Nick Nolte first broke through in the 1976 mini-series “Rich Man, Poor Man” playing the rebellious son to Ed Asner, and brother to Peter Strauss. He made such an impression that he quickly moved on to film, and over his career has made a lasting impact on screen in a wide range of intense performances. Here are a few of the highlights for those interested in seeing Nolte’s work:
Jack Cates, 48 Hours (1984) : This is where the term ‘buddy comedy’ really came from, although this is a standout in a genre that ofter produces turkeys by the dozen. It is a serious crime drama mixed with the hilarious pairing of Nolte and a certain newcomer: Eddie Murphy. The best writing in the film is reserved for the banter between the two, and Nolte’s Cates more than holds his own against the comedy pro Murphy. Luckily, it serves only as a backdrop to one of the best cop vs. criminal stories ever written. The bad guys are bad, and so are the good guys. Nolte’s Cates is simply determined to catch two convicts who murdered a policeman with his gun, and won’t let anything get in the way. Even the standard ‘relationship requirement’ is met without polluting the film. Throughout the film, Nolte makes a memorable character out of one who could have easily been overshadowed by Murphy and forgotten in the long-term. So good I almost forgive Nick for “Another 48 Hours”. Almost.
Captain Michael Brennan, Q & A (1990) : The exact opposite of Jack Cates, Mike Brennan is a no-rules cop embroiled in an Internal Affairs investigation. This little-seen film is a gem among NYPD films, directed by (who else?) Sidney Lumet. Nolte’s Brennan is infused with mean, almost frightening, and Nolte is at his most enthused playing a character others might not even embrace. His menacing presence booms throughout the film, and makes a great supporting cast look small by comparison. They don’t make many films this gritty anymore, so if you’re looking for a great performance, be thankful we have Netflix. Because I doubt most video stores would carry this.
Tom Wingo, The Prince Of Tides (1991) Like many people, I don’t like Barbra Streisand movies, but hey, it’s Nolte in a Pat Conroy novel adaptation. I actually didn’t watch it until many years later, after hearing people rave about it. Nolte’s portrayal of a football coach with a boatload of dysfunction working through his childhood really showed another side of him. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still Nick Nolte, but the vulnerability and gentle nature of the performance open your eyes to the acting talent he possesses. And the movie itself benefits, as his presence overshadows the harsh reality of the characters. Even Streisand directs well, not letting herself detract from the film. Nolte’s work resulted in an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win.
Augusto Odone, Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) One of the hardest movies to watch, but one of the best ever made. This true story about parents searching for a cure for the deadly disease their son has is a triumph of hope, and Nolte as the Italian father (accent and all) is just brilliant. He is equally matched by Susan Sarandon as the mother, and together they present one of the best portrayals of parents and spouses I’ve seen on film. The subject matter makes you want to look away from the screen, but the acting draws you back. Once again, a complex character is brought to life by Nolte’s unique interpretation. It could have looked silly in a lesser actor’s hands, and at moments maybe he does. But you quickly forget it as he just keeps going, and the ticking-time pace of the film carries you with it. This could just as well have been another Academy Award nomination, and probably should have been.
Wade Wighthouse, Affliction (1997) This film was considered somewhat of a comeback for Nolte, who made a bunch of flops over the previous 5 years. The lesson here may be that Nick isn’t good for Hollywood formula films. But playing the son of abusive dad James Coburn, who bagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, reminded people what they liked about him. Once again he tackles a unique role, and pulls off the strain of growing up with an alcoholic parent. He was rewarded again with both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination.
Nolte has made many other films, some good, some not so much. They don’t diminish the fine work Nolte has done over the years including smaller roles like his turn in The Thin Red Line, where his intensity is front-and-center, and smaller films like The Good Thief, playing an aging criminal with his atypical style. But I’m sure if you have a Nick Nolte time capsule, these five films should be there.