Nick Nolte has played many memorable characters, but one in particular -- Wade Whitehouse in 1998's 'Affliction' -- edges out the others by a hair for its intensity and sheer guts. Nolte's an actor whose scrappy physicality and distinctive, gravelly voice are just the proverbial icing on the cake of his power on-screen. Whether playing heavies in gritty dramas ('Q&A,' 'Mulholland Falls'), romantic leads ('The Prince of Tides') or comedic characters ('Down and Out in Beverly Hills,' 'Tropic Thunder'), Nolte is always compelling. Even his less successful roles ('Jefferson in Paris') are at least interesting.
Nolte turns 70 this week, a good time to voice our appreciation for the man who -- even through some tough personal travails, notably a battle with alcoholism -- has puts enormous amount of heart and soul into his movies, never more so than 'Affliction.'
By the time Nolte starred in Paul Schrader's bleak, emotionally wrenching movie (based on Russell Banks' novel), he'd already proved a charismatic force during a career that weathered several ups and downs. After an inauspicious major-movie debut in 1977's 'The Deep,' he found big box office success opposite Eddie Murphy in '48 Hours' (not so much the sequel) and opposite Barbra Streisand in 'The Prince of Tides,' for which he received an Oscar nomination. He was critically praised for roles in less generic films, such as his homeless, suicidal Jerry Baskin in the offbeat 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills' and a deeply bigoted cop in Sidney Lumet's 'Q&A.'
He'd also endured a much-publicized stint in rehab and muddled through some undistinguished comedies ('I'll Do Anything,' 'I Love Trouble'), before rebounding with rock-solid roles in 'Mulholland Falls' and 'Afterglow.' With 'Affliction,' his mini comeback was complete.
As a small-town New England cop dealing unsuccessfully with various frustrations -- and an abusive childhood that haunts him -- Nolte is a smoldering powder keg through much of the movie. Wade is going through a bitter divorce, and while we understand why his wife and daughter avoid him, we also empathize with his haplessly dogged character. He tries, really tries, to tamp down his rage, but, like the nagging toothache that builds throughout the film, it's a malignant force that's out of his control.
(Unfortunately, all available clips from the movie -- here's a doozy -- are embed-disabled.)
The reason for that volatility? Wade's malicious, alcoholic father, Glen (James Coburn, winner of the Best Supporting Oscar that year), who's back in Wade's life after the tragic death of his mother. The son's hatred is understandable and deep-seated ("I wish you would die," he hisses at one point; Glen replies by spitting in his face). Wade's unwieldy emotions taint his reasoning, making him jump to conclusions regarding the guilty party in a local hunting accident, as his powerlessness against his tyrannical father ultimately drives away his sympathetic girlfriend (Sissy Spacek), the one stabilizing force in his life.
As the movie builds almost operatically towards its violent, overwrought climax, Nolte alternately rages and mourns, a devastating depiction of someone barely keeping it together until he just can't any longer.
His performance was nominated for a Best Actor (losing to Roberto Begnini in 'Life is Beautiful'), and it's still absolutely riveting.