#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories (Martin Scorsese, 1989)
Of the once bankable, respectable actors who’ve fallen on hard times, typified by mediocre film role options, no descent is more regrettable than that of Nick Nolte. It’s for one simple reason: he’s a damn good actor. Entirely reasonable Oscar nomination notwithstanding, Gary Busey was never much more than a braying dolt who could memorize lines and Nicolas Cage’s Oscar win was a product of the good fortune of finally finding a part ideally suited to his unique brand of unhinged intensity (never forget that before that, Cage was often the worst part of otherwise good movies). Nolte was something different, though. He was a Method artisan who knew how to channel his baser instincts into fiercely resonant performances, exposing the roiling spirits of his characters. His persona was forever locked into place when his haggard mug shot after a DUI arrest made the rounds in 2002, although his reputation for overindulging had been in place for long enough (he was famously chastised by no less than Katharine Hepburn for his drunkenness) that it was already considered typecasting when he played a sozzled bum in the 1986 comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills. He may have been an Oscar nominee in the most recent ceremony, but that honor didn’t prevent host Billy Crystal from speculating his thoughts as nothing more than Frankenstein-style grunts and growls during a mind-reading bit.
The ingenuity of Nolte’s approach can be seen in full evidence in his first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, the short film “Life Lessons” that leads off the 1989 anthology film New York Stories (which also has a lesser contribution from Woody Allen and a downright terrible one from Francis Ford Coppola). Nolte plays Lionel Dobie, an acclaimed New York painter who is ramping up to a new exhibition of his work, toiling away in his beautifully battered loft studio and apartment while classic rock blares away on the boombox. In many ways he’s a typical distracted, volatile artist, but his conflicted mind is set into further duress by the certainty that his live-in lover, muse and “assistant” is slipping away from him. Played with a bruised impatience and intelligent immaturity by Rosanna Arquette (who never looked more gorgeous than she does in this film, a not insignificant detail in establishing the level of Lionel’s obsessiveness over her), Paulette is trying to strike out with the very emotional freedom that the artist once cultivated in her, though his opinion of the value of that aspect of her being has obviously changed.
Playing an artist can often stir the worst instincts in an actor, inspiring self-congratulation through the borrowed erudite legitimacy of a creator whose work is bolted to the walls of museums rather than suffering the fleeting intangibility of stage work or the automatically compromised collaboration of acting for the camera (whether improved or harmed, the performance is always somewhat beholden to how the director chooses to shape it). It brings out overly dramatic emoting in actors as they try to radiate importance while somehow conveying the genius of creation, a thing that, by its very nature, can never truly be seen. Nolte is shrewder than that, connecting with Lionel as not a master who creates, but as a man who works. As Lionel thrashes away at his large canvases, Nolte carries the energy of the activity through his whole form, a heady physicality that is matched by a firm intellectual focus as he stares down his own work.
Of course, that focus is compromised by the presence of Paulette, staying in her modest room at the studio at Lionel’s urging, even though she is adamant about ending the relationship. It’s through this situation that Nolte finds the added nuance of Lionel, glancing up at Paulette’s window with a lost yearning or continually trying to endear himself to her in the hopes that her insistence of separation will peel away. The contrast of this bearish, seemingly self-assured man nervously asking Paulette who she’s talking to on the phone and offering to fetch her tea with a childlike eagerness to please is fascinating to watch unfold.
Lionel’s assurance in one facet of his life is clear, but it’s the mounting uncertainty, even neediness, in this other area that fills out the character, makes him more than a symbol of a certain sort of New York denizen and into a person whose conflicts will clearly never quite roll to a stop. Nolte has to play both markedly different sides of this character and, more importantly, show how they can coexist in the same person. He does it without affectation or tricks, bringing instead a lovely honesty to the performance. Even the segment’s closing moment, which is a bit of glib punchline, is smartly brought in line by Nolte. Even when the story stumbles, he manages to make it seem like a natural extension of the man he’s been playing all the way through. Not much more can be asked of an actor than making even the false notes ring true.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny