Jack Nicholson: The Rolling Stone Interview
Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood Hills home perches above an empty ravine — a rare prospect amid these overbuilt hills of dirt and scrub. On the hot afternoon when I arrive, a chain-link fence is being installed (not, I’m later told, at Nicholson’s instigation) on the winding driveway he shares with Marlon Brando. Despite the fence and an electronic inspection of visitors, Nicholson’s complex — two houses, a row of carports topped by a basketball hoop, and a deck equipped with a pool and a commanding view — doesn’t have the aspect of a fortress. Inside, the walls are crammed with oils by the likes of Soutine, Matisse and Picasso, but the mountain breeze and the informality of the furnishings lend the house the air of a tropic bungalow. A cook is at work in the kitchen, and Annie Marshall, Nicholson’s longtime pal and administrative assistant, who is the daughter of the late actor Herbert Marshall, fields calls in a study nearby. Alongside the dining-room table sit two cardboard posters bearing photos of Nicholson and Meryl Streep in their starring roles in Heartburn, the film version of Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about her turbulent marriage to the former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein.
I am informed that Nicholson is in the Jacuzzi, recuperating from an exercise session, and I take a stroll around the deck as John Coltrane’s recording of “My Favorite Things” wafts from discreet outdoor speakers. When I turn toward me house, the man himself is in the shadowy interior. He shakes hands and apologizes assiduously for the delay. Dressed in baggy white slacks and a short-sleeved sport shirt, he looks unostentatiously stylish — even when he seats himself and his pants legs hoist off his Adidas to reveal fluorescent-orange socks.
He’ll talk here for the next three hours, using few gestures but often hunching forward in his seat to bear down on a point. The force of his passion when he’s talking about things that make him angry can be a mite scary: he begins to clip his words off, curl his lips back over his teeth and close sentences with “pal.”
Jack Nicholson doesn’t have a lot of competition as the modern movie star for Americas everyman, a man who does his work spectacularly well largely without indulging in the pomposities and fits of temperament associated with other great movie actors. Often seen as a hard-partying, no-bullshit street guy from Jersey, he nonetheless maintains me seigniorial distance we expect of pop royalty. When the paparazzi catch him, he shrugs it off and lets the flashbulbs glint off his shades, telling us what he wants to with the set of his notoriously expressive mouth.
As the writer Derek Sylvester described him, Nicholson, “unlike the rising young stars who followed him…bestrode two distinct generations of acting styles. He possessed the pugnacity of a Cagney, the virility of a Garfield, the diabolic charm of a Gable. He could be as suavely droll as Cary Grant, as gee-shucks and gangling as James Stewart, as moody and introspective as Paul Muni…in other words, the most indispensable actor of modern American cinema.”
He is also heir to the alienated brooding of Brando and James Dean, but having incorporated their inarticulate (if brilliant) posturing in his craft, he has gone on to stand up onscreen in service of the great line, from “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country,” in Easy Rider, to “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” — a marrow-chilling and hilarious ad-lib — in The Shining. In between, there’s been plenty of time for other unforgettable outbursts, like his rebuke to the waitress with the problematic chicken salad in Five Easy Pieces (“Yeah, I want you to hold it between your knees”), or his abrupt attack on a nasty bartender in The Last Detail (“I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”).
His Oscars for Best Actor in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Best Supporting Actor in Terms of Endearment as well as his six other nominations are official Hollywood’s tributes to a maverick who has never pandered to it, and last year he had the pleasure of watching his girlfriend of over a decade, Anjelica Huston, win Best Supporting Actress for her role alongside him in Prizzi’s Honor.
Heartburn, which opened July 25th, is his fortieth film and his third for director Mike Nichols. He signed on just days before shooting began, after Mandy Patinkin had left the lead role of the philandering husband. “Jack is the guy,” says Nichols, “who takes parts others have turned down, might turn down, and explodes them into something nobody could have conceived of…. All his brilliance at character and gesture is consumed and made invisible by the expanse of his nature — his generosity, his lovingness, his confidence, his positiveness — and because his nature is so generous, all technical decisions seem to have burned away. It’s what makes him the great movie actor he is. You can’t see any technique — it just appears to be life.”
Nichols, who had been determined to keep Nicholson and Streep from meeting until their first moment before the camera, says that the day of his costars’ first scene together was “electric with excitement.” Streep concurs but points out Nicholson had broken the ice before shooting: “I’m sitting there getting my hair curled and looking like hell, and I get this knock on the door, and he said, ‘Hi, this is Jack Nicholson. Can I use your toilet?’ ” The Nicholson who sat down to chat this afternoon was, unmistakably, the same free spirit Streep met that day.