COVER STORY : Still Simmering Under the Shades : Jack Nicholson remains one of Hollywood's hottest actors and talkers. So, what, if anything, has changed? You might be surprised

Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

He blows into the room like he is casing the joint, eyes hidden behind his signature black Ray-Bans, his chortling grin half-cocked below. Jack Nicholson moves fast as he all but hurls himself onto the sofa and lights what will be the first of four Camel Lights he will smoke in the course of an interview conducted just hours before he heads to New York.

"Staff? Ah, staff, " Nicholson says, directing his remarks at Annie Marshall, his longtime assistant. "Matisse, Bloomingdale's and auction houses. Write that down."

At 55, Nicholson is, quite possibly, Hollywood's most powerful actor. He became a star with one film, "Easy Rider," in 1969. With "Five Easy Pieces" in 1970, he became a leader in the so-called New Wave of American film artists in the '70s. He worked with some of the best directors around--Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski, John Huston. He played leads as well as bit parts. He won two Oscars. Then, with his performance as the Joker in "Batman," he made more than $50 million and became not only one of the most influential but one of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood.

But even this runner stumbled. His two most recent films, "The Two Jakes," the sequel to "Chinatown," and "Man Trouble," were major disappointments. Nicholson, it seemed, was fast becoming known for his flamboyant off-screen life; after ending his 17-year relationship with Anjelica Huston, Nicholson is now the father of two young children by Rebecca Broussard, some 25 years his junior.

This month, Nicholson has two new movies--Rob Reiner's courtroom thriller, "A Few Good Men," which opens Friday, and "Hoffa," directed by Danny DeVito and scheduled to open Christmas Day. Both films carry strong word-of-mouth. But any suggestion that Jack is back is dismissed. "Comeback?" he says, raising his tepee-shaped eyebrows like feral quotation marks. "I don't think so."

And in an interview Nicholson presents himself as a man of unflagging appetites. He constantly crosses and uncrosses his legs, leans back, leans forward, catches his Armani-style sport jacket under him, wrestles it free and alternates cigarette smoking with an aggressive picking of his teeth.

Although he is less freewheeling in conversation than he has been in the past--maybe a nod to Oscar possibilities or deference to Hollywood's awareness of "family values"--Nicholson seems intensely comfortable with his unique position within the film industry and not above a few flashes of ego. Not the least of which is his penchant for evading direct answers by launching into rambling, discursive, almost bullying narratives--on acting, politics, philosophy--that keep you pinned to your chair even after they have long since lost their coherence, although not their entertainment value, until even he realizes he's lost his audience. Then the consummate actor leans back and squints a bit as he lights another cigarette and exhales the smoke with a little coiled laugh. "Listen, sugar, let me tell you what it's really like."

Question: For awhile it seemed that Jack Nicholson could do no wrong. You made all that money on "Batman" and then you went into "The Two Jakes" and "Man Trouble," two films that seemed ill-fated. Why undertake such risks at that point?

Answer: Those films were victims of what I call the post-literate generation. I've only had two movies that didn't open and both were destroyed in the press and didn't have a chance to open --"Two Jakes" and "Man Trouble." Only two. You can look at the record. Most of my films have done quite well. Obviously, not all did well but they all opened.

Q: So you think it's not the films but the current climate in Hollywood that is at fault?

A: I thought "Man Trouble" was charming, really charming.

Q: And "The Two Jakes," your third directorial effort, was largely dismissed. Did that hurt?

A: Not really. Once a movie opens I'm gone. I was gone, on to other things.

Q: What about directing again?

A: I like the job but I thought I wouldn't try it again out of fairness. I mean, I thought there wouldn't be a demand for me to direct again. But I get the occasional offer.

Q: Let's go back to the post-literate generation you mentioned. You've been outspoken in the past about Hollywood's proclivities for films influenced by television and incorporating a lot of violence. Is it worse now as the industry reaches for ever-younger audiences?

A: In a nutshell, it's the post-literate generation that is most disturbing to a movie-maker. The explosions and the knifings. People like to go to what's hot and you can't get past a certain gross unless you involve children who go more than once. You can't get to "Batman" (revenues) without the children. I have no disrespect for "Batman" audiences. I also don't have any illusions about it. But it's been a long time since we've had an alternative view. Look, I worked as a producer very early on and I talked to the Philistines. "We like the movie, Jack, it's not that we don't like it, but it doesn't pay for us to distribute it."

Q: The influence of TV on films has been a pet peeve of yours.

A: It's the cancer of film. It's why people can't be educated to film. In the late '60s, we expected to see a movie or two every week and be stimulated, excited and inspired. And we did. Every week after week. Antonioni, Goddard, Truffaut--this endless list of people. And then comes television and home video. You're anachronistic when you know that your feelings aren't going to have any effect on anything. I know how to work exactly for the big screen, but it doesn't matter what I think about the art of movie-making versus TV.

Q: You really consider yourself an anachronism?

A: Look, I've tried to not enter into this generational warfare but there are a lot of people in the Hollywood community who are up there in their 70s and 80s and rightly or wrongly, they've always considered me a sensible young person and they ask me, "Are people getting worse? Am I wrong or are people getting worse?"

Q: And now you have to agree that this younger generation is getting worse?

A: Well, I don't like their attitudes about movies, let's put it that way.

Q: So, how do you choose a role today? You've led a fairly iconoclastic career mixing up lead roles with some minor supporting characters.

A: The first role I ever played I had the lead and it's pretty much stayed that way, though people take great relish in calling me a character actor, which I am. There are a lot of short parts I could play, but I only do them when they are like this ("A Few Good Men"), central to the idea of the movie. This part I chose because of the people involved, I liked them. And there are short parts that I as an actor am very right for. Or I just like the part. Or you need someone like me for the movie. By that I don't mean at the box office, I mean in the execution of the material. So when it's very right, I'll tend to say OK.

Q: But as an older actor, do you feel that there are fewer roles you can play that will appeal to a general audience? Most actors of your generation--Hoffman, Beatty, Redford--are struggling to maintain their appeal.

A: Well, by definition there are fewer roles when you get older. But look, I knew that "Ironweed," a movie about the expiation of sin, would not appeal to a general audience. But that doesn't mean it isn't a fine movie. There are many things that I would like to still do.

Q: Such as?

A: If I do continue to work--see, if I do, and I think I work more than anybody in my position--there are a couple of things. Like I'd like to take the middle-aged actor into real steaming sensuality. I think there is room for it. That's the kind of structural things you look at after awhile.

Look, there has long been a bemoaning of the lack of opportunity to make films that are anything but explosions or the ladling on the pea soup or whatever you want to call it. You can hardly make a movie today where somebody isn't a murderer or a rapist or, if it's a "Fried Green Tomatoes" that isn't some wistful thing on this, that or the other thing. And frankly, there is the whole generation who doesn't know from movies, who've been growing up in never-never land in terms of movies and everything else.

Q: Are you talking about the twentysomething generation or studio heads?

A: Anybody (who's come of age) in the past 13 years has lived under the only time since I've been alive where there is less freedom than there was a week before. Freedom in every sense but primarily political sense, a rise in repression that stems from a repression of sexuality. It's AIDS, it's herpes, it's this, it's that. Ask any saloon owner what's happened to social life in America in the past 12 years and they'll tell you it's a different world and these people are strongly misinformed by the media, peer pressure.

Q: Misinformed about what exactly?

A: Well, sex for one thing. Which, since I've been an artist since the '50s, has been the prime mover in the psychology of the world. Look, I've been very happy saying, "Oh, you can say anything grim you want to say but the way I see it we're doing better day by day." This is the way I had felt. Now people are living with the fear of (dying). There is just less (personal) freedom. Hey, this is the first time in my life when there are things that I won't say in public. I've spent my whole life a certain way and I'm dying to put my finger on the next lie but I'm afraid to talk about it anymore.

Q: Why is that?

A: Just is. (He laughs.) Look, America is all jacked up about family values now and what do you think that I have to say about that?

Q: Oh, so now we come down to it--the longtime advocate of legalized drugs and the father of what are technically two illegitimate children. . . .

A: No, it's not coming down to it. It's everything we've just talked about. Look, I could say something, but I've said so many different things that I wish I hadn't and they've had an enduring negative effect because people don't know me. I'm an actor and it's not like a Jekyll-and-Hyde type thing but there are a lot of misapprehensions about me. If you are lucky enough to have a career as an actor, it becomes vital to save your own life inside that.

Q: Hence kids and your life, albeit unconventional, with Rebecca Broussard.

A: Having kids is the most innately positive thing that anyone can do. That's the main thing I think about these days but one of my new vows is not to talk about my personal life in public. But that's always difficult.

Q: Does Jack Nicholson carry pictures of his children in his wallet?

A: No. (He laughs.) But for the first time in my life I do have pictures of my children all over my house.

Q: How does it feel to be a father at 55? You said you hated turning 50.

A: Well, I hated that because I hate easy categorization about this and that and why this is so.

Q: But turning 50 punched through that?

A: Brought me to my knees.

Q: So do you think about a time when you would stop working?

A: All the time. Especially now. But I would never say, "I'm retired." I believe if I decided to just not work, in six months everybody would just forget whether you were working or not.

Q: Where are you now in your own eyes? Is your career making a comeback?

A: Coming back? (He laughs.) No, I'm not coming back. I know what you mean but I don't look at it that way. Peaks and valleys, yes, but coming back? I don't think I've been anywhere. It sure doesn't feel that way. I've been working like a storm trooper.

Q: Let's talk about money for a moment. You are one of the richest actors in Hollywood and there is one school that says inflated salaries are contributing to a conservativism on the part of studios. Another school says that is due to the studios being owned by conglomerates, some American, some Japanese, and their emphasis on quarterly profits.

A: Let me just say there has never been a time--and I started in 1955--that you didn't hear some kind of lament somewhere. But right now, yes, that does seem to be true. Which is another reason why I jumped into these two new films, because it's hard enough to squire a movie with its own (less commercial) sensibilities through the process.

Q: Let's make the question more personal. You refuse to cut your asking price.

A: No, I haven't cut my price. Movies cost what they cost. I looked at a budget the other day, $28 million and that was scale.

Q: Even when everyone is screaming about out-of-control budgets, you refuse to come down from your fee, which is said to be around $10 million plus a percentage of the gross?

A: Baby, that's what they said at $6 million. (He laughs.) Let me put to it to you this way: They won't pay it to you if you ain't worth it. Period.

Q: But your rationale was always based on the fact that your films, even if they weren't all hits, made money. But that changed with "The Two Jakes" and "Man Trouble," so now you. . . .

A: I've never felt bad about it. Because first of all, the minute they got me (in a film), at least 200 people made their living for a year. So how can I feel bad about it? And secondly, I've had the same deal without exception since "Five Easy Pieces"--that I am a primary gross participant. There are very few movies of mine that haven't paid me more through (points and ancillary deals). So the movies earn it themselves and in my view they (the studios) haven't paid me a nickel.

Q: Certainly your infamous "Batman" revenues boosted that equation into legendary proportions. Did you see that coming with all the ancillary licensing?

A: They (Warner's) didn't! They didn't! They would never have given me that deal. I was the one who told them how much it was going to gross. (More laughter.) Hey, they didn't even ask me to do "Batman Returns." Never even came up. You think they want to give me all that money? But hey, they honorably lived up to it. I had to go down and do a little checking here and there but that's only understandable.

Q: Some people wonder why, with all that money, you keep working so much.

A: People said that to me a long time ago--"You're working so hard and you've made so much money." Well, I'll tell you when I've got it. I've never had any financial support, I've only borrowed money once in my life and I have a very fearfully conservative idea about when I'm fine. One of my early quotes in this area was I don't care how many zeros are on the check, if you're working for the check you're living at subsistence level. Also, one of the first things you become aware of is that a million bucks won't see you through a major health crisis.

Q: Is that something you worry about?

A: I'm a well-rounded person, so I'm aware of anything that might be of concern to me. But hey, by now, I know I can't hide. I'm fairly well off. I can't poor-mouth that away from people's sensibilities about me, which is something I worry about as an actor. But it would be real stupid of me to do something for the money.

Q: OK, let's talk about these two new films. It's turning out to be Jack Nicholson's year. Why two movies and why these two?

A: I wasn't going to work much at all (after) "Man Trouble." I was on the first vacation since "Two Jakes" and then Dan (DeVito) called and wanted to come to New York with the "Hoffa" script and I said, "Don't do that. I will read it on the plane." Which I had to do because of Danny. And Mamet's script was great and the next morning Danny's standing on my porch and I really couldn't say no. And since when I'm working, I'm working and it doesn't matter if I'm doing nine movies or one movie because I am not a free man, so when Rob (Reiner) called me (about "A Few Good Men"), and after we figured out their dates and there was room for it, it all fell into place. Also, they're both great parts.

Q: You've said that you like to play "cusp characters," roles that are perched on the edge of the Zeitgeist--George Hanson in "Easy Rider," Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" and so on. Can the same be said about your decision to play these two characters--Marine Col. Nathan Jessup and former union leader Jimmy Hoffa?

A: I try to choose roles that way, but it's not always the case. You choose films really more than parts, choose a director, or they choose you. Yeah, I can make a cusp case for both of these, but really they are both iconoclastic anachronisms.

Q: How so? Because both men, despite appearances, are really antiheros, anti-Establishment characters, which you have specialized in?

A: I don't think about it as Establishment and anti-Establishment. (He laughs.) Although certainly there are underpinnings of that in Jessup. I think one of the great character positions in most dramas is the guy like Jessup who thinks he's doing everything right and it's all wrong. In my own life, I find myself supporting people like that, people in no-win situations. For Jessup, a commanding officer in the Marine Corps, you're sending people off to die--that's a no-win situation. That's why you have to admire the military, ah, sect. (More laughter.) I say that but I have a lot of friends who are Marines and I wouldn't do the part if I didn't think I could please this peer group, so to speak. And I guarantee you the Marines will see this guy differently than the average person.

Q: In a way, Jessup is sort of an Ollie North character, isn't he?

A: Well, Tom's character (Cruise plays a Navy lawyer) senses that this is a guy who doesn't like to lie and that's how I looked at it--that Jessup doesn't think that he has done anything wrong. He's in the midst of a cover-up, but it's a military court martial and I'm sure he left there thinking they're just candy asses.

Q: You had three scenes in the film. Was it difficult to establish a character in that amount of time or did it help that the film is based on Aaron Sorkin's Broadway play, which was about a real military incident?

A: To tell the truth, I didn't know it was a play until I talked to Rob. But (Jessup) is based on a real character and on the set they had these two Marine generals who knew this guy and knew what happened to him. But it was a hard job because he does all the talking in those three scenes. I always say in interviews that film acting is different from stage acting and when you get scenes like those, you couldn't play through the entire production at the intensity that I can play them for two weeks. I was quite spent at the end of those two weeks.

Q: How was Rob Reiner as a director? I think some audiences will be surprised to discover that a TV sitcom actor whose biggest directing credit, until now, is the comedy "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," pulled off a courtroom thriller.

A: Well, I'm at the age where this starts--I've known Rob since he was a child. But I'm also probably one of the first people who saw "Spinal Tap," so no, I'm not shocked. He has a very sure hand and I was there at the beginning of the shoot when the hard edges usually show up and there weren't any. Also, like Dan, he's an actor, so it makes it easy for actors. A lot goes in shorthand. Other than the actual energy and difficulty of playing the part, (there) was walking into the first rehearsal and everyone scurrying to their seats when the old guy came in. (He laughs.) Afterward I told him, "Rob, it was so strange I felt like the (expletive) Lincoln Memorial." I blushed actually.

Q: How was it working with Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise?

A: Well, I figure a lot of angles when I go to work. For instance, I think they had to make room for me in the financing of the movie and I think Tom contributed to that. I could be wrong. I've known Kiefer casually, and I'd run across Kevin and Demi. And that Lincoln Memorial feeling, which was the main piece of awkwardness for me, disappeared because of the requirements of the role, taking command and so forth. So you use that.

Q: And how was Tom? He carries top billing on the film and from what I've heard about the two of you, you sound like two very different people.

A: I did think that Tom would jump up, that the demands of this part would jump him up and that's good for a picture when a known actor does something a little bit past what he's done before--that releases a lot of energy for the audience. I think Tom would be very disappointed if he got himself pushed to a point where he was playing only straight romantic leads. Sure, that's where the money is, but I remember reading this somewhere about him--or maybe I just ascribed this to him--that he wanted to have a career that lasted and had variety not unlike, you know. . . .

Q: Oh, shall we name anyone?

A: Me!

Q: OK, so you worked for two weeks on "A Few Good Men," and then you went right into "Hoffa"?

A: Then I went into my haircut and makeup for "Hoffa." That's what I liked about playing Hoffa was that there was very little makeup: one front tooth, a very small, although it changes me a lot, nose piece, and various wigs and that's it.

Q: Well, that and a lot of research, no doubt? There are so many myths about Hoffa--his ties to the mob, to Cuba, to the Kennedy assassination--and David Mamet's script is a blend of fact and fiction.

A: I looked at endless tapes, a lot of books. We also shot in the towns that Hoffa worked in and there are a lot of people still living who knew Hoffa. I met his son, for instance, and I talked to the prosecuting attorneys in both cases where Hoffa was tried.

Q: You've never played a real-life character before and now you decided to tackle one of the most controversial figures in American history.

A: There are some parts that you say, "I could play this and I sort of know how." And then there are some parts--and Hoffa is one--where you say, "Jesus Christ, look at the size of this. It's like a huge mountain." You know you will do it but you don't know if you can exactly, because you don't know how exactly. This part had that. It's not a biography, it's a portrait and there is a difference and because no one really knows what happened to Hoffa, it gives you license to do a lot of guessing with other things too.

Q: DeVito has stated several times that he considers Hoffa a national hero, but many people, including (columnist) Murray Kempton and Steven Brill (author of "The Teamsters"), considered him an amoral thug.

A: That's right, that is most people's impressions. And when Hoffa got out of jail he did an interview with (Dick) Cavett where he said, "Yeah, most people think of me as just a thug," because that was the level of the public relations attack on him. Look, most people think of me as an absolute nut, willing to jump off a building or whatever. In my case, I'm trying to separate my (personal) life from my (public) work, but with Hoffa, there was a very vested interest in creating an impression about him that was less than positive. He was president of the biggest union at a tempestuous time when management would hire every gangster and thug as strikebreakers. And in New York, you can't run a strike without knowing (Mafia members).

Look, I'm not saying this is the gospel of the world, but I understand it and in terms of what he did for labor, Hoffa is a hero. The day he died, 85% of the Teamsters would have re-elected him and that was always his rationale, that he didn't have to please anybody but the union and he had no respect for those guys who he thought were selling the unions out to Congress.

Q: I understand the film takes a very specific and possibly controversial point of view in regards to Hoffa's relationship to Bobby Kennedy. Isn't this about class conflict?

A: I have a certain amount of license in my job as an actor to have an inside interpretation. But remember, this is a guy who was dealing in Washington at a very high level when he meets Kennedy, whom he honestly thought of as a pipsqueak who couldn't get a job without his brother's help. Hey, Hoffa died because he didn't think he had any enemies. That's why he didn't have any bodyguards, why he went to that last meeting. He didn't think he had done anything wrong. That's why he didn't fear anybody. I've read all the research--not all, but a lot--and in my own research it was a vendetta in the classic sense. Hoffa watches this guy who he's humiliated go from pipsqueak to Attorney General where he gets a 300-to-400-man task force trying to nail him. Hey, you ever been in court? Let me tell you, it's like going into an operation, anything can happen. (He lights a cigarette.) Dubious. Let me tell you, those convictions are dubious.

Q: And the rumors about Hoffa's involvement in Kennedy's assassination, and gun-running to Cuba?

A: A total lie. I don't believe any of it.

Q: Who murdered Hoffa?

A: Well, I don't know. Nobody knows. I don't think he's going to show up at the opening. There's a lot of theories. One of them is that the mob would never do it because it brought 400 federal agents into the Midwest and (a lot of mob members) wound up in jail and died there. As an actor, the script takes a supposition that I have to go with.

Q: Which is what? That Robert Kennedy had him killed?

A: Well, Chuckie O'Brien (Hoffa's right-hand man and foster son, and the model of a character played by DeVito in the movie), the last guy who saw Hoffa alive, said he saw him with government men. Now, what do you think government men look like?

Q: All right, let's take another tack. Going back to your interest in making movies on the cultural edge, is this film designed to portray Hoffa as a hero for our time?

A: Well, you hope to do some good with every movie. And this in general terms is in support of the labor movement. But I always work obliquely. I haven't been, to date, somebody who does (a movie) right to the issue. I don't want to do a movie right now about the (recent Los Angeles) riots or something like that and I certainly don't want to do something about what caused the riots. Because my point of view, while extremely cogent, is unpopular.

Q: Which is?

A: That the repressive nature of the legalities vis-a-vis drugs are destroying the legal system and corrupting the police system. Only Bill Buckley and I are for legalizing drugs. Strange bedfellows. But there is no other way. You can't solve this problem unless you take the economic factor out of it.

Q: Let's talk about acting for a minute. You said once that it takes 20 years to make an actor and then at that point you have to start working on maintaining a certain naivete. What did you mean by that?

A: It takes 20 years to get to a point for you to count--to others and to the work itself. There is just a lot to learn and a lot to accomplish. As for the naivete, I meant you've always got to do it today, there is no carry-over (from one part to the next). You have to keep the fearlessness to remain open, no matter what else is going on around you in those minutes you're acting. That requires a kind of naivete. I don't want to know too much.

Q: I saw you working on "Batman" in London. You seemed to enjoy wearing a purple suit dangling from a gargoyle and screaming with laughter at just the camera. Is that your ideal working condition?

A: I like working the way you saw me, just a bunch of guys with hammers who have seen it all. That's the way a film is made. It's not about exhibiting anything. I'm very happy when the day is done and I can go home and be an exhibitionist as much or as little as I want. I like being detached from the end result of the film. It's part of the craft of it. I've always said that movie acting is harder than stage acting. No one could play Hoffa on stage for three hours. The amount of energy that's telescoped. They'd die. Also, in film you have to see your work yourself. In the theater, you give a rotten performance, 12 people say it's great. But in film, the mind knows this--or at least my mind knows this--"Ah, I'm going to have to see this." And I've done a lot of film editing and I know that a minimum, that at least half of what you do every day (on a shoot) stinks like the worst that it could be.

Q: Because you've played so many, shall we say angry young men and now angry middle-aged men, I get the feeling that you have some real affinity for those men, or perhaps it's an actor's need to recede into that strong emotion and then blast away at people with it. Does that make sense?

A: Yes, it does. I don't know if that's true with everybody, but in my case--I don't know what word you just used--but yes, in my life I'm non-confrontational or not as confrontational as what I could be. (He laughs.) So I like having a place where I can do that.

Q: So if you decided to give up acting that would mean giving up that artistic, psychological, whatever outlet.

A: I don't like to be told what to do. It's central to my nature, period. It's a problem with parents, school, a problem everywhere I worked. It's a problem as an actor, and it's a problem (at home) at night, I'm sure. But as an actor, nothing is more demanding except the military and even that has more slack in it than the profession of the actor. You are constantly told where to be, what time to get up. Your mother dies, that don't matter, it's 3 o'clock and you have to be on the set. That's the nature of the life. And now that I've spent X amount of time in that situation and I'm separated from my life by the demands of the job, well, there is a yearning to not have that on you anymore.

Q: But you must feel ambivalent about that at this point in your career. No doubts about any of this?

A: Look, I'm one of the very few people who can do what he wants. Other people, they earn, they do X-Y-Z amount of things and then they get to try to do something else, and if that succeeds, OK. I, on the other hand, and this is by design, have always played different things, because I don't want to be in that trap as an actor. I want to feel, and I do feel, that I can play anything.

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