Jack Nicholson in "Wolf"
Jack Nicholson is revered as one of our greatest, if quirkiest, actors. From his brilliant work in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining to his earlier turns in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Chinatown (1974), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) it is undeniable that Jack can be riveting to watch on screen. But I have to admit that for me, he has always been a bit of an acquired taste.
Kubrick was able to harness the innate anger that he brings to every role in a really interesting, and ultimately terrifying way in The Shining, but Nicholson's trademark eyebrow-lifting sarcasm wears on me, probably because I grew up with an angry dad and have my own issues with expressing anger. When I first saw As Good As It Gets(1997) I loathed it and all of the characters (except probably Greg Kinnear and the dog.) Admittedly that was as much the sitcom-my script as Jack's OCD performance. I enjoyed him in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), another movie where his infectious personality and fractious anger was well-suited to the eccentric material. His devilish interactions with the three witches, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfieffer, were just the right mixture of creepy and sexy.
I recently caught another film that Nicholson did with Pfieffer, Wolf (1994), and really liked it. Directed by Mike Nichols, it is a dark urban fairy tale and love story. Wolf at first seems a pretty standard werewolf update, and in some ways it is. Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) does the make-up effects, but this is not a movie that cares about showcasing the special effects of the werewolf transformation. It is about the after-effects of the transformation and its effects on the hero.
Nicholson plays Will Randall, a New York editor-in-chief at a publishing house, who one night, while in Vermont, gets bitten by a wolf. Will soon starts to develop some enhanced abilities — smell, hearing, perception. And he sparks the interest of Laura Alden (Pfeiffer), a poor little rich girl with a huge chip on her shoulder — who also happens to be his boss's daughter. Will sums up Laura's privileged, bratty attitude when they first meet in some dialogue that was tailor-made for Nicholson to recite. Can you even imagine any other actor being able to not only say these lines convincingly, but intrigue a woman like Michelle Pfeiffer while saying them?
"You know, I think I understand what you're like now. You're very beautiful and you think men are only interested in you because you're beautiful, but you want them to be interested in you because you're you. The problem is, aside from all that beauty, you're not very interesting. You're rude, you're hostile, you're sullen, you're withdrawn. I know you want someone to look past all that at the real person underneath, but the only reason anyone would bother to look past all that is because you're beautful. Ironic, isn't it? In an odd way you're your own problem."
Nicholson is the perfect actor for this modern werewolf retelling, and the film is so much better than the terrible The Wolfman that poor Benicio Del Toro was stuck in a few years back. Nicholson is never afraid to to go a little big, a little crazy, which is well-suited to a man slowly losing control — maybe for the first time in his life — and liking it. His chemistry with Pfieffer is palpable, and the viewer can't help but root for their dangerous, doomed romance. The entire cast is first-rate, with Kate Nelligan as Nicholson's distant wife and
Christopher Plummer as Pfieffer's tycoon father. Rounding out the cast, in one of the smarmiest of his trademark smarmy turns, is James Spader, as Stewart Swinton, Will's ambitious, treacherous protege.
Will, "You are such a polished ass kisser that it takes my breath away."
Stewart, "I kiss 'em like I see 'em."
Wolf is a werewolf movie, but at its core it is more interested in the modern jungle of New York and the cut-throat dealings that Will experiences at the office and on the homefront on a daily basis. So many of the characters — Will, Laura, Stewart, are solitary figures, trying to make their way in a harsh world, like the lone wolf that originally bites Will. Will's newfound wolf-like behavior may even be a boon in the publishing world. One of the best scenes in the movie involves a confrontation between Will and Stewart in their company's men's room, where Will "marks his territory" by pissing on Stewart's suede shoes. I really love Nicholson in Wolf, from his restrained, even nebbish beginnings to his all-out animal ending. His wolfish encounter ends up being more of a blessing than a curse.