As Funny as It Gets?
Upstairs at Chasen’s, in the Jockey Club bar where men can smoke cigars and eat chili, Jack Nicholson and James L. Brooks are doing both. Seated in an ornately brocaded booth in the late afternoon light that will soon be gone, the two Hollywood long-ball hitters lob compliments at each other through the pungent haze, jog back through the mists of fable, laugh, kid, ponder and take stock of their unordinary lives as a reporter tosses questions on the table between them. They have just finished the last arduous tinkering with “As Good as It Gets,” their first movie together since “Broadcast News” in 1987 and they are not waiting any longer to exhale. (The movie opened Tuesday.)
“For instance,” says Nicholson, who is wearing a smart wool sport jacket with knit polo shirt underneath, “after the first preview, he calls me--this is typical Jim stuff--and I say, ‘OK, how did it go, buddy?’ He says, ‘Well, all right. We got great scores, you’re higher than Gump and they just laughed and laughed and laughed. And I said, ‘God, man, that’s great.’ And he says, ‘It’s too funny.’ I said, ‘Jim, it’s a comedy.’ He says, ‘No, they’re laughing too much.’ And I thought, ‘This is who I’m workin’ with.’ ”
Brooks, dressed in a black turtleneck and camel-hair blazer, appears to be in a good mood, although the director, famous for his award-winning anxiety, reminds you that caution and worry are never far away.
“I finished the picture on Wednesday,” Brooks says, referring to the final adjustments made in the editing room, “so some of the exhaustion is happening now. Everything on this picture, you turn it this way and a leg falls off.”
“As Good as It Gets” is an unusual comedy in which Nicholson is cast as a nasty, selfish, obsessive-compulsive Manhattan loner (a romance novelist, as it happens) whose flamboyant insults aimed at anyone in his path are nonetheless amusing--except to those receiving them. Melvin, the writer, is drawn out of his anti-social cocoon by a slow-building interest in the only waitress in town (Helen Hunt) who will put up with his crazy culinary demands and by a most unlikely alliance with a gay artist neighbor (Greg Kinnear) who needs a helping hand after he is nearly beaten to death by a gang of young thieves. The neighbor has a dog that needs walking. Melvin hates dogs and hates gays.
It’s a story with a swerving, elusive tone, which Brooks is the first to admit. He wrote the screenplay, with Mark Andrus, and during production struggled to find the right blend of humor and pathos. “This was not like somebody directing a picture who said, you know, ‘This is the way this scene is, let me explain the scene to you.’ Because a lot of the time, I didn’t know. And the only thing I could do was say I didn’t know, so I became a naysayer more than I ever have--saying, ‘No, that’s not it.’ ”
“I asked for more help before we started,” Nicholson says, “which I never have done before. I said, ‘Jim, you might have to help me more on this picture than you’re used to.’ ”
Nicholson is no stranger to characters who manage to combine explosive sarcasm and charm--in fact, the blend might be his special gift--but Melvin is in a whole other universe of ugly. Nicholson says he had serious doubts about taking the role, even to work again for the man who directed him to an Oscar in “Terms of Endearment.”
“I knew this was a very different part for me. I think Jim and I had an early conversation where we discussed, both of us, not being absolutely sure I was the right actor for this part. We did it quietly like collaborators do, so we didn’t make any waves, but we addressed that issue. It was not an easy one.”
There was the age thing, for starters. Some viewers might think Nicholson, at 60, is too old for Helen Hunt, 34, despite the real-life information that he is the father of two small children whose mother, Rebecca Broussard, is the same age as Hunt.
“The obligatory love interest for the middle-aged leading man is a cliche of the movies that I don’t like as a member of the audience and am always a little offended by,” Nicholson says. “So of all the people who would be worried about that. . . . But Helen disarmed that at the first meeting, and I stopped thinking about it.”
“I think she did it at the first meeting,” Brooks says.
“I think,” says Brooks, “she turned to me in front of him and said--she talked about a certain. . . “
That she’d go out with him?
“Like a shot, yeah,” says Nicholson, flashing that mile-wide smile.
“But I obsessed on this,” says Brooks. “For a while I thought Helen wouldn’t be possible to cast because of this.” Hunt was considered only after “Broadcast News” star Holly Hunter turned the part down. “I said, Jack’s got to be three to four years younger than he is in life, that’s legitimate. . . “
“I failed at that,” Nicholson says, his eyelids drooping.
“And she has to be three to four years older.”
“She succeeded,” Nicholson says.
“And the picture must acknowledge the difference. We don’t pretend it’s not there.”
“As a young man,” says the guy who was 32 when he played the dope-smoking lawyer in “Easy Rider,” “I used to think of it as a kind of phony thing and promised myself I wouldn’t be one these old dudes who somehow deludes himself that these people are legitimately attracted to you. Yet in some marginal way I have done that job on myself.”
As to his esteemed reputation, he says, “People are all the time going ‘Uhhhh, Jack, uhhhhh, America’ and all this stuff, and I watch every week 15, 20 actors and actresses that ain’t 25 yet that I’m lookin’ at and thinkin’, ‘God, man, I wish I could do that.’ I mean, it’s an honest view. I’m not minimizing.”
“Everybody talked very boldly to everybody else on this picture. Little diplomacy,” says Brooks, getting back to the shoot, which stretched out over a year because of Hunt’s television schedule on “Mad About You.” “People said things straight out. And it didn’t make things any easier because some of the stuff we said to each other was tough to hear, tough to say.”
“I said some horrible things,” Nicholson says. “Remember, I’ve asked for his help, he’s giving it to me, and I look at him and say, ‘I hear what you’re asking for, but all you ever [expletive] do is ask for something, you’re not giving me [expletive].” He looks over at his director to recall the moment and says calmly, “It’s the nature of the piece.”
Brooks comes back with, “I swear to you, this is the truth, that some of the times where he had an idea for doing something a certain way, which I thought somewhat secretly was the worst idea I ever heard, just chilled my blood and I thought would bring the movie to ruin and I know I had ideas that chilled his blood, some of each of those are in the movie. I promise you.”
Always nice to know how the pros do it.
Maybe you expect Jack Nicholson in person to carry the volatile possibility of someone capable of clearing a cafe table top with his forearm as he did in “Five Easy Pieces” or tossing a peeing mutt down an apartment house garbage chute as he does in “As Good as It Gets,” not to mention shattering your windshield with a five iron if you cut him off in traffic. But the man who plays Melvin and is sitting here now seems purely an entertainer, though earthy and irreverent and ungrammatical (“Helen, she don’t act that way”).
Mainly he is funny, about himself, Hollywood and the new movie, whose title he insists facetiously (well, who knows for sure) he tried to persuade Brooks and TriStar to change to a phrase that describes female sexual arousal and would also have become a climactic line in the film between Melvin and Carol, Hunt’s character.
“I feared for his sanity if he was serious about this,” says Brooks. “And he delivered it real and kept it up.”
“Wait a minute,” Nicholson says. “I actually got the line looped. And I know Helen Hunt’s people would have loved this.”
As he listens to Nicholson go on, Brooks slumps back in the booth, quiet, suppressing a laugh, then not. He has heard it all before. The two, both Jersey boys, met when Brooks cast him as the aging astronaut in “Terms of Endearment” in 1982. “I won an argument, long before I knew Jack, long before I came anywhere near doing movies, or much else, about who was the best actor in the United States,” says Brooks, who was once a staff writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and then created “Taxi.” “And I don’t want to say who the other finalists were, but I won by saying that Jack could play either role in ‘The Odd Couple.’ And everybody conceded the point, and I won the argument. It’s one of the few clean wins I’ve ever had.”
Nicholson likes this story and when the laughter at the table subsides, he says, “Me, too.”
“When we were doing ‘Terms,’ ” Brooks says, “he used to come up to me and say, ‘You want to know what the worst direction you gave today was? You want to know what the best direction you gave today was?’ He used to say this to me! This was Jack Nicholson, man. I was directing my first picture and suddenly I have this guy saying stuff to me.”
“There’s no one in Jim’s class as the writer of a screenplay,” Nicholson says, to hit a positive note. “Every time I work with him, I feel, jeez, I hope I can be as good as the script.”
“You’re intimidated,” Brooks goes on. “Just think what that was like. And remember, at that time, anybody from television was really a leper. That was before anybody crossed over. But he did say to me right in the beginning, ‘You can say anything to me, don’t worry how you put it, don’t worry about sounding stupid.’ And I took him at his word. That was my baptism.” Brooks, of course, won the Academy Award as best director for the picture.
The two say they are joined at the hip artistically, but they appear quite different men. If Nicholson, who looks none the worse for 60, is the very model of how to succeed by keeping your head and spirits high and the hell with everything else, Brooks, 56, cannot mask his brooding nature, his driving compulsion to understand everything and get everything right.
He only makes a movie every three or four years, and the last time out he did not get everything right, to judge from the box-office returns of 1994’s “I’ll Do Anything,” a wicked satire of Hollywood that starred Nick Nolte as an our-of-work actor. Originally intended as a musical, it was one of those films that became a storm-watch event in the press while still in production and never recovered, although it did find a small appreciative audience.
The experience was devastating for Brooks, who does not want to talk about it much, explaining that in Hollywood’s current nothing-but-the-box-office-matters climate, any remarks from a filmmaker about a non-hit are automatically suspect. He’ll only say this: “I really believe it’s as close as I could get to the truth of my experience of working in this business, which is what the movie was about. I don’t do sequels, but if there’s a movie I’ve done where I’d love to keep the characters going, it’s that movie. But I hear as I say the words that nothing I say can be heard for what it is.”
But Brooks is not in a frame of mind to complain, and when talk of Hollywood’s downside gets too thick just now, he abruptly halts the flow of the conversation. “I fear that we’ve reached an area where there’s so much [expletive] around, the complaints become the cop-out. So that the thing to say is not what’s wrong, but that there are passionate people here who care about what’s right and spend their days trying to follow God. I can give you a list of 20 names right now: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins. . . .”
“All complaints, save your breath,” interjects Nicholson. “Nobody wants to hear it. Be optimistic.”
Which brings us back to the character of Melvin, whose own peculiar brand of optimism is revealed only after he has publicly torched the reputations of Jews, gays, blacks, Hispanics and women in general. It’s quite a load to have to finally forgive the leading man, yet Brooks, in his inimitable soul-searching way, says, “Every hunk of writing that was designed in my mind to make him sympathetic is out of the picture now. And some of the scenes were pretty good, by the way. I know the audience is sitting there in the beginning thinking, ‘I don’t like what this guy is saying.’ You have to say that or you’re not a human being. But then as you start to see that his behavior is unusual, as you start to see that he’s not just an [expletive], that there are curious things about him and begin to study him. . . .”
When Nicholson tries gamely to answer a question about Melvin’s political incorrectness and its sociological timing, Brooks nearly jumps up.
“Wait a minute,” he says, alarm in his voice. “Remember ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’? We had the Chuckles [the Clown] credo: ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’ That’s what we’re doing. I want to back way up and say that’s what we’re doing with this picture. Pretension kills in this movie.”
But what about his worries that it’s too funny?
“You’re trying to say something about life as we live it,” Brooks says. “I can’t define what we all tried very hard to do. If I did define it, there would be someplace where I would be full of [expletive] trying to define it.”
Then he can’t put into words what the movie is trying to say?
“Oh, I can answer that. But not because I knew it up front but because I observed the work that everybody did and finally it meant something to me. And what it meant to me was, ‘That which makes us safe imprisons us.’ And that life is tough. Just those two things it means to me.”
After he was finished?
“In the middle, it sort of came to me.”
“In this line of questioning,” Nicholson says, “My back door is always, here’s as far as I can go: Truth is beauty and beauty, truth. I’ve got nothing more revolutionary to say. That’s what I’m attracted to.”
A white-haired man approaches the booth, and Nicholson introduces him. “This is my main man, Dan. What’s up?” Dan is Nicholson’s driver. He hands his boss a slip of paper and says, “She’ll be there for five more minutes if you want to call her.”
Nicholson looks at the piece of paper and turns to Brooks. “Would you call Kelly LeBrock on the phone under these conditions?”
Brooks says, “Uh, yeah.”
Nicholson looks at the reporter with a grin and says, “Well, this isn’t her, but I just thought I’d ask.”
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