Arguably one of the largest presences throughout the last decade was Jack Nicholson, who won the Best Actor prize for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was nominated numerous times elsewhere. Like many of the stars of the 1970s, Jack’s success continued into the eighties but oddly he took a backseat in a lot of his roles. In two of the three Best Picture nominees he appeared in he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice before being back to playing the lead in the final film of the trio.
In a way I feel that Nicholson’s role as a supporting performer allowed him to improve his repertoire and demonstrated the range that he had. A case in point is his turn in Warren Beatty’s Reds in which Nicholson plays playwright Eugene O’Neill, an acquaintance of Beatty’s journalist turned revolutionary John Reed. Reds was Beatty’s epic retelling of the build-up and response to Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ which chronicled his first-hand experiences of the Russian revolution. The first half of the film is dedicated to Reed’s life in New York and his relationship with journalist Louise Bryant who is initially presented as a big fan of his. Reed and Bryant get married but their relationship is fraught to say the least as they split-up and reconcile several time throughout the film. At the same time, Bryant starts an affair with O’Neill which is born out of the fact that he doesn’t see her as a particularly decent performer in one of his plays. O’Neill pops up throughout the film and is presented as somebody who observes life rather than somebody who actually does something about it. In fact he’s almost the polar opposite to Reed whose political views become more radical after his time in Russia and he tries to make some changes to the Socialist Party in America. The final third of the film looks at political identity in Russia and sees Louise try to find John after he goes missing in Finland. The couple’s final reunion is beautifully played although it did take a hell of a long time getting there.
It was clear with Reds that Beatty was influenced by the grand epics of past decades, most of which have been featured in this blog. At over three hours long, Reds achieved epic status but at the same time the film felt awfully modern. As with other epics, Reds had some excellent cinematography as well as some great early 20th century period detail and costumes. But what really made Reds unique was the use of ‘witnesses’, talking heads who appeared throughout the film to discuss their experiences with Reed and Bryant. I felt that these witnesses really made Reds feel like a documentary and their presence bolstered the film from average melodrama to important historical epic. I found Nicholson’s performance in Reds to be rather understated and if anything he was the least passionate of all of the characters. To me it took a while to adjust to Jack Nicholson not playing a version of himself but I felt that he was effective in the handful of scenes he appeared in the film. Conversely, Beatty brought the passion both in front and behind the camera to create an idealistic character who was definitely very flawed. Beatty and Diane Keaton had some great chemistry and made us believe in John and Louise’s fiery marriage. In fact, Keaton stole the show for me and I enjoyed her performance in Reds more so than her Oscar winning turn in Annie Hall. Oddly, of the four actors nominated for the film it’s Maureen Stapleton as Reed’s good friend Emma Goldman. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Stapleton’s performance I just don’t feel she’s on-screen long enough to warrant the win. Stapleton’s only shining moment came towards the end of the film when she delivered a monologue about the changing face of Russian politics. Beatty was awarded with a Best Director prize for Reds, which truly felt like his passion project, whilst a third Oscar was given for the stunning cinematography employed throughout. Ultimately, Reds was a little baggy in places but no more so than other epics and I feel it really benefited from the real life witnesses interviewed throughout. Meanwhile Nicholson delivered an out-of-character performance which demonstrated the range of the actor.