One of America’s greatest living actors is a man of impeccable range, whose eccentric life struggles are, at times, as memorable as the roles he takes. Nick Nolte was a Midwestern good old boy who played football, modeled for magazines, became a movie star, became a playboy, became a thespian and ultimately became, well, whatever the hell he is today. Despite his shenanigans off screen (or because of them, as one role below will prove), Nolte has long since established himself as a volcanic powerhouse.
Perhaps best known for the trademark rage most of his characters are equipped with, Nolte is expert at making himself an immediate force to be reckoned with. Dude plays mad men. Often. But that’s all just surface. While most of the characters below are angry men, all of them are capable of vulnerability and restraint. Behind Nolte’s impressive, hulking frame, there rests a gentle beast begging to be understood.
Lt. Michael Brennan
We’ve all seen crooked cops depicted every which way, and sitting down to watch yet another one can often be an exercise in futility. But director Sidney Lumet had more to offer with his Q&A. Nolte’s Brennan is a loyal and decorated New York police detective, who just happens to be on the take for the mob. When an ambitious district attorney is assigned to investigate a recent fatal incident involving Brennan, Nolte’s grizzled lieutenant finds his back against the wall for the first time in a long time. And he certainly doesn’t like it.
Sporting a perfectly horrendous mustache, dangerous charm and villainous (if not contradictory) homophobia, Michael Brennan is a thug with a badge who has no intention of stopping until his name is cleared. Which paves way for some of the most oddly pleasing and undeniably ferocious acting Nolte has ever done. It’s a real… Noltesque performance.
Cape Fear (1991)
I love much about Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, but one thing that doesn’t get mentioned quite enough is Nick Nolte’s superb arc in the film. Nolte’s character is the one who changes – the one who grows more paranoid, insecure, infuriated – while De Niro’s Max Cady more or less stays the same. We know from the start that Cady is a sadistic man, and we expect as much. But, through his desperation, Nolte expertly conveys what happens when a seemingly normal fellow is pushed to the edge. In fact, I’m just as taken with Bowden’s unraveling as I am with Cady’s madness. There’s an obvious parallel here that Scorsese is drawing on, and both actors, separately and when sharing the screen, flesh it out thrillingly.
The Prince of Tides (1991)
I didn’t expect The Prince of Tides to be my kind of movie. A moody romantic drama produced, directed, and starring Barbra Streisand didn’t sound like my thing. But given Nolte’s impressive accolades for his work in the film, I finally watched it for this post, and am happy to admit that my preconceived notions were entirely unfounded.
Tom Wingo is a South Carolina teacher who is called to New York City after his twin sister’s latest suicide attempt. In New York, Tom routinely meets with his sister’s therapist (played by Streisand) and the two slowly gain a better understanding of themselves as individuals, and as potential love interests. Now, although The Prince of Tides is impressive, it certainly isn’t perfect. It toes the line of dull repetitiveness until a shocking sequence completely redefines everything we know about Nolte’s character. Following that unexpected scene, Tom Wingo turns into one of the most exposed and heartfelt men Nolte has every portrayed. There’s a soft side to this brute cavemen, and The Prince of Tides brings it out beautifully.
Roger Ebert summed up Nolte’s performance in Paul Schrader’s Affliction best when he said that Nolte “is a big, shambling, confident male presence in the movies, and it is startling to see his cocksure presence change into fear.” For that is precisely what makes Wade Whitehouse one of the finest performances of Nolte’s career (and, it should be noted, his personal favorite of his own roles).
As a small town sheriff battling the alcoholic legacy of his father, Wade is a man two steps behind, and one too many bottles down. He’s a lousy father, a shit husband, and a piss poor policeman. He’s also, despite his strongest efforts, turning into his father – a big, brooding, alcoholic beast of a man void of emotion and full of fury. James Coburn won an Oscar for portraying Nolte’s old man in this film, and their time on screen together is some of the most devastating father/son exchanges I’ve ever witnessed.
In fact, the entirety of Nolte’s performance can be summed up in one silent, gentle moment between he and Coburn. After arriving at his parent’s house, Wade soon heads upstairs to check the home’s heating system. To do so, he must first walk directly in front of his father, an unpredictable man Wade still regards with fear. Look at Nolte’s anguished, frightened face as he passes by his dad. I love Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, and I love Edward Norton in American History X, but that look should’ve won Nolte the Academy Award.
I’ve talked at great length on this blog about my boundless admiration for Nolte’s work in Warrior; a performance of such self-control and regret, that I can’t help but be inexplicably moved by it.
According to Nolte himself, he won the role of Paddy because director Gavin O’Connor thought Nolte could use his (many) life troubles to bring Paddy to life. O’Connor said the role was Nolte’s under one condition: he had to stay sober throughout filming. Nolte accepted, they shook hands, and that was that. Shortly into rehearsals, Nolte went on a real bender and nearly got fired from the film. He begged O’Connor for one final chance, and thankfully, O’Connor let him stay on. (More of this story can be found in a fascinating piece GQ did on Nolte last year. Great read.)
Nolte says his bender was motivated by Paddy, as a means of discovering a man at his most lost, but whatever the reason, everything on screen works, and works damn effectively. With his swollen face, indecipherable speech, and worn eyes, Nolte delivered a performance that stands with any of the best from the past decade.
The Best of the Best
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Lt. Col. Gordon Tall
Something I haven’t mentioned in terms of Nick Nolte’s process is that the man is known to prepare for his roles. I mean…prepare – often spending months researching every detail and trait of his character. For his resentful, blood thirsty Col. Tall, Nolte wrote an entire novel about Tall – who he was, what he feared, how his failures motivated him – and so on. And, to put it mildly, the research paid off, because what we’re presented with (and what director Terrance Malick crafted so tediously) is a character of unwavering strength, and looming humility.
I could spend pages detailing the power of Nolte’s acting in this film. His most discussed scene is the moment in which Elias Koteas’ Cpt. Staros refuses to accept Tall’s order to march up a hill into certain death. Just watch Nolte’s enraged, furrowed face the instant Koteas says he cannot accept the order. Every wrinkle in Nolte’s enormous mug relaxes temporarily; giving a look of utter bewilderment. No one’s ever talked to him like that before, and Nolte’s incensed reaction speaks to that flawlessly.
And while I’ll remember that scene for as long as I’m able to remember, I believe Nolte’s finest moment in the film is Tall’s final moment on screen. After relieving Staros of his command, Tall orders his entire company one week of leave. As the soldiers are heard celebrating, Malick cuts to Tall sitting by himself, surrounded by the rubble of a Japanese-occupied village his company has just obliterated. Tall inhales deeply and stares at the dead bodies around him, his eyes filling with tears. He breathes, and he thinks. I like to imagine he’s thinking: “This is the man I am, but is it really who I want to be?”
Other Notable Roles
|In Tropic Thunder|
Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)
North Dallas Forty (1979)
48 Hrs. (1982)
New York Stories (1989)
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
I’ll Do Anything (1994)
Blue Chips (1994)
I Love Trouble (1994)
Mulholland Falls (1996)
The Good Thief (2002)
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Peaceful Warrior (2006)
Tropic Thunder (2008)