Jack Mathews is The Times' film editor.

ABOUT midway through Jack Nicholson’s “The Two Jakes,” the long-delayed and much-anticipated sequel to “Chinatown,” private eye Jake Gittes finds himself on the defensive end of a one-on-one sexual fast break by the stunning widow of a man his client is suspected of murdering.

“Are you going to make me do it, Jake?” asks the feverish Lillian Bodine (played by Madeleine Stowe) in a voice that tells him exactly how to respond. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going to make you do it,” Jake says, his back to the water cooler in his office.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 09, 1990 For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 9, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4D Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In the profile of Jack Nicholson, “Jack, Laid-Back,” by Jack Mathews, the magazine misspelled the name of screenwriter John Herman Shaner.

But first, he needs a break. Some time to think about it. This isn’t the same young Jake of “Chinatown,” the impulsive ex-cop who stuck his nose out so far he almost got it cut off. Eleven years have passed since he got to the last act of that story of greed, incest and betrayal, and a lot has happened, to him and to America.

It is now 1948, and Jake is a decorated war veteran running a thriving business in boom-town Los Angeles. The years, the war and his memories have altered him; his face is as lined as a dry bean field, and a lot of good meals have come to rest just above his belt. Soaring domestic infidelity and a rich clientele of betrayed lovers are paying for a lifestyle that includes a membership in the exclusive Wilshire Country Club, dinners at swank Perino’s restaurant and the sleek gray Hudson convertible that gets him back and forth from his home in the hills to the Streamline Moderne headquarters of Gittes Investigations.


And now Jake is in a very interesting situation, facing not one but two conflicts of interest. Does he satisfy this woman he barely knows and risk the interests of his client? Does he stick around and get rug burns while his faithful fiancee dines alone? No prompting from the audience, please.

The answer is that after all these years Jake is still Jake. But that he hesitates at all is a sign--at least to the star and director of the movie--that he is no longer the hair-trigger guy he was before the war. Those years in Naval Intelligence have made him at least consider the consequences.

“The old Jake would have done it different, that’s for sure,” Nicholson says, with a grin that roars with mischief. “He’s a little calmer now, a little less quick to fly.”

“THE TWO JAKES"is called that because Gittes’ client and adversary is also named Jake. But the two Jakes that Nicholson talks about are the same guy a decade removed. The movie is laced with incidents like the one above, in which the changes in Jake are apparent but not remarkable. “I like that element of this film, that part of the story is told by how you have the characters change,” Nicholson says. “Gittes is still the same guy, but the fact that events have changed him is actually a literary element of the movie. This is not the same guy who jumped out of a barber’s chair and went nuts.”


When it’s pointed out that one key scene ends in a wild brawl, with Jake shoving a pistol in a cop’s mouth, Nicholson says, “Yeah, well, you can change some of your spots, but not all of them.”

Jack Nicholson, now 53, seems a little calmer, too, a little less quick to fly. As the director of “The Two Jakes,” he hesitated at the water cooler himself. He actually shot part of the lovemaking between Jake and Lillian, but the man who--on a breadboard with Jessica Lange in “The Postman Always Rings Twice"--gave the ‘80s one of its steamiest sex scenes, restrained himself and cut from Jake pondering his opportunity to the morning after he’d enjoyed it.

Friends who’ve known him throughout his career say Nicholson has mellowed, become more confident and assured, and Nicholson agrees. He says he’s more reflective about life and, in fact, worked a favorite theme of his--that the past can be neither shaken nor ignored--into Robert Towne’s script for “The Two Jakes.”

Nicholson makes no apologies and says he has no regrets, except for having been so open about his views on sex and drugs in interviews over the years. “I put a certain amount of effort into being a good interview because it was better for all of us,” he admits of that period when he courted his bad-boy image. “When you’re younger, you get so tired of these pat phrases. . . . It’s also another area of communications. I thought, ‘Let’s open it up a little.’ You can’t do that now; there’s too much misinformation out there.”


More than that of any other star, Nicholson’s off-screen personality seems to match the nature of his on-screen roles. The expressions, mannerisms, speech patterns--the way his lips purse and his eyebrows arch--are similar as well. There has been something both charismatic and aloof about most of the people he has played, an explosive charge that is both exhilarating to watch and fearsome to ponder. As a movie star, he has ignored conventional wisdom and taken supporting roles, then put vanity on the run by growing an ample paunch and allowing it to be shot in naked profile at the outset of a love scene (with Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment”).

Nicholson has created some of the most comic and most dramatic moments on film, often in the same movie, sometimes in the same scene. (Recall his tantrum when a bartender refused to serve underage seaman Randy Quaid in “The Last Detail”?). And the wild side that came through in his early interviews--his storied appetite for sex and pot, his aggressive iconoclasm, his humor--all added up to something irrepressible.

The actor and sometime director has lived his life in the public eye, at least during the 21 years since being vaulted into stardom by “Easy Rider.” His friendships, his long romance with Anjelica Huston and their recent parting, even his discovery a few years ago that the woman he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother and that his real mother was his older sister, June, have been played out publicly.

Now, Nicholson says he has matured in some of the ways that Jake Gittes did between “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes.” “Sure, I think there’s a parallel,” he says. “I think there would be a parallel with the majority of people. You get older, you do change.”


The thing that Jake comes to understand--that the past won’t go away--was Nicholson’s motto for the ‘80s, he says. “People used to talk about going to the Bahamas or some other exotic place to get away from it all. There is no away anymore. No matter where you go in the shrinking global community, you run into your past. Somebody will say, ‘Hey, I never expected to see you here.’ You’ve got to deal with it without running away.”

Nicholson is guarded about himself these days; he is much less the maverick. The iconoclast has become an icon, the personification of creative power in a town that reveres it, and though he drops bits of personal gossip into his conversation, it seems more an act of habit than intention. He brings up his 4-month-old daughter and her mother, actress Rebecca Broussard, and talks about his trips down the hill to see them, of how looking into the face of his own child “obliterates all the minor chords in life.” Later, when asked what the girl’s name is, he answers “Lorraine,” then snaps, “Doesn’t anybody want to talk about film anymore?”

So, if his life isn’t quite the open copy of High Times it once seemed, there are clues wherever you look. As he says, “Life can only be understood in retrospect; you can only get a picture of it when you look back.” Since Jake Gittes bears an admittedly personal stamp, is it fair to conclude that, when an actor has been in charge of his career as long as he has, he is inevitably the sum of his parts--and that Jack Nicholson is exactly who we think he is?

“Well, that’s fair in my case, as long as you realize I play a lot of deceptive characters,” he says. “I like the disguise element of the theatrical profession. But yeah, everything counts in the existential sense. What you choose to do has to do with who you are. If you saw my work and met me, you wouldn’t be shocked. You can certainly say that.”


NICHOLSON LIVES on the ridge of the Hollywood Hills in a house that has been described so often that it seems a part of his personality. It’s the middle house of three in a sloping, gated compound off Mulholland Drive. After you enter the front gate, the road forks twice, the first right leading to Marlon Brando’s house where, one night in May, Brando’s son Christian shot to death the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne. The next fork leads left to a house that Nicholson owns but leases to a prosperous businessman and right to the house of popular lore. It was here, while Nicholson was away, that director Roman Polanski had felonious sex with a 13-year-old girl, which led to his eventual flight from the United States.

The unremarkable split-level stucco house, built in the early ‘50s by an IBM executive with an architectural background, defies the millions it must be worth. The interior seems rumpled, well lived in, and though there is wealth in the artwork, it is hardly arranged for impact. On this particular evening, a lone Picasso rests on the hearth.

The view and the solitude are what attracted Nicholson’s attention 20 years ago, and the view and solitude are the reasons he says he stays. From the front of his house, the hills fall away to the floor of the Valley and to the mountains beyond; on the other side of the pool lies the L. A. basin, west to the ocean. The location has rooted Nicholson in what he declares the heart of paradise.

“If you laid L. A. out the way Manhattan is laid out, this is 55th and Fifth Avenue,” he says, holding his arms out. “This is dead center L. A. I’ve lived here a long time, and I haven’t any desire to move.”


Nicholson, like Randy Newman, loves L. A.: “Mad about it,” he says. He looks out over the rolling hills and watches the mists roll up the canyons. “When it’s pure white, it’s the regular stuff that makes L. A. beautiful. The desert by the ocean. I can’t look out my back window with the same degree of ocular naivete that I had when I moved in here. I know what’s out there, that mountain and that one and another that may be 12 miles beyond. People comically impugn the L. A. sensibility. They think it’s kookie. But it’s based on breadth. We have an open view of things that comes out of the topography.”

You can get a glimpse of Nicholson’s house in “The Two Jakes.” He used it for scenes set in Jake’s house. His and Jake’s tastes are similar in some respects; Jake loves L. A., too, which is the autobiographical element of the series that appealed to Nicholson.

Years before “Chinatown” was made, Nicholson and Towne planned a trilogy of mystery stories that would deal with the ecological milestones in Los Angeles--the scheme to bring in water from the Owens Valley, the draining of the oil fields beneath the city and the pollution of the air above. “Chinatown” took care of the water, and “The Two Jakes” deals with oil. But the third film, which was to have been set in 1959, will never be made because the series’ creative team--Nicholson and Towne--had a falling out over the making of the second one (see sidebar).

The air on this summer night is uncharacteristically clear atop Mullholland Drive. There is no mist, brown or white, and the valley floors on both sides are luminous. Inside, some unseen speakers are alternately pumping out progressive jazz and early Sinatra as Nicholson finishes off some thin brown liquid that is part of a diet plan that has him down to his lowest weight in a decade. Despite his diet and a physical regimen that includes mountain climbs near his second home in Aspen, he manages to go only 10 or 15 minutes between cigarettes.


Nicholson refers to key people in his life by their first names, and listeners have to sort them out in their own mental files. Some are obvious: friends and neighbors Warren and Marlon, former lover Anjelica. Others aren’t. John is the late John Huston, Mike is director Mike Nichols, for whom Nicholson worked in “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Fortune” and “Heartburn.” Rebecca is Rebecca Broussard, the mother of his new baby and also the actress who plays his secretary in “The Two Jakes.” Bobby is “The Two Jakes” co-producer Robert Evans. Robert is screenwriter Towne.

Most of these names pop up in connection with questions about problems with “The Two Jakes.” Nicholson would like to talk about the movie, which marks his third outing as a director, but in its refusal to show the film until these interviews were almost over, Paramount Pictures unintentionally forced the film’s tangled past into the foreground. “The Two Jakes” fell out of production five years ago when Nicholson, Evans and Towne failed to solve a creative crisis. And following reports that scenes were being reshot long after filming ended, the current version has had its release date shoved back from last Christmas to March and then to midsummer. It will open Friday.

Nicholson says the studio knew that Christmas was never a realistic target and insists that the film, which reportedly cost about $25 million, came in “perfectly on schedule and perfectly on budget. I think it’s the first (Paramount) film in four or five years to do so.”

The first thing that people are going to notice about “The Two Jakes” is how unflatteringly the director shot himself. Jake Gittes is heftier by about 30 pounds, and though the film is set just 11 years later, each of the 16 years that have actually passed are carved in the actor’s face. “I would have shot for the weight that I am now if I could have, but now I’m glad I didn’t,” he says. “I think it’s better this way. It says more about the difference. Jake was lean and mean then; he should be just a little comfortable now.”


The story of “The Two Jakes” is tightly interwoven into the fabric of “Chinatown,” which itself was an intricately plotted story. There are several flashbacks to the first movie, and a scene where Jake, his eyes brimming with tears, thumbs through a file of old photos and newspaper clippings reminds him (and us) of the way “Chinatown” ended, with Evelyn Mulwray (the Faye Dunaway character) being shot to death by police.

The sequel co-stars Harvey Keitel as the other Jake, a real estate developer who catches his wife (Meg Tilly) in flagrante delicto with his partner and kills him, a crime of passion that makes him both the sole beneficiary of the business and the chief suspect in what Jake thinks was a setup murder. But this is the easy stuff; the story also weaves its way through land-grant and mineral-rights records, the La Brea Tar Pits, gay bars--even Chinatown. The opening scene, in which Jake Berman’s doomed partner utters the name Katherine Mulwray (the illegitimate daughter of Evelyn and her dad in “Chinatown”), tips us to the long and winding trail that Jake will take us down.

Nicholson worries about the dense weave of his film but thinks it makes nice counterprogramming in a summer boiling with simplistic action films. “This movie children aren’t going to come back 10 and 11 times to see, so it’s out of the megagross category to begin with. (Studios) don’t want you to say this, but the fact of the matter is, this is a demanding movie; it requires the involvement of the audience. There aren’t a lot of popcorn stops in it. This is a real movie.”

Nicholson directed only two pictures before this one--the message-ridden 1972 counterculture film “Drive, He Said” and the 1978 Western lark “Goin’ South"--so critics will have little with which to compare his behind-the-camera work. Stylistically, Nicholson’s three films share very little, but people who worked on “The Two Jakes” say he was an assured leader on the set even though his storied geniality slipped occasionally into outbursts.


“He was incredibly serious about the work,” says Meg Tilly. “Sometimes he stayed up till 5 in the morning rewriting a scene and would get three hours sleep. I didn’t believe he would make it to the set. But when he did, he would give me more than any actor ever did and more than any director.”

Tracey Walker, a character actor who worked on “Goin’ South” and “The Two Jakes,” says it was a different Nicholson behind the camera this time out. “He is unquestionably more confident. He’s much more relaxed; it comes across.” If Nicholson has been influenced by anyone, it’s probably Michelangelo Antonioni, for whom he worked in “The Passenger.” Nicholson speaks in reverent tones about Antonioni, saying that the Italian director has even changed the way he views the world. “I’m dedicated to the man, I think he’s fabulous.” Nicholson says he’s considering a script that Antonioni wants to direct, but won’t make a decision about his next project until “The Two Jakes” is out and done with. “I want a real punctuation mark to this film. Then I can look ahead.”

Nicholson says the detective genre makes certain demands that take choice out of the director’s hands. “The classic style of most detective stories is to let the audience see what the detective sees. So we shot with a lot of camera angles from behind. I didn’t try to duplicate the look of ‘Chinatown,’ but they share a lot of similarities in that sense.”

Both films have the benefit of brilliant cinematographers--John Alonso on “Chinatown,” Vilmos Zsigmond on “The Two Jakes"--but the look of a film is the director’s choice, and Nicholson’s film looks much different from Roman Polanski’s. Perhaps because he is both director and Jake Gittes, he gives us a story that is told almost literally through the eyes of the detective. We look down his legs at his shoes, over his shoulder as he drives through town, through the viewfinder of his camera. If he had visited a urinal, the movie would have been X-rated.


HEADLINE WRITERS are going to come up with a lot of “Two Jacks” headlines for reviews of the movie--Jack the actor and Jack the star. But when you look at Nicholson’s life and career, you can draw several pairs of Jacks out of the deck. The pre-"Easy Rider” Jack and the post-"Easy Rider” Jack. The wild and crazy young Jack, the laid-back middle-age Jack. Jack the romantic and the Jack-of-all-babes.

Before “Easy Rider” in 1969, Nicholson was a B actor with a long list of credits in Westerns, horror films and biker movies. Since “Easy Rider,” he has been a superstar with his pick of projects. He went from almost nothing to almost everything in one extraordinary leap, and he remembers the precise moment it happened--midway through the premiere of “Easy Rider” at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.

“I had been to Cannes a couple of times before, and I knew that place like a guttersnipe,” he says. “I was a back-street movie hustler, and I could smell it when something really big was going on. I had been around long enough to know that while I was sitting in that audience, I had become a movie star. Nobody’s ever had that experience, I don’t think.”

Nicholson, who grew up in what are called “modest circumstances” in Neptune, N. J., moved to Los Angeles in 1954. “For the first year and a half, all I did was go to the beach, go to the track and shoot pool. It was great, just like home.” He soon became interested in acting and joined a class taught by Jeff Corey. Among his classmates were Robert Towne and two other future authors of Nicholson movies: Carol Eastman, who would write “Five Easy Pieces,” and John Shanner, who would write “Goin’ South.”


By the time of “Easy Rider,” Nicholson had appeared in nearly 20 movies, had written two screenplays himself and was signed to direct his first film. He says now that he didn’t consider himself a failure at that time--"any actor who has worked steadily for 10 years has achieved some sort of success"--but his career had dead-ended in a way that surprised even his friends.

“He was not that self-assured in the beginning,” says Roger Corman, who produced Nicholson’s debut film, “The Cry Baby Killer.” “He had that flamboyance from the beginning, but he was not convinced he would be recognized.”

“Jack went through an extraordinary period of failure when he was about 30,” says Bob Rafelson, a Nicholson contemporary who directed him in the 1968 “Head,” a film Nicholson wrote and which starred the TV rock group the Monkees. “He was co-starring, not being featured prominently. He didn’t believe he’d be discovered for his talents. I said, ‘Jack, the next thing I do after the Monkees will be with you.’ ” Sure enough, Rafelson’s next film, “Five Easy Pieces,” was with Nicholson. But by then, Nicholson was a superstar and Rafelson was the one who could use the help.

Once he had the power, Nicholson knew what he wanted to do with it--go to work for the best directors in the world. He starred in “Carnal Knowledge” for Mike Nichols, “The Last Detail” for Hal Ashby, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for Milos Forman, “Chinatown” for Polanski, “The Shining” for Stanley Kubrick and, eventually, “Prizzi’s Honor” for John Huston. He’s been nominated for Oscars nine times and has won twice (as best actor for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and best supporting actor for “Terms of Endearment”).


Even in those Nicholson movies that were badly reviewed, Nicholson came off well. The only time critics ganged up on him in any meaningful number was on the 1978 “Goin’ South,” in which he directed himself playing a bearded jackal who reminded a lot of the reviewers of a young Gabby Hayes. Almost all of his films have made money for their backers, and one of them--last summer’s “Batman"--hit the stratosphere, grossing more than $425 million worldwide and guaranteeing him a reported $60 million.

NICHOLSON HAS established a hefty body of work for critics and armchair analysts to examine: 27 movies since “Easy Rider,” and he chose the 27 he wanted to do. “Absolutely my choice, every one of them,” he says. “Since life tends to imitate art, I guess you could look at (the films) en masse, and it would be almost innately autobiographical.”

In some cases, specifically autobiographical. “Five Easy Pieces” was written for the actor by his former acting-school classmate Eastman, who captured his fascination with disguise. “What I liked about that film was that the character was posing as a hick rough-and-tumble worker who in fact was a concert pianist, and he just dropped the disguise in the middle of it. After ‘Easy Rider,’ a lot of people thought I was a Southerner. When the character goes home and drops that accent, that seemed autobiographical to me.”

It’s tricky business sorting through performances and trying to decide whether a characteristic was put there by Nicholson or absorbed by him. “Carnal Knowledge,” in which he portrayed a man obsessed with sexual conquest, had a lot to do with his reputation as a womanizer. “I knew ‘Carnal Knowledge’ was a risky character. I sort of was savvy enough to know that women weren’t going to like me for a year or two,” he says. “But doing things that other people didn’t want to do is a risk factor that’s been appealing to me in a lot of my choices.”


Nicholson denies any autobiographical link to that character but does admit that the philanderer he played in “Heartburn” had personal reference. “There’s something autobiographical in a man who might do something as heinous as buy a woman a bracelet while his wife is pregnant,” he says. “This may be grounds for execution in most people’s minds, but we wouldn’t have many men left if these executions were carried out. The rogue male is a character the audience just won’t buy. You can have a mass murderer get away scot free, but not some guy who’s (fooling) around.”

Apparently, there was real heartburn in Nicholson’s life when word of Broussard’s pregnancy got to Anjelica Huston, with whom he’d shared some sort of relationship for 17 years. In a recent Vanity Fair cover story, Huston talked about the pain of dealing with Nicholson’s philandering and of learning that another woman was having his baby. She also talked of the frustration of life in the shadows of two of Hollywood’s legendary men--Nicholson and her father, the late director John Huston. The three of them had teamed up for “Prizzi’s Honor,” a 1985 Mafia comedy that won an Oscar for Huston.

Nicholson takes credit for advancing her career, first by getting her a showy part in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” then by making “Prizzi’s Honor” happen by simply agreeing to star in it. Nicholson thinks the article left the impression that he was responsible for her years of professional unfulfillment.

“There’s a myth there, and I’m sure Anjelica’s not creating it,” he says. “I’ve somehow become a character who was repressive of her career. I may not have wanted to have been in an intimate relationship with another theatrical personality, true enough. However, with the great good fortune I’ve had in my career, I’d be the last person to tell someone who wants to be an actor not to.” Huston had no interest in responding further, but a mutual friend confirmed that “Anjelica said ciao to Jack” after learning about the baby.


In any case, Nicholson seems to be enjoying his role as a new father. “It’s the greatest experience in life,” he says, his lips curling at the corners. “I got that feeling when Jenny was born, but it’s even greater. I have less fears about life now than I did then.”

From 1961 to 1966, Nicholson was married to actress Sandra Knight, another classmate at Jeff Corey’s acting school. Jennifer, his 26-year-old daughter from that marriage, is now studying with Corey and has been working on films (including “The Two Jakes”) as a production-design assistant.

Jennifer says she has always been on great terms with her dad. She spends a lot of time with Nicholson, Broussard and the baby, who she says looks like her own baby pictures come to life. She says she’s glad her father’s life has been a public performance; reading about it depersonalized the events and eased the shock. “Everybody knows all the family secrets, so you’re not attached to them, and they don’t bother you so much.” And of his reputation as a ladies’ man? “He is a sweet and good man, and he knows how to treat a woman, and that includes me,” she says. “He has always treated me in a very feminine way.”

Jennifer, too, says she thinks her father is calmer now--but he’s never been as wild as people think. “That’s the question I always get: ‘Is your dad crazy?’ The answer is no, he’s not crazy, but he pretends to be.”


NICHOLSON’S professional and personal lives have revolved in large part around relationships that he established two and three decades ago. For an actor who has turned the rootless drifter into a signature character, he seems remarkably rooted. Same house for 20 years, same agent for 30, same publicist since “Easy Rider.” He says he never does favors for anyone, but talk long enough to him and “friendly decisions” pop up.

He turned down the role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” to appear in pal Rafelson’s “The King of Marvin Gardens.” Later, he let Warren Beatty talk him into playing Eugene O’Neill in “Reds” even though he felt ill-suited to the role. He agreed to play the network TV anchorman in “Broadcast News” because James L. Brooks asked him to, even though it involved a personal ban on roles that simply require Jack Nicholson the star. When Rafelson was removed from the film “Brubaker,” Nicholson helped ease the sting by immediately going to work with him on “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“People who are willing to fly with him find an incredible spirit,” says Mary Steenburgen, whose career was airlifted out of anonymity by her role opposite Nicholson in “Goin’ South.” “He has a mixture of modern and old-fashioned qualities. One of the old-fashioned ones is his dedication to friendships.”

Being a man of excess has its rewards: Money, cars, houses (Nicholson says “I own a lot of them” but refuses to elaborate), friends and as many dalliances as one needs to quench the fires below. So rootlessness doesn’t quite explain him. “I know the quality you’re describing,” he says, as the probing pushes his patience. “I’m a drifter, but I’m not rootless. I think what you’re calling rootlessness, I would just call being in flux.”


The movie that seems to connect Nicholson most closely with his personal roots is “Ironweed,” perhaps his least-seen work. The 1988 film, adapted by William Kennedy from his own novel, is about a former major-league baseball player who has become an urban bum haunted by his past. It is set in Albany, N. Y., in 1938, the year after Nicholson was born, and in it he plays a character with strong parallels to the man he still refers to as his father even though it has since been revealed that he was Nicholson’s grandfather.

“I always just called him Jack,” Nicholson says. “He was a great baseball player in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. I don’t know this firsthand, of course, but Ma always said he never took a drink until Prohibition was over. Then one day, after the firehouse baseball game, he got drunk on apricot brandy and never stopped drinking. Never, never stopped. He started drinking in his mid-30s and died in his mid-50s. I remember the first outing I ever went on alone with him was up to the Polo Grounds. I saw Mel Ott hit a home run. I saw Bill Nicholson, my namesake, park one. It was the Giants and the Cubs. We were both Yankee fans, but they weren’t in town. Yeah, ‘Ironweed’ was close to the bone.”

Things have brightened up considerably since “Ironweed.” Nicholson went from there to “Batman,” acting up a storm in the role of a man who was able to put a happy face on an acid bath, and to “The Two Jakes.” And while Robert Towne wrote the script, the star and director shaped it in his own image. Jake and Jack, homeboys in L.A. looking ahead with an eye to the past.

Yet there’s something about Jake that doesn’t square with Jack at all; it’s that 6 handicap at the Wilshire Country Club. There’s a scene in the movie where the two Jakes meet on a golf course and discuss business while having a tensely competitive match. When Nicholson’s Jake tees off, his swing isn’t grooved like a 6--more like a 36.


“I’ve only played a couple of rounds of golf in my life,” says Nicholson, adding that he’s taking lessons and getting serious about the game. “It’s going to become one of my main activities. It’s a divinely infuriating activity that teaches you patience and inner poise.”

That may be too much. A devil, an astronaut, a madman, a gangster, a drifter, even a network anchorman, OK. But Jack Nicholson a golfer? Nobody will believe it.

“You don’t think so?” he asks, breaking into that $60-million smile. “Well, that’s what I am.”