If you want to understand the range of Nick Nolte as an actor, watch “Q&A” from 1990 and “Prince of Tides” from 1991 (for good measure you might want to throw in his performance in Martin Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear,” also from 1991). Nolte was 49 and 50 years old respectively, and he was on fire. I love all three of these movies, but his performance in “Q&A” and “Prince of Tides” is just like watching magic. The fact that these movies were done within a year of each other drives home the scope of what this guy was capable of. He is almost unrecognizable in these two films – it’s really difficult to imagine this is the same actor.
His portrayal of Mike Brennan in Sidney Lumets “Q&A” is a toxic manifestation of corrupt masculinity. If you’ve spent any time on the edges of society, you know this guy – or rather, you wish you didn’t know him. He’s a character right out of film noir, except there’s nothing left unstated. His corrosive violence and moral bankruptcy make you feel dirty just watching him. The simple act of him walking into a room brings with it a sense of dread and revulsion – you just want to get away from this guy, but you know it’s not going to be that easy. Hulking, creepy, and threatening, he’s like the big schoolyard bully who grew up and found his home as a racist and corrupt NYC police detective. This film is a real piece of art, and Nolte’s performance is sure to leave you feeling very unsettled.
So fast forward a year later and we have Nick starring in a film directed by Barbra Streisand of all people, and, for me at least, this movie is a masterpiece. It’s a great script by Pat Conroy and Barbra directs it beautifully – her acting performance works for me, but YMMV. But it’s Nolte’s role that breathes life into the film, and boy, is it a career defining performance. The story is a kind of a southern Gothic, and it hits a lot of buttons for me. I’m from the south, and his character Tom Wingo is trying to “save” his sister who has just attempted suicide. But Tom’s past secrets and toxic shame are catching up to him, and he’s having difficulty holding himself together. I first saw this film a few years after my sister committed suicide, and I was really overwhelmed by how beautifully moving and tragic the story was. It’s portrayal of life as filled with tragedy, deep sadness and beauty really touched me. Nolte’s depiction of a very sensitive and beautiful character haunted by his past and living in a state of pain he doesn’t fully understand was just indelible. And I have to mention James Newton Howard’s hauntingly beautiful and lush score – it takes a great film and elevates the story and it’s emotion to another level. And let’s not forget George Carlin’s wonderful role as the gay neighbor…
So there you have it – Nick Nolte depicting two extreme manifestations of humanity so transparently that you’re left thinking that these roles couldn’t possibly have been played by the same actor. Bravo sir – you made my life just a little bit better by your art. Thank you.