BOOK REVIEW / The long hard road of an easy rider: Jack's life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson - by Patrick McGilligan, Hutchinson pounds 18.99

SEX 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll: like many another Catholic boy in Fifties New Jersey, John J Nicholson got all the rock'n'roll he could ever want. The other elements, however, were harder to come by, and John had become Jack by the time he achieved his enrolment in the permissive society of the Sixties. But then Nicholson spent much of his life waiting. As Patrick McGilligan explains in this detailed and absorbing biography, he had to wait unti1 1974, when he was 37 and the hottest ticket in Hollywood, to discover the truth of his parentage. The woman he had thought was his mother was in fact his grandmother, while his supposed sister, June, was really his mother. It was a falsehood engineered to conceal his illegitimacy: the identity of his father remained a mystery.

McGilligan discerns in this traumatic revelation a template for Nicholson's own life: his aversion to marriage, his search for father figures, his offbeat attitude to parenthood. Raised in a household of women, Jack apparently thrived, prompting his oft-quoted reflection that 'under such circumstances it's a miracle that I didn't turn out to be a fag'. He almost didn't turn out to be an actor, either. Few people recall any particular thespian gifts in the young Nicholson, though most agree that he had a wonderful smile.

Abandoning New Jersey for Los Angeles in 1954, he marked time as a lifeguard, a mail clerk and a gofer at MGM's animation studio before landing his first screen role in a 1958 B-movie called Cry Baby Killer: a break, but not a breakthrough. He had to wait another 10 years for that, slumming it meanwhile in a series of Roger Corman's baroque horror flicks, once described as 'the kind of trash only a mother or a Cahiers critic could sit through and love'. 'They were just bad,' was Nicholson's own succinct epitaph.

But, as McGilligan observes, the Corman years at least taught Nicholson what he didn't want to do with his career - screenwriting, for one - and once his role as the quixotic lawyer in Easy Rider (1969) launched him into the Hollywood firmament, he took control of his destiny, and his percentages, with a canniness few have matched.

If the Sixties were formative; the Seventies belonged to him. His collaborations with Bob Rafelson - Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) - gave notice of a singular talent, but it was three very different roles - in The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) - that helped set standards of finesse, integrity and sardonic bravado for modern screen acting. No American actor since Brando has come within striking distance of performances like those.

Success apparently blew away any pretence of sexual restraint. Nicholson had been briefly married in the early 1960s, but his roving eye and an LSD habit put paid to that. He had a lot of catching up to do. Bacchanalian parties chez Jack became notorious, as did the unconcealed appetite that clouded, and eventually wrecked, his only long-term relationship, with Anjelica Huston. What credence can be given to these tales of priapic indulgence is uncertain; Nicholson and many of his intimates declined to talk to McGilligan, so tabloid cuttings and hearsay play a regrettably active role in this book. Yet Nicholson has never gone out of his way to deny even the raciest stories. One can understand his weariness: first, he's fed up giving interviews, and secondly, as he once pointed out, his biography is already out there, in the films.

Sadly, Nicholson's work has gone into more or less irreparable decline in the last 10 years. Nobody - or at least nobody with talent - can afford him these days. Ever since The Shining (1980) he has proved too rich and too famous to be gainsaid or coaxed out of caricature. Only his recent cameo as the steel-bollocked warhorse in A Few Good Men recalled the command and lightning gear-changes of the old Jack. For the rest, he seems content to be Hollywood's King Leer, chasing young women, checking the contractual small print and playing golf. According to reports, he still likes rock'n'roll, too.