courtesy of Ed Cripps, who called it his ‘restless allure’:

‘[T]he way he releases life’s captives and fulfils the unfulfilled. His butter-water, shale-topped tide will never be tamed and he makes you feel, as he does the Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, as big as a damn mountain.’

There is a similar quality to Jack Nicholson’s style. His dress sense is by no means as conventional or consistent as, say, a Cary Grant or a Paul Newman, but it is every bit as compelling, making him (in Jason Diamond’s words) ‘an Instagram Fit God of the higher order’.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker
Nicholson in his most flamboyant costume for the part of The Joker in Batman (1989)
Image credit: Internet Archive / No known copyright restrictions

Nicholson’s dress sense proves just as varied as his acting résumé. Moreover, since the actor has long taken a keen interest in costuming and makeup, his on-screen characters have often reflected his real-life clothing interests. In his biography of Nicholson, Patrick McGilligan provides the following account of the actor’s prep for his breakout role in Easy Rider:

‘Nicholson rummaged for hours at Western Costume, picking out his wardrobe, getting the exterior sense of the character, something that was essential to his method. He selected a seersucker suit and suspenders, maroon undershirt, letter sweater, gold football helmet, and plain round eyeglasses. The eyeglasses were the type his father (at least the man he thought was his father), an alcoholic, used to wear. That was a secret to the part. Jack loved secrets, in life and films. The prop would serve to remind him that an alcoholic character need not be abusive; he could be mild-mannered and pleasantly hazy.’

Nicholson insisted on getting comfortable with his wardrobe and often picked out his own costumes, especially if it meant stealing the show (see the bold, horizontally-striped jailhouse trousers he wore in the otherwise forgettable Rebel Rousers from 1967). When it came to make-up, he proved equally picky, saying ‘You can spot that [late 1950s and early 1960s] era, because my eyes look like two piss holes in the snow. I was letting them make me up, and somehow they blotted out my eyebrows.’ Thereafter, he would often refuse to be made up at all. 

Other memorable bits of movie costuming include the rugged workwear in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; the preppy collegiate wear in Carnal Knowledge; the navy staples of The Last Detail; the offbeat tailoring in Chinatown and Batman; and the tweeds, plaids, and corduroy from The Shining (The famous corduroy work jacket from the latter film was made by Margaret Howell and was once again hand-picked by Nicholson for the role, meaning the designer got a rather unexpected call from Stanley Kubrick one day in 1978 asking for 12 replicas of the same garment for filming purposes). 

Then there are the top-tier graphic tees he wore in the 1970s, his glorious courtside outfits watching Lakers games, and the comfy resort- and leisurewear that has characterised his later work and inspired who-knows-how-many post-lockdown lifestyle choices. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest Oscar winners
Jack Nicholson (sporting his signature shades) alongside his fellow Oscar-winners for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Image credit: Los Angeles Times / CC BY-SA 4.0

And, of course, there’s no talking about Jack Nicholson’s aesthetic without mentioning his signature sunglasses. He calls them ‘a part of my armour’ and wears them nearly constantly, including indoors, at night, and with black tie. Plus, while the rest of us are left desperately trying to figure out which glasses would best fit our various face shapes, Jack somehow wears them all to immaculate effect. Wayfarers, Aviators, Clubmasters — you name a look and Jack has nailed it. 

So while the source of his powers remains a mystery, this diverse quality in his choices as an actor and a dresser alike perhaps give some clue as to his secret. Jack Nicholson is the rare iconoclast who is also infinitely relatable. As director Henry Jaglom put it: ‘His power is less to do with glamour and more to do with something very complex and dark that people recognise in themselves, but so beautifully packaged he can get away with it.’  It’s that same beautiful packaging, inside and out, that keeps us hanging off his every word and wardrobe choice.

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