Drive, He Said (1970, Jack Nicholson)
The further the BBS Productions Presents marathon explores the company's filmmography, the more it becomes apparent that eventual mega star Jack Nicholson was one of the driving forces behind its creativity. It began with a film stealing supporting role in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, followed by a starring role as well as a writing credit for Rob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. Then, in 1970, the time came to make the biggest leap of all: the director's chair. He would not return to said chair very often in subsequent years and decades of his career, yet that should not be a sign that his work as a debutant was unimpressive. Just as he took many by surprise with his early acting work in the previous BBS films, Drive, He Said demonstrated that Nicholson possessed a tremendous amount of honesty and maturity as a storyteller from behind the camera.
Set on a college campus in the early 1970s, a tumultuous time epitomizing a climate similar to the one university and college campuses around North America in this early 21st century (although with differing issues striking at the heart of the debates). The Vietnam war is fresh in every American's mind, with cultural warfare opposing youth and what can be subscribed as 'the establishment' having reached a feverish pitch at the school where roommates Hector (William Tepper) and Gabriel (Michael Margotta) study. The former is the on the college's basketball squad, a shining star in a growing industry where the pressures of playing well for one's school are enormous, but also where the benefits, provided one rises to the occasion, may be vastly rewarding, such as playing in a professional league. Gabriel's student career is ill defined, as he spends much of his time condemning the politics of his country, the lazy mindset of its citizens who accept the aberrations practised by its federal government, taking full advantages of the opportunities at college to raise awareness, such as highjacking a basketball game. Both are friends, albeit driven by completely goals. Hector, however, is feeling unsure of his path, what with all the varying pressures, both professional, academic and political, colliding in his mind, not to mention that he is currently sleeping with a professor's wife, Olive (Karen Black). Nobody said early adulthood was an easy job...
For this directorial debut, Nicholson decides to study a great many important issues, such as the political and cultural climate of the time and the life of a star college athlete with serious prospects of earning a job in the pros, all through the eyes of an increasingly disaffected young man, in this case the protagonist Hector Bloom. In interviews, Nicholson at the time expressed a desire to cast actual ball players as members of the college squad as a way of easing the believability level during the match sequences. It was also the first ever role for 23 year old William Tepper. The newcomer's performance is a delicate one to evaluate, most notably because there are at least a few moments in which his inexperience clearly shows. His capacity to fully emote appears somewhat limited in certain scenes, denoting poor command as an actor. More than once, he looks rather dull-eyed, for lack of a better term, unsure how to approach the material. He is victim of some 'stupefied' looks in scenes that do not call for it.
All that being said, in a odd way it works in the character's favour when taking into consideration the internal strife he wrestles with. The story takes him on a critical personal journey by which he must re-discover his place and purpose in life, finding answers to the many heavy questions and doubts weighing down on him. In a nutshell, he is a worryingly confused young individual. His stardom of a college athlete means he engages in interviews with reporters and catches the interest of several people associated with the business side of sports. On the other hand, there is his radical roommate Gabriel, who continuously feeds him with ideas of the current rights and wrongs of society. He is caught in the middle of two totally different sides espousing notions about two totally different issues. Both have their respective merits, but as presented to Hector, both seem quite unappealing at times too. Yes, the political and culture status quo of contemporary America probably should change, yet it doesn't help that the man trying to help him see the light is Gabriel (actor Michael Margotta actually gives a very Nicholson-esque performance, playing up the part to the tenth degree in a wildly amusing if also very sad role), a radically anti-establishment youth who is breaking down the barriers of decency in order to prove his points. On the flip side is a possibly very successful future where money, fame and respect are all of the order, yet when compared to the real issues of the day, its importance diminishes significantly. It may therefore be argued that the confusion residing within Hector explains his behaviour and, by extent, the actor's performance, which is not poor, only limited in range. The character of Hector is having trouble expressing what he really wants because, in this tumultuous period in his life, he is unsure of what he wants.
Compounding the problems is his ongoing flirtations with Olive, played wonderfully by Karen Black (who was seen in the previous film, Five Easy Pieces). She is a nice person, but rather than provide some sort of adult-minded guidance, she leads him into emotionally ambiguous territory. After all, she is married, perhaps to a man she does not love as strongly as she once did, but married nevertheless. Her opinion of him is never fully revealed, although it can be assumed that she accepts their bond as purely flirtatious, something that shall not and certainly should not evolve into anything greater. Yet it is precisely this acceptance on her part that confuses Hector all the more. She is one of many adult characters in the movie who play a dual role in both lending a supportive crutch, be it emotional or psychological, while also worsening Hector's condition. Olive exists as something he sees as nothing other than good, yet the in truth their relationship is destined to end in sooner rather than later. Another character whose efforts require time to bear fruit is Hector's basketball coach, played by Bruce Dern. Coach Bullion evolves as the opposite of stereotypical film sports manager in that rather than being ruthless, unforgiving and insanely demanding at the start, only to soften as the hero's plight comes into full effect, the reverse occurs. He gives Hector some space to bee himself, even when the latter under-performs or fails to abide by Bullion's wishes. Coach hopes this will reassure his star player and help him in some, but nothing of the sort transpires. As Hector's behaviour on and off the court worsens, Bullion becomes increasingly enraged at the young man's lack of discipline.
Nicholson's direction is spot on for the most part. The film rarely revels in showmanship, and in the rare instances when it does (as with the slow motion during critical moments of basketball matches), it feels right, setting the tone and emotional context of givens scenes perfectly. Overall, the film has a naturalistic feeling about it. His understanding of character, in addition to knowing where and how to take his characters' arcs, is surprisingly effective, poignant even. Perhaps is Nicholson has chosen to direct more films of this ilk his reputation in that regard would be greater than it is today (directing the deservedly maligned sequel to Chinatown did not help his case).
The Criterion packaging for Drive, He Said mentions that in discussion of BBS films, Nicholson's film is often the one people overlook. True enough, when standing next to Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said's stature is not as impressive. Nonetheless, admirers of early 70s American cinema would do themselves a favour by seeking this one out.