So how old is Nick Nolte really?

He's been nominated for an Oscar. But his life story isn't yet quite worked out.
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The Independent Culture
There are so many odd openings in Nick Nolte - that he made his first movie when nearly 35, an age at which Tom Cruise has done 20; that he is pursued by, yet in pursuit of, demons; that he suggests a brutishness, a morose energy, while keeping the wistfulness of a small boy gazing from beneath hunched, scar-tissue eyebrows; that he taught himself to read only in his twenties (and stills reads slowly); that he disturbs a lot of people beyond his three ex-wives; and that he is nominated this year as best actor and might have been as best supporting actor too. Yet he could fail to win, because he has not come all the way yet, or done with the painful journey of being himself.

But watch out if he ever comes home. This is a dangerous man, an actor you can hear breathing - who makes you feel like the last air left in the room.

All those descriptions are valid, and part of his remarkable tension - that he understands how a man can be simultaneously a lion and a wreck. Nick Nolte's voice can shift from gruff menace to whimper on one word; his body can collapse from wrestler to infant in a puff.

You have heard that he isn't charming, or comfortable. That is the point. He claims to have been 65 last Monday. He is on view, or will be soon, as both a dumb bastard - as a country cop and a man trapped in the genetics of violence - and as a colonel at Guadalcanal, a ranting, pleading hanger- on to real troops, longing for medals and respect. He is too old for both parts. (In Affliction, the former film, he is only six years younger than the actor playing his father, James Coburn.) But Nolte still seems young, for he has that denial in American manhood that dreads age. If only someone would put him in a play, set in Ketchum, Idaho, on that morning when Ernest Hemingway came downstairs alone, talking to himself, and then managed to trigger a gun with his toes. For Nolte could get the grandeur and the bogusness, the terrible fearful act, all in the same moment.

But wait: can he be 65? Or is that part of the lying he's found as hard to abandon as alcohol? The story is that he was born in Omaha, Nebraska - but as long ago as l94l? - to a family of giants. (Don't slip past Nebraska, though, for that mid-western state, far from the sea, has also given us Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and even James Coburn.) And why forget the giants? Nolte is six foot one, and he can easily get up to 250 pounds, but he is reportedly small as Noltes go - he has a sister as big as he is.

Do you believe that in a smart and well-to-do family Nolte grew up unable to read? That he drifted from one bad college to another trying to make the football team, or that he played for several universities without settling? That he slipped away into Mexico, struggling to read Jack Kerouac; that he lived in a whorehouse? Do you believe that - or is it a version of the American dream? And finally, having never graduated, that he just went away?

So that after he had been convicted for burning draft cards with a suspended 45-year sentence, he spent - or tells us he spent - the next 12 years wandering around America with small theatrical companies getting no attention, until, by the time he was cast as Tom Jordache in the first ever TV mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man, he was 35? He didn't look it. But he's an actor, and actors are meant to trick us with their appearance.

Not that Nolte has always helped himself. There have been years when you wondered if anyone was handling his career - and recent years. It's not just that he couldn't compete with Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt in The Deep. What possessed him to play Neal Cassady in that arty version of the Kerouac story, Heart Beat? Who was expected to watch Cannery Row or understand Everybody Loses - two films he made with Debra Winger, a sport and a risk-taker if ever there was one, but an actress who chuckles at the memory of Nolte, as if to say, "Can you believe that guy?". Grace Quigley, with Katharine Hepburn, was a disaster, during which Ms Hepburn told him he should stop drinking if he wanted a career. Who remembers Extreme Prejudice, Weeds, Farewell to the King, Blue Chips, I'll Do Anything or even I Love Trouble (l994), an uneasy pairing with Julia Roberts? Sweet nothings and kissy-kissy are not Nolte's game.

That's a dozen bad films. There's more. As Jefferson in Paris, he seemed throttled by high collar and prosy talk. In Oliver Stone's U-Turn, he was a comic-book dude. Mother Night - in which (do you believe this?) he played a famous American writer who becomes a broadcaster for the Nazis - was fascinating, but no one saw it. In Mulholland Falls he was so cocksure he was plump, until his life shattered. But that was another film that never drew a crowd.

So why the fuss? Well, early on, in what was a comeback role, he played the tramp in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. That was a clever remake of the Jean Renoir classic Boudu Saved from Drowning, and Nolte was redoing the Michel Simon role. Simon - this is history, forgive it - was one of the great physical beast actors, as you can see in Boudu or Jean Vigo's L'Atalante.

Nolte matched him, and Down and Out was a hit. For the rest, Nolte's rather aimless career was held in place by 48 Hrs and Another 48 Hrs, where he was the dour sidekick to Eddie Murphy. They were bigger hits - and Murphy vehicles - but Nolte did a nice job in them, like a well-trained supporting actor.

So where do I get off with the claim that Nolte is unique, a lion and a wreck, and so on? Would you believe it, the proof is just five or six pictures. The first is Who'll Stop the Rain (l978) - without a question mark, or much audience. It came from the Robert Stone novel Dog Soldiers, with Nolte playing Ray Hicks, a sailor who returns from Vietnam carrying heroin for a friend, and then gets mixed up with violence and the friend's wife, played by Tuesday Weld. Directed by Karel Reisz, Who'll Stop the Rain doesn't quite work, but it has scenes with Nolte and Weld - as great an actress as he is actor - that are models of incoherent tenderness and gradual awakening to love and helplessness.

Then there's "Life Lesson", the Martin Scorsese episode in New York Stories, in which Nolte plays a painter who needs to fall in love with his female assistants. It's a slight thing, but it proved our need to watch Nolte's way of moving - for his painter was shambling yet graceful, a kind of dancing bear, the bridge between wildness and genius.

Movement is vital in Q&A too, a Sidney Lumet picture in which Nolte plays a swaggering, corrupt, bigoted, gay-bashing yet secretly gay cop - as ugly a character as any. To do it, he had boots made with built-up heels that left him unsteady - swaggering yet swaying - and a metaphor for being out of control. Again, it was far from a perfect film - or a success - and it gave long passages to less interesting characters. But Nolte was a miracle of nastiness.

Then Cape Fear - a bad film, to my mind, save for this: Nolte took the Gregory Peck role from the original, the harassed lawyer, and exposed him as weak, devious, a little giggly in his betrayal of wife and law, a smoothie, but one nobody can quite swallow. De Niro took over the film, alas, and led it down a lurid dead end. But along the way, Nolte is brilliant as a father, husband and lawyer to make loved ones and clients cringe.

There's another film that many would offer in Nolte's defence - The Prince of Tides, for which he was nominated as best actor in l99l. (He lost to Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs; De Niro in Cape Fear was another nominee.) It is a fine performance, and another study in the collapse of an apparently robust man. But the vision is overloaded by faith in psychiatry and director Barbra Streisand's emotionalism. The promise of healing is as heavy as velvet - and Nolte is not really subject to happy resolutions.

And now Affliction and The Thin Red Line. Affliction is Paul Schrader doing a Russell Banks novel, set in New Hampshire in winter, in which Nolte is a sad failure, still intimidated by the father who beat him, yet shrugging the violence off on others. His hair is jagged, his clothes shabby; he hugs himself in the cold, trying to be jolly, telling glum jokes, his eyes haunted by truths that will not sleep, his tongue greedy for salt - that warning sign of depression.

I'd give Nolte the Oscar for Affliction, but it's a small, airless film, very tough as entertainment. Indeed, it was 18 months on the shelf without finding a distributor. Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks are appealing alternatives. But there isn't another actor who could have made Affliction so sombre or pitiless - and Nolte is a co-producer on the film, too.

That's all. Everything I admire has failed with the large public. But his refusal to be charming is noble and essential. It's possible - as he gets towards 70! - that Nick Nolte will find roles elusive. But see what he's done and marvel at the exhilaration, the crushed tenderness and the grave pride of ownership with which he paces his cage.

'Affliction' (15) opens on Friday.