By the time Chinatown hit the theaters, Jack Nicholson was already a respected actor in Hollywood, having earned three Oscar nominations in the early 70s. However, the Roman Polanski film remains the acclaimed actor’s most influential work.
With 11 Oscar nominations and a staggering box office collection of $29.2 million, the neo-noir mystery drama set the standard for Hollywood screenplays and paved the way for Nicholson to lead countless movies for years to come. However, what makes the connection between Chinatown and the dynamic actor more mythical – for lack of a better word – is how it in some ways reflects his own dramatic personal life, which became a subject of media fascination after it came to the fore that his supposed sister was his mother.
How a Dramatic Life Secret Pushed Jack Nicholson Into a Tailspin
Chinatown revolves around Jack Nicholson‘s J.J. Gittes, a private investigator who’s hired to expose an adulterer in 1930s Los Angeles. He ends up getting embroiled in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder. This Roman Polanski orchestrated web also includes a sub-plot, wherein Gittes beats Evelyn Mulwray – the woman who hired him in the first place – into admitting that her sister is, in fact, her daughter.
As the movie started to attract critical acclaim and financial success, the incest angle became a big talking point and coincided with a very shocking revelation concerning the actor’s personal life.
Nicholson grew up believing that his mother, June, was his sister and that his grandmother, Ethel May, was his mother. June got pregnant in 1936 by her boyfriend Don, who was married to another woman at the time. Upon learning of this and to avoid the shame a child out of wedlock would bring the family, Ethel May ordered Don to stay away from June and raised Jack as her own. The youngster was told that June was his much older sister.
June, who wanted to become a star, moved to Miami. Incidentally, Nicholson harbored similar dreams and headed west to join his sister, who had relocated to Los Angeles by that time. The talented star with a charming personality started cementing his place in Hollywood in the 70s.
When Chinatown was about to be released, Time magazine profiled the industry’s next big star. During their research, Nicholson was contacted and told that his father was alive and that Ethel May wasn’t his “mother” but his grandmother. He was further stunningly revealed that his “sister” June was his real mother.
Nicholson asked Time to not publish these details and got in touch with his family members, who relented and revealed the truth. He called up his brother-in-law. “Shorty, this is the most f-cked thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, according to Patrick McGilligan’s biography Jack’s Life (via In Style).
This led to the actor going into “a tailspin” and he told director Mike Nichols to keep an eye on him during the making of The Fortune.
Jack Nicholson Couldn’t Confront His Mother and Grandmother After Incest Revelation
As years passed, Nicholson became more relaxed and open about it and even jokingly referred to June as his “sister-mother” in the press.
However, how he dealt with the shocking news in his personal life remains unknown, especially since he wasn’t able to confront his mother and grandmother about the truth as both had passed away by the time.
“Both grandmother and mother were deceased before this particular group of facts came to my attention,” the actor said (via Rare). “I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret if nothing else. It’s done great things for me.”
As per a report in FarOut Magazine, Nicholson was also unsure about his biological father, with some reports claiming that it might have been his mother’s manager.
Regardless of these trembles in his personal life, Nicholson kept making an impact on the big screen and won his first Oscar for his engrossing performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the very next year.