Actor Jack Nicholson has played many military men in his long, legendary career on screen. And sometimes his movies came off as quite anti-army in their politics. But in real life his relationship with the armed forces was a complicated one. Indeed, Nicholson’s story provides a fascinating lens with which to view 1960s American history.
One of Nicholson’s movies in the 1970s was titled The Last Detail. And it was what some considered to be anti-military in its outlook. In the film Nicholson’s character is assigned to the dull task of escorting a kleptomaniac, but otherwise innocent seaman, to prison. He doesn’t want to follow orders, but he knows he has little choice.
When a restored version of the film came out in February 2017, the website Little White Lies summed up the film’s apparent message, “Ultimately these men, out of a sense of loyalty as much to each other as to ‘the Man,’ are not going to disobey orders and break the chain of command, even when they know that what they have been tasked to do … is wrong.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only film Nicholson did which involved military matters. Back in 1971 he directed a lesser-known movie called Drive He Said, starring Bruce Dern, Karen Black and William Tepper. The plot involved basketball, which had always been a passion of Nicholson’s, but it also touched upon the practice of draft-dodging.
Then come 1992 Nicholson starred in A Few Good Men, about a court case involving Marines accused of murder. He played Colonel Nathan Jessup, the character who delivered the famous “You can’t handle the truth” speech. And just like The Last Detail, the movie presented serious questions about soldiers obeying orders.
However, Nicholson spent a long time keeping his own politics to himself. In many ways he was quite a private person. But there was one thing known for certain about his early life – his childhood had been based on a lie. Yes, the woman he thought was his mother in actual fact wasn’t.
Interestingly, Nicholson was already an established actor when he learned the truth. And as it turned out, he was told by Time magazine rather than his own family. His mother was actually the woman he thought was his older sister, June. Meanwhile, the woman he’d called mom, Ethel May Nicholson, was his grandmother.
You see, June had become pregnant with Jack while she was still an unmarried teenager, and in those days that would have been scandalous. So it was easier to pretend that Ethel had had another child and keep the truth from the boy himself. Touchingly, Nicholson never resented his family once the truth came out.
That’s right, in 1986 Nicholson told Rolling Stone magazine, “Both grandmother and mother were deceased before this particular group of facts came to my attention. I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret, if nothing else. It’s done great things for me. I mean, I don’t have to question the abortion issue in my mind.”
Nicholson went on, “As an illegitimate child born in 1937, during the Depression, to a broken lower-middle-class family, you are a candidate for – you’re an automatic abortion with most people today. So it’s very easy for me. I don’t have to get into the debate of when does the thing come alive. And I’m very pleased to be out of it, ’cause it’s not an easy issue.”
Likewise, Nicholson’s films tend to tackle issues which aren’t easy. And the A-lister has always said there’s an autobiographical aspect to his movies. This may come off as an unsettling statement when you consider that plenty of the characters he’s played have been full-on monstrous. He was, after all, both the Joker and Jack Torrance.
Indeed, critics have often pondered what Nicholson’s film roles say not just about him, but about the politics of their respective eras. And in 2003 film historian Mark Cousins told The Guardian newspaper, “I think there’s a pretty close match between his values onscreen and his values offscreen. He strikes me as one of the most overrated actors.”
Cousins went on to say about Nicholson, “There’s that smugness and sexual aggression, but no vulnerability. I wouldn’t be able to say he’s a bad actor, of course, but I think the values he personifies are very easy, conservative stuff… He’s planted himself in the ecology of Hollywood, where he’s allowed to be sneering and lecherous and against the system, and they love him for it.”
In his Rolling Stone interview, Nicholson said that he spent his pre-fame years pursuing nothing in particular. He said, “My friends, we’d go to New York on weekends, get drunk, see ball games, bang around…school was out, we just went to the beach all summer. And had fun, got drunk every night. It was the age of the put-on. Cool was everything.”
Nicholson went on, “I already thought I was lazy, and I had been working since I was 11. I scored very high on the college-board examinations, so there was a certain interest in me academically, but I had a poor deportment record, and I never really hit the books or anything.” Of course, Nicholson then went on to the military – but those circumstances could have been termed “lazy” as well.
At the time Nicholson was a young man registering for the draft was a legal requirement. You see, in 1951 the Universal Military Training and Service Act meant that if you were male and aged between 18 and 26 you had to put your name down. And this led to millions joining the military.
In fact, the Selective Service Act dated back a long way. The draft had come into being during the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. But even back then people knew ways of getting around it. Shockingly, those who were rich and powerful enough could simply hire another person to fight and possibly die in their place.
The military draft came up again during World War I. First all men aged 21 to 30 had to register, and then all men aged 18 to 45. Then, hot on the heels of that came World War II. Things were starting to change a little at this point, however. Indeed, the World War II draft allowed some people to be “conscientious objectors.”
So during Nicholson’s time, millions of men were going into the army, but plenty had come up with ways to dodge the draft too. The conflict which would become known as the Vietnam War had started in 1954, and many young people were keen to avoid it. Indeed, plenty of them thought the war shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Anyway, one of the ways to avoid the draft was simply to appear unfit for service when asked to report. And despite always needing men to serve, this was the reason the draft existed in the first place – to see if you were capable. Therefore, plenty of fairly benign health conditions would disqualify someone from having to join the military.
Some of the more serious medical conditions to let men off the hook, though, included anemia, hepatitis and diabetes. But even if you didn’t have one of those conditions or similar, there was simply the option of making something up. And that wasn’t all you could do, either – not by a long shot. Some moves, however, were riskier than others.
There was also the option of pretending to be gay. But this was a double-edged sword because although the homophobia of the time meant you wouldn’t be accepted into the army, it also meant it could rebound on you. Oddly still, some men wore women’s underwear to medical exams in the hope it would disqualify them.
And some others who didn’t wish to fight took the drastic step of outright fleeing the country. Reportedly, thousands of men left America for Canada once the Vietnam War got started. In the end, these people got a pardon from President Carter, but many of them ended up becoming Canadian citizens anyway.
Of course, a lot of people didn’t have to fight in the war simply because they were needed elsewhere. That’s right, the American government couldn’t afford to lose all their young men. If you were the father of young children, you were less likely to be drafted, too. And if you were in college, you got a student deferment.
Although there were good reasons for not wanting to fight in Vietnam, there were major consequences for draft-dodging. Indeed, you could be given a $250,000 fine and five years in prison, for a start. And to this day, the pasts of various politicians are pored over to see if they avoided any drafts.
And it was in this situation of uncertainty that Jack Nicholson found himself back in 1957. Yet, unlike many, Nicholson has always been open about the fact that he attempted to dodge the draft. And he took a roundabout way of going about it – by joining the California Air National Guard.
Yes, the California Air National Guard was seen by many as a cushy option, a dodge in itself. And Nicholson himself admitted to it. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in March 1973, he told journalist Tom Shales, “That was the great rich kids’ draft dodge. We were all draft dodgers. We didn’t want to be there.”
Among the “we” Nicholson talked about were people who would go on to help him later in his Hollywood career. Although he’d been in the TV series Matinee Theatre before 1957, he was still a long way from being a movie star. And his military unit was filled with folks from the entertainment industry.
A 2008 biography of Nicholson, Five Easy Decades by Dennis McDougal, notes of this time, “While serving his country as a weekend warrior, Jack led a double life as a civilian: struggling actor during the day and beat intellectual after dark. In the mornings he put on a coat and tie and hit the auditions…At night he haunted coffee houses and avant-garde hangouts.”
Then came the Berlin Crisis of 1961. This was part of the famous Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. You see, America had come to realize that refugees were crossing from East Germany into West Berlin. And so in August 1961, the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall in the course of one night.
Now, this crisis put Nicholson and his fellow servicemen into active duty. You see, there was a new American president, John F. Kennedy, and tensions were high around the world. The USA was stuck. And West Berlin wanted America to come and tear down the wall, but U.S. forces feared what might escalate if they did.
In any case, Nicholson’s active duty only saw him stationed at an air force base in Texas where he trained as a firefighter, hardly putting him at the centre of the action. In 1974 Nicholson told the Daily Express newspaper about his time at Lackland Air Force Base, running into flames. He said, “It gave me the most wonderful ‘high,’ this feeling of being otherworldly, of existing in another element.”
Once Nicholson’s military service ended, he began getting into acting in a big way. Come 1969 he was cast in the film Easy Rider, and it was the big break he needed. Then he went on to classic movie after classic movie. Among his hits are Chinatown, The Shining, and About Schmidt.
It’s hard to live through a conflict without forming at least some opinion about politics, and in 2007 Nicholson revealed what his political viewpoints were. The then 70-year-old told the Associated Press, “I, by choice, am not an activist at this point… I feel by being a neutralist in this area, in my actual field of endeavor I can be more effective.”
Furthermore, Nicholson said he was friends with Hillary Clinton, and was going to support her for the 2008 race against then Democrat rival, Barack Obama. In fact, he declared himself “a lifelong Irish Democrat.” He added, What more can I say? I voted for what’s his name, [1988 presidential candidate Michael] Dukakis. This was the real test for a Democrat.”
One of Nicholson’s biggest political points, though, was about the environment. He told AP, “How do they talk about these small increments of energy conservation when we burn 60 percent of the gas at stop signs and traffic lights? Solar electricity is the only thing that can make an impact on this problem. It’s too big. We don’t have the ability to generate the electricity to convert, unless we go to big solar.”
Nicholson said in the interview that in past years, “I wanted to do solar energy. I wanted to legalize drugs versus the terrorist problem, which I was aware of in the 1970s. Because where else are they getting illegal money at that level?” He also said, “I’m always at odds with my own constituency. I support every president. Period.”
After an illustrious career which saw Nicholson earn no less than 12 Oscar nominations, he seemed to more or less retire from acting in the 2010s. Yes, in 2013 an unnamed source told the gossip website Radar Online that he’d stopped due to memory problems, but there was no confirmation of this.
And Nicholson’s last film (so far) was the 2010 movie How Do You Know, also starring Reese Witherspoon. Now, it didn’t get very good reviews, unfortunately. But the fact that Nicholson keeps showing up at Hollywood shindigs makes people wonder if he might get back in the game soon.
You see, throughout his life Nicholson seems to have maintained a healthy attitude toward the highs and lows. For instance, in 2011 magazine The Talk asked him, “Do you have any regrets in your life?” He answered, “Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do.”