Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.
There is Stephen King’s The Shining and then there is Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining. King’s novel is pulp horror at its most emotionally devastating, following a tortured writer as he tries to make good by his family amidst a supernatural maelstrom in the gargantuan hotel they’re caring for. It’s as harrowing as it is effective, especially for anyone who can relate to the true horror of the book: alcoholism. Kubrick’s film only lightly touches on the theme of addiction, and instead focuses his family in crisis on stunning visual metaphors and intensely visceral performances, especially from Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance.
Today we look at Nicholson’s performance with awe. He’s a tour de force as the possessed author about to explode, contorting his body and face into frightening expressions. But in 1980, few critics felt that way. Variety’s review from the time states, “Stanley Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller. The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks.” In the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “[Kubrick] also allows the costars to embarrass themselves with gauche, inadvertently ridiculous performances, of different kinds. Where Nicholson seems to need toning down…” If this type of full-throated performance being branded as outrageous overacting sounds familiar, it’s because Nicholson in The Shining is uncannily similar to those exaggerated performances Nicolas Cage is now known for. Just take a look at how Nicholson rages in this famous scene from The Shining:
You can see how Nicholson freely approaches every line from any angle in the scene because his acting choices are being dictated by his character’s immediate impulses. As I’ve written before on Nicolas Cage’s own acting methodologies, following character impulses and making strong choices in the moment is exactly what makes his performances so electric. Just look at how Nicolas Cage allows his character’s manic energy to guide his decisions in this scene from Matchstick Men.
When actors of Cage and Nicholson’s caliber follow impulses like this, you really can’t tear your eyes off of them. Nicholson following Jack’s impulses is even written into the behind the scenes lore of The Shining. Arguably the most iconic line in the film — “Here’s Johnny!” — was completely improvised.
That said, Jack Nicholson’s version of Jack Torrance is more than just his freakout moments. An issue Stephen King always had with the film was that Nicholson’s Jack plays crazy from the first scene, rather than slowly descending into madness as the character does in the novel. But that minimizes the nuances Nicholson layered into his performance.
In the novel, Jack Torrance wants to reconcile with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) after he drunkenly broke his son’s arm prior to the events of the story. He views the job at the Overlook as the conduit for him to repair the damage he caused, not to mention finish the play he’s been working on. Nicholson’s Jack eschews the family dynamic and portrays him as a driving selfish force focused solely on his work. He plays Jack as cold and detached, his family just a cross to bear. It makes for an intriguing character study, even if it’s a departure from the novel’s motivation.
You can see his detachment early in the film when Jack is awoken by Wendy with breakfast in bed. There’s no motivation behind his words because Nicholson’s Jack is merely playing at being a husband, saying what he thinks he should say to pacify his wife. Even when she offers words of encouragement, his eyes roll unnoticed as he flashes a “Fuck You” smile, thanking her in a voice dripping with resentment and condescension. These are clues to the inner selfishness that Nicholson imbues into his character.
It happens again when Danny asks Jack, “You wouldn’t hurt mommy and me, would you?”
Rather than being floored by the question, Nicholson’s Jack becomes defensive, demanding to know why he asked him that. Even as he offers paternal reassurance, his expression of love rings hollow. He says the words “I love you,” but you can see in his eyes that’s not what he’s feeling. He’s saying only what he believes is expected of him. He’s not being a father, he’s playing one, and his face expresses the disdain he has for that role. He’s forced himself to be a character in a play of his own making.
Kubrick freely adapted King’s story to make a vision that matched the auteur’s unique eye, which is why I find it a little ironic that one of Jack Nicholson’s most celebrated acting moments in the film is in a scene lifted wholesale from the novel. As Jack fumes after being accused of abusing Danny, he finds his way into the Overlook’s grand ballroom with a now fully stocked bar. We watch as Jack strikes up a conversation with a bartender named Lloyd. Stephen King’s hammy dialogue here is a perfect match for Nicholson’s scenery-chewing as Jack tells Lloyd, “I just happen to have two twenties and two tens right here in my wallet. I was afraid they were gonna be there until next April!”
The dialogue that’s taken verbatim from the novel allows for a stylized playfulness in the scene as Nicholson calms his nerves by cracking jokes to himself. This impishness is where I’m reminded yet again of Nicolas Cage. Every role Cage performs, from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to Vampire’s Kiss is distinguished by his playful experimentation. He acts with a childlike sense of discovery that becomes captivating to watch, especially under the eye of an exacting director.
That brand of committed playfulness is what Nicholson brings to The Shining. I could argue that it’s a metaphor for Jack’s reversion into puerile behaviors when he loses control of his lot in life, but I think there’s a simpler answer: Jack Nicholson was having fun with the role. Watching his eyebrows dance and pupils dilate, his voice jumping octaves from syllable to syllable, it’s clear that Nicholson was feeling himself in The Shining. And if there is any actor that knows what it’s like to feel themselves in a role, it’s Nicolas Cage.