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The Devil Doesn’t Take a Holiday

For a few hours last Wednesday, it looked as though Satan might be retiring.

Right before lunch, Radar Online and Star published a rumor, from an anonymous but “highly placed” source, that Jack Nicholson was retiring from the acting business. He’s old. His memory is shot. He forgets his lines. The internet caught fire.
A few hours later, yet another source chimed in to say that Jack was fine. He’s reading scripts and looking forward to his next project. At that point, it didn’t really matter because the story was the story.


I asked my old book-club buddy, a veteran PR guy named Ryan Holiday, about it. He said this:

“Nobody in the celebrity gossip space cares if they get a story wrong, so why wouldn’t they repeat these rumors once they started? Look at the Daily Mail’s piece. They didn’t say they are reporting it. They are saying that Radar and Star reported it. So if it turns out to be wrong, they’ll blame someone else and get the pageviews both ways.”

You can sense the disgust. This guy has done PR for American Apparel.

It’s really easy to spread a toxic rumor about anyone who’s even somewhat famous. Try it. Make some absurd allegation and then trade it up the chain. Pitch it to a hungry small-time blogger in Brooklyn or Los Feliz. Watch it hit Twitter and Reddit, where people agree with things like they’re trained to do. (A teacher told me recently that a Retweet releases more endorphins in the brain than sex, which may be the most depressing thing I’ve heard this year.) Wait for it to get soaked up by Gawker and HuffPo. Boom! News! It makes absolutely no difference whether or not it’s true. As long as it’s true for us.

You have to start with a story that a lot of people would like to believe.

Jack Nicholson is the devil. He’s not playing a character. You can’t fake that sort of sadistic charm. We’re not conflating the man with his roles here. Read the books behind The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the screenplay for Chinatown. His characters are dark, sure. But that incredibly dark photo-negative version of what humans generally regard as acceptable and good – that comes straight from Jack.

The devil isn’t a nihilist. Rank nihilism only works for maniacs, college kids, and very recent divorcees. With eternity on his hands, the devil will develop his own distinct system of ethics. If only out of boredom. The devil gets easily bored. That’s the whole point of being evil.


All of Jack Nicholson’s characters have distinct systems of ethics that are completely unique to them, and that they’re incredibly passionate about.

Jake Gittes takes his quest for truth all over Los Angeles and ruins a bunch of people’s lives, for no real payoff, because that’s exactly what he would do. Mac Murphy thinks of acute antisocial personality disorder as a moral obligation. Jack Nicholson is a diehard LA Lakers fan, and takes good care of his personal friends – guys such as Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, and… Roman Polanski.

Roman Polanski is a piece of shit. And he’s no Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson, the devil, is famous for a reason. We all want a little piece of pure evil, a moonrock from hell. We all try our hands at being that once in a good while. Secretly, we’ve all wanted to be evil, full-time. But we’re terrified that we wouldn’t be that good at it.

We’re envious of well-done evil. We like to watch it get punished. But that happens all the time, especially in Chicago. We’re only really interested if the fall from pure-evil grace is interesting.

Born in Neptune City, New Jersey, in 1937, Jack Nicholson has been active in Hollywood since 1958. He was married once, to Sandra Knight, but they divorced in 1968, before Jack’s big hits came out. He’s had dozens of well-known barely-legal girlfriends, but broadcasts the veneer of almost complete self-sufficiency.

When we heard that he was losing his memory, we were intrigued. That’s quite a memory bank to lose. For a few hours, Nicholson was weak. Vulnerable. Not unlike us.

The devil doesn’t go out like that.

I don’t believe in the devil, insofar as I don’t think a human being can perfectly embody everything I find objectionable. I despise hero worship – it’s great for teenagers, but the task of a lifetime is to become your own hero. If you’re in your 30s and you think an actor is doing it better than you are, you’ve failed.

Every woman I’ve ever loved has had a crush on Jack Nicholson.


As a teenager, my heroes were Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Jack Nicholson. At some point, I realized that what these guys had in common was that they didn’t outwardly try to be anyone other than Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, or the devil, respectively.

I’m not particularly religious. But I can understand the appeal of Satanism.

Categories: Communications & Media Studies, Current events, Pop Culture.

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6 Responses

  1. It might seem like an ad hominem to talk about the author rather than the ‘topic’ of a post, but when the author writes ‘Every woman I’ve ever loved has had a crush on Jack Nicholson. As a teenager my heroes were Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Jack Nicholson’ he’s equating himself with the ostensible topic. He’s writing about himself. So what’s he saying?

    Well, first he’s presenting a fantasy. Realize that the devil is an ideal type, or if he’s real in any meaningful sense, then you have to idealize any human you equate with him. Let’s not forget that Jack Nicholson wore nappies and cried at boo boos when he was little. He has certainly had embarrassing moments when he was too drunk and remorseful. There are certainly instances of impotence or premature ejaculation that other people know about and have too much decency to publicize. He renews his license and tries to hide his income like everybody else. None of this is compatible with the Prince of Darkness, second only to God, swallower of sinful souls. It’s not even really compatible with the Christian-Grey-meets-James-Bond kind of Mephisto devil.

    So the author is comparing himself to an idealized other. Why? Well, the occasion is Jack Nicholson’s, i.e. the idealized other’s, frailty. The Guy is getting old, and even if he’s not decrepit, he’s old enough that stories of his degeneration are plausible. Like everyone’s, his body is falling apart, and it’s only a matter of time. From nappies well all come, and to nappies we return. The Real is overwhelming the Ideal.

    But the author doesn’t want to identify with an ideal that can be corrupted by vulgar influences like time, so how does he bypass the Real? By adding another layer of idealization onto the disintegrating ideal. That is, if Jack Nicholson as symbol is falling apart, there’s always the recourse to the characters he’s played. The initial move was to invest Jack Nicholson the Guy with all the powers and charisma of his characters. The next move is the reverse but has the same function: divest the Guy of all the attributes of his characters and make him just a placeholder for the aggregate characteristics. Abstract the characteristics from the Guy, using the Guy just as a kind of notational shorthand to refer to them.

    This second move is inevitable and has an interesting consequence. Whereas the Guy Jack Nicholson was limited by his body to some extent, the idealized Jack Nicholson-ness isn’t. You couldn’t ever really attach super powers to Jack Nicholson believably (exhibit A: Wolf). Even when he was the Joker, he was mortal-ish and weak. But Jack Nicholson-ness offers infinite possibilities as a projection surface. It allows for the Don Draper-Ryan Holiday ideal of treating others like livestock and remaining attractively slick. The energy invested into rationalizing and justifying all that can be repackaged as wisdom and life experience. The nausea and dissatisfaction gains a new light as boredom, ennui induced by having to deal with conservative, moral, sentimental sheep all day long.

    Question: Emerson, let’s say you meet Jack Nicholson. Run these two scenarios for me. 1) What do you do when you meet him, and he has a hard time remembering who he is, and he pisses himself because his prostate is shot? How does that meeting go? 2) You meet Jack Nicholson at his slickest, one eyebrow perpetually raised, hair slicked back, a smirk for everything and unflappable. How does this meeting go? Say he ignores you. How do you deal with it? Are you grateful?

  2. Emerson Dameron2013-10-03 @ 22:07

    I’ve had occasion to meet a few celebrities I admired and a lot of people I “knew” online and had preexisting assumptions about. What happens is usually a lot closer to Scenario 1. From their body language and the way they behave in my presence, I usually pick up on some sort of awkwardness or frailty that I didn’t expect. It’s off-putting at first – I have to recalibrate, and admit to myself that I made faulty assumptions that were more about me than about that person, which gets me stuck in my head. Speaking for myself, this is why meeting strangers I admire or people from the internet can be so initially uncomfortable.

    In Scenario 1, I’d probably have to think this exaggerated tribute I wrote for Jack, but I would take some pride in seeing him as the flawed, declining human that most people never get to see, that his persona is designed to conceal. It would assuage some of the insecurities that tilt people toward hero-worship in the first place. And I’m strongly inclined to honor elderly people, particularly when they’re not in great shape anymore and aren’t quite sure what is happening.

    In Scenario 2, I would respect him for living up to the projection I present here. If he really is that charming-devil guy, he’s a wonder of nature. If he’s not, then he’s a true professional. I would be a little bummed if he blew me off, but, really, how else would I expect it to go? The devil has little use for easy pickin’s.

  3. Neoteny2013-10-05 @ 10:42

    I don’t even understand the point of this article. Okay, some guy you admired when you were a teenager is getting old (and everybody can draw the obvious conclusion). So what? Why should we care?

    And, for that matter, why Jack Nicholson? He’s just a world-famous actor who had a complicated life. Not the first, not the last. What does it matter to us that YOU once found him fascinating?

    What kind of guy take an actor and two singers as his role-models? Oh, a teenager, got it. That made you special somehow?

    Or, has GuyFox observed, are we supposed to perceive you/that Ryan Holiday guy in a particuar way? Because, personally (and I may not be the best audience here, but bear with me), the only thing I feel right now is confusion. Not wanting to sound more entitled than is decent, but care for some explanation?

    (Apologies for the somehow abrasive tone – I’m not terribly good at this.)

  4. Emerson Dameron2013-10-09 @ 02:35

    Yeah, I’m going to pass on this one.

  5. I am the devil.

  6. Dear Devil –

    As you know, you’re little more than a metonym for manifestations of erroneous assumption, frailty of will, and absence of character.

    You are the kind of second-class deity which is known to haunt weak minds.

    You have no power – not here, not anywhere – and there’s cause for pity wherever you announce yourself.


Got insight?