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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review