In 1971, under the aegis of BBS, Jack Nicholson made his directing debut with this adaptation of a novel by Jeremy Larner; at that time, Nicholson was still working as a writer (he co-scripted this with Larner) and might have seen his future career as an all-round auteur a la Easy Rider era Dennis Hopper (he’s not in this as an actor) rather than the superstar character leading man he became. Not a box office success or much of a critical favourite, this has fallen into obscurity – probably because of its plotless, mostly disenchanted, slightly remote approach to campus activity circa the late 1960s and the fact that neither of the young leads (both cast in roles Nicholson might have played if he were a little younger) went on to have much of a career. Like Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place, it’s included in the Criterion Collection BluRay set of the BBS canon with the far better-known Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, King of Marvin Gardens, Head and Five Easy Pieces.
It’s not directly about protest but does contrast Hector (William Tepper), a college basketball star (one of Nicholson’s lifelong enthusiasms) for whom ‘the game isn’t jive’, with his roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta, who’d been in Wild in the Streets and The Strawberry Statement), for whom it’s ‘staying after school in your underwear’. Hector has an affair with Olive (Karen Black), wife of a desperate-to-be-hip professor (Robert Towne), and can’t quite communicate with his unstereotyped coach Bullion (Bruce Dern). Gabriel stages literal guerilla theatre – invading a game – and acts so crazy to avoid the draft (an Alice’s Reestaurant-ish freakout scene) that it spills over into his real life and winds up with him being taken off to an asylum (a hint at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?). Neither protagonist is especially likeable and, though solid, neither performer quite has the Nicholsonian flair which would have made them fascinating – did the director read/write roles he knew he could make work for an audience, then find other actors couldn’t? It’s credible that Black’s bored character should get fed up with all the men in her life, since they’re all big kids who demand all the time – and Gabriel’s treatment of his girlfriend (June Fairchild) is an uncomfortable, horribly convincing reminder of how politically active men in the late ‘60s could treat women worse than conservatives did and feel self-righteous about it.
Gabriel’s final acts are more disturbing than revolutionary: invading Olive’s home perhaps to terrorise and rape her, perhaps as another act of radical theatre (she seems unsure, laughing as well as screaming, but doesn’t like it either way), then breaking into the science labs while naked and liberating all the creepy-crawlies there until the guys with strait-jackets show up. In contrast to this meltdown, Hector just plays basketball – the game scenes are convincing, without sports movie clichés, and the dependencies, resentments and rapports between coach and players interestingly explored. It has interesting, non-obvious music – the theme is a Philip Glassish track by ‘secret master’ Moondog, a composer who chose to live on the streets for decades. Other aspects of 1971 BBS/counterculture cinema: as much male as female nudity, future TV stars in bit parts (Michael Warren of Hill St Blues, David Ogden Stiers of M*A*S*H, Cindy Williams), acting roles for behind-the-scenes folks (Towne, Henry Jaglom, co-producer Harry Gittes), a restless chattery join-the-dots dramatic style, and a sense that this is all ‘about America’ rather than just a story about some irritating people doing inconsequential things.