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?