Launching Jack Nicholson

I was very young and at my 2nd Cannes Film Festival. It was 1967 and I was upstairs in the main office. I had just started working with a French art film distributor as their buyer of non-French films. I had already struck up my acquaintance with a number of people in the world of art film which was in its heyday in France. Someone came up to me and said, "You're American. There's some guy downstairs who nobody can understand. He got two 35mm films through Customs somehow, brought them here and wants them shown. Would you go down and explain to him that that isn't how it works."

So he led me to a tall, good-looking young man with a receding hairline who stuck his hand out and said, "Hi. I'm Jack Nicholson and I just want to show my films here."

Well, that was NOT the way it works. No one had ever heard of this guy, but I found him instantly "sympa" as the French say. He explained that he was an actor and had done a few roles for Roger Corman in B slush movies. This Jack had an idea for a non-heroic Western, a "slice of life" realistic film. He talked Corman into backing him with $100,000 to shoot the Western. He had the script and recruited a group of other young unknowns to help, Monte Hellman as Director, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, Warren Oates, and, of course himself as actors.

What Corman didn't know was that Jack had another script up his sleeve and by getting everyone to take their jobs "on the come" and shooting in the California desert, they succeeded in completing both film for the cash they had. What this guy had brought through Customs were the two completed films. And man was he excited!

Well, I had to explain several things to him. First, they would not be in the Festival proper. However, I was a French distributor and would need to screen them before anything else could happen. Finally, if they seemed appropriate, I'd like to distribute them for France and arrange to have them screened by people who could get them elsewhere. All of that was fine by him.

In the off-Festival market I immediately hired a cinema for screening. At the time, Westerns were an immense thing ruled by John Wayne, good guy-bad guy types. For Europeans they were all of America - politics and ideals - reduced to film. Suddenly I saw a little, real film about the hard-knocks of the old West. And Nicholson!! I was floored, bedazzled, both with him on the screen as well as the person sitting next to me who just bubbled over with Life and energy.

No one had ever seen an anti-hero Western, me included. Before we left the cinema we'd agreed the little distributor I worked with would be the French distributor. Then I ran out and rounded up Gene Moskowitz, Variety's Senior critic for Europe who was a friend. Pierre Cotrell, an aspiring Young French Director who never directed, but subsequently worked with Nicholson in Hollywood for several years. Pierre Rissient and Bertrand Tavernier who were my future film PR team and both of whom went on to direct films (Tavernier gaining worldwide success, Rissient magnificently unsuccessful.) From there we filled the house.

The films, THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, boggled everyone. Jack boggled everyone. Back then, Cannes was smaller, art/quality oriented. No blockbusters from Hollywood were shown. And here were two film from a guy who everyone instantly loved. As the word spread, the off-market cinema was filled every day until the end of the Festival. It's not that the films were so marvelous, but the ideas were and most of all, this intense, enthusiastic, enormously talented, and obviously lovable actor became an instant hero. Everyone at the Festival fell for him. Every critic, Gene Moscowitz included, wrote glowing reviews that went around the world.

On the closing, award night of the Cannes festival, Jack Nicholson walked down the aisle to take a seat and the whole house broke out with applause. I don't even remember who won the Golden Lion, but one formerly unknown actor named Jack Nicholson was off and running. His next film was EASY RIDER.

We opened the two films in two art houses in the Latin Quarter the following May - 1968. No one came. The streets were too filled with tear gas. Viva la Revolution.

Jack Siler
Paris, France © 2013

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