Nick Nolte knows how intimidating he can appear on-screen, and how frightening it might be for someone not in his inner circle to accidentally anger him. Perhaps that’s why Tom Thurman, in directing the illuminating documentary, ‘Nick Nolte: No Exit,’ arranges for Nolte to literally interview himself. The title may be a cheap nod to existentialism, but that’s exactly what the audience gets: Nolte set loose to self-deconstruct.
The resulting film, peppered with brutally honest, bitingly funny commentary from Ben Stiller, Barbara Hershey, Rosanna Arquette, Paul Mazursky and others, is enough to dismantle the myth of Nolte as some terrifying macho force, not to be reckoned with. Here, he is dryly self-effacing throughout, making fun of his long fight with alcoholism (“America sells a lot of vodka and whiskey—someone’s gotta buy it”) and gently scoffing at the notoriety behind his stringy-haired “mug shot” (“That’s not a mug shot. That was taken in a hospital. Do you see any prison numbers?”)
The sixty-eight year-old actor appears in two guises—as a denim and cowboy hat-clad “reporter” with smoothed-over facial wrinkles, and as his more scraggly, less made-up self, wearyingly answering the questions. Both Noltes chain-smoke, and both snarl in that legendary smoked-to-obliteration bark. But only Nolte the reporter makes direct eye contact with the camera; under his own scrutiny, we see the real Nolte in truly vulnerable fashion.
Gradually, we are reminded that the same vulnerability is present even in Nolte’s scariest characters. Much like his idol, Marlon Brando, Nolte’s first brush with fame, in the 1976 TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” threatened to corner him in the flattering but limited category of matinee idol. To fight that image, Nolte gradually eschewed heroic roles in favor of portraying violent, self-destructive men whose anger belittles them, not empowers. In most of his films of late, each subsequent Nolte meltdown yields diminishing returns, most notably in the 1998 father-son abuse tragedy, ‘Affliction.’ His howl and his brawn can seem brutish at the core, but it’s often a howl that isolates him, and the brawn itself seems punchy—less exhaustive than exhausted.
As Barbara Hershey, Nolte’s co-star in the much-maligned 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, puts it, “Everything he’s lived is in his face.” It’s not that Nolte’s upbringing was so hard. His Nebraskan childhood, as he describes it, was relatively tame. Both parents were salespeople, and while his father returned from World War II a more solemn man, Nolte never mentions any violence at home akin to that present in his most turbulent roles. But Nolte’s adolescent years were fraught with wanderlust and boredom, a need to break out of Omaha. Then, he needed recognition, which Hollywood didn’t give him until his mid-30s. And shortly after his big break, he needed to graduate from dull typecasting, as he never yearned to be a typical “movie star.”
We can still see that need, that stubbornness, in Nolte’s hardened face, in his decisions that don’t often further his career—for example, his insistence on working repeatedly with Champions director Alan Rudolph, who’s never scored a box office hit. And we are beckoned, by Thurman, by his peers, and by Nolte himself, to see a complicated persona amid the shaggy, impulsive beasts he’s prone to play (check your local listings for air times).