On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Jack Nicholson’s Short Musical Career

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever revolves around a cynical, middle-aged professor awakened to the possibilities of love by his protégée.   However, On a Clear Day lacks the pedigree of either musical, which draws on prestigious source material, such as Collette’s witty novella in the case of Gigi, and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in My Fair Lady.


The stage production of On a Clear Day was criticized for its clumsy story.  The lead role called for a singing personality who could play a period role as well as her modern-day transformation.    While the hypnosis sessions called for an actress who was a cookie, the period tale called for an irresistible seductress.   Streisand seemed ideal for the dual role, though, despite meteoric rise to stage stardom, her big-screen appeal was not entirely proven yet.  Nonetheless, holding that Streisand was indispensable, Paramount delayed its plans for producing On a Clear Day until 1968, when Streisand became available after the London run of Funny Girl.  On a Clear Day will not be released until 1970, by which time Streisand had won a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl.


Unfortunately, a great deal had happened in American culture between 1968 and 1970, when On a Clear Day was released.   Lerner made brief allusions to the prevailing students’ unrest, but overall, his script was archaic and stiff.    The only concession to the counter-cultural times was the addition of a new character, Daisy’s stepbrother, a semi-hippie with sideburns and a guitar, played by Jack Nicholson.

At this time, Jack Nicholson was known for his Roger Corman’s drive-in movies, such as The Terror and The Raven.    Nicholson’s presence in the musical was weird, to say the least, though, at the time, the actor was desperate to get out of the Corman factory.   Easy Rider, his breakthrough role in the cult movie that made him an icon of the new subversive counterculture that began to influence the “New Hollywood,” had not yet been released. 


Easy Rider was still in the editing room, when Paramount production head Robert Evans urged Minnelli to watch in Psych-Out, a film about a rock band in San Francisco’s Height-Ashbury district, in which Nicholson co-starred.    Evans said it would be useful viewing for the lighting effects in the reincarnation sequences in the new musical.  The mogul gambled that Minnelli would also take note of Nicholson’s performance and unique screen appeal.    Indeed, after seeing the film, Minnelli asked Nicholson to audition for the part of Tad Pringle, the hippie ex-stepbrother of Daisy Gamble.   Nicholson was to play the sitar and sing a song with Streisand, “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows,” written by Lerner and Lane.


Nicholson initially declined the role, but Minnelli persisted, and the actor finally agreed to sing his rendition of “Don’t Blame Me,” a standard song in M.G.M. musicals.  Evans recalled: “Jack wanted $12,500 and I would only pay him $10,000.   He needed the extra money for alimony.” 

Though eventually Nicholson got the contract he wanted, shortly after committing to On a Clear Day, he realized he had made a mistake.    Not only was he asked to cut his long hair, which was emblematic of his persona, he was dressed in button-down shirts and sweaters.   For an actor known for his restless and dynamic image, there was little movement in Nicholson’s scenes in the musical, in most of which Minnelli just leaned against windowsills, or posed him statically in front of plants.


Bruce Dern, a friend of Nicholson’s, observed: “Jack did that pitiful thing, and it was a total toilet job for him.   You could see he was uncomfortable and awkward.  Minnelli intimidated the shit out of him.”   Evans concurred: “Jack didn’t get along with Minnelli.   He’s God-awful in it, and I think he’d offer me a percentage of the picture if I’d cut him out of it.   The part was lousy, and the picture wasn’t good.  It wasn’t Jack’s fault, nobody else could have played it any better.”


Minnelli insisted that he chose Nicholson not because of his counterculture reputation, but because he liked his awkward singing.   For his part, Nicholson said that he was “fascinated by the idea of someone who doesn’t sing doing a song.”   Ironically, Nicholson’s solo ended on the cutting room floor. 


In March 1970, Nicholson spoke with Rex Reed for a N.Y. Times piece about the as yet unreleased film: “I am very frightened about it.   I wanted to see what it would be like to be in a Vincente Minnelli musical.  It’s a radical departure for me, you know?  I didn’t take a step in the whole thing after I walked on carrying my suitcase.  Once he let me get up to light someone’s cigarette and I think my back went crraccuhcchh.  You can probably hear it on screen.  There was so little-uh-movement.”


Nicholson yearned for direction from Minnelli, but he got none.  “You have to sort of guess what he wants,” Nicholson said. “One day I said, “Look, Vincente, I really don’t mind being directed, you know what I mean? It was the clearest-cut job of acting for the money I’ve ever done.”

“They had the good sense to leave me on the cutting room floor,” Nicholson later said.  Though he was set to play a hippie who would make this old-fashioned film attractive to younger viewers, Nicholson was told that his hair was too long and needed to be cut.   The producers wanted to have it both ways: to make a film that would be hip and contemporary, yet would not be offensive to older demographics.   But in 1970, the generation gap was too wide to permit a film to cautiously straddle the chasm, and ultimately, the movie appealed to no one.