Jack Nicholson Directs Goin’ South

South the 1978 comedy directed by Jack Nicholson In today’s guest post, Rick29 remembers a Jack Nicholson effort that is sadly no longer available on home video. We reprint this today in an attempt to raise awareness of the film in hopes that a restored edition will hit Blu-ray and DVD soon. Its flaws aside, Goin’ South remains a film worth seeing.

Henry Lloyd Moon–a second-rate outlaw with a third-rate gang–learns the hard way that it doesn’t pay to tease a posse. After crossing the border to Mexico, Moon stops to laugh at the pursuing posse. The sheriff pauses for a few minutes, then rides across the river and arrests Moon. Following his delivery to the jail in Longhorn, Moon is sentenced to hang.

However, on the way to the gallows, he finds out about an usual local ordinance. Any single woman can save a condemned man by marrying him. Moon becomes ecstatic when an elderly woman proposes marriage–but, unfortunately, she dies before they can be hitched. With the noose around his neck, he is saved a second time when the attractive Julia Tate “claims” him. She makes it clear that the marriage is strictly a business proposition because she needs help on her farm. However, since the two characters are played by Mary Steenburgen and Jack Nicholson, it’s pretty obvious how the plot will unfold.

Released in 1978, the story behind the making of Goin’ South is more interesting than the film itself. Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen were originally cast as the leads, with Mike Nichols attached as director. That production never came to fruition and the script sat on the shelf. Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson was developing Moontrap, an adaptation of Don Berry’s 1971 novel about a former mountain man’s adventures in the Oregon Territory in 1850. Nicholson wanted to direct Moontrap, but not star in it. He eventually relented and agreed to take a supporting role in the hope of getting the film made. Yet, despite his efforts, Nicholson could never bring Moontrap to the screen.

When the opportunity to direct Goin’ South came along, Nicholson took it. With the exception of newcomer Steenburgen, Nicholson surrounded himself with cronies: co-writer John Herman Shaner; production designer Toby Carr Rafelson (director Bob Rafelson’s ex-wife); producer Harry Gittes (who worked with Nicholson on Drive, He Said); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest co-stars Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito; and Nicholson’s frequent co-star Luana Anders. There are even more familiar faces in the rest of the supporting cast, to include: Veronica Cartwright (Alien, The Birds); John Belushi (playing a Mexican deputy); Richard Bradford (Man in a Suitcase); Anne Ramsey (who would later team with DeVito in Throw Mama from the Train); and Ed Begley, Jr.

In an interview with my website, Cartwright described working with Nicholson the director: “Jack is just nuts. He’s great. It’s like one big giant party.” Surprisingly, that approach doesn’t show up on the screen; the first hour of Goin’ South is a pleasant romantic comedy effectively played by Steenburgen and Nicholson. However, once their characters’ love for one another is established, the film loses momentum and lumbers to its conclusion. In Dennis McDougal’s biography of Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times, the author notes Nicholson’s disappointment that critics and viewers ignored that Moon’s gang were social miscasts. He quotes Nicholson: “(They were) all members of Quantrill’s Raiders, the original guerrilla warfare unit in America. And what do you do with these people once they’re home?”

Jack Nicholson followed up Goin’ South by starring in The Shining. Kubrick’s film prevented Nicholson from doing Melvin and Howard. However, he lent a copy of the script to Steenburgen while making Goin’ South. She would ultimately co-star with Paul Le Mat and Jason Robards in the film and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and TwitterHe’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!