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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 1
Spring, 1982


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NICHOLSON'S O'NEILL: A SURVEY OF CRITICAL REACTIONS

He didn't win the Oscar as best supporting actor, but Jack Nicholson, as Eugene O'Neill, was outdone only by Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) in bringing the spark of truth and a whiff of life to Warren Beatty's 1981 film, Reds. This is not the journal in which to argue the merits of the film as artifact or as biography of its leading characters--John Reed and Louis Bryant. But a survey of critical reactions to the portrait of O'Neill, as written by Beatty and Trevor Griffiths, directed by Beatty and acted by Nicholson, does seem appropriate, for the record.

And the record is an extremely positive one. Even Bruce McCabe of the Boston Globe (December 5, 1981, p. 7), who dismissed Reds as "a crock," praised the portrayal of O'Neill, who "has been given the best dialogue," whose "cynicism is refreshing, especially when contrasted to the piety, high-mindedness, nobility and idealism of all his friends," and who "seems like the sole voice of common sense in the film." This view was shared by Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, December 2, 1981), who noted that, "when Nicholson's O'Neill sneers at Louise's worshipful mention of Russia, and then dismisses her Russophilia as the latest version of Roman Catholicism, the dramatic aptness of the conversation is uncanny" (p. 62); and by Newsweek's David Ansen (December 7, 1981, p. 84), in whose eyes Nicholson's "cynical, boozing O'Neill plays devil's advocate to the romantic revolutionaries--and almost steals the picture."

While David Harris (Boston Ledger, December 14, 1981) and Stephen Schiff (Boston Phoenix, December 1, 1981) expressed displeasure at the scriptwriters' stereotyping of O'Neill as drunk-in-residence who "invariably mutters, 'Where's the whiskey? "'(Schiff, p. 17), Harris nevertheless enjoyed O'Neill's role as "critical commentator on the ideals Reed and Bryant try to uphold," and he found O'Neill curiously contemporaneous--not with his fellow characters, but with us:

It's as though he were a person from the hard bitten Eighties plunked down in the rosy, rebellious, joyous Twenties, picking apart the crowds around him, soul by soul, when the style is to ignore the individual in favor of the mythical "masses" (Harris, p. 29).

And Time's Richard Corliss (December 7, 1981, p. 67) joined the near-unanimous chorus
of those who approved of O'Neill's "denunciation of political commitment."

Aside from three scenes concerning O'Neill's intermittent affair with Louise Bryant--which Ansen describes as "razor-sharp" moments "in which hostility and lust mingle with caustic menace," but which McCabe believes were "developed inadequately and unsatisfactorily"--the most O'Neill-relevant moments are the Provincetown scenes, which look believable though they were not shot there, and especially the few tantalizing fragments of theatrical productions--Where the Cross Is Made, and a comic rehearsal scene which provided, in Vincent Canby's words (New York Times, December 4, 1981, p. C8), "a hilarious sequence ... in which Louise, not a born actress, plays the lead in ... Thirst. Says O'Neill to Louise: 'I wish you wouldn't smoke during rehearsals. You don't act as if you're looking for your soul but for an ashtray."'

Except for a gregarious glibness, a self-deprecating softness, and a girth that Nicholson himself admits is not O'Neillian, the likeness to the playwright seemed quite apt and made one long for O'Neill to have a film of his own. Particular praise was offered by Schiff, who felt that Nicholson's performance suggested depths beneath the "stuffed," "pretentious" lines that the other actors delivered too rhetorically:

Only Jack Nicholson, wearing a thin, nasty moustache, plays them right, because for once he underplays. Slithering into each scene as if he intended to wind himself around someone's leg, he makes O'Neill such a tense, insinuating viper that every word has an extra twist. In Reds, O'Neill seems a man who could never find enough words for all the shades of meaning in his head.

Since O'Neill was such a man--the word-searcher, that is, not the viper!--Schiff's is high praise indeed, perhaps second only to that of Oona O'Neill. According to Nicholson, who was interviewed by Chris Chase for the New York Times (February 5, 1982, p. C8), she wrote him a letter, saying (in Nicholson's paraphrase), "After a lifetime of acquired indifference, the inevitable finally happened. Thanks to you, dear Jack, I fell in love with my father."

--Frederick Wilkins

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