The actor gets bloody and brutal in 'The Departed', but an uninhilbited visit with the Great Seducer at home unleashes the real shocks
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.
"What's your favorite position?"
"Huh? Oh. Ha, ha, ha. Heh, heh, heh. Two arms and legs," he says, obliquely.
And at times like these, it's best to raise your voice and start yelling something like, "Oh, come on, Jack! God! It's missionary! It's every guy's favorite position!"
"Yeah. Yes," he says. "But as you get older it's inverted missionary, because of other reasons. Look, I'm less rambunctious these days, not because of a change in character, but your physiognomy changes. I am not as obsessed. I am not as, you know – I'm still very – I have the same libido. But whether you want it to or not, that part of your life changes a bit. Throughout most of my life, though, I liked doing what I like to do. And I've been fortunate because that's just the way it worked out for me."
"You mean you got laid a lot just because it worked out that way?"
"Well, no. You know, I mean, I was very driven. I remember being at least mentally sexually excited about things from childhood, even sooner than eight, in the bath-tub. I mean, I had a large appetite."
"As Kim Basinger once pointed out!" I say. (What she'd said was "[Jack's] the most highly sexed individual I have ever met.")
"Well," says Jack then, taking a long, deep breath, "I've never talked about it that much. I talk about the generality of it. But in all honesty, I'm very tender in these areas. Let's use that word."
"Altoid?" I ask, offering one.
"Sure," he says, and places it in his mouth.
And then for a few moments we let the day slip by, his ship of comfort seeming to rock just a little, in a little late breeze.
Lots of things are reverberating into the past around Jack Nicholson these days. For instance, the dildo-in-a-porno-theater scene he thought up for The Departed. The roots of it, you could argue, reach back twenty-five years, to 1981, when he was making The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Jessica Lange – a highly sexed-up piece that nonetheless features no nudity whatsoever. Jack, however, was dead set on making it "one of the naughtiest movies" and decided that the solution lay in showing an erection – "this kind of bulging railer" – through his 1940s pleated pants. To that end, he asked director Bob Rafelson to craft him a conventional prosthetic, but no one took him seriously, so when the day to shoot the scene arrived, he found himself empty-handed and irritated. Said Rafelson, "Well, jeez, if you're so red-hot about this, go upstairs and see what you can do there." And so Jack did, "whipping away," he says, until he realized that some things were beyond even him.
And then there's Marlon Brando, the only actor to ever outsize him as icon. How odd it is to think that for three decades two such figures shared the same driveway and lived in homes only a few stumble-through-the-woods minutes apart (with their pal Beatty also living nearby, several houses away, the trio forming a kind of unholy trinity that once led local cops to nickname Mulholland Drive "Bad Boy Drive"). Jack idolized Brando. He called him "the man on the hill" and was always delighted, or at least not horrified, when he found Brando's underpants in his laundry. So when he died, in 2004, Jack bought his place, for $6.5 million. It's in terrible, falling-apart condition. He plans to get rid of it completely and plant frangipani where it once stood.
"I rarely talked to him on the phone," he says. "For the most part, he'd come wandering down. We had many, many discussions other than 'Well, what are we going to do about the gate?' and 'Well, I hear my kids came down here.' But we were good neighbors because we weren't up each other's ass all the time. I mean, what can you say? He's one of the most powerful presences in our lifetime, just sitting there, the big fella. After he died, though, I couldn't go up there for months or years. I just had this weird juju." He shivers, dramatically, to show what he means. "Juju kinds of feelings." Then he pauses and says, "For all thirty years, Marlon's presence to me was this tree I see out the window in front of my toilet. I miss him."
He seems to be getting a little melancholy, so I change the subject and ask him to describe his mornings. He says that he usually wakes up around 11 a.m., when Gloria, his housekeeper, brings him breakfast in bed. On the breakfast tray is a glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee (cream, sugar), a container of diet chocolate pudding (but only on weekends) and his daily regimen of pills, which includes a baby aspirin, for all the good one baby aspirin a day can do a person; Lipitor, to deal with certain cholesterol issues; and a Celebrex, to ease the pain of arthritis, with a Prilosec waiting in the wings should heartburn develop. Now, at night, he usually doesn't go to sleep until 4 a.m. and most often spends the last two hours before lights out – "my ass-scratching hours" – with his nose deep into a book, most recently The Genesis Code, a thriller by John Case, and Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile, about the nutty renegade congressman. Typically he does this reading up in bed, in the half of the bed that's been imprinted by his bulk and that he likes to call "the dent."
"And of course," he continues, wolfish grin making an appearance, canines gleaming, "I do like company when I have it. That's always exhilarating."
"And do you have a lot of company?"
"I'm unattached for quite a while so I have varied company. In terms of age, you could say that over the last year, I've probably covered the territory from twenty-one to sixty-one."
"Yeah, I'm good with my pals. You know there's certainly more than one person that I've seen maybe thirty years, intimately. Unexpected by me. I have the normal things that people have. You know, Mom sitting on the toilet, scared, 'Gee, you know, when you were little,' or whatever that is. You know what I mean, 'Oh, am I going to be able to deal with crepe?' or whatever the fears are."
The Mom-sitting-on-the-toilet-scared-gee thing is so out of the blue and weird that I am struck senseless and don't think to ask him what he means by it. All I can manage to say is "Crepe?"
"Crepe," he says. "You know, any fears you may have about contacting mortality or the aging process, particularly in this area."
What he means, I suddenly realize, are his fears about coming into contact with wrinkly, baggy, crepe-y old skin, not his own but that hanging off an older woman.
It sometimes seems, tellingly, perhaps, that all of Jack Nicholson's life has revolved around sex in one way or another. To begin with, there's his birth circumstances, the so-called illegitimacy of it, which was tucked away and hidden, the dirtiest of family secrets. Then, as an adult, there's his frantic pursuit of women, all women. Among those known to have succumbed are horror-movie actress Sandra Knight, his wife from 1961 to 1966, from whom came daughter Jennifer, 42; Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips, before she took up with Warren Beatty; actress Susan Anspach, from whom came son Caleb, 36; actress Anjelica Huston, daughter of his great friend, the late director John Huston, for seventeen tempestuous, topsy-turvy years; former waitress Rebecca Broussard, from whom came daughter Lorraine, 16, and son Raymond, 14; and, most recently, tweezer-thin actress Lara Flynn Boyle, who is thirty-three years his junior. Among the rumored have been Diane Keaton, as well as Margaret Trudeau, wife of late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Among the most blabbermouthy was late Playboy model Karen Mayo-Chandler, who once said, "He's a nonstop sex machine. He's into fun and games ... like spanking, handcuffs, whips and Polaroid pictures," and who added that he eats peanut butter in bed "to keep his strength up." And among those he has mentioned as lust fantasies are President Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn, President Franklin Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, and hotsy-totsy New Age guru and A Woman's Worth author Marianne Williamson. (He is also fond of the television preacher known as Reverend Ike, but not in the same way as the others, one hopes.)
As it happens, however, he has also defined what he does for a living in terms of sex. "You have to determine, what is your sexuality in this scene?" he said a long time ago. "Everything else comes from that. It's the key. The total key." Naturally, his Mulholland Drive pad is a place also all about sex. In the early Seventies it was well known as "the epicenter of the era's drug-soaked social scene," according to one report, and while living there then Anjelica Huston nicknamed Jack "the Hot Pole." As well, it's where, in 1977, with Jack out of town, director Roman Polanski allegedly raped a thirteen-year-old girl; after his arrest, he fled the country, never to return. And, finally, there are the choice words that Jack uses to spice up his normal, everyday conversation, two of his favorites being "pussy" and "cunt."
"I love those words!" he almost shouts one day. "I mean lately, I may ask someone, 'Well, look, do you have a response as to whether I say 'cunt' or 'pussy' or 'pookie'? But I love being able to say things like, 'Cunt is an acronym.' 'For what?' 'For can't-understand-normal-thinking.' Heh, heh, heh. Now, of course, I'm sure I just made that up for goofy stuff. But the point is, I just happen to like those words."
And so it swirls, sex, all around him, constantly, if not in his bed so much as before, then in his head, always. "It's not that sex is the primary element of the universe," he said in 1972. "It's just that when it's unfulfilled, it will affect you." That's an interesting notion to contemplate, because, as a guy who for decades could not sleep alone, it seems fair to conclude that no one has been more affected by sex than him. In fact, seen in this light, he could be the most unfulfilled man of all time. Then again, maybe that's taking his reputation too much at face value.
"A lot of it, I don't know how real it is," he says. "I've always allowed for that element in my public image to be to some degree overstated, because it's good for business." He pauses, reaches for a cigarette and shifts gears a little. "I mean, I get depressed like everybody," he goes on. "I have angst. I have anxiety. I worry about the world. Nobody was expecting the kind of fearful times that we live in. It's really out of the blue. It's like, 'My God, what the hell is happening?'
"I'm an American through and through, and I can't find any reason why anybody should be wanting to blow up everything. Saddam Hussein may have said, 'We'll win this because the West worships life and we worship death.' But I don't believe it. In my heart I know that nobody's that different that we would want what's going on now. And people can say, 'That's easy for you to say, Jack. You're one of the luckiest people on the planet.' Well, yeah. I mean, so what? I'm lucky, so because you're not you think murdering innocent people is great? I mean, in a lighthearted movie like Mars Attacks, as the president, I'm in a condescending way trying to slip in the philosophy of Rodney King, saying to the little people, 'Can't we all just get along?' But, I mean, can't we?"
And so, in addition to sex, these are the kinds of things that are currently on Jack's mind – along with basketball, of course, and his golf game, and, lately, his teenagers Lorraine and Raymond. With them, he tries not to be too overbearing, nor is he about to offer advice based on his life as a well-known pot smoker, a well-known one-time LSD user, a well-known pro-lifer (due to his own "illegitimate" birth), and so on. Instead, he says to them something like, "Look, I remember myself as a teenager, so I know I'm not going to be the first parent that ever outsmarted a teenager, and I'm not trying. All I'm going to say is, everything they say is bad for you, pretty much it is bad for you." And pretty much he leaves it at that.
A few things, at random, from inside Jack's world and head:
He often refers to himself as "a hick from New Jersey."
He laments the thirty-year tenure of melodrama in the movies but understands it. "Once you start blowing up almost every other building in a picture, the audience, they jones without it. It's their rhythm."
He suffers from claustrophobia, and if you're at a restaurant with him and paying attention you may notice him angling for the outside seat at a booth. He's OK if he gets trapped inside. It just makes him uncomfortable.
When he looks in the mirror, what he generally notices first is that "I can't see myself too clearly these days. Sometimes I go ahead and put the glasses on."
That time he spent three months hanging around his place in the nude: "I felt it was totally necessary. I'm self-conscious about body image. I don't have a great body shot. And it was an era of'Let's get free.' I know it drove my oldest daughter insane. I just wanted to be more relaxed within my skin. But it didn't totally resolve all that, like many experiments you think you've concluded on yourself but you haven't really."
Those times he took acid, which was done in a clinical setting, what the experience taught him: "Just let it be. Release. Kind of be where you are, where we are, where it is, in a kind of fearless, unconscious way."
The TV show Deadwood: "I love that show. It's a tough morality play. You should see it."
Girls with cigarettes: "They've used them to hold me off. Distract the predator. The Great Seducer."
Mona Lisa, with that smile on her face, what she's thinking: "I know you. I know what you're thinking. Don't try to fool me."
A recent big panic: "I haven't lived out every fantasy that ever came into my empty, er, echoing head, but enough of them that I'm relaxed about it. The only thing lately is, I got to the point where I couldn't in any way conjure up a fantasy. It was like, 'Ohhh, I'd love to ...' but there was, like, nothing in that department in my head. And as a man who has been attracted to Eleanor Roosevelt, it really panicked me out."
So, there it is, a bit more of Jack, what's going on with him and making him tick.
One more thing. He says he likes it a lot, a whole lot, when women in his bed call him by his name. "I can't help but notice that women, especially when they're in any sort of amorous mood, don't say my name that much, so I like it when they do. I like being called 'Jack.' I like being identified by my name. At that moment."
Before it gets too dark, can I see that view you were talking about, Brando's tree from your bathroom?"
"Heh, yeah, sure," he says, looking somewhat startled.
So, up a flight of stairs we go. Halfway down a narrow hallway, he hooks to the right, into a bathroom, and ushers me close to a tight little interior cubicle with a toilet that faces, up high, a smallish rectangular window. "You see this pine tree right there?" he says. But from where I'm standing, it's obvious that I can't. "Sit on the throne there," he says. I do. "See it up there?" he says. I do, vaguely. It's a tall, wide-spreading pine, with maybe some wind dancing into its branches. Jack turns down the lights. "Can you see it better now?" he asks. "It's just a view. But you're repetitively in that big pine tree. And it gets bigger all the time." He leads me out again – past his twin-sinked vanity with its three large mirrors and a countertop displaying all of his toiletries, neatly arrayed, a bottle of Listerine, shaving gear, two kinds of toothpaste, his Prilosec – and into his bedroom. He turns on a TV. "As long as we're up here," he says, "I'll just show you this." What he shows me is the strap-on-dildo scene from The Departed, with him saying to the girls, "Are you ready, pony girl?" and "Want some coke?" and "Don't move until you're numb."
Afterward, he says, "That scene is something that's being discussed. Is it gilding? Is it too much? My reason for it is an old moviemaker's instinct but also, unfortunately, an audience will find it more corrupt that the man who's buried in blood up to his throat, see, so that's the reason why I have a certain amount of passion for having it in. Martin and I both happen to feel the same way: It's the perimeter of his corruption. He's a bad man. And I always want that to be clear."
I ask him to tell me about all the cool-looking little figurines sitting on top of his TV cabinet. "Oh, the gimcracks?" he says, and reels off the names of several well-known, big-money artists. "And see this little one here?" he goes on. "I don't know how good your eyes are, but he's holding his dick in his hand." Meanwhile, I'm looking around Jack Nicholson's bedroom, the place where he has gotten so much business done. I look at his bed, the four blue pillows heaped on it, and the blue duvet pulled back on one side to reveal the dent. The dent! I feel a little woozy, just as a girl might upon seeing it for the first time.
And, indeed, right around then, Jack clears his throat and says, "I don't know if I've ever had someone like you in my bedroom before. Feels a bit intimate."
"Don't worry, I'll be gentle on you," I say, nervously. "So, what's in the top drawer of your bedside table?"
"Pencils," Jack says, nervously, too, largely caught off guard for once, I can see. "Phone. Phone things."
"Do you want to open the top drawer?"
"Er, no," he says. "Well, I don't know what's actually – There are drawers over here you'd be more interested in."
"OK What about those drawers?"
"Well," he says, his gravel voice turning more gravelly by the second, "there are some things you're better off not knowing," and then without taking a breath he quickly adds, "I sit here a lot and sketch, for instance. Sometimes at night instead of reading I'll paint a bit."
No matter. We've had a moment, I can tell that much. As for me, I know I'll never be the same. As for Jack, regardless of what he says, I know that I'm probably just one of hundreds or thousands who have been up here. So be it. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed. I'll always have my memory of our time together here. No one will ever be able to take that away. If only at some point I had remembered to call him by his name, "Jack." If only.
A little later on, both our composures regained, Jack lights up a cigarette, and through an occluding haze I ask him, "Do you think you're a good guy?"
He doesn't hesitate. "Yeah, I do. I'm pretty consistently well-intended. It'd be hard for me to recall where I've been underhanded."
"Don't you think cheating on your girls is kind of –"
"I didn't. I didn't think so, no."
"You didn't think what?"
"That it was underhanded. I knew, for instance, when I got married, because of my libido – I was silently emanating to the above, 'This does not mean there's not going to be other women in my life. I'm taking certain vows here. [But] between you and me, let me be at least clear.' There have been many times I've been totally sure, not having been put to the test, that it would be no problem for me to be, uh, what do you call it?"
"Monogamous. Yeah. But many times I've thought, 'This is impossible for me.' Someone once said, 'It's not loving that you miss. It's being loved.' I don't have that primary sense. I haven't given up hope, but most of my friends think I'm a little goofy in that area, which is why I knew I would be singular at this point in my life."
I think what he means to say is "single at this point in my life," not singular, as in deviating from the customary, or without equal or rival, or far beyond what is usual and normal. I'm not sure, though. And either way, it works out the same.