He's just being Jack

Published Feb. 21, 1997|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

(ran TP, GB editions)

So, what is it about this guy?

Jack Nicholson is smug, vexing, obscenely rich, sexist to the max. Easy call: By all rights, we should loathe him.

But we don't because Nicholson is also supernaturally talented, uncommonly insightful, the Super Glue of screen actors. Try disengaging your attention during one of his scenes. It can't be done.

Some people, the really fortunate ones, stumble into careers _ life roles _ for which they were engineered. Jack Nicholson, aging rebel with cause, admired artist with attitude, is such a person.

"One of the strange things about Nicholson," said Bob Rafelson, a longtime Hollywood friend and colleague, "is that you could write almost any script for a man his age and once you know he's cast in it, it seems perfect."

Rafelson directed Nicholson in Blood and Wine, filmed primarily in Miami and Key Largo.

Nicholson plays a randy wine merchant whose life is souring and who commits grand larceny with not-so-grand results. His accomplice is a safecracker, played by Michael Caine, the equally brilliant screen actor.

Friends for 30 years, they've never appeared on screen together until now _ and friends they remain.

"It was a wonderful experience," Caine said last week. "He's so uniquely talented as a movie actor, so easy to work with. He immediately becomes your partner."

At the age of 59, worth at least $150-million and probably much more, Nicholson can choose projects according to his whims. Look at his three most recent:

Tim Burton's offbeat Mars Attacks!, which features Nicholson as the over-the-top president and the way over-the-top casino developer. The commercial-by-design Evening Star, which Nicholson blesses with a lucrative cameo. And the somewhat artsy Blood and Wine, which he and Rafelson have been trying to make since 1992.

Nicholson says this is the kind of work he really wants to do, though it is hard to come by.

"This is a period when the market rules and they'd much rather finance a piece of crap that makes money than something worthwhile that might not . . .," Nicholson told the (British) Guardian last summer.

"I don't have to accept $15-million to appear in a movie where I have to say one line looking over my shoulder between a car crash and an explosion. I don't need the money and I don't need the aggravation."

Rarely deigning to be interviewed, Nicholson has no plans to promote Blood and Wine, according to the movie's publicists, who are not particularly pleased by this.

A film noir thriller, driven more by character than ordnance, the movie furnishes Nicholson with another canvas for another masterpiece. Obviously aging, hairline receding, a bit portly, he still hasn't lost a stroke.

His clear eyes sparkle with mischief and instantly narrow with that indefinable _ maybe-we'd-really-rather-not-know-it _ something just beyond. His voice rasps with cynicism and weariness. His eyebrows curve magnificently, twin arches that a British writer recently called "as iconically a part of American culture as McDonald's golden ones."

At one point, after Nicholson's character is established as a philandering ne'er-do-well, he observes dryly, somehow making the line seem fresh: "Only the good die young."

And now, as always, the moviegoer thinks:

Wait a minute. Is that the character speaking or is it Jack Nicholson? Is this guy a great actor or is he just being himself _ and if so, is his whole life a great act? And if his whole life is an act . . .

Okay. Okay. You get the point.

For the record, his colleagues and most critics say this is no act _ Jack Nicholson is a great actor. That's for real. (Still with us here?)

"You see someone with a star personality and that personality is always on the screen," Caine said. "But what he does is brilliant acting within that. It's a matter of nuance."

Nicholson won a best actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and was voted the best supporting actor for Terms of Endearment. He has been nominated 10 times. A panel of critics anointed him the most important movie star of the 1970s and '80s.

Among his movies: Easy Rider, which introduced him to most audiences, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Shining, Batman, The Witches of Eastwick, A Few Good Men, Hoffa.

Some good, some not so good, but they all had this: Jack Nicholson, one of the few actors (like Caine, Sean Connery, Katharine Hepburn and Morgan Freeman) who seem to elevate everything they're in.

Recent comments about him sound like the canned quotes they use in movie ads.

The Guardian: "He is the best film actor of his generation."

The Boston Globe: "Over the years, Nicholson's art has deepened and become more spare."

Jennifer Lopez, who plays Nicholson's mistress in Blood and Wine: "He's very giving. He makes you feel very comfortable."

Note to Lopez: Be careful. Don't let him become too giving. Don't get too comfortable. Nicholson has his, shall we say, idiosyncrasies when it comes to women. And they sometimes turn ugly.

We are willing to grant a certain degree of eccentricity to our creative artists. For one thing, they earn it. For another, it helps us rationalize why they get to do what they do and we get stuck doing what we do. They're different, that's why.

But Nicholson routinely plunges off the precipice of eccentricity, landing in the muck of near madness. Those sunglasses. That manic, fleeting smile. Those inexplicable encounters with women.

A prostitute has sued him, claiming he unmercifully beat her when she requested payment for services rendered. He has been accused of hitting another woman, rupturing her silicone breast implants.

He has been linked romantically to Sandra Knight, Anjelica Huston, Margaret Trudeau, Meryl Streep, Michelle Phillips, Diane Keaton and Karen Mayo-Chandler, who once described Nicholson as a "non-stop sex machine" who _ wearing fluorescent orange socks _ chased her around his house with a Ping-Pong paddle.

He has been engaged in an ugly court battle with actress Susan Anspach, a co-star in Five Easy Pieces, who claims Nicholson fathered her son. He wants her to pay $500,000; she wants him to pay $1-million. Trust us, you don't want to know anything else about this. Back to the movies.

Both Rafelson and Nicholson view Blood and Wine as the capstone of a trilogy that examines American families, a series they started with Five Easy Pieces and continued with King of Marvin Gardens.

"I didn't actually have Jack in mind when I began writing this movie," said Rafelson, who shares a credit for the original story. "This picture was conceived as a very low-budget film. Jack has become very successful, so I was looking for a surrogate Jack Nicholson, and there are not many of those."

He sought Nicholson's advice. Who should be offered the role?

According to Rafelson, Nicholson responded: "I don't know why you're looking around for someone else. I'm the best person to play this part."

Over the years, Nicholson has said that a lot. He has pretty much always been right.