...Jack Nicholson, as we knew him at the start of his brilliant career. Kovács, a Hungarian-born cinematographer, died over the weekend in Beverly Hills at age 74. He photographed Nicholson in seven movies between 1967 and 1972: Richard Rush's drug-infused Psych-Out, the Bogdanovich thriller Targets, Bob Rafelson's moody twofer Five Easy Pieces (above right) and The King of Marvin Gardens, and the motorcycle trilogy Hells Angels on Wheels (also directed by Rush), Easy Rider ("You know, this used to be a helluva good country") and The Rebel Rousers (Tagline: "Their creed: 'If it feels good, do it!').
I love this period of Nicholson's career. It's the Drifter Period, which hit its stride with Easy Rider in '69 and culminated with Antonioni's The Passenger in '75 (the year in which Nicholson instead reaped kudos for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). I don't know if he and Kovacs were good friends, or whether they had similar temperaments and therefore made similar career choices, but they both defined each other during this period. Nicholson's acting was reserved and passive. He was, in essence, more reactor than actor. What I remember most about Five Easy Pieces and Marvin Gardens is that Kovács' camera struck the same tone. It was not participatory. It was observational. Rather than see "with" Nicholson, it simple saw him. Kovács' camera did not fawn over this blooming movie star; it kept its distance and allowed him room to grow. I have no idea if the two were active collaborators, but it was a nice marriage. I wish I could be more articulate, but I'd have to give the films another viewing. What I remember from these two movies in particular is that both Nicholson and the camera seemed to be entities in search of something. They didn't find what they were looking for, but they did find each other. And it worked.
But they never again worked together after 1972. Both men's careers would evolve toward populism. Nicholson struck critical gold with Chinatown and Cuckoo's Nest, then entered the Kitschy Period with The Shining, Terms of Endearment, The Witches of Eastwick, Batman, A Few Good Men and so on. Kovács did the same. Though there are many good titles on their filmographies, it does feel a bit like the wild boys tamed themselves over the years. Nevertheless, to send him off, here are some screen shots from Kovács' non-Nicholson work (click on the photos for IMDb info):