Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In Character: Nick Nolte


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.

Five Essential Roles
Q&A (1990)
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)
Sam Bowden
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)
Tom Wingo
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.

Affliction (1998)
Wade Whitehouse
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.

Warrior (2011)
Paddy Conlon
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)
Nightwatch (1997)
Afterglow (1997)
U-Turn (1997)
Simpatico (1999)
The Good Thief (2002)
Hulk (2003)
Clean (2004)
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Peaceful Warrior (2006)
Tropic Thunder (2008)


32 comments:

  1. Nice job, Alex. My pick would probably be Affliction, but I haven't seen The Thin Red Line (sad, I know). I also really liked Nolte's work in The Good Thief. Although Neil Jordan's remake isn't as sharp as the original Bob Le Flambeur, Nolte makes the lead character an intriguing guy.

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    1. Thanks Dan. I really wanted to include The Good Thief here, because I am a huge fan of Nolte's work in it, but six is the magic number! Had I not seen TTRL, Affliction would definitely be my number one. But please, my friend, do indeed see The Thin Red Line. Soon.

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  2. This is a great list! I really haven't seen enough of Nolte's film work and with the exception of The Thin Red Line, I haven't seen any of the previous five. Gonna have to look into these, thanks for the rec.

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    1. Thanks man! Hope you like the Nolte films you end up checking out. He's a great, great actor.

      (PS, do you have a blog, or Twitter account? It'd be great to keep in touch!)

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    2. Yeah man, I have a music reviewing blog (Don't Count On It Reviews), same on twitter. Thanks for asking and keep up the great work on here!

      http://dontcountonitreviews.blogspot.com/
      https://twitter.com/DCOIReviews

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    3. Nice, thanks for coming back and commenting. Look forward to reading your blog and tweets!

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    4. Simply put....the movie Q&A is stupendous; and filled with more than just one great character/actor.

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  3. Col. Tall is my favorite Nolte performance. I'm with you on The Prince of Tides. Yeah, I'm not a fan of Barbra Streisand but it's a damn good movie and I love Nolte's performance. Notably that scene where he mocked that violin player and destroyed that piece of shit violin.

    Warrior is another of my favorite performances of his. Especially that scene where he falls off the wagon and Tom Hardy is trying to comfort him.

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    1. I LOVED that moment when he fucked with the prissy violin player. Nolte played it so damn well. That was a humorous and tense scene right there.

      And that scene in Warrior is just devastating. What a beast of a man.

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  4. Nolte is an actor I'm only vaguely familiar with. (The Thin Red Line and Warrior mainly.) Definitely seeking out Affliction now.

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    1. I highly recommend Affliction. I only really covered one aspect of the movie in this post, but there's a lot more going on there. Very very good film.

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  5. I agree on The Thin Red Line and Warrior, which would be at the top of my list too. His performance as Col. Tall could be written off as being overacted, but I thought he nailed it in the loud and quiet moments.

    Glad you watched The Prince of Tides beforehand. Love that performance as well. I've put off Affliction for a while, but I'll be watching it very soon.

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    1. It is strange that in damn near every Nolte film I've seen, the dude has screamed and shouted his way through it, yet I've never seen him come close to overacting. He's mad, but he's delicate. So odd.

      Affliction is a great and meek film. I really love it.

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  6. I haven't seen any of these films except for The Prince of Tides, and I'm not a huge fan of that movie. I did like him in Hotel Rwanda though, and The Thin Red Line has been on my to-see lost forever and a day.

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    1. Definitely throw TTRL on the top of your list. That one would be in my Top 20 of all time, easily. Powerhouse of a film, and Nolte is one of its anchors. I mean... whoa.

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  7. I never realized how few of his films I've seen. I'll have to check out Affliction. Sadly, when I think of him, I think of Tropic Thunder. God, that movie was hilarious.

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    1. That isn't sad at all! Tropic Thunder is hilarious. Definitely check out Affliction when you can.

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  8. I liked his work in Warrior, but for some reason I don't even remember him in Thin Red Line, that damn cast was so big I remember maybe 4 people there.

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    1. Huge cast, no doubt. But aside from Elias Koteas, Nolte delivers my favorite performance in that movie. Such a complex man.

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  9. Yes, that shocked face relaxing in TRL now that IS acting. The man can conjure up some real anger in his screen-time, perhaps Nolte and Ed Harris flip a coin over who takes their roles.

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    1. Ha shit, you might be right. Both of those actors can flip a switch and be angry. I love their intensity.

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  10. Great job Alex! There really are a lot of great Nick Nolte performances-Couldn't pick a favorite. Thanks for showing him the respect he deserves.
    I hope he is doing allright (personal life-wise)

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    1. Thanks! Very hard to pick a favorite. I love him in most everything he's in. I really hope he's doing okay too. I very different kind of fella.

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  11. Another one of my favorites. I definitely agree with you on The Thin Red Line. He was amazing in that movies. But the biggest surprise from him i have to say is Tropic Thunder. I never thought he could be a funny actor.

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    1. He's great in Tropic Thunder, isn't he? And yeah, who knew ol' Nolte had a comic streak in him. Hilarious. But what he did in TTRL is extraordinary. I'll never forget it.

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  12. Hi Alex, I just found your blog as I've currently been bingeing on Mr. Nolte's work. This is a powerhouse of a list and I wish more people appreciated what a force of nature this man is. I am sad to say I have not seen the 2 bookends of your list; O&A and The Thin Red Line, but I will be doing so soon. (I only saw Affliction a few days ago!! He should've won.) I'm also looking forward to seeing The Good Thief which everyone keeps mentioning and New York Stories. I've been a fan of his since the 80's and one of the one's not on any of your lists would be Weeds (1987); a different movie and unfortunately not on DVD, but I have an ancient copy from HBO. Wonderful performance if you ever get a chance. And I think he's done more comedy than other people realize, some of which I am fond of. Although he's known for expressing his demons on screen (love Warrior) he has a softer, stoic/stalwart side (Prince of Tides) and so much damn charm!

    One I haven't watched in the lighter category (because of word of mouth and it's his least favorite) is I Love Trouble. Any thoughts on it?

    Thanks for posting this! (And did you see he has a memoir coming out in February?!)

    ~Misty R. (sorry if this posts twice)

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    1. Hey Misty, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a nice comment! I LOVE Nolte so much. Such a versatile and powerful actor. I haven't seen Weeds but I need to track it down ASAP. Obviously, I cannot speak highly enough of The Thin Red Line. It is sheer perfection and Nolte is remarkable in it.

      I Love Trouble is pretty much exactly what you think it's going to be. Really silly, nonsensical, but a little fun. It's dumb, but it knows it's dumb, know what I mean?

      I had no idea he had a memoir coming out soon. Now THAT'S a must read.

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  13. what about HEARTBEAT and CANNEY ROW, Nolte was excellent in both.

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    1. So good in both. But really, so good in everything.

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  14. Looking forward to reading a memoir about Nick...he has charisma+++, loads of machismo... wonder if any new films are forthcoming?

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    1. Oh me too, I think it'll make for a great read. IMDb lists a few upcoming credits for him. I hope he has large roles in them. Love Nolte.

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