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DIY Film Fest: You know Jack Nicholson can act, but did you know he directed three films?





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You don't have to wait for the NuArt or the American Cinematheque to throw a film festival. Make one of your own! Every few weeks, Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC's Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, releases another in his series of DIY Film Festivals for Off-Ramp listeners to throw in the comfort of their homes.

Jack Nicholson has over 70 credits as an actor. But how many movies did he direct?  

Nicholson has 12 acting Oscar nominations and three wins. He and Michael Caine are the only two actors to be nominated for an Academy Award in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. From Easy Rider in 1969 to About Schmidt in 2003. Jack’s acting rightly overshadows his directing efforts - of which there are three or four - if you count his un-credited work on Roger Corman’s "The Terror," with Francis Ford Coppola, among others.

1. "Drive, He Said" (1971)

Nicholson’s solo directorial debut is the 1971 adaptation of Jeremy Larner’s novel, "Drive, He Said." The title is from a Robert Creeley poem about human disconnection in an uncertain time. It perfectly suits the subject of the movie: the unease of zeitgeist. It’s about a horny college basketball star who has an affair with one of his professor’s wives, played by Karen Black. It touches on the social revolution and the still lingering sexual revolution, featuring a long single take sex scene between William Tepper and a dazzling Black, which Nicholson says he filmed "contranudity," with Black wearing a huge fur coat, so the stars look like two bears wrestling.

"Drive, He Said" premiered at Cannes to mixed reviews, with equally tepid reviews and box office upon its release, though Roger Ebert called it “often brilliant” and critic Vincent Canby liked it greatly. The original score is extraordinary and was composed by David Shire, then married to Coppola's sister, Talia.  I just watched the other day for the first time since 1990 and it’s still relevant - and even  better than I remembered.

2. "Goin' South" (1978)

Jack directed his second film, "Goin’ South" in 1978. It’s an odd caper comedy set just after the Civil War. The plot is nuts, though it's apparently based on something they actually did during those days when men were sparse because so many died in the war: men could be spared from hanging if they could find a woman to marry them.

"Goin' South" hanging scene

The movie failed at the time and most critics give it faint praise today. But it’s what I call a "chuckle in every scene" funny. You never really laugh out loud, but you never stop chuckling, because there’s something funny happening in every scene; including a good bit of slapstick.

It’s a movie that actually plays better in an intimate setting – like in your own personal DIY film festival — when you clock every nutty expression Jack Nicholson, John Belushi, and Christopher Lloyd make, and hear every very funny line of dialogue (of which there are many).  

"Goin’ South" was meant to star Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen, with Mike Nichols directing. But, when another film Nicholson wanted to make fell through, Jack stepped in to direct and found himself drafted to star. His best work on "Goin’ South" was his discovery of his leading lady, Mary Steenburgen, who was working as a receptionist. It was great call. In her second feature — "Melvin and Howard" — she won an Academy Award.

3. "The Two Jakes" (1990)

Jack Nicholson’s third directorial effort is the sequel to "Chinatown," Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir classic "Chinatown," "The Two Jakes." I really like this movie. It only has one problem, it was made 10 years too late - literally. Originally set for 1985, and meant to be the middle film of a trilogy, "The Two Jakes" had issues from the start.

"The Two Jakes" trailer

"Chinatown’s" producer, Robert Evans, wanted to play the "second" Jake, a role that went to Harvey Keitel. And "Chinatown’s" writer, Robert Towne, wanted to direct, and didn’t want Evans… in the picture.

But it finally got made in 1990, with most everyone in their original role  and Jack Nicholson directing and reprising his role as Jake Gittes. But for the "The Two Jakes" it was too late. Once again, reviews were mixed, though Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars and Vincent Canby called it "...an enjoyable if clunky movie."

"The Two Jakes" polls 6 out of 10 on Rotten Tomatoes these days, and if in fact it turns out to be the last film Jack Nicholson directs, he can and should be proud of it, along with other directorial efforts, each are worthy additions to our DIY Film Festivals.