Ok, you're a badass Hollywood star – perhaps the badass Hollywood starpicking up a Best Actor award in Manhattan from the National Board of Review. It is the eve of your record-setting eleventh Oscar nomination, this one for portraying the eloquently cranky Melvin Udall in director and co-writer James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets. All around you are film-biz figures, from Francis Ford Coppola and Meryl Streep to Matt Damon and Renee Zellweger, and your pal Art Garfunkel has just leapt up to make your presentation speech. Do you: (a) Give him a fond smile as he heads for the podium, (b) Lean back in your chair and act blasé or (c) Hip-check him, hockey style, so he drops a stride and almost falls?
If you're Jack Nicholson, the answer is clearly (c), but Garfunkel recovers with a straight face and wafts on down the aisle to speak. He describes Mike Nichols raving about Nicholson's epoch-marking campfire speech in Easy Rider and how the director signed Nicholson to play the sex-addicted Jonathan (opposite Garfunkel's sober Sandy) in Carnal Knowledge. He details the key moment when Jonathan discovers that Ann-Margret's character has overdosed, an action that Jonathan interprets as emotional blackmail: "And Jack has to do this whole scene where he comes in at the absolute top of rage and embarrassment over what he thinks she's doing to him. And at the end, Mike asks Jack for another take. Jack goes through that same run again, to the top of the Richter scale. He's asked for a third take and begins again – just a serious worker trying to deliver what's called for. He did about two more of them, and I just was humbled and awed at the amount of work energy asked of him, and the Jack I saw at the end of every cut going back to work to do it again. I asked, 'Where's all that come from?' He gave me his conspiratorial look and said, 'I love to act.'"
Much talk is heard about Nicholson's liking to perform other activities – eat, drink, herb, womanize – but act is the verb for which we celebrate him most. In As Good As It Gets, Melvin faces down a hapless neighbor who's wringing her hands over the fate of the gay artist played by Greg Kinnear. "Go sell crazy someplace else – we're all stocked up here," says Melvin. The line carries a jolt of contempt and condescension that only Nicholson could mine for a laugh.
Later, the man who at times seems to borrow clothes from the Joker's wardrobe sits in his hotel suite overlooking Central Park. He's wearing a plain navy cardigan and slacks. Has the wild man mellowed?
Doubtful. A pair of faux-leopard-skin shoes rests just inside his bedroom door like an implied threat. At the Golden Globes in January, Nicholson picked up his prize for comedy acting in As Good As It Gets with the aside, "I warned Jim [Brooks], if I got this, it would give me license to misbehave for ten more years."
Misbehavior is part of what we expect from Nicholson, whether it's taking a golf club to a Mercedes or delighting a posse of paparazzi by stopping for a bagful of booze en route to the airport. If he had a vanity plate, it might read SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL.
Indeed. A fair few essayists and a random sample of career women have objected to the aggressively troubled, not so gently aging Melvin's wooing of the young, vital single mom portrayed by Helen Hunt. Or, more personally, why does Nicholson himself get to enjoy – albeit intermittently – the company of sometime actress and full-time Midwestern firecracker Rebecca Broussard, 34? She is the mother of two Nicholson children – Lorraine, 7, and Raymond, 6 – and, for right now, his steady date once more. These are issues Nicholson ponders, along with a few remarks against feminists, during our talk. He sat for the interview with typical courteousness and a new unflappability that has seemingly come with the latest passage in his life – he turned sixty almost a year ago.
That doesn't mean Nicholson can't be steely. At the National Board of Review fete, he took the stage with a terse instruction to turn off the video monitors; Nicholson doesn't do TV. "In case anybody wants to say, 'Jack, kiss my ass,' " he offered pacifyingly. "OK." (Off the cameras went.) Nor has the party-monster Jack gone away; after the ceremony, Nicholson moved on to the China Club, not so much to catch Bruce Willis' set of soul standards as to hold court behind a fifth of Jack Daniel's while Broussard, lanky and stunning in a little black spaghetti-strap dress, sat atop their booth, moving to the music. A recent tabloid story claimed that Broussard was testing out a new lover, whom she wanted to move into the house that Nicholson – who lives nearby – provides for her and the kids. For whatever reason, Jack was only politely responsive to Rebecca as she occasionally laid her head on his shoulder or sought out a kiss.
As he sat, ever alert and engaging, in his suite, Nicholson would talk about Broussard, the war between the sexes, and the war between the auteurs and the suits. But first things first: He opened a gift box of Cuban cigars and methodically lit up – just one of the many pleasures that Nicholson affords himself. Luckily for those interested in a glimpse of the engine room where memorable performances are stoked, talking is another.
Have you visited Cuba?
I'd like to go, of course, but no, I haven't. I have been invited for various kinds of film reasons, and I am – being a liberal Democrat, of course – rather fond of Fidel. I bemoan this diplomatic situation he's in. I don't know if it's true, but I have it on decent anecdotal authority that he went down to Nicaragua in the beginning of the Sandinista regime, and he advised them not to make the mistakes that he made when he cut himself off. He said, you know, that it was the one thing that he'd do differently.
Then these victory cigars wouldn't cost so much. Congratulations on your eleventh Oscar nomination. You beat Olivier's record.
Thank you very much. I'm very pleased. As Good As It Gets also seems to be an audience picture. That's always good, I think, to catch one of those. You suddenly remember, "Wait a minute, I make movies hoping that people will like them." The actor's craft is to kind of minimize that dynamic – you want to forget the audience in order to do your best work.
Thanks to your scenes with Helen Hunt, you've also become the poster boy for older guys who end up in bed with younger woman, or so yesterday's New York Times indicated.
Well, you know, I – who wrote that article?
Molly Haskell, a feminist film critic.
Well, Molly could answer her own questions if she did even close to what I'm sure is the responsible research she does in other areas. These people continually try to socialize and intellectualize these issues. Nature don't care about that. In its primitive form, nature has to do with procreation and who is childbearing stock. Jack's done a little research, you know.
Does this go to your recent defense of Bill Clinton? You asked whether the voters really want a president who isn't interested in sex.
[Nods emphatically] All I'm saying is: Here I am, and [Haskell] may not like it, but, somehow, the older I get, the younger the women get who are interested in me. I'm not cashing in on that. I'm with Rebecca, who I've known for ten years.
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