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Flashback: on 1978’s Goin’ South

Well, it appears I’m making it a bit of a tradition to cover Jack Nicholson on the occasion of his birthday. Two years ago, I praised six of his magnificent performances(5 Oscar nominations, 6 Golden Globe noms)in honor of his milestone 75th birthday. This covered Jack’s prime period of 1969-1975. It’s when he first became a true movie star, and developed throughout into a bona fide megastar. Last year, upon his 76th celebration, I presented a Flashback feature covering his 1958 debut, “The Cry Baby Killer”. For Jack’s 77th, I turn to his unusual comic western, which also happens to be his official sophomore directing effort, 1978’s “Goin’ South”. Unlike his directorial debut(1971’s “Drive, He Said”, also covered here via Flashback feature), Nicholson not only helms this motion picture, but also decided to star in it. He was 40 during production, and 41 when “Goin’ South” was released. He was well established and highly respected by this time, after a string of hits, and his multiple award-winning performance in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. But was “Goin’ South” an example of biting off more than he could chew? The film was neither a financial success, nor a critical one, in the fall of 1978.

There are a pair of notable film debuts in “Goin’ South”, one from a 25 year-old woman who would go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a film released just two years after this. That film was 1980’s “Melvin and Howard”, and the Oscar went to Miss Mary Steenburgen. The other was a renowned television performer, who just weeks earlier appeared in an influential comedy so big, that it went on to become the third highest-grossing movie of that year. But even though that film was released before “Goin’s South”, it was filmed after it. So, this western was his debut as well.  Tragically, that performer would be dead in less than four years. Of course, I’m talking about “Saturday Night Live”‘s John Belushi, and his summer comedy blockbuster was “National Lampoon’s Animal House”. Nicholson also exhibited his loyalty with the filming of this 2nd directorial effort. Jack cast a deuce of struggling film actors that both appeared with him in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The pair would eventually find their own film stardom, but not before appearing together on a big hit 1970’s television sit-com. I’m referring to Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, who memorably dueled on the small screen in “Taxi”. “Goin’ South” also marked the first time Nicholson appeared with his character actor friend, Tracey Walter(Mr. Walter also played a role in Jack’s third directing assignment, 1990’s “The Two Jakes”), and the penultimate time Jack would appear with Luana Anders, a fellow Roger Corman veteran, who would work with Jack multiple times throughout the 1950’s and 60’s.

But is it any good? Well, yeah—I kind of enjoyed it. It won’t make anyone forget Nicholson’s classic work, but it’s not at the bottom of the pile either(reserved for garbage like “Man Trouble” and “Anger Management”). Jack is Henry Lloyd Moon, an 1860’s Texas outlaw, about to be hanged for multiple offences. After insulting some homely women(who gawk at him while he awaits the noose), Henry is informed by law enforcement upon his walk to the gallows, that any female landowner could save his life by agreeing to marry him. It is apparently an old Civil War ordinance, and the surly Henry was told a bit late. But luck would have it, after a brief respite from the rope after an eager, elderly landowner suffers a heart attack, that Henry does get a reprieve, when a Miss Julia Tate(a still somewhat green Miss Steenburgen)agrees to give him her hand(for some unknown reason that never becomes quite clear). Ms. Tate then brings Henry home and endures his primitive ways. She eventually puts him to work in what she insists is a gold mine located on her property. They fail, at first, to consummate their relationship—further complicated by the revelation that she is a virgin. And the appearance of Moon’s old gang—including a former lover(the wonderful Veronica Cartwright as Hermine)—doesn’t help matters either. Throw in a jealous deputy that pines for Miss Tate/Moon(Christopher Lloyd, who ironically would go on to star with Ms. Steenburgen as time-travelling lovers in the Old West in 1990’s “Back to the Future, Part III”), and things predictably fail to go smoothly for this unconventional marriage of convenience.

Whereas 1971’s “Drive, He Said” showcased a great deal of promise for Jack behind the camera, “Goin’ South” was possibly the confirmation that the actor was not destined to become an accomplished director(“The Two Jakes” would seemingly cement that, but I will save that for another day—or birth-day!). For one thing, despite being reasonably paced, it never quite becomes all that interesting of inspired. Also, although it was billed as a comedy—it’s simply not very funny. Zany maybe, kooky even, but certainly not laugh-out-loud knee-slapping hilarious. And this despite a team of four screenwriters. Belushi, who reportedly even then was having difficulty with his drug and alcohol fueled existence, was massively under utilized here—it’s practically an extended cameo. Maybe more could’ve helped. And while amusing that the gold-hungry characters consistently ignore what would turn out to be a burgeoning flood of Texas crude, it culminates with a groaner of an “in-joke” involving a certain Mr. Standard. But Jack certainly does give his all in one of his outlandish thespian efforts. And the fetching Ms. Steenburgen needed more seasoning at this time, but gently attempts to find her way with her ethereal manner and unusual cadence. Plus, Mr. Lloyd, Mr. DeVito, Mr. Walter, Veronica Cartwright and Ed Begley, Jr. are quite fine in their supporting roles. So, I can’t really love “Goin’ South”, but I can sort of recommend it. Nicholson fans, like me, may get a kick out of it, plus it’s not a terrible way to help celebrate the 77th birthday of my favorite film actor. Have a happy, Jack!     Grade:  B-

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