Jack Nicholson was not an overnight success.
Nicholson was 17 years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1954. Looking to become an actor, Nicholson toiled as an office worker at the MGM cartoon studio, took acting classes, and went to auditions. It would be four years before he even landed his first role, the lead in the Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer. When that film failed to become a hit, Nicholson spent the next ten years doing minor roles and occasionally starring in a B-picture. He auditioned for some big parts, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, but his big break continued to allude him. By 1969, Nicholson was so disillusioned with acting that he was planning to instead pursue a career as a director. However, before Nicholson officially retired from the acting game, he received a call from the set of Easy Rider. Depending on who you ask, Rip Torn, who had previously been cast in the role of alcoholic George Hanson, had either quit or been fired. Bruce Dern, the first choice to replace Torn, was busy filming They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Nicholson agreed to step into the role and the rest is history.
Easy Rider may have made Jack Nicholson one of the world’s biggest film stars but he never lost his ambition to direct. In 1971, he made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said, a film about campus unrest. At the time, the film flopped at both the box office and with critics and quickly sunk into obscurity. (It has subsequently been rediscovered and, in some cases, positively reevaluated.) After the failure of Drive, He Said, it would be another seven years before Nicholson again got a chance to direct.
Nicholson’s second film as a director, Goin’ South, is a comedic western. Nicholson plays Henry Lloyd Moon, an unsuccessful outlaw who used to ride with Quantrill’s Raiders. When Moon is captured in Longhorn, Texas, he is sentenced to be hanged. Fortunately, for Moon, Longhorn has a special ordinance. Any man condemned for any crime other than murder can be saved from the gallows if a local woman agrees to marry him and take responsibility for his good behavior. As a result of this ordinance, Longhorn is populated almost exclusively by single women and reformed outlaws.
While standing on the gallows, the cocky Moon is stunned to discover that none of the women want to marry him. Finally, an old woman emerges from the crowd and announces that she’ll become Moon’s wife. When Moon hops off the gallows and thanks her, the woman drops dead. Fortunately, another, younger woman, Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen, making her film debut), steps forward.
Once they’re married, the lecherous Moon discovers that Julia is a virgin and that the only reason she married him was so she could force him to work in the secret gold mine that’s hidden underneath her property. The railroad will soon be taking over the land and Julia wants to get all of the gold before she leaves town for Philadelphia. Though Julia, at first, wants nothing to do with Moon, he eventually wears her down through sheer persistence and the two fall in love.
Complicating matters is Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who is upset because he feels that Julia was meant to be his wife. Also, the members of Moon’s former gang (including Danny DeVito and Veronica Cartwright) show up at Julia’s house and discover the truth about the mine.
Goin’ South gets off to a good start. The scene on the gallows, where Moon waits for someone to marry him and save his life, is genuinely funny and Nicholson and Steenburgen have a playful chemistry for the first hour of the movie. Nicholson leers even more than usual in this film but the script is written so that the joke is always on Moon. Much of the film’s humor comes from Moon always overestimating both his charm and his cleverness. However, once Moon and Julia finally consummate their marriage, the movie loses whatever narrative momentum it may have had and gets bogged down with the subplots about Towfield and Moon’s gang. There are funny moments throughout but the story gets away from Nicholson and the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, none of which build up to much.
Not surprisingly, Nicholson gets good performances from his cast, which is largely made up by the members of his 1970s entourage. Along with Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, longtime Nicholson associates like Tracey Walter, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Bradford, Jeff Morris, and Luana Anders all appear in small roles. John Belushi plays the tiny role of Deputy Hector. (Goin’ South was actually the first film in which Belushi was cast, though production didn’t actually begin until after Belushi had finished working on National Lampoon’s Animal House.) Unfortunately, despite all of the good performances, the script doesn’t do much to develop any of the characters. Belushi especially feels underused. (Because Belushi had moved on to Animal House by the time the film went into post-production, Nicholson ended up dubbing several of Belushi’s lines himself.)
Drive, He Said was largely considered to have failed at the box office because Nicholson remained behind the camera so he took the opposite approach with Goin’ South. Nicholson is in nearly every scene and he gives one of his broadest performances. It works for the first half of the film, when Moon is constantly trying to get laid and failing every time. But, during the second half of the movie, Nicholson’s failure to reign in his performance works to the film’s detriment. When the movie needs Nicholson to be romantic, he’s still behaving like a horny cartoon. Whenever he looks at Mary Steenburgen, it seems as if his eyes should be popping out of his head, Tex Avery-style. He’s an entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. As a result, Goin’ South is often funny but it still feels very inconsequential.
Like Drive, He Said, Goin’ South was both a critical and a box office flop and it temporarily turned Nicholson off of directing. It would be another 12 years before he would once again step behind the camera. In 1990, Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, the sequel to one of his best films, Chinatown. That would be Nicholson’s last film as a director. Nicholson acted for another 20 years, following the release of The Two Jakes. To date, he made his final screen appearance in 2010, with a supporting role in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know. Nicholson has disputed claims that he’s officially retired, saying that he’s instead just being more selective about his roles. Even though it’s been ten years since we last saw him on screen, Jack Nicholson remains an American icon and a living legend.