Jack Nicholson has the distinction of winning three Academy Award in three decades. He’s a hellion whose led a life of excess and isn’t regretful of it. Any biography written about him has a dearth of information to mine exploring his life, and getting behind the veil of who he is as a human being. Unfortunately, Marc Eliot’s latest book does nothing of the sort. I’ve read Eliot’s work in the past-his Michael Douglas biography I reviewed on the site suffered from a lack of information not already available online-and it’s difficult to understand how he’s managed to write for so long. Aside from a few nuggets of information about Nicholson’s family, as well as interviews with past co-stars of the actor, Nicholson is a puff piece of a biography, more in love with the actor than anything else.
Clocking in at over 350 pages, Nicholson is a quick read, probably because there isn’t much depth to its subject. Eliot recounts Nicholson’s birth, being raised by a woman he presumed was his mother only to later realize she was his grandmother. His mother was actually his sister, mimicking the infamous plot of Nicholson’s Chinatown. From there the books falls into introducing a movie of Nicholson’s, pulling quotes from the actors given to various publications in regards to the movie, and briefly inserting a few snippets about the actor’s personal life at the time. Nicholson: A Biography is less a biography and more a filmography, an IMDB mini-bio expanded and printed. The press release touts never-before published information about Nicholson’s family, yet I already knew about Nicholson’s family life beforehand. I never did find anything revealing within the book.
Eliot also has an issue with providing footnotes in certain situations and outlining. He mentions Nicholson’s long-standing relationship with Anjelica Huston, the one main relationship in Nicholson’s life, yet backpedals to past relationships and children with no preamble. At one point, he talks about Nicholson’s lengthy affair with Veronica Cartwright, in the middle of their second feature together. If this affair went on for so long, why mention it in the middle of the book? Why not introduce it when it happened and chart it like his other relationships? Eliot also includes lengthy footnotes at random. He briefly mentions Roman Polanski’s alleged rape victim under a name I didn’t immediately recognize. I presumed he had the name wrong, only to discover the name he quotes was before the woman married. Might be a good time for a footnote.
Speaking of Polanski, the biggest letdown of Nicholson is how jubilant and pandering to the star and his friends it is. Nicholson’s relationships with women are problematic, but outside of the quotes Nicholson’s already given on the subject, Eliot does nothing to investigate the actor. He only has brief interviews with co-stars (especially the late Karen Black), but all their quotes are similarly adoring. While he mentions Nicholson’s relationship with Polanski, and quickly details the allegations made against the director (the crime took place in Nicholson’s house), Eliot runs away from the issue entirely, with no quotes from the actor on the subject. Eliot also glosses over Polanski’s crime and continued friendship with Nicholson. One anecdote explains how Polanski wanted to shoot The Two Jakes in France….just because (and couldn’t pull it off because of the cost in shooting overseas). Earlier, he mentions how Nicholson attempted to bring Polanski back into the US-Eliot implies Hollywood got over Polanski’s controversy so the world should too-but Polanski said no. No mention that, in doing so Polanski would be arrested. Eliot is so desperate to keep everything positive that he refuses to even acknowledge Polanski is a criminal in the eyes of the law. Yes, this isn’t a Polanski biography, however, Eliot brings him up so much and fails to bring up the crime so all you can do is notice his evasions.
Nicholson: A Biography is a total waste of time. Eliot’s biography on Michael Douglas was more compelling, and even then it’s not good. These are the biographies which frustrate me; the ones glorifying the actor but providing no good reason for such glorification. If you’re desperate for something on the actor, and don’t want to hit IMDB, then by all means read it. If you’re looking for any depth into the actor’s life, you’re better off reading something else or watching his films.
Interested in purchasing today’s book? If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.