Jack Nicholson is ambling down the stairs of his place on Mulholland Drive, in Los Angeles, a little late, having just zipped up. He's lived here for more than 30 years - a two-story stucco-type pad bought for $80,000 that is packed to the gills with soft chairs, easygoing couches, priceless art, Oscars (three), books (The Popular Medical Encyclopedia, Primal Scream), a former para-Marine named Oz, who is now his cook, an eyeglasses case marked "Reading" (helpfully), a bowl of fruit (he doesn't eat fruit, but Oz hasn't given up), tubes of both Rembrandt and Close Up toothpaste (he's peripatetic that way), much fear for the world at large, and huge historical problems with even the general concept of monogamy, not to mention echoes of past orgiastic parties and overheated assignations too numerous to count. It's entirely his place. It's where, in the late Sixties, as a matter of self-help, he spent three months walking around in the nude, at all hours of the day, no matter who stopped by, his daughter included. It's where his closest neighbor, the late Marlon Brando, used to come calling when Jack wasn't home and root around in his fridge (usually because he'd padlocked his own), and for some reason leave behind his underpants, which would then mysteriously turn up in the laundry. It's where today, after successfully negotiating the trimming of his toenails, he ends up in his living room, which is dominated by a white-brick fireplace smack-dab in the middle ("so I can't be cornered," he says). He's wearing a polo shirt, khakis and fuzzy black slippers, with his thin hair combed back flat, sixty-nine years old but looking good, despite a tummy on the round side and occasional issues with heartburn. He angles himself into a chair, settles, and in his great gravelly Jack voice gives further explanation for his late arrival.
"Oh, you know how it is," he rasps. "At the last minute, those old boys' bladders –"
Then he lights up a cigarette and leans back, never bothering to finish the sentence he's started, which is often the way it is with him, completion indicated only by the skyward hoisting of his thick pyramidal eyebrows. At other times, though, he gathers in a full breath of air, starts talking, usually in fat, orotund paragraphs, and never stops. For instance: On the topic of his latest movie, The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese and co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, in which he gives another Oscar-worthy performance, as Boston-Irish mob boss Frank Costello, probably the worst, most criminal criminal ever - in one gruesome scene, he steps out from behind closed doors covered in blood, well up past his elbows - and over which he, the loosest and most experimental of actors, was expected to lock horns with Scorsese, the tightest and most controlled of directors.
"My reaction to 9/11 was 'This is just a catastrophe, so I'm just going to do comedy for a while,' "Jack says, sallying forth through a plume of cigarette smoke. "I'd done three in a row [About Schmidt, Anger Management and Something's Gotta Give] and thought, 'Jeez, I really would like to play a bad guy.' And the guy I play here, he's bad. Nothing is sacred, not the church, not children, nothing. I knew Leo from a while back and, in fact, he's the one who brought me in. Matt I knew too. I have very good feelings about both of them. At first I tiptoed in, but Marty was very inspiring in terms of how free he was with me. I thought it'd be more frightening if my character had a sexual component, but all we put in the notes was 'Costello has wild sex.' So I called Marty up and said, 'Look, I just thought of what would be an interesting scene of Costello having wild sex.' And in this scene with two girls, one of the girls is wearing a strap-on, and he just hurls this handful of cocaine and says, 'Don't move until you're numb.'And then later on, in a porno theater, as a sick joke, the guy turns to Matt Damon's character with that same strap-on dildo sticking out of his pants. This was my idea and improvisational, and Marty went for it. But that's what these parts are for me: spicing the movie."
While he's talking, I'm looking around. It's serene in here, simple, no sleazy leather couches, nothing like that, a guitar in a corner, with an intimate swimming pool glimmering in the twilight out back, and pretty soon I can hear Nicholson gliding by all the hottest recent topic – Tom Cruise's firing by Paramount, Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant, Lindsay Lohan's bad behavior on set – breezily suggesting that he doesn't take much interest, really, in any of it. And all the time I'm thinking, where could one possibly take Jack Nicholson, where could one possibly go, where he hasn't been before, lots of times, comfortably?
Of his early actor pals – Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Fonda, Art Garfunkel, Bruce Dern – Jack is the only one who remains crucial to the current moviemaking scene. He's still friends with most of them and they do talk, but more infrequently these days. And of those contemporaries who might be considered acting equals, like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, he just seems to loom larger. He's both a movie star and a cultural icon and in so being has singlehandedly managed to render meaningless such distinctions as Old Hollywood vs. New Hollywood. DiCaprio and Damon are great big movie stars in their own right, but as The Departed makes clear, Nicholson is bigger than either, and better. Pretty much, he's all things at all times, a sui generis lunatic force of nature who in his personal life is forgiven for all of his apparent sins – his obsessive womanizing, his brutalizing of a car with a golf club, his evasions behind sunglasses – even as they mount to the heavens above, because what else can you do with a guy like that?
It can hardly be said often enough: In terms of cool and its variants, Nicholson, inside the movies and out, has come to signify almost everything worth signifying. He's the mythic rebel in Easy Rider (1969), his breakthrough performance, at the late-start age of thirty-two, after eleven years of trying; the laconic drifter dropout in Five Easy Pieces (1970); the self-hating misogynist in Carnal Knowledge (1971); the dogged too-nosy seen-it-all detective in Chinatown (1974); the anti-establishment loon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), all the way up to the over-the-hill womanizer with the flabby rear end in Something's Gotta Give (2003), with enlightening stops along the way to define the true nature of writer's block in The Shining (1980), the murderous nature of lust in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and the effects of aging on a party-hearty ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment (1983). Plus, born in 1937, abandoned by his father, raised in rinky-dink coastal New Jersey, he didn't know until his late thirties that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother and that his putative parents were, in fact, his grandparents – a set of mind-boggling personal circumstances that also seems to have broadly described many of the social and sexual perplexities of the day. In a sense, he has always operated as an advance man for behavior of the most outrageous, unconventional sort. Could Russell Crowe or Colin Farrell have behaved quite so libidinously in public without Jack, the Great Seducer, having paved the way? Of course, Jack's great pal Warren Beatty was himself no slouch in this regard. But the curious thing is, over time, young and old, all of them got married, or had kids and settled down, or otherwise became respectable, sort of, all but Jack. "More good times is both my ethics and my morals," he likes to say. In other words, today is the same as it ever was, and to hell with what anyone else thinks.
If it happens that you need a condom," I ask him one evening, "do you buy it yourself?"
"I've never bought one," he growls. "But if I needed a porn picture or something like that, my staff normally does that kind of shopping for me."
"Have you ever even used a condom?"
"It's always a problem. You can't feel your wanker." He sighs, takes a sip of iced coffee and goes on, "Look, I have Reichian therapy in my background. Early on, I had problems with that most common kind of impotence, being quick, suddenness, which is actually a kind of jitter from holding on too hard and not feeling things, which is part of what we're talking about. It's all about actually feeling it, not in some locality but in the larger sense of the experience passing through your being. In my lifetime, from World War II on, the world got freer, just by nature. And then came along, now we have the Death Fuck. And when this idea became popular, the sex-negative, pleasure-denial momentum of the world, I mean, it just got to the point where 'I can't do this anymore.' It was no longer the full catastrophe. So I went to my doctor and got a very specific scientific analysis, which boiled down to, unless you're a shooter or something else, you're as likely to have this problem as to have a safe fall on your head. I mean, look at it logically. If you understand numbers at all, just by geometrical progression, if it were all true, everybody's dead by now."
He continues like this, leaving me frantically trying to parse his words. It's difficult, because if he's not clipping his sentences short, he's divesting his pronouns of most of their antecedents and doing away with transitional connectors altogether. What I think he's saying, though, is that when the AIDS crisis started, he tried wearing condoms, but they prevented him from feeling the "full catastrophe" of the sex act, so he went to a doctor, who told him not to worry about getting AIDS, so he no longer wears condoms. Anyway, at times like this, with him soaring off into the ether, I have noticed that the easiest way to bring him back down to earth is to sink him into the gutter.
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