50 Years Ago: 'The King of Marvin Gardens' Was Jack Nicholson's "Shore" Thing | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
COLUMBIA PICTURES

50 Years Ago: ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’ Was Jack Nicholson’s “Shore” Thing 

One of the quintessential movies of the New Hollywood of the 1970s turns 50 years old this year. The King of Marvin Gardens, directed by Bob Rafelson, was weird and experimental in its form, while also moving with a slow pace that movies tended to have in that period. 

50 Years Ago: 'The King of Marvin Gardens' Was Jack Nicholson's "Shore" Thing | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
COLUMBIA PICTURES

The King of Marvin Gardens is set mostly in the Atlantic City of the early 1970s. That’s a very different place than the Atlantic City of today, which is now decorated with casinos in various states of repair and disrepair, along with a generous helping of Jimmy Buffett-themed restaurants. But AC now and AC then have two things in common: it’s in a perpetual state of decline, while the boardwalk in the winter has a distinctly dystopian vibe. László Kovács’ haunting photography really got that latter point across. 

The Sopranos would nail something like this decades later, in the episode where Big Pussy is a talking fish, although that was about an hour North, in Asbury Park. Marven Gardens is a neighborhood South of Atlantic City, in Margate and Ventnor, although it’s misspelled “Marvin” both on the Monopoly board and in the title of the film. I spent time near there every summer, and take regular bike rides to some of the Atlantic City boardwalk locations where the movie was shot.

The Plot

The King of Marvin Gardens begins with Jack Nicholson alone in a room, delivering an intense monologue about his grandfather. We’re meant to wonder if he’s talking to a therapist or a priest, but it turns out… he’s on the radio, doing a nighttime show in Philadelphia: 

He’s eventually called to Atlantic City by his small-time con-man brother (Bruce Dern), who pitches him on a scheme to invest in a hotel in Hawaii. Rafelson, according to the great ’70s Hollywood book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” had originally gone with the more natural casting choice of Nicholson as the con man and Dern as the quieter brother, but thought it might be fun to switch them.

Ellen Burstyn plays Dern’s ex-beauty queen girlfriend, while Julia Anne Robinson is her younger friend/stepdaughter. Burstyn’s performance, including in the centerpiece mock-Miss America sequence, is one of the better turns of her decades-long career. 



Things don’t go as planned, and ultimately end tragically, but as with so many movies of that era, it’s not the plot that matters, so much as the atmosphere and character work. 

Post-Release

The King of Marvin Gardens was the reunion of Nicholson and Rafelson after they worked together two years earlier in Five Easy Pieces. The film was something of a flop at the time, but its reputation has improved over time, thanks to a Criterion release, as well as some revisiting after Rafelson’s death earlier this year. 

While Nicholson has been retired for a while, it’s jarring, after watching them working regularly well into their 80s, to see young versions of Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn.

You can also watch The King of Marvin Gardens on most of the free streaming services, including Tubi. 

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