There's no terror for an actor like forgetting your lines (although Jack Nicholson still remembers his)

As Michael Gambon discovered recently, audiences are fascinated by actors’ ability to remember dialogue, and similarly intrigued by stories of them losing that ability

Share

Reports that Jack Nicholson has retired from acting because his memory will no longer allow him to learn the lines have been dismissed by NBC journalist Maria Shriver. Other friends of the actor have reported that he’s reading scripts as usual: he hasn’t been in a film for three years, and he’s 76, so perhaps people have simply drawn the wrong conclusion. Having seen his last movie  – the utterly forgettable How Do You Know – and forgotten it, I’d assumed he was just waiting for a better script before he put down his golf clubs again.

Audiences are often fascinated by actors’ ability to remember dialogue, and similarly intrigued by stories of them losing that ability: Michael Gambon was all over the papers last week, talking about his experience rehearsing The Habit of Art four years ago. The strain of trying to remember the hefty role of W H Auden was so great that Gambon was admitted to hospital and had to leave the production.  He has subsequently said his memory is so bad that it is dangerous for him to appear on stage, though he’s taking the risk for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala this autumn.

Remembering lines is incredibly difficult and most performers use tricks to help them memorise chunks of text: when I was a comic, I used to have to learn each new stand-up show while I was still touring its predecessor, which meant having well over two hours of script in my head at a time. I could (mostly) retain the two separate shows, but I found myself tripping over the steps to the stage every night: I became convinced that I was storing lines in the bit of my brain I’d previously used for negotiating my way past inanimate objects, into which I still walk, frequently, many years later.

And stand-up is vastly easier to remember than the lines of a play, partly because anything you’ve written yourself is easier to retain than other people’s writing, and partly because if you lose the thread, you can find your way back to it, or even appeal to the audience for help. But if it’s a play, and other actors are standing opposite you, waiting for a specific line as their cue, the pressure is really on.

No wonder some actors dodge the bullet and decide to use earpieces. Richard Dreyfuss caused a mild theatrical scandal in 2009 when he was seen wearing one in Complicit at the Old Vic. Again, it was a role with a lot of lines, and Dreyfuss in his youth was perhaps less careful of his long-term memory than he might now wish. Though some critics were appalled, I don’t see the problem with earpieces: I’d rather watch actors committed to their performance than see them panicking about line-retention.

As the Jack Nicholson story proves, actors can rarely rest on their laurels for long before the rumour mill starts grinding. So maybe he should silence his critics by taking a meaty role on Broadway. The scripts might be better too.

www.nataliehaynes.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform