Donald Trump is the new Jack Nicholson
If you’re like me, you’ve read way too many comparisons of our 45th President to our 37th; as evidenced by the ubiquity of the meme picture that crosses over their faces. And sure, it’s true that there are parallels, some of which have been known to cheer up Democrats, considering Richard Nixon’s eventual fate.
Perhaps the clearest similarity regards the zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times.” When policemen were shot and killed at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas in summer 2016, every commentator and their cousin fell over themselves to compare the national mood to 1968, the last time America seemed to be “coming apart” with no obvious way to bridge the differences. Once, it was hippies and anti-war activists versus the Silent Majority. Last summer it was progressives versus, uh, the silent majority. Once, Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam; last summer, Trump had a secret plan to end the wars in Afghanistan and Syria. (Neither of these secrets were real, or helpful.)
But if the parallels between Nixon in ’68 and Trump in ’16 are so obvious, why, by Halloween 2016, did 95% of media analysts (including most conservative experts), believe that Donald Trump would lose the election? Putting Russia and voter suppression to the side, why did everyone think the last election shouldn’t have been close? (And if President Obama had thought it would have been close, it might not have been; he could have acted far more strongly to counter Russian interference.)
It comes down to personality. Trump has a superficial resemblance to Nixon, but Nixon kept most of his Trump-like personality (read: profanity, bigotry, grievances, constant sense of persecution, seething desire to punish enemies) private during his two successful presidential campaigns; we only know of it because of tapes that came out later. Trump put that personality right out where everyone could see it, and indeed he went far beyond Nixon in his outsider-osity, his contempt for (ostensible) allies, his disregard for institutions, and his corrosive sexism, up to and including the “grab-them-by-the-pussy” remarks which were thought to have ended his campaign once and for all.
People thought Trump couldn’t win because of his personality. But they should have known better, because of another figure that became incredibly popular during, and because of the context of, the late 60s and early 70s. And no, Peggy Noonan, I’m not talking about Woody Allen.
Donald Trump is the new Jack Nicholson.
Now, hear me out. Yes, I realize Nicholson scans as a liberal; so did Trump, once. Yes, I realize Nicholson is a movie star, not a politician. But in a world ruled by infotainment, that’s become a distinction without a difference. When Nicholson appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1970, and on the cover of Time in 1975, the accompanying articles hardly limited themselves to close analysis of Nicholson’s onscreen performances. As you would expect, Nicholson was judged the man that America needed at that moment, a uniquely appropriate response to a (decidedly offscreen) decade of tumult and tragedy.
The significance of stars has never been limited to stars’ gestures and line readings within scripted entertainment. A star’s significance includes those things, but also includes his appearance, projected “value,” publicity, comments to reporters, and that which is known about his private life.
And when it comes to star personas, Trump (who had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame long before he began embracing politics in 2011) has a star persona that most resembles Nicholson’s. What is interesting is to see how well Nicholson’s star behavior in 1969–1973 predicted the current Trump.
It is true that Nicholson was far younger in 1969 than is Trump in 2017–30 compared to 71. The two men were born nine years apart. But it is also true that Nicholson’s youth was one of the least interesting things about him even at the outset — as he told one source in 1971, “For one thing, I’m not that young.”
The essence of the 1970s Nicholson persona was that of the outsider-insider, the white man who is deeply alienated but still working within the system, the angry gadabout with a uniquely correct take on what’s really bothering the real America, the one who refuses to take any shit from anybody. This was confirmed by both Nicholson’s onscreen work and offscreen interviews. (I am something of an expert on both, having researched and published a book about them.)
Nicholson, who became famous in 1969, came along at a propitious moment, not only because of the conflicts of the 1960s, but also because from 1967 to 1971, just about every film starring, or directed by, a person with a pre-1960s career flopped badly at the box office. These few years saw a massive generational shift in Hollywood that has not come close to occurring in any five-year period since then. Nicholson had actually arrived in Los Angeles in the 1950s, but had been relegated to Roger Corman B-movies. He was lucky, in a way, to break through in 1969, where he could be interpreted as the unlikely Voice of the Disenfranchised…somewhat like the way Trump would be seen almost five decades later.
All the movie stars that emerged in that time were, to some degree, capital-A alienated and anti-establishment, like Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Richard Roundtree, and yes, Woody Allen. But Nicholson distinguished himself from them in certain ways, much as Trump distinguished himself from 16 other competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination.
In interviews and publicity, Nicholson was relentlessly aggressive with his opinions in a manner that would today be called “man-splaining.” Peggy Noonan writes that before Woody Allen, the strong silent type was considered the male ideal — think Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen represented this ideal well into the 1970s, off screen and on. Nicholson was far more of an insistent explainer, but unlike peers like Beatty, Redford and Hoffman, there was a certain obvious one-upmanship, what you might call “alpha-dogging.”
Nicholson made it clear that he was unhappy with the current state of the country, but he hardly offered any solutions, off screen or on. He told Philadelphia After Dark, “In the 1920s, Dostoyevsky could write that America is what paradise must be like. We’re not there anymore.” Putting aside the fact that Dostoyevsky was long dead by then (it must have been harder for reporters to Google then), the quote indicated a sort of all-purpose disenfranchisement with both hippies and Nixon voters. (The author coyly wrote that he could think of worse choices for President than Jack Nicholson.) Speaking about the union-breakers that had helped make Easy Rider, he said “People outside the union are better,” and, as he prepared to make his directorial debut, “I know I’ll have to use [the union], and it will make [his] film that much worse. Ultimately, they’ll take it out of my ass for talking this way. But I’m only telling the truth.” He also lambasted classic-era directors like Vincente Minnelli and the ones that “you see at Directors Guild meetings…They don’t know how to communicate with the audience.”
You never saw early-period Beatty, Redford, Allen, or Eastwood quite so willing to bite the hands that could feed them. And fans didn’t agree with everything Nicholson said, but they liked the apparently unvarnished, unpolished way he said it. He was a truth-teller for people sick of listening to obsolete so-called experts. Sound familiar yet?
You’ll recall that I said that we understand a star from his onscreen and offscreen personalities. We understand the persona of Trump from his interviews but also his “performances” on Celebrity Apprentice. (There’s a new rumor that Trump is actually not good at firing people.)
The Nicholson persona was minted by both his publicity and his performances in his first four hit movies. Consider Easy Rider (1969), the film that made Nicholson a star. It’s a film about anti-establishment hippies on a road trip, but Nicholson isn’t exactly a hippie. As attorney George Hanson, Nicholson sympathizes with his new biker-brothers, but he’s still a Southern lawyer, still the kind of man who can assuage the local Texas sheriff by saying, of men in prison, “these are good boys.” He straddles their motorcycle for kicks (not unlike Trump riding a fire truck); he straddles two worlds and looks toward a third, as he tells his road-trip-mates about secret signals sent by Venutians (critics couldn’t get enough of this speech). Basically, Nicholson plays a bit of a good-old-boy, what 19th-century people called a “hail fellow,” who takes rides for fun, who can represent the South but not really be of it. The Motion Picture Academy, most of whom had never seen Nicholson before, were quick to grant him his first Oscar nomination.
And yet it was the following year that really established Nicholson as a magazine-cover-worthy star, because of his lead performance as Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Again, Nicholson plays a man straddling two worlds, in this case, the hard-hat, blue-collar oil fields versus his silver-spoon upbringing. It may be noteworthy that writer Carol Eastman said she based Bobby Dupea on Nicholson’s life and personality, particularly the infamous “no substitutions” scene, where Dupea/Nicholson freaks out on a waitress who explains that their choices are limited. (Like the 2016 political establishment explaining that our choices are limited to certain kinds of Democrats and Republicans?) It scans as volatile sexism, much like another point in the film, when Bobby feels trapped by Rayette and gets in his car and flails his arms in pure anger and frustration. It’s a moment utterly unlike anything any of Nicholson’s generation (including Duvall, Hackman, Pacino, and the others I’ve mentioned) ever did on screen — white male volatility at its purest. Once again, critics swooned; no one straddled two worlds better. That year, Nicholson, the hard-headed, angry, disillusioned, truth-telling white man, received the second of what would eventually be twelve Oscar nominations.
Nicholson’s third major film was even a bigger hit — in fact, as it lingered in 1970s’ second-run and third-run houses, Carnal Knowledge (1971) became one of the 1970s’ ten highest-grossing films prior to the release of Star Wars (1977). Mike Nichols’ and Jules Feiffer’s film is about Jonathan who, after being spurned by Candice Bergen (like the GOP after the 1992 Murphy Brown debacle?), becomes an unrepentant misogynist. Trump, who shares so much with, and is a large fan of, Howard Stern, must surely have heard a favorite clip that Stern has played over and over again through the years, the scene where Nicholson (Jonathan) and Bobbie (Ann-Margret) argue:
Bobbie: I need a life.
Jonathan: Get a job!
Bobbie: I don’t want a job. I want you.
Jonathan: I’m taken, by me. Get out of the house, do something useful, Goddammit.
Jonathan: You want a job? I got a job for you. Fix up this pigsty! You get a pretty Goddammed good salary for testing out this bed all day! You want an extra fifty dollars a week, try vacuuming! You want an extra hundred, make this Goddammed bed! Try opening some Goddammed windows! That’s why you can’t stand up in here, the Goddammed place smells like a coffin!
In other words, at a time when society’s rules seem up for grabs, Nicholson/Jonathan blamed a woman for feeling trapped in the gilded role he’d once wanted for her. Was the movie condemning the behavior of its lead, Jonathan, or simply showing it? Future successful reality-TV producers would learn that that is a distinction without a difference, especially on shows like Celebrity Apprentice.
Now, one might argue that Carnal Knowledge represented only Nicholson’s acting, not his actual feelings. But like a more modern President who never deletes his tweets, Nicholson didn’t disavow his performance as Jonathan, and in fact doubled down in a Playboy interview in 1971:
In a casual conversation with me, you could have a certain difficulty in separating my sexual stance from Jonathan’s…I moved Jonathan a great deal toward me. Mike Nichols and I agreed that this guy must not become a lascivious character, because that’s not really what’s being said. Jonathan is the most sensitive character in the picture. He’s the one who doesn’t recover from the original sexual triangle.
Right, he’s the victim. Sound familiar? No doubt it sounded familiar to Susan Anspach, an actress who accused Nicholson of sexually assaulting her on the set of Five Easy Pieces. They settled out of court; Anspach barely worked again.
Speaking of doubling down, Nicholson really let his anger-flag fly on his next major film, The Last Detail (1973). As Corporal Buddusky, Nicholson’s character piled up a then-record amount of speaking the word “fuck” on screen — all by himself. Not unlike Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail is in many ways a broad exploration of what masculinity means after the hippie revolution, and not unlike Carnal Knowledge, it’s hardly clear that the film condemns the brash misogyny of its central character, played by Jack Nicholson. For this film, Nicholson received his third Oscar nomination, his second as Lead Actor. (He would win for his fifth nod, two years later.)
You might think I could cherry-pick quotes from anyone in the 20th century to sound like the current occupant of the Oval Office. Perhaps, but I’m hard-pressed to think of another major, Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn-level star whose persona is closer to that of our 45th President. And Nicholson’s barely-Irish ethnic identity also tracks with Trump’s. My book, “Representing Rough Rebels,” recounts how in the wake of the civil-rights movement, Hollywood needed stars that were a little less like Charlton Heston and John Wayne, and more like the sort of ethnic or working-class or imperfect heroes that could represent real alienation from the system. In a period that brought America Hoffman, Pacino, and DeNiro, Nicholson was both of them and somehow not; Nicholson was anti-Hollywood (as noted and quoted) and pro-Hollywood (he reliably attended the Oscars, unlike the other Rough Rebels).
I like Jack Nicholson; I like his taste in films. After The Last Detail, quite unlike his peers, he went out of his way to work for three European master-directors, making Chinatown (1974), The Passenger (1975), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), at least two of which are two of the finest films ever made.
I’m not making this false/not-false equivalence to make readers say ooo, spoooky. Instead, for my liberal and moderate friends who shake their head at Trump, I’m trying to give them (us) one way of understanding his appeal. Perhaps it helps to know that today, many conservatives see themselves as part of a new counterculture. Back in the days of the original counterculture, in a country wracked by cultural conflict, many Americans found attractive a certain type of no-nonsense, white-male-privileged, worlds-straddling, misogynist, shoot-from-the-hip, tell-it-like-it-is personality. Granted, they didn’t elect him President. But what if he had run?