Jack Nicholson: The Badass Hollywood Star

'Somehow, the older I get, the younger the women get who are interested in me'

jack nicholson cover 1998
Albert Watson
Jack Nicholson on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

Still, Rebecca is thirty-five, and you'll be sixty-one in April.
I'm not rationalizing my point of view. In fact, as a younger man, I thought the older-man thing was kind of unhip. I thought, "I'm not going to fool myself like this when I get to be . . . XYZ."

Did you discuss solving this onscreen with Helen Hunt?
Helen came up to my house to meet, since I hadn't – I'd never seen her television show [Mad About You] and hadn't seen Twister yet, either. And what I remember about that was just how relaxed she was. We talked about the more disconcerting things in the parts – obviously, the age disparity. We both felt that I could come down a little in age and she could come up a little and that, hopefully, it would not be a problem. I have a resistance to the cliché of the older leading man with the obligatory love interest. If I don't think a scene is right, then I'll try to get it out. But I think this relationship is very well-acted. It's really a textbook acting situation.

Hunt has a distinctive sexiness that is hard to define.
It's very real. First of all, she's not, you know, blatant about it. I think that's why she has a very strong female following. She asked me in one spot where she had to laugh in the picture to say something offscreen when we got to that point; when we got there, I just said, "Tits." And she went higher than a kite. I also wanted another ending for the picture, and she agreed. I hope Jim doesn't shoot me for saying this. When they walk to the bakery, I wanted to turn to Helen and say, "Warm rolls." And she would say, "Wet pants." Of course, they correctly censored me on that, but, I mean, she liked it. They were looking for unpredictability, and I thought that would cover it.

Isn't it unpredictable enough – or just plain risky – to play an obsessive-compulsive character like Melvin?
It doesn't feel brave when you're doing it – it just feels awfully hard. That moment when the character clicks, which usually happens the first week of a movie, never occurred here. We kept peeling it and peeling it. I'm a studio Method actor. So I was prone to give some kind of clinical presentation of the disorder. But Jim Brooks never wanted it so in front. And I can understand that. You don't make a picture, you know, to save the world. But studying the classic obsessive-compulsives was very useful. They're very good at hiding their particular disorder. This was one of the symptoms of this mental problem, and somehow, metaphorically, it helped me. I like to kind of hide the performance, just to make it different. A lot of my performance of the disease is simply not written. I might be wriggling my fingers where the cameras can't see, but it energizes what I'm doing.

And your fellow actors, too?
Absolutely.

Greg Kinnear jokes about how he and the other actors were victimized because they'd always have to talk to the press about working with you, about JACK!
Yeah, Greg, Helen and Cuba Gooding, they're great at answering that dang question. It's like I'm this statue, like Jesus. Every time they get asked about me, I want to just shrivel up and die. It would kill me, frankly, if I felt like I was starting to grow the moo of a sacred cow. I think that might be the one thing that might stop me from working. But they were great to me. I had great collaborators, and we banded together when necessary on the picture, like actors do.

What about you and Jim Brooks? Word has it you locked horns more than once.
I have a close relationship with Jim as a friend and as a worker. I adore him. But we were having such awful difficulty early on. And, you know, I'm at a stage where I don't know what the hell I'm really doing half the time. And I just thought, "Jeez, we're having such trouble." I quietly said, "Look, Jim, if you feel like you've got to replace me, don't worry about it."

How did he react?
He laughed – he thought I was crazy. He was having the time of his life as I was broiling. You get in a place in work where you have to feel free to saying anything. It's important to the craft. And I'm more than capable of saying things that I wish I hadn't. I made one or two slips with Jim, just to vent. It never affects him. He only cares about the work, and his tank never gets empty. Sometimes you can just kind of outwork somebody. This is not going to happen with this bird. He just doesn't stop. For instance, after the first preview he called me and said, "They laughed all the way through – it's too funny." I'm thinking, "Yeah, this is a comedy, Jim." But he was right. I watched what he did: He brought the heart of the picture into focus. That's really where Jim is.

You had a funny line at the Golden Globes, telling Brooks that winning the award would buy you another ten years to –
Yeah, to misbehave. Which I hope people know I don't really mean. I hope you realize that everything my co-workers say about me is, in fact, not puffery. I am a rather serious professional man.

You really arrived as an actor in 1969, alongside Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Now he's your main rival for the Best Actor prize at the Oscars, on March 23rd.
Fabulous news. Fabulous news. You know, he called me right after he made Ulee's Gold and said, "Please, Jack, go and see this picture, and this, that and the other thing. You'll be proud of me." And, you know, I was. Very. He did a great job.

Will it be funny to sit and look over at him, knowing you're in competition?
Yeah, yeah. You know, I've been through this gambit so often, I've got rationalizations for everything.

It wouldn't be that hard to cheer if he should win?
With Fonda winning an Oscar? I'm delighted. I'm delighted for anybody who wins an Oscar, because I'm not somebody who minimizes that, you know.

You mean you didn't play any coy games on the way to winning for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1976 and Terms of Endearment in 1984?
No.

You'll happily walk up there again?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I don't touch the money at halftime, but should that be, I'll be delighted.

At the Golden Globes you toted up two bathroom jokes and a Jim Carrey imitation – what was goading you to do something wild?
I can't remember – it was such a blinding experience. There's something about it that makes you wacky. I don't know what the dickens it is. I guess it's just standing there, you know – all these lights going off.

When you look at the yelling photographers, do you think, "These are the guys who chased Princess Di"?
No, I'm one of those who have a good relationship with the paparazzi, as I'm sure she did. In other words, it's a fact of your life. I mean, in the last three weeks, doing this press tour in Europe for As Good As It Gets, I haven't been in fresh air for an aggregate of one hour without having someone taking my picture. That's a long time. Because I'm not so cute anymore. And when you get less cute, you get more vain. I just want a good picture every once in a while. It makes me look kind of cool. But I do feel totally justified in not allowing them to blind me. So to be in front of 200 people screaming over and over again, "Jack, take off the sunglasses," that's where I relish my contempt.

Exactly what is the role of sunglasses in your persona?
Even with the sunglasses on, I can't see where I'm going with these flashbulbs. So I have glasses that I wear anyway at night that are prescription. Then I carry the really black ones where the flashbulbs can't blind you. Incidentally, I always offer the photographers a deal. I say, "OK, I'll take the glasses off – no more flashbulbs." 'Cause they don't need them. It's like television lighting; it's false. It's to get that deer like quality of trapping the person. It shows a subconscious contempt for the subject. They all love these little cameras now, with the hideous lenses in them. And I know it's because they hate who they're taking the picture of. They're an instrument of torment, those flashbulbs. Well, they're not getting me.

You've been equally critical lately about the executives running the movie business today. Why so?
It's the deal-making process: You spend three times as much time making the deal as you do writing the script. And then you rush the rest of the time and nobody's ready. For some decades now, it has not been fashionable for actors to publicize themselves or do a lot of interviews. So the movie executives have filled the gap. There are articles in the Wall Street Journal about the heads of studios. There's too much talk about money. These things are degrading the quality of movies.

You sound a little like Melvin right now.
"Venting," they call it. People ask me about Melvin and how horrible he is and all that. Well, of course, the actor doesn't look at his character that way. I just looked at him as more honest, plus a New Yorker. There's that one-up part of the New York patois: Accuse me of being an anti-Semite and I'm going to be Adolf Hitler, you know what I mean? I felt it was oddly correct for this man. Naturally, I realize I'm kidding myself in favor of my character, but that's the way you play them.

Melvin's got a gift – when he's insulting, he's effectively insulting.
It's like he has no choice. What he's saying is, "Let's not be fake." But we're all a little fake. We're not clinically sure that racism, homophobia, etc., automatically place you at the doors of the inferno. We're not positive yet. The press is positive, for the moment.

Political correctness states that any bias is taboo . . .
These things have always amused me. I'm very well-mannered; I believe in that. I've never been raised where any of those issues landed on me. I don't have those problems with people. Never have had.

You have said that militant feminism has really hurt the general relationship between men and women.
Yeah. For instance, for my own gender, we're all reading these magazines about what women think is politically correct. We don't have enough gumption not to. We just become what we think they want us to be. That makes it easier for us to communicate. Now I don't know that this is true. I've always seen the curs that men are. Any man will have a discussion – I just don't think they care in the least what the content of the discussion is, really.

Strategic talking for seduction?
Yeah. So in that sense, the women are right. But when it comes to women cheering the Bobbitt verdict on the streets, I didn't see any feminists coming forward to say how crazy it is to be cheering somebody for cutting off a dick. That's where politically correct moves into fallacious thinking.

Though you're hardly a spokesman for monogamy, you sound secure about your own relationships with women.
Yeah.

You married actress Sandra Knight in 1961, and it lasted for five years. Still friends?
Yeah. For sure.

Michelle Phillips – you were very devoted to that relationship through rocky times.
Yeah, right.

Anjelica Huston – wasn't there some bitterness when that seventeen-year relationship broke up in 1989?
She only ever asked me one thing really, Anjelica, which is, "Don't talk about me from now on, other than professional things." I've sort of stuck to that.

Some people would say, "If you're so devoted to Rebecca, why not settle down?"
First of all, she's a pyrotechnical personality. That would have to be collaborative, in any event. I feel like I have settled down, you know. I haven't even changed residences in about thirty years, so I'm pretty settled, as people go. My job remains the same. I have friends all over the world; they remain the same. I see my children every day. I'm just like every other goofy father – I don't really care about much else.

How old is Lorraine now?
She's eight. Well, about – she and Raymond are both coming up on birthdays: eight and six.

They're growing up. And, with respect, you with them?
Ray has put me at peace with some emotional things about myself that no amount of analysis could have done. Just because you get to know your children innately. It's all there to begin with. For instance, Rebecca understands me much clearer because of Ray. He is very, very tough, with absolutely nothing but a soft, moochy interior to back it up. I see him doing it and I think, "Jeez, this is just the way people like him and me are."

And Lorraine?
Lorraine, not to get all mystical, is a very old soul. I have a picture of her in her swaddling cap, and I understand infants don't smile for quite a few weeks. They don't have it. And I've got somebody who's looking straight at the camera like this [beams]. So if there is such a thing as an old soul, then she's one of them.

Have the kids been a bridge for you and Rebecca?
Theoretically, yeah. Certainly they are the reason for my not bolting from an uncomfortable situation, which would be my tendency. And finding some way to vitiate any kind of emotional sadness. I didn't have that option here. And I'm glad. I mean, I might have done everything I could to put distance between Rebecca and me, love her though I did and do, except I – I couldn't.

She's pyrotechnical, but don't you like a good oil fire?
Yeah, well, everybody says that about me. I don't deny it. She disagrees with me a lot, and, you know, at some moments I'm not loving it. Like everybody, I've always been trying to have a nice, loving relationship with somebody I was crazy about. And I felt like, "Jeez, this is one area where I can't say I'm off the top of the charts in terms of success." I'm living singly now. I have five or so years' experience with it. The way I behave has changed in incremental and subtle ways. I don't know if it's been to the good.

Your relationship with Caleb, your son with actress Susan Anspach, has been termed problematic – is that because you've never formally recognized him?
Caleb and I have been getting along beautifully now. In fact, last night I went to sleep and went, "Oh, shit, I didn't think to call Caleb. I must remember to make a note to do that." Having said that, based on the legality – the extremely unpleasant litigious nature of most of my relationship there – I'm not really at liberty to say what I think about it.

What about your peers? Warren Beatty seems to be making a go of it as a family man.
He's a blithering nut. He really can't think about anything else. He just turns into a goo machine around his own children. We had Thanksgiving with Warren, Annette and family. Nothing's come close to making Warren as happy in his life as these children. Nothing.

You're in that ballpark yourself.
Yeah, with my own kids.

Jennifer, your daughter with Sandra Knight, has given you a grandson.
Sean the Mighty. Yeah.

Named for Sean Penn?
Could be. I don't know. See, this is the difference in the times in my life. Jennifer doesn't always tell me how she arrives at things. And I'm not always mad that she doesn't tell me, you know. I want to know, I really do always want to know. Kind of dig away at it a little, but Jen's her own gal, and, you know, we've had our knockdowns, but pretty consistently I've had a deep inner certainty that this is a very good person. And to a parent, that's important.

You met Rebecca through her?
No, but later on, Rebecca and Jennifer became very close friends.

Was there an immediate spark with Rebecca?
Yeah. Yeah, I didn't know this was going to totally change my life – it wasn't like that – but there were definitely sparks, for sure. Certainly, the relationship has been rocky. But it's in a beautiful attunement at the moment. Hallelujah to that.

What about your temper and that incident when you did some unscheduled bodywork on a car with your golf clubs?
One month I just decided not to lose my mind, no matter what happened to me. I wasn't going to break any clubs or call people hideous names or curse the blessed divine elements. And just that improved my golf by about six shots a round.

Is big, bad Jack Nicholson becoming a tamer person?
Well, you know, I'm reaching – these people in my life are all a good deal younger than I am. I don't share their television experience. So I don't have easy access to them conversationally. But one of the things that I do hear quite a bit is that I'm someone that they count on to indicate that every single thing one does in life needn't be totally orthodox, that there's still room for iconoclasm without being a pain in the ass in the world. I'm glad if I can do that. I'm glad.

This story is from the March 19th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 782: March 19, 1998