THINK BACK SEVERAL YEARS, AND YOU could see Nick Nolte’s career spiralling towards oblivion. From Merchant-Ivory‘s Jefferson In Paris to the misconceived Mulholland Falls and the dismal Julia Roberts vehicle I Love Trouble. Nolte's succession of poor choices was becoming all too frequent.
In line with this was the failure of his third marriage in l993 to Rebecca Linger (who bore him his only son. Brawley King). the woman credited with steering Nolte away from his life-long drinking habit. A cyclical return. it would seem. to the misspent days of his youth. in which he developed a taste for the bottle. shot through ﬁve colleges in four years on a football scholarship and received a suspended sentence of 45 years for selling fake draft cards. His answer? Head towards the most fertile and fiercely independent period of his 22 year career.
‘In Hollywood. the major obstacle is money.‘ says Nolte. obliquely attributing his departure to the greed of the studios. ‘If a filmmaker comes in and has made a wonderful film. they'll shovel $5 million across the table. and he'll be doing something he doesn‘t want to do. It kills the love affair. the art. The culture now is strictly after the dollar.‘
Dressed in a rag-bag assortment of leisure wear. Nolte‘s scarecrow appearance belies his earnest approach to the art of screenwork. He confesses to having ‘no career' but a ‘compulsion‘ to do thejob. It‘s an urge that has lived with him since he first picked up the inspiring works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in his early twenties. and which has just been rewarded - the day before his 59th birthday - with the second Best Actor nomination of his career (the first was for Prince Of Tides) for his work in Paul Schrader‘s domestic drama Affliction. He also lines up alongside a jaw-dropping cast in Terrence Malick's long-awaited return to filmmaking. The Thin Red Line. an adaptation of James Jones‘s World War II novel about the battle for Guadalcanal.
Begun with his part in the Kurt Vonnegut-based Mother Night. and continuing through his work with Oliver Stone on U-Turn. these two new roles are the culmination of an actor at the pinnacle of his talent. More importantly. they reveal one
'If you're a military man, you have to beﬂevein killing. In order to do that, you have
Hours. Farewell To The King and North Dallas Forty. Aﬂliction. based on the novel by Russell Banks. sees Nolte as the token policeman in a snowbound New Hampshire community. Separated from his wife. drinking too much and recoiling from his brutal childhood. Nolte’s Wade is a triumphant manifestation of psychological damage. As if to labour the point. the character rips out a nagging tooth from his jaw with a pair of pliers.
‘Afﬂietion deals. very similarly to The Thin Red Line. with a man trying to be good. but he doesn't know how. He only knows violence.‘ says Nolte. ‘It‘s passed on by generations. but Russell Banks also felt it was passed genetically from the beginning of time.’
In Malick's visionary opus. the Nebraskan- born Nolte plays Lieutenant Colonel Tall. a glory-hunter whose bite is worse than his bark. A proud man subjected to years of shit-taking. Nolte‘s characterisation is a bamboozled dignity. as much a representation of James Jones and the machismo of his novels as the brutal. fastidious Tall. Nolte. ironically. had been in preparation for two years to play Jones in James lvory's recent A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. until Malick’s film caused him to drop out. much to the former director‘s chagrin.
‘I built a backstory for Tall.‘ says Nolte. gushing his words in paragraphs rather than sentences. ‘Some was fabricated. some from the book. Being a military career man. I had to put him in as much jeopardy as I could. Here’s this Colonel going from fort to fort. training drunks. and he has no
liberated from the constraints of to be a war. That’s his job. He needs a Hollywood mediocrity. . ' war. So he prays for war. And he Both speak volumes about the romantic. gets lucky. and has to excel on the
male propensity towards violent. animalistic behaviour — a recurring theme in Nolte‘s canon. if you consider Cape Fear. 48
‘If you‘re a military man. you have to believe in killing. In order to do that. you have to be a
Battle of wills: (opposite) Nick Nolte in Afﬂiction and (left) with the cast of The Thin Red Line
romantic. Outside of protecting your own home and your own life, you have to abstract it and think in terms of idealistic threats. nationalistic threats. political threats. And you have to be a romantic. It’s always that way. We go into war. and then the horror strikes us . . . but we continue to do it. It seems a favourite occupation of us humans.’
Working alongside Sean Penn. Woody Harrelson and John Cusack. Nolte is the father-figure amongst his thirtysomething co- stars. To his peers. the man is - as Alan Rudolph. who inspired Nolte‘s mid-90s career renaissance by casting him in Afterglow notes - ‘like a hero . . . others look up to him'.
The Method actor who went as far as dossing for two weeks on the streets before filming Down And Out In Beverly Hills. Nolte is one of the grizzly vets ofAmerican cinema. Following the one sell-out at the beginning of his career. as the beefy support for Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep. Nolte has trodden his own extreme path and lead the way for the likes of Edward Norton to act without inhibition.
Aside from James Ellroy‘s adaptation of his own novel. White Jazz. Nolte‘s next film is a supporting role alongside Bruce Willis in Break/Qt.” Of Champions. Based on the Kurt Vonnegut satire about mercantile Middle America, Nolte predictably goes against the grain once more. portraying a cross—dressing car salesman with a touching comic pathos.
‘I decided I was going to look sexy.‘ he grunts. smiling at his own laconic humour. ‘Flat-chested. No silicon implants. As I was trying the dress on, I couldn‘t make the top work. I spun it around backwards and l was bare-breasted. I realised I was playing a classical woman, a Venetian - if you know your history. I think it’s a style that should come back. and my line will be out this Fall.‘
The image is a gem.
The Thin Red Line goes on general release on Fri 5 Mar. Affliction is at the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 19 Mar.
4—18 Mar 1999 THE UST 19