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A Most Unconventional Man

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Bob Rafelson has a unique view of mayonnaise.” Jack Nicholson explains in his inimitably oblique way what sets his longtime pal apart from all other filmmakers--no, from all other human beings. Nicholson should know: Rafelson, whom he calls Curly (he had thick, wavy hair in the old days), has directed him in some of his best roles, in movies such as “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972). Now the two have teamed up in the erotically charged thriller “Blood and Wine,” the third in this loose trilogy on dysfunctional families, male angst and the dissipation of the American Dream.

“Rafelson doesn’t work with studios,” Nicholson says, “and the material often offers a challenging role--not the kind of thing people usually want me to do. I resist cheap, sentimental direction. In ‘The King of Marvin Gardens,’ I played a paranoid intellectual who never smiled. Never smiled. In ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ he insisted I break down and even cry, somewhere, anywhere. He insists it’s the character who is making the demands, not him.”

An uncompromising perfectionist, the 62-year-old Rafelson refuses to placate studios and stars who interfere with his vision.

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“Jack suffers like all other movie stars, in that people want him to repeat what it is that the audience adores about him, a kind of rapscallion nature. I suppose one of the reasons why we tend to collaborate is because I say, ‘Let’s try something better, let’s try something different, let’s not have you play the same kind of guy.’ ”

So in “Blood and Wine,” which opens Friday, Nicholson is not much like the sexy, ever-smiling oil rigger/drifter from a patrician family that he played in “Five Easy Pieces” or the nerdy, unsmiling intellectual with a history of mental illness up against Atlantic City thieves and hustlers that he played in “The King of Marvin Gardens.”

His Alex Gates is a middle-class wine-store owner in Miami caught up in crises both male menopausal and economic in nature. Trapped in a marriage (with Judy Davis) and stepfatherhood (with Stephen Dorff) that have both gone sour, in over his head in an expensive affair with a sultry Cubana (Jennifer Lopez) and increasingly anxious from the fallout of a jewelry heist that has backfired, Alex allows Nicholson to stretch and display his full range of wares with little dialogue and lots of close-ups.

But make no mistake about it: “Five Easy Pieces’ ” Robert Dupea and “The King of Marvin Gardens’ ” David Staedler are as much precursors of Alex as they are consummate Rafelson creations. They are all men caught between two worlds and condemned to a solitary life search.

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The course of Rafelson’s own life isn’t too far from the wanderings of Robert and David--not to mention those of 19th century British explorer Richard Burton (Rafelson’s hero) in “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) and Nicholson’s transient ex-con in the 1981 version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“There is something about migration, and about the displaced American, and about the inability to grasp our own roots that is so elemental to our lives,” Rafelson says. “It excites my imagination, and it does seem to find its way into my work.”

During the two to three years between his films, Rafelson acts out his own wanderlust. “I disappear and go to places like the Amazon or India or Africa, most often to fairly hazardous places, and usually alone.”

Rafelson is unequivocal about his motivation. “I am very uncomfortable in the world that I live in, and terribly displeased by it. I confront it in rather personal and arduous ways, and do combat with it every day of my life.”

This might explain his attitude toward the strictures of the law. “I can assure you, there’s nothing that I have done, there’s no day in my life I can remember that has been spent entirely legally. I don’t know about your life, man, but I’m gonna break the law sooner or later today! Jaywalking. My septic tank is running over right now, and I’m going to hose it out. I’m not going to do it underground. And I might smoke a J or something.”

Not surprisingly, Rafelson has garnered a reputation as a bad boy on account of his frequent battles with executives, from the time he dumped everything on the top of ex-agent and future Universal head Lew Wasserman’s desk onto the floor back in their TV days in the late ‘60s to his well-publicized dismissal from the set of “Brubaker” in 1980 for allegedly assaulting Fox’s head of production.

“So much mythic energy has gone into me being this ‘monster,’ ” Rafelson says. “I did grab him, and I did let him go. But I did not hit him with 37 chairs; I did not break his head open with a steel ashtray, or any of the other things they had claimed I’d done. But they hired 77 detectives to follow me for over a year! It was quite sick. It was crazy. I suddenly had to live the life of a virgin.”

Rafelson sued the studio for breach of contract and slander, and won.

Of all the “counterculture” directors who emerged in the late ‘60s and ‘70s--Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Michael Ritchie, Hal Ashby--Rafelson is perhaps the most maverick of all, in his films and in his lifestyle. “Head,” his 1968 film co-written and co-produced by Nicholson that followed the Monkees (a band of amateurs whom he had already assembled for a TV show), is the best of the psychedelic-era movies. It is interior, a road movie of the mind. “Jack and I conceived of it as an acid trip,” Rafelson says. “Needless to say, we needed to do a certain amount of research.”

Then there’s the supercharged, provocative sexuality of his films. In “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Nicholson and Jessica Lange engage in sadistic lovemaking amid flour on a kitchen prep table. And there’s the lesbian eroticism between federal investigator Debra Winger and wealthy-husband-killer Theresa Russell in the 1987 “Black Widow.”

In “Blood and Wine,” Rafelson says he tried to put “erotic tension into every frame of the film, as opposed to, ‘Let’s have them get in bed. . . .’ I’d already done it in ‘Postman.’ ”

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The roots of Rafelson’s anarchistic spirit were already in place back in the ‘40s on New York’s Upper West Side. “I was one of those guys that took on all comers,” says Rafelson, who didn’t get along with his father and refused to go into the family textile business.

“I started leaving home at the age of 14,” he says. He hitchhiked and rode in boxcars to Arizona, where he worked the rodeo. He eventually went to Dartmouth, became a disk jockey while in the Army (he was court-martialed twice) and ended up working in David Susskind’s mail room in New York, which became his entree to TV writing and producing gigs.

“Head” bombed, but 1969’s “Easy Rider” marked a shift in his fortune and gave him the clout to make “Five Easy Pieces.”

Rafelson seems to have mellowed. He has had the same girlfriend, a “younger massage therapist” named Gabrielle Taurek, for the last five years. (Rafelson is still legally married to his wife of 30 years, Toby, a set designer; their son, Peter, is a rock ‘n’ roll composer.) And Nicholson says that Rafelson, known for a nearly maniacal obsessiveness on the set, has begun to shoot much more quickly.

“We started out doing 25 to 30 takes,” says the actor. “I told him John Huston shot everything in one, maybe two, takes. On the first day’s shoot, he sets up an elaborate shot--I’m barely getting into the role. Prints the first take. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Curly, what’s wrong?’ ‘I’m gonna Huston it this time.’ And he did. The thing about Bob is, he’s always changing.”


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