Born to be old: Nick Nolte played washed-up types in his 30s, and he keeps getting better
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 April 2003)

The narrow, hooded eyes, set deep in the ravaged skull, peer at us through backlit tobacco smoke, delivering a clear statement, the familiar Nick Nolte message: I'm old, and I'm wrecked, and you can love me as I am or not at all.

In The Good Thief, Nolte plays Bob, a heroin-addicted career criminal who plans to steal masterpieces from the art collection of a Monte Carlo casino. Experienced moviegoers will immediately recognize Bob as one more in Nolte's gallery of pathos-drenched losers. Nolte characters are invariably sad, sickly, dishevelled and ancient. They're like old codgers left over from another era, even when, as in 48 Hrs., they are currently employed as detectives.

Nolte runs a one-man protest movement against the spirit of the times. In an era that adores youth and worships energy, he's become the first genuine Old Guy star.

Traditionally, movie actors cling to youth. Cary Grant was 62 when he made his last feature, but he looked a suave 45. A few stars, such as Jack Lemmon, played out their sunset years as Old Guys. Nolte, on the other hand, has always been old. He's the first star who ever made exhaustion the core of his persona. He's never less than weary.

In some perverse way, he makes a virtue out of atrophy. Decadence has never had such a talented champion. It's hard to say how much this reflects the private Nolte (interviews make him sound like that rare personality type, the drunken health-food nut) but he does make some unconventional appearances in public. When he was picked up for drunk driving last fall, his mug shot, in Hawaiian shirt, hair going in 11 directions, made him look like an actor playing Decrepitude in a medieval morality play.

He has the leathery look of something an archaeologist dug out of a Danish bog. I once met a centenarian who looked 20 years younger than Nolte looks today, at age 62. His face resembles the street map of Tokyo, with its multitude of unpredictable going-nowhere lines.

His habits are old, too. On-screen, he smokes more than any star since Humphrey Bogart, but no one will accuse him of making nicotine attractive. He drags on his cigarette with a desperation that's spectacularly uncool. In Affliction, which he made in 1997, his character uses tobacco as an offensive weapon, lighting up indoors to ignite the allergies of a boss he hates.

In North Dallas Forty, made when he was 38, Nolte plays an over-the-hill football player suffering from a multitude of injuries caused by playing football on Novocaine. He spends most of the film groaning.

In 1989, when he was still in his forties, he gave his greatest Old Guy performance, as a broken-down abstract expressionist painter in Life Studies, the Martin Scorsese section of the film New York Stories. The Nolte character looks especially timeworn because he's living with a disaffected 22-year-old (Rosanna Arquette). His lustful yearning for her becomes easily his most human characteristic; but when finally she leaves he quickly acquires a replacement, as if grieving for his loss would require too much effort.

Affliction, Paul Schrader's mean little movie about a mean little New Hampshire town, contains a key Nolte performance. Possibly the most overpraised Hollywood film of recent times ("as close to Greek tragedy as movies come" -- Newsweek), it tells a well-worn story about tradition collapsing under the pressure of modernization. Developers are wiping out the old town of Lawford to build a ski resort, which sounds like a big improvement to me but gets treated in the movie like the death of civilization.

Nolte's performance won an Academy Award nomination and a sheaf of reviews from the kind of critics who believe a movie must be profound if it makes everybody suffer, especially the audience. He plays Wade Whitehouse -- incompetent father, part-time cop, part-time snowplow driver, full-time drunk, a man disintegrating even faster than Lawford. His failure is not, however, his own fault. A voice-over narration (quoted from the Russell Banks novel on which the film is based) explains Wade's life with some banal psychobabble about paternal violence distorting men's capacity for love. He's a mean drunk, you see, because his dad (James Coburn) was a mean drunk.

Most of his acquaintances have given up on Wade, but he hardly notices. Usually blind drunk or blind with rage, he comes across as a brooder and a grudge-collector, a painstaking curator of his own anger. He's rather pleased with his exceptional talent for self-destruction, and he takes pride in his hatred, much of it based on alcohol-fueled paranoid fantasy. We could say that he's wasting his life, if only we believed he had a life to waste. We might call him disillusioned, except he's never had any illusions. He resembles the bum Nolte played for Paul Mazursky in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. He amounts to nothing, and wouldn't have it otherwise.

Critics have an annoying way of comparing Nolte to Robert Mitchum, but in truth he's the reverse. Mitchum was so stable that he ran the risk of turning into a pillar of granite; Nolte plays a feather floating on the waves of his own pathetic desires. He appeals to something in audiences that's less than admirable, a need to be indulged.

In The Good Thief, directed by Neil Jordan with a self-consciousness so acute that he seems to be begging the critics to call him "stylish," Nolte makes lassitude his personal art form. He's so old and so wrecked by alcohol and drugs that he never even has sex with Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), the delightful young Russian immigrant he saves from indenture to a pimp. Nolte limps through Jordan's intricately overplotted movie in the manner of a man who is being asked to put forth far more effort than he cares to expend. More than ever, he appears to be badly in need of a nap.

But perhaps Nolte isn't really the outsider and rebel he sometimes seems to be. After all, the population grows older every day. He could be on precisely the right track, demographically. He's positioned for a long run as the great star of the senior citizens, if only he can live long enough.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page