Nicholson was a Hollywood veteran but had only achieved stardom two years earlier for his role in Easy Rider. He’d spent a long gestation period working for Roger Corman, both as an actor and screenwriter, and had occasionally appeared in offbeat westerns, or taken small roles in large productions. By the time stardom landed in his lap, stepping into the director’s role was probably something he’d been thinking about for a while.
The result is a film that is surprisingly cinematic. Nicholson’s approach may have been self-consciously “contemporary” – he was determined to shoot more male nudity than was the usual, then or now, and made a point of rushing his crew to film an actual campus riot at a nearby college – but what stands out decades later is the absolute power and assuredness of Nicholson’s eye. There are beautiful, swooping camera angles, remarkable edits that’ll pop your brain, and enough interesting imagery that you’ll come away impressed not only by Nicholson’s obvious attention to the foreign films of the day, but by his own muscular approach to visual storytelling.
The cast has a jumpy life of its own, with recognizable faces lurking in the margins of every scene. David Ogden Stiers, several years away from his starring role on TV’s M.A.S.H., appears, as does Cindy Williams, with no lines, staring into the camera as if to say, Don’t forget me, I’ll soon be known to you all as Shirley Feeney. Cult director Henry Jaglom appears as a campus drama teacher. Karen Black is Olive, a woman living with a drab professor but carrying on an affair with a college basketball star, while Robert Towne, some years off from winning an Oscar for his Chinatown screenplay, is Richard, the cuckolded professor. Bruce Dern is impeccable as the school’s basketball coach, struggling with his main player, Hector Bloom, a reluctant sports star played by William Tepper. Michael Margotta is Gabriel, Bloom’s high-strung roommate who has played at being crazy for so long that the act is becoming real.
Nicholson has become such a monolithic Hollywood persona that it’s easy to forget he directed three features. Granted, Goin’ South, a loopy comedy western mostly remembered as John Belushi’s film debut, and The Two Jakes, a largely dismissed sequel to Chinatown, were uneven and probably deserving of their cold receptions. Still, in their own ways, Nicholson’s films were highly stylish and watchable. Drive, He Said, with its liveliness and sense of purpose, is the best of the three. That Nicholson didn’t cast himself – he could have played the coach, or Towne’s part – is evidence, perhaps, that he was taking the project seriously, as was his use of former collaborators Dern and Black, and the fact that he supervised a high-definition digital transfer for Criterion's Blu-ray release in 2009. Nicholson cared about this film, as he did about all of his work.
Karen Black was in her early prime here, big boned and strangely beautiful, and Nicholson gives her plenty of coverage: in close-up, lighting her cigarette; artsy shots of her profile; lingering close-ups of her wrinkling her brow in thought. These glamor shots alternate with scenes of a more animalistic, earthy tone, with Black grunting in orgasm, washing her feet, or coming out of a deep sleep. Olive is the most full-bodied character in the movie. Her dilemma is that she doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want. Neither the jock nor the professor is enough.
Black is so good in this movie that you watch her with dread knowing that her career would soon dovetail into cheap horror movies. The scene where Black is attacked in her home by Gabriel made me realize the difference between a movie scream and a genuine scream of terror. Today’s actresses go strictly for volume, while Black’s scream is filled with sorrow and anguish. Awards should be given for such screams.
The basketball scenes are presented by Nicholson, a well-known hoops fan, and cinematographer Bill Butler, with speed and fury, even though Hector is mocked by his roommate for “staying after school and running around in his underwear.” The teasing gay banter among the teammates sounds odd today, with the players taunting each other in the showers, and Dern exhorting his team at halftime to “stop playing like fags.” He’d probably lose his job today, though the comment feels real and honest for the character.
As Hector Bloom, Tepper is believable as a jock who enjoys the game but is uncomfortable with draconian team politics, and bowing down to a no-nonsense coach. I can imagine him turning down his pro-career to work at a summer camp, where he’d teach disadvantaged kids how to throw a proper hook shot. As Gabriel, Margotta resembles a young Nicholson, and the scene where he goes berserk in front of the draft board feels like a rough sketch for One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest. When he attacks Olive in her home, Margotta’s acting is so full of animation and buffoonery that it’s as if he’s performing a kind of guerilla theater designed to frighten women. He’s a kabuki rapist.
The film’s reception was mixed in 1971. Roger Ebert dubbed it “disorganized but occasionally brilliant,” which is accurate. Other reviewers were less generous, though some praised it. Audiences never found it. The problem could’ve been that a few years had passed since films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, and the angst of young Americans was becoming rote. Still, the early reviewers may have dismissed it too easily. True, some scenes don’t hang together, and the ending, where Gabriel releases a bunch of lab animals before being hauled away by police, is unsatisfying, but the acting is very good, the score by David Share is effective, and it’s a better looking film than most of the independent projects coming out of the early 1970s. And while it’s become fairly routine for actors to become directors, Nicholson was a pioneer of sorts, along with his friend Dennis Hopper.
There are moments in Drive, He Said, that are the work of a skilled director. The powerful opening, where a basketball game is interrupted by campus protestors, is bristly and unpredictable, as are the scenes of Dern browbeating his team. And there are moments too heavy with symbolism, such as the team mascot, a jungle cat in a cage, pacing back and forth. Is there no other way to represent pent up anger? Even the characters' names – Gabriel and Bloom – are heavy-handed. Yet, those are small quibbles.
There are also moments of such delicious acting that we can almost hear Nicholson giggling with approval, such as when Olive learns a female friend has been shoplifting for years, or the scenes where the professor (Towne) and Hector are awkwardly thrown together. How much does the professor know, anyway?
The movie may have been stronger had it focused solely on any of the characters. Instead, the movie is about all of them, as if Nicholson, who adapted the screenplay with the novel’s author, Jeremy Larner, loved them all equally, and couldn’t bear to move any of them into the background. So he coaxed great performances out of his cast, and turned in a highly personal project, a forgotten gem from the golden era of personal films.