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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 07:18 am

Long live Jack

Nicholson keeps expanding his range

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Nicholson directs and stars in Goin' South (1978)Running time 1:45Rated PG

Jack Nicholson has reached a milestone with the release of The Departed. His career as a major star has now tied the incredible run of John Wayne. For those in doubt, let’s do the math. Wayne achieved stardom with the 1939 release of Stagecoach, and his final film, The Shootist, was released in 1976. Nicholson became a star with Easy Rider in 1969, and here we are in 2006. The total for both is 37 years, but Nicholson’s run will continue into next year with the release of The Bucket List and, with any luck, long after that. Some of Nicholson’s early roles are quite dubious, and good samplings can be found in bargain bins. Classic Jack offers four gems: Studs Lonigan, The Wild Ride, Little Shop of Horrors (all 1960), and The Terror (1963). The Wild Ride, a terrible film, is the most obscure of the four, but it offers an early glimpse into Nicholson’s crazy side. Perhaps the most intriguing films of his prestardom period are director Monte Hellman’s pair of existential Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967). Both have also been found in bargain bins and occasionally pop up on late-night television.

Nicholson was a last-minute replacement for Rip Torn in Easy Rider, and it changed everything for him. He plays a quirky small-town lawyer who tags along with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on their journey across an intolerant America. Rider is a true relic of its time, but it was never a great film. Nicholson provides its best moments, and it was the impetus for the first of his 12 Oscar nominations. Shortly thereafter, Five Easy Pieces (1970) gave him that incredible career-defining moment. Few remember the story of an alienated man returning home to see his dying father, but no one can forget the diner scene. All he wanted was toast, and defiance of authoritarian rules has never been conveyed more brilliantly.

Nicholson’s occasionally forays into directing have been unheralded. A personal favorite is a lark of a Western, Goin’ South (1978), in which he also stars as a bumbling outlaw who saves himself from hanging by becoming a slave worker on a ranch run by Mary Steenburgen. Anyone who doubts his comedic abilities should see Nicholson put most other comedy Westerns to shame. Nicholson has displayed enormous versatility over the years, and he’s one of very few sexagenarians to convincingly handle a romantic lead.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Oct. 17): Over the Hedge and The Omen.

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