Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining is on Netflix now, so my husband and I recently rewatched it. It had been over a decade since I saw it last, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up. (Don’t worry, horror fans; it holds up.) Despite Stephen King expressing dissatisfaction with this movie version of his novel, I think we all know that it’s the best version, plain and simple, and there’s really only one reason for that: Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance is stellar. Outstanding. To this day, it remains one of the most chilling roles in cinema history.
When my husband told me about a YouTube video he’d come across showing behind-the-scenes footage of Nicholson pumping himself up for the infamous bathroom scene (aka ‘Here’s Johnny’), I knew I had to find it. The relevant pre-scene footage is only half a minute long, and necessary for the point of my post today, so I hope you’ll go give it a quick watch: “Jack Nicholson Prepping for The Shining.”
My husband’s commentary? Something along the lines of, “He’s acting like an actual lunatic. Can you imagine being on set with him?”
Yeah. That’s what struck me, more than anything else: to get that iconic scene, Nicholson was willing to make an absolute fool of himself in front of his support staff, coworkers, and bosses. He was willing to really go there, because that’s the only way, I’m convinced, we can get to deeply authentic art.
My next thought was: Thank goodness that, as a writer, my art happens alone. Thank goodness I don’t have to embarrass myself in front of other people to really go there.
That thought has been haunting me for a week now, because it’s a lie.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very useful lie. Still, it’s one I think we should remember, because lies are sneaky. If we don’t occasionally shine a light on them and call them what they are, they begin to look very much like truth. Writers usually create alone, yes, but we don’t create in a vacuum. The biggest difference between us and Jack Nicholson (besides impressive eyebrow dexterity) isn’t that we write words and he acts out scenes; it’s that his vulnerability comes in the enacting while ours comes in the creating.
If Nicholson worries at all anymore about acting a fool, it’s probably because he’s worried about people judging how he’s doing – not what he’s doing. For writers, I think, the truly crippling fear comes before that. We’re most likely to stop ourselves before an idea ever gets to the page. To fill the analogy out the rest of the way: We’re King, not Kubrick, not Nicholson. We’re the ones telling the story itself. We’re the ones choosing which story to tell. [Read more…]