FILMS/SPECIAL REPORT

HOLLYWOODS WILD CARD

AFTER MAKING THE SEQUEL THAT NO ONE ELSE COULD MAKE, JACK NICHOLSON HOLDS COURT

Brian D. Johnson August 20 1990
FILMS/SPECIAL REPORT

HOLLYWOODS WILD CARD

AFTER MAKING THE SEQUEL THAT NO ONE ELSE COULD MAKE, JACK NICHOLSON HOLDS COURT

Brian D. Johnson August 20 1990

HOLLYWOODS WILD CARD

AFTER MAKING THE SEQUEL THAT NO ONE ELSE COULD MAKE, JACK NICHOLSON HOLDS COURT

FILMS/SPECIAL REPORT

Jack Nicholson had been fasting for four days. “I’m a little light-headed,” he said with a smile suggesting that the side effects were not entirely unpleasant. “I gain weight easy, so I got to take it off easy. Got to be done.” Still a little thick in the middle, Nicholson wore baggy black jeans, a striped shirt and a blue tie patterned with playing cards. With a deep sigh, he settled into a black leather sofa in a large, broadloomed office on the Paramount studios lot in Los Angeles. He lit a cigarette—“It’s aU I got left,” he said with a glint of melodrama—and began an interview with Maclean’s that lasted nearly 2lA hours. It roamed over a wide range of subjects—from how he relished playing the Joker in Batman to how he would amuse himself if he were president of the United States. But what seemed to be weighing most heavily on Nicholson’s mind was his new movie, The Two Jakes, which opened in theatres across North America last week.

The most belated sequel in the history of HoUywood, The Two Jakes picks up the thread of the 1974 classic Chinatown. Set in 1937 and directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown was a darkly atmospheric detective story of murder, corruption and incest revolving around a conspiracy to divert water from parched Los Angeles. The Two Jakes takes place 11 years later, in an era of postwar optimism. Nicholson returns as private detective Jake Gittes, now a war hero with a country-club membership, and he unravels another land-grab conspiracy—involving oil instead of water. For the sequel, Nicholson also served as director and unofficial co-producer. And he became enmeshed in a saga of conflict and betrayal behind the camera that rivaUed the one onscreen. The movie’s tortuous history spanned six years and marred lifelong friendships among the film-makers (page 42). Making The Two Jakes, said Nicholson, was “the toughest job of my career.”

Menace: After cackling aU the way to the bank with last year’s Batman— which wiH earn him an estimated $69 million from his share of ticket sales and merchandising rights—Nicholson completed The Two Jakes as a labor of love. In the summer of Dick Tracy, it is a movie about a detective who does not carry a gun. In a summer of instant sequels, it is a sequel to a 16-year-old motion picture that much of the audience is too young to remember. Said Nicholson: “It was a difficult project to do in today’s world. It’s very unusual, and not at aU pyrotechnical.”

Over the course of 48 movies, the actor has built a career on taking risks. “I do like to go against the grain,” he said. “If I see one more car hit a vegetable

stand, I’m going to vomit. If I see one more person strangled in polyethylene, I’m going to vomit. If I see one more drop of sweat drip off the nose of one person onto the tits of another, I’m going to vomit.” He added, “But I’ve always known, even before I started making movies, that I’m slightly different from the general audience.”

Since gunning his way to stardom on the back of a motorcycle in 1969’s Easy Rider, Nicholson has become the most distinctive actor of his generation. Like Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando, he has carved out his own place among Hollywood legends. His gothic eyebrows and switchblade smile are familiar trademarks of an indelible screen personality. Nicholson created a new prototype for the American male, a mix of sexual menace and iconoclastic charm. Now 53, he is a godfather of Hollywood style, a man of wealth and taste. He has won two Oscars—as best actor for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and as best support-

ing actor for Terms of Endearment (1983). As Robin Williams once remarked about Hollywood’s acting hierarchy, “There’s Jack, and then there’s the rest of us.”

Bom to an unwed mother in Depression-era Neptune, N J., Nicholson was a working-class upstart who chased the American Dream from the Jersey shore to the California coast. But more than any Hollywood star before him, he has devoted his work to the dark side of that dream. A rogue of post-Sixties realism, he has repeatedly played versions of the insolent antihero. He was the caustic rebel giving a waitress a piece of his mind in Five Easy Pieces (1970), the psychiatric patient taking the inmates on a fishing trip in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the axe-wielding Jack-in-the-box grinning “Heeeeere’s Johnny” in The Shining (1980). In the past decade, he played a new hand as a sexually ruthless Jack of Hearts. He was the interloper having sex on a kitchen table in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), the ex-astronaut

SAW ROBIN WILLIAMS: 'JACK, AND THEN THERE’S THE REST OF US’

exposing a bloated belly in Terms of Endearment and the devil making three women his concubines in The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

Offscreen, Nicholson’s bad-boy behavior enhances his mystique. A manic basketball fan in dark glasses, he cheers on his beloved Los Angeles Lakers while harassing the coach of the opposing team from behind their bench. He still speaks with unapologetic candor about smoking marijuana. And like his friend Warren Beatty, he remains a notoriously untamed bachelor. Two Jakes co-producer Harold Schneider told Maclean ’sr.

“Jack likes to work hard and play hard. He doesn’t take out the garbage.” Since ending a six-year marriage, his only one, to actress Sandra Knight in 1968, Nicholson has dated a succession of women. Recently, after an on-again-offagain relationship with actress Anjelica Huston that lasted 17 years, he became the father of a baby girl with 26-year-old Rebecca Broussard, who plays his character’s secretary in The Two Jakes.

Despite his image as a rake, Nicholson is deadly serious about his role as an artist. And he has great influence in the industry. Said Schneider: “This is a guy who can do anything he wants, within reason, in the business—he’s Jack.” He’s Jack—that is all the explanation he seems to need. He is the Jack who climbed the Hollywood beanstalk and never came down.

But, for all his celebrity, he seems remarkably stable. He still lives in the same Hollywood Hills house that he bought 20 years ago, sharing a private road with Marlon Brando. And he has remained loyal to a coterie of friends who were close to him before he was famous. Said Schneider, who has been associated with Nicholson since 1968: “He’s got the great qualities of a blue-collar man, tremendous loyalty and warmth. A lot of people, when you really need them, they’re out to lunch or back in an hour. With Jack, if you really need something, he’s there.” Estranged: But The Two Jakes frayed some of Nicholson’s oldest friendships. The movie’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, whose script for Chinatown won an Oscar, had been close to the actor since the late 1950s. Estranged from him since the filming of Two Jakes, Towne described Nicholson warily. Said the writer: “Jack is very talented, and talent is one of those things that has an irresistible urge to express itself.” Towne added: “I think he’s a superb actor, and a most appreciative audience for his own acting—which can take away from the acting itself. That’s always a hazard when you’re that interested in yourself. And Jack is astonishingly interested in himself—it’s what inspires him.” A Nicholson interview is like a performance. In fact, during his session with Maclean ’s, he

talked about previous interviews the way he talked about film roles—as if they were all of a piece, a life’s work threaded with consistent themes and convictions. “I don’t necessarily want to give you the interview you want,” he said. “I want to give you the interview I want.” The actor spoke in complex paragraphs knotted with parentheses and sudden leaps in logic. As he talked, he smoked Camels and drank from small bottles of mineral water. His eyes offered familiar glints of manic complicity, occasionally narrowing into a sly, half-lidded reptile stare.

Preserving his mystique, Nicholson chooses his interviews carefully. Except for showing up at the première, he declined to promote last summer’s release of Batman with personal appearances. Said Nicholson: “They talk about hype. Hype, hype, hype, hype. This movie went on its own. There was

a pre-existing environment for the movie.”

That environment helped to make Nicholson’s Joker a household face. And Nicholson, a serious actor who has often criticized Hollywood’s lust for blockbuster movies, was suddenly starring in one. “As an actor,” he said, “it’s like the Medusa head. Just don’t look at it and you’re fine.” He added: “I’ve done a lot of work. That happens to be one successful piece of it.”

Making the Joker’s evil more seductive than Batman’s virtue, Nicholson filled the movie with a malevolence that was rare for a mainstream film. “It’s meant to challenge your dreams rather than your reality,” he said. “This is Grand Guignol [a theatrical tradition of horrific melodrama]. So is The Shining. So is Witches of Eastwick. I shot Nietzsche and all that element into the Joker to give it a kind of resonance.” He added: “All moviemaking to me is, on the symbolic level, autobiographical. The devil is very easy to sympathize with.”

Nicholson says that he has talked to hundreds of children about the Joker. “I don’t have much else to talk to them about,” he said. “They all love the Joker—love him. But they all want to be Batman, and that’s very reassuring.”

Risk: Even when playing ordinary mortals— from a heartless lover in Carnal Knowledge (1971) to a haunted derelict in Ironweed (1987)—Nicholson often displays an unsavory edge. And that makes him an anomaly in Hollywood, where major stars tend to avoid unflattering roles. “I’ve done a string of people who are unattractive to conventional morality,” said Nicholson. “I don’t know how to dramatize everything-is-wonderful.” Still, there are drawbacks to being a professional scoundrel. “When you do Carnal Knowledge, for two or three years, women don’t like you as much,” he noted. “But if you’re a conscious artist, you have to know the risk that you’re taking. What’s the point of making the same movie that everybody else is making?”

Hollywood’s first law of commercial success is just that—mimicking past success. And Nicholson has prospered by defying it. He proudly pointed to his box-office record as an actor: all but two of his movies have turned a profit. “For all my unorthodoxy,” he claims, “no one in history has that record. This is not something that I exploit. If you’re a decent workman, and you have a decent record, you don’t have much problem.” The “workman” is reported to command between $6 million and $7 million per movie and, as in Batman, he usually takes a share in the profits.

Yet, as a serious film-maker, he expresses impatience with the conservatism of the Holly-

wood establishment. “Nothing counts until the camera’s turned on,” he said, “and that’s what they fear, the creative moment. That’s what keeps them holding back, and vacillating.” Last spring, when Nicholson was in the final stages of editing The Two Jakes, Paramount executives expressed some anxiety about the results. “I’ve made a demanding movie,” he said. “That is almost heresy. You have to explain your film. We all learn the easy words. If you took ‘clarity’ and ‘length’ out of the vocabulary of intra-company criticism, people would not know how to talk.”

Secret: Despite his wealth and influence, Nicholson still uses the usand-them vocabulary of a counterculture rebel. But he is wary of giving “them” any ammunition to undermine his credibility. While acknowledging that he smokes marijuana, he refuses to say how often. “I don’t want to be

disqualified as a fuzzy-headed dope-

ster,” he said. “We grasp at any reason to disqualify somebody. This is a constant matrix of our culture. Disqualification is killing us.” The actor’s preoccupation with legitimacy has deep roots. As he explained, “I am a member of the most discriminated-against minority in the world—I am an illegitimate child.” Nicholson never met his natural father, whose identity remains unknown. The man abandoned Jack’s mother, June, before Jack’s birth in 1937. She was only 17 at the time, and Jack was 38 before he realized that she was not his sister. His family told him that his grandmother, a beautician named Ethel May Nicholson, was his mother. And the man he thought

was his father was, in fact, his grandfather, John Nicholson, a part-time sign painter and an alcoholic who was rarely home. Only after June’s death in 1975 did Nicholson discover the family’s secret. As a result, Nicholson says that, while defending women’s freedom of choice, he has become personally opposed to abortion. He added, “As an illegitimate child, how could I not be?”

As a young man, Nicholson chose a renegade route. After graduating from high school in 1954, he rejected the offer of an engineering scholarship and instead travelled to Los Angeles, where his “sister” June had moved to try to break into show business. There, he bided his time at the pool hall and the race track, then got a job in the Hanna-Barbera mail room. He also joined a fledgling theatre troupe and enrolled in an acting class, where fellow students included Sally Kellerman, James Cobum and Towne. In the same class, Nicholson met Roger Corman, the B-movie master who

provided his entry into the film business. In Nicholson’s first movie, a low-budget 1958 melodrama titled Cry Baby Killer, he played the lead—a panicked teenager holding hostages at gunpoint.

It was the first of a dozen Corman movies that gave the actor a valuable apprenticeship and fostered some key relationships. Corman’s The Trip, a drama about experimenting with LSD, featured actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who later starred with him in Easy Rider. (“Since Easy Rider," he said.'Tve felt like I could do whatever I wanted”). And Head, a chaotic farce starring the made-for-TV rock band the Monkees, introduced him to director Bob Rafelson, who went on to direct some of Nicholson’s most acclaimed performances—in Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Part of Hollywood’s New Wave in the 1970s, Nicholson helped to bring a European style of film-making to the United States. He worked with directors who tempered entertainment value with dark personal visions and social statements. And in the 1980s, the decade that began with Postman and ended with Batman, he sharpened the edges of his screen personality with an almost diabolical sense of manipulation. He said that he did Postman, the story of a drifter who coerces a housewife into adultery, “because I knew feminism was getting so sappy at that time that it had to produce a desire for somebody who would step up and say, ‘Hey baby, let’s cut the bullshit.’ ” The actor smacked his fist into his palm, and his voice suddenly acquired a cold edge.

As Nicholson became a star, he remained more of an actor than most, taking on unglamorous roles—as a dull-witted Mafia middleman in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and a drunk in Ironweed. And he has collaborated with some of the world’s most brilliant directors, including Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni and Milos Forman.

After directing Nicholson’s Oscar-winning performance in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman was lavish in his praise. “You don’t direct Jack any more than you tell Wayne Gretzky where to shoot the puck,” he said.

Obsessive: As director himself, Nicholson encourages spontaneity in his actors. He explained: “I say,

‘Look, I don’t care if this scene says you jump up and grab him by the throat. If for some reason when that moment comes you want to roll up into a ball and throw yourself under the table, do it.’ Because we got the next take.” Nicholson has directed only three movies. Drive, He Said, his 1970 drama about a campus revolutionary, and Goin ’ South (1978), a farcical western, generated limited enthusiasm among critics and at the box office. By taking charge of The Two Jakes, he has put his own legend on the line. And as director and

star, he followed an exhausting schedule, what he described as “an unavoidable 20-hour day for three or four months.”

His obsessive work habits have made it difficult for Nicholson to settle down. When his marriage broke up, he was acting during the day and writing at night. “It was a high-minded marriage and a high-minded divorce,” recalled Nicholson, claiming that, in the end, they separated “for metaphysical reasons.”

Their daughter, Jennifer, 27, worked as an assistant art director on The Two Jakes. And he now has a new daughter, five-month-old Lorraine Broussard Nicholson. He says that he is helping to care for the baby, but not living with her mother, Rebecca Broussard. According to a recent article in Vanity Fair magazine, re-

ports of the affair last year angered Nicholson’s longtime companion, Anjelica Huston, with whom he was still involved. And at Christmas, another woman published tales of her sex life with Nicholson in Playboy. British actress Karen Mayo-Chandler, 28, called him “a nonstop sex machine” who is “into spankings, handcuffs, whips and Polaroid pictures.” Nicholson’s romance with Huston now appears to be over. But he refuses to talk about it, or any other aspect of his love life. “I think it is

obscene to discuss this in public,” he said.

Nicholson is more eager to discuss social philosophy. The actor claims that Americans have become slaves to the work ethic. “I’m still an Irish left-wing unionist,” he said. “I think the idea of jobs is to create leisure. The single most misunderstood word in the American lexicon is leisure.”

Fortune: More than rich enough to retire, Nicholson does not always practise what he preaches. He has just taken up golf, but has trouble finding the time to play—“They don’t have night golf,” he laughed. Trying to explain how he spends his fortune, he said: “You know, I live on it. I support a lot of people. I got a pretty good amount of it stashed up.” Some of it hangs on the walls of his house, where he has an impressive collection of paintings by such early modem masters as Matisse and Picasso. Perched above a ravine, the house on Mulholland Drive is modest compared with old-money mansions and new monster homes in Beverly Hills. And the actor has made a point of driving a car that he bought in 1972. But it is a Mercedes-Benz and, like the art, a collector’s item that has soared in value.

The interview was interrupted by an assistant on the intercom. Paramount president Frank Mancuso had arrived to talk about The Two Jakes. “Fabulous,” said Nicholson. “Now I got to fight for my movie.” He seemed to relish the prospect of a good debate: “I’ll either hold sway with the intelligence of my arguments, or I’ll be pulled by the intelligence of theirs.”

But, with the Paramount president waiting outside, Nicholson continued to talk—about art, honesty and the things that still seemed to matter to a man who is supposed to have everything. Finally, he made his way to the door. Up close, it could be seen that the faint stubble covering his face was grey. The jowls seemed thinner from fasting. But his eyes glinted with the uncommon energy of a star still determined to stay one step ahead of his own legend.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON