Jack Nicholson More Than Earns His Oscar

Jan 13, 2023

There’s a standard practice in portraying writing on film and television: as the writer puts down words, they say them aloud. In an early scene in As Good As It Gets, the one time Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall is engaged in his work, the words just flow out of him. His genre of choice may not be my cup of tea, but he does seem to have a knack for romance novels. That kind of ease in generating prose is something I envy.

But that’s about the only enviable trait Melvin has in those first few minutes. He’s unpleasant in nearly every way a person can be in an everyday context, short of criminally violent acts. He’s selfish, to the point of obliviousness to everything else around him. He’s rude to everyone he meets and breaks out racist and anti-Semitic remarks on inappropriate occasions. When he encounters a fan of his writing, he’s contemptuous. The movie starts with him sliding a dog down a laundry chute. Most of all, he hurls homophobic insults at his neighbor, the artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear).

There’s a hint — a small hint — that some of this nastiness is a smokescreen. Despite his success, Melvin does not live a happy life. He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder but fears his prescribed medication. While he seems to enjoy his work well enough, he takes no part in the easy pleasures won by fame and fortune. He may have had a rough upbringing; in a more vulnerable moment in the third act, he suggests so, and also suggests bafflement, jealousy, and resentment towards those who have an easier time navigating life. But Archie Bunker he ain’t; there’s no wife and children to bring out the better angels of Melvin’s nature, no set of neighbors and friends to chip away at his curmudgeonly exterior. And where the prejudices of an Archie or a Red Forman seem like products of ignorance and careless habit, Melvin is smart enough to know he’s offensive and often means to be mean.

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The one person who seems willing to consistently endure and humor Mr. Udall is Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), the waitress who tends his favorite table at his favorite restaurant. She knows how to handle his rudeness, though his compulsions and efforts at more pleasant conversation are another story. That Carol puts up with Melvin is remarkable, given that she’s at the breaking point with her son Spence’s (Jesse James) severe asthma and the cruelties of 1990s American healthcare. The stress is no friend to her romantic life either.

As Good As It Gets sees Melvin, Carol, and Simon’s lives start to come together when Simon is assaulted by thieves. His agent Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr.) forces Melvin to take in Simon’s dog Verdell as amends for his earlier nastiness. Like many a jerk, Melvin lets his guard down around a cuddly pooch, and taking care of Verdell breaks the ice over his sense of compassion. He makes awkward but earnest inquiries about Carol and Spence, and arranges for a good doctor to provide prompt care. Not that he’s become an altruist, mind you; his first thought when making the arrangement is that it will keep Carol from leaving the restaurant. While he gradually, reluctantly, starts to care about Simon, he’s still rude and self-absorbed when he tries to talk to him.

The attack and Verdell’s bond with Melvin, leave Simon without inspiration, and his medical bills leave him without money. When Melvin is obliged to take Simon on a long-shot bid for money from his estranged parents, he insists Carol come along as a “chaperon.” In the course of the trip, she and Simon strike up a fast friendship that leaves them feeling better and Melvin ridiculously jealous. Nothing about the trip goes as planned, but it ends up leaving a lasting mark on all three of them.

On paper, As Good As It Gets shouldn’t work as well as it does. I doubt it would ever get made today — not in the form it has. As nasty as Melvin is, the film presents him as funny and endearing, something that couldn’t happen in a modern film until he was well on the road to redemption. That road would either need to be more traveled, or else stop at a more bittersweet moment; Melvin has, at best, made baby steps toward turning over a new leaf. In a real-world context, that wouldn’t be enough for many of us to forgive and forget. Kinnear gives Simon a moving earnestness, but the character is built on clichés, both for gay men and for artists. And as compelling as Carol’s story is, it’s something that could have been a movie all on its own. Her relationship with Melvin seems like it would better end with mutual gratefulness without romance or any further contact. She herself says as much, and harsher things besides, more than once in the third act.

That’s how things should be in theory. In practice, As Good As It Gets is touched by too much movie magic to let rational impulses hold. It helps that the film takes a few steps away from reality, landing in that cinematic sweet spot between caricature and cinema verité. But among the most important ingredients to making that work is Nicholson’s performance. For those used to the public persona he long wore in public, the shades-sporting king of cool, or his dramatic and sinister turns on the big screen, seeing him as such an unappealing yet vulnerable man is something of a revelation. He is a movie star (or was, before his withdrawal from movies), but he’s also an actor of great skill. That sliver of possibility that Melvin less genuine bigot and more walled-off damaged goods? It wouldn’t register without some subtle work by Nicholson, largely with his eyes and facial tics. On the other hand, when Melvin starts to let his guard down, Nicholson never lets him get too soft; he’s still a difficult man (to say the least), one who’s begun his self-improvement at an advanced age. Old habits will die hard. It’s a real treat seeing Nicholson put in the work, and his Oscar was well-earned.

As was Hunt’s. No matter how much logic and her character argue that Carol and Melvin shouldn’t end up together, the actors have real chemistry. It feels so natural that Melvin would fall for Carol, and that she would have sufficient patience, bite, and warmth to forgive him his myriad faults. Away from her scenes with Nicholson, Hunt still shines. As broad as the characters and comedy of As Good As It Gets are, Carol’s relationship with her mother (Shirley Knight) is an effective touch of realism; they’re loving with one another, but frustrated by a long bout with Spence’s illness and the toll it’s taken on Carol’s own life. Their reaction at the relief offered by Melvin’s recommended doctor (Harold Ramis) particularly stands out.

As for Simon, that earnestness offered up by Kinnear keeps him afloat, despite the limitations of the writing. His story isn’t quite as strong in isolation as Carol’s; he works better as a supporting player, a counterpoint to her journey and Melvin’s. The rather open resolution he achieves with his parents is the most intuitively convincing cap given to a character in the film. The dénouement, putting him (and Verdell) in a new relationship with Melvin, would be harder to swallow if it weren’t for his own considerable chemistry with Nicholson. It really is amazing how the right pair of actors can sell a tricky narrative proposition. The same feat is pulled off on a smaller scale as Gooding Jr’s character managed to reach a working relationship with Melvin

A title like As Good As It Gets sounds more appropriate for a more realistic take on its characters, with a more complicated ending. Such a film could have worked. It would have made more sense, and it would have been less of a star vehicle and more an ensemble piece, Carol and possibly even Simon having equal time to Melvin. Instead, producer-director and co-writer James L. Brooks went for fun and a more old-fashioned, cast-driven Hollywood charm. And despite all the reasons it shouldn’t, it gets very good indeed.

Grade: A-

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