But the two sections are held together by the evolving drama of Bobby Dupea. Though Bobby boasts of possessing “no inner feeling,” his emotions bristle in every gesture, every glance; Nicholson gives one of the most nuanced performances of his career. Rafelson deserves some credit for this. Often the camera lingers on Nicholson after a scene ends, especially in moments when he is left alone, and his preternatural charisma dissolves to reveal a darker emotional truth. An early example comes at the end of a scene at a bowling alley. Bobby and Rayette have gone on a double date with Bobby’s chuckleheaded coworker, Elton, and Elton’s girlfriend.
After an argument between Bobby and Rayette, the two girls storm off to the parking lot; Elton stays behind to cheer up his friend, but then he leaves too. For fifteen seconds Rafelson holds on Nicholson, sitting in the plastic booth. Nothing happens, particularly—his smile fades, he exhales, he stares forward, he looks down, he looks back up, and finally his reverie is disrupted by the waitress bringing him the bill. But in these moments Bobby’s false bravado breaks down and we see in his face the realization that he has made a terrible decision with his life, that despite breaking free from his family, he’s blundered into a new kind of prison.
Nicholson was the unofficial fourth member of BBS, involved in every production except The Last Picture Show. After ten years of appearing in westerns and Roger Corman films, Nicholson had given up acting and resigned himself to a career as a screenwriter. He was becoming a kind of specialist. In 1967 he wrote the screenplay for Corman’s The Trip, starring Fonda and Hopper, which is structured in the form of an acid trip; the next year, while holed up in a basement writing the Head screenplay, Rafelson says Nicholson had a breakthrough: “Jack saw the movie in his mind as being structured like an acid trip.” They were on acid at the time.
But as they wrote the screenplay, Rafelson became aware that Nicholson’s talents were being wasted:
I couldn’t take my eyes off him…it was the way he acted out all the Monkees’ parts. If there was an animal, he could act out the animal. A bird? He could tweet like a bird. A snake? He could slither like a snake. I could not stop looking at him. I cannot stop looking at him today.
Rafelson vowed that if he ever directed another film, Nicholson would star.
That film would be Five Easy Pieces. But it was Easy Rider, made one year earlier, that brought Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination and convinced him to put aside his screenwriting career. He doesn’t appear in the film until the forty-sixth minute, but it is at a crucial juncture—all pretenses of plot have withered and the viewer starts to fear that the two bikers will never get anywhere, that they will continue to ride through the desert, accompanied by rock music, forever. Finally they’re arrested for disrupting a parade. The following morning they wake up in a jail cell. Nicholson is asleep on the next cot. He awakes and, for the next thirty minutes, the camera never leaves him. Like Rafelson, Hopper and Fonda can only stare at him, his crazed energy causing them at several points to break character. Nicholson’s face is always working, a pantomime of bared teeth, perverse yawns, snide grins, despairing glares, and eyebrows pointing like circumflexes. “He saved the movie,” says Steve Blauner in a recent interview, still grateful after forty years. He’s right, as is his larger implication: if Nicholson saved Easy Rider, that means he saved BBS.
Nicholson is also the best thing about A Safe Place, an incoherent collage that may not be structured like an acid trip but induces the same effects as one. (Orson Welles appears, inexplicably, as a street magician who levitates a large silver ball.) In the only memorable scene, Nicholson, who plays an ex-boyfriend of Tuesday Weld, shows up at four AM in the small apartment she shares with her nebbishy boyfriend; Nicholson and Weld begin having sex in the living room, and the boyfriend runs out in tears. Nicholson directed Drive, He Said, a campus drama that is poorly acted and relies heavily on the clichés of the period—grandstanding student revolutionaries, free love, and paranoid conversations about theater, war, and the “theater of war.”
In The King of Marvin Gardens, Rafelson cast Nicholson against type, as the sedate, introverted intellectual to Bruce Dern’s manic grifter. It was a bold artistic decision; a bad one, too. Although there are mesmerizing shots of off-season Atlantic City—vacant ballrooms, deteriorating grand hotels, bonfires on the beach—the drama is too outlandish to be convincing. If the roles were reversed, Nicholson might have been a good enough salesman to put it across.
Still, it’s worth noting that these three films, along with Head, were the most innovative that BBS produced. They represented new approaches—directors were allowed to pursue their most radical ideas about filmmaking, basic storytelling principles were flouted, and familiar conventions were held up to ridicule. This is especially true of Head, an extended riff on the phoniness of Hollywood and the Monkees themselves. But the films were failures and, with the exception of Marvin Gardens, embarrassing ones at that: tedious and pretentious, with alternating currents of silliness and melodrama. For the most part they fail because the characters are dull, unlikable, or not credible, so the dramatic stakes are never very high.
Marvin Gardens was the final BBS release, and the contract with Columbia wasn’t renewed. In the years that followed, the studios discovered the mega-blockbuster (Jaws and Star Wars) and returned to their old business formula: the star vehicle. Nicholson was perfectly positioned; BBS, with the auteur model it championed, was not. Nothing like BBS has emerged in the four decades since. The blockbuster franchise is still alive, but teetering. As for the bankable movie star—the actor so popular that his appearance in a film guarantees it will turn a profit—we are down to one: Will Smith. The only players in Hollywood who are granted real freedom to experiment are the technicians. They’ve been making great strides, as anyone who has seen Avatar can attest. The images are becoming three-dimensional, the special effects are more staggering than ever, and the sound is uncannily crisp. Something is missing.