Think of a movie star swaggering through middle age with his bad-boy reputation intact and his tabloid clippings jostling for space with his lifetime-achievement awards, and you think of Jack Nicholson — unless you’re French, in which case you think of Gérard Depardieu. In their respective countries, the two men reside atop parallel mountains. Both are prolific: Nicholson is currently starring in his 49th film; Depardieu has made an astounding (and in some cases appalling) 75. Both are apparently free of vanity: Nicholson is perhaps the only great American actor unafraid to play stupid men, and Depardieu has come to wear his corpulence like a Roman emperor’s sash. Both have reputations for appetite written on their faces: Imagining Depardieu without his priapic nose is as impossible as subtracting those carnally arching eyebrows from an image of Nicholson. And now, both have biographers: Nicholson gets the unauthorized treatment in Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life, while the subject of Paul Chutkow’s Depardieu cooperated fully with his Boswell.
Vive la différence? Actually, no. Only one of these bios is engrossing, and it’s the good old-fashioned we-don’t-need-no-stinking-cooperation Jack’s Life. The list of people who wouldn’t talk to McGilligan — not just Jack but first wife Sandra Knight, longtime girlfriend Anjelica Huston and current one Rebecca Broussard, frequent colleagues Robert Evans, Dennis Hopper, and Bob Rafelson, and many others — is so enormous that Jack’s Life cannot possibly paint an accurate portrait right?
And yet Jack’s Life feels true. A lot of Nicholson’s colleagues did help McGilligan, who also apparently read every word ever spoken to a journalist either about Nicholson or by him. And there were plenty; over the years, despite his reputation for evasion, Nicholson assisted future biographers more than he realized by giving scores of candid, reflective interviews. The result is a fascinating look at a career that, even in progress, more than merits a work of this scope and detail.
McGilligan does excellent reporting on his subject’s New Jersey childhood and troubled family background; only in 1974 did Nicholson learn from a Time reporter preparing a cover story on him prior to the release of Chinatown that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. (Try to resist the dime-store psychology of watching the film’s ”my sister my daughter” face-slapping scene with that in mind; it’s not easy.) But this book’s strongest suit is its clear-eyed but sympathetic attention to Nicholson the professional, from his passionate work ethic in acting classes during the 1950s to his stint as screenwriter of the Monkees movie Head to his performance in Easy Rider, which McGilligan convincingly depicts as a career pivot that took Nicholson from losing roles to the likes of Bruce Dern and John Cassavetes to being able to turn down The Godfather and The Sting. Jack’s Life follows Nicholson’s career up to the present, watches him develop into a savvy businessman (his Batman take of $60 million probably stands as the shrewdest deal an actor ever made), and finds something interesting to say about virtually every one of his 49 movies. The highest praise I can offer is that Jack’s Life made me want to revisit even his bad performances.
I can’t say the same for Depardieu, an unilluminating glimpse into a career that must be more interesting in the living than in the telling. Working from interviews with Depardieu, his family, friends, and associates, Chutkow has fashioned a narrative that is more fascinating for its strange emphases and defensive stance than for anything it reveals.
Best in its early sections, when Chutkow outlines an unhappy childhood in which Depardieu escaped his uncommunicative family by turning toward American pop culture imported by the GIs, Depardieu goes wonky as soon as Gérard’s career begins. Fifteen of this book’s 300-plus pages are devoted to the unusual theories of an ear doctor who cured Depardieu of a speech impediment, and Chutkow spends 35 obsessive pages on the controversy over remarks the star made about either watching or participating in a rape as a child (although, amazingly, he doesn’t share Depardieu’s comments about the flap with us). On the other hand, the drinking problem that nearly got Depardieu kicked off a film merits a paragraph; his infidelity and fathering of an illegitimate child rate two sentences. Surely a man quoted as saying ”You can’t let morality kill all the joy of life” deserves a fuller hearing on these subjects.
Most frustratingly, the arc of Depardieu’s prodigious career — why, how, and when he made the movies he made — is almost impossible to track. Did Depardieu himself — by Chutkow’s account a big, hale, instantly intimate, tale-spinning bellower of a man — get in the way of his own story? In this case, too much help may have been worse than none at all. Jack’s Life: B Depardieu: C