I once read an interview with Roddy McDowell in which he stated that actors have three stages in their careers, and that they are not always successful in each. In the beginning you win them by simply being charming. You’re young and beautiful, have an impish smile, whatever. Then you mature and the little gimmicks that charmed audiences don’t quite cut it.
In the last stage you are an elder statesman of the silver screen and the roles are of an entirely different class as you re-invent yourself once more. Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine come to mind here… and Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson is an actor who by any measure has had a charmed career in the film industry. And deservedly so when you remember the range of memorable characters he has invented since catching our attention as George Hanson in Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Who can forget J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, or Randall P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
It’s the uniqueness of the characters he inhabits that is as surprising as anything. Compare the obsessive/compulsive writer Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets to mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed. Both roles show range. And in About Schmidt we see another subtly fine performance, possibly less appreciated because it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
The film was a sleeper, perhaps because of the seriousness of its tone while simultaneously being marketed as a comedy. We missed it in the theaters, if it ever came to out neck of the woods, but saw it referenced in a book by Robert K. Johnston titled Useless Beauty. Johnston’s book analyzes the complex engagement between faith and culture by studying a range of contemporary films including among others Signs, Magnolia, and Run, Lola, Run. The book’s subtitle is Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film.
About Schmidt begins with Nicholson as businessman Warren Schmidt sitting in his office at the Woodmen Insurance Company in Omaha, watching the second hand on the clock as it ticks out the last moments of his career there, boxes packed, time marching on. He is alone, and it’s evident that this aloneness is a hallmark of his life. Retirement happens to him, but it is a passionless existence full of empty hours, more seconds ticking off the clock of his life.
Then one day, while flipping through one meaningless channel to another on his television, a commercial captures his attention. It is an invitation to sponsor a needy child in Africa. And Warren Schmidt responds. The child’s name is Ndugu, and his letters of confession to Ndugu become the thread that weaves all the other pieces of this film into a whole.
Near the film’s end, his wife having died unexpectedly and his daughter’s wedding behind, Schmidt stops to visit an exhibit in Nebraska honoring the early pioneers who crossed the prairie going West. It is an ordinary place, yet moves him in an extrarodinary manner. His letter to Ndugu conveys his emotions here at this crossroads in his life:
“My trip to Denver is so insignificant compared to the journeys others have taken… I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? When I was out in Denver, I tried to do the right thing, tried to convince Jeannie she was making a big mistake, but I failed. Now she’s married to that nincompoop and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am weak, and I am a failure. There’s just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die… Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt”
This one I rank high on my “short list” of recommended films. If you’ve not seen it, check it out.