Some people reckon he’s the Devil in disguise, but Jack Nicholson says he’s just a typical male – completely sane but driven mad by sex
“Want some water?” purrs Jack Nicholson. He cruises over the “t” in water, pronouncing it instead as “warrer,” and with his left eyebrow provocatively cocked he makes it sound more like an indecent proposal than an offer to drink mankind’s most basic survival element.
But then, for Nicholson, sex is up there with H2O as a vital commodity, an elixir for life. His sexcapades are notorious – since his movie debut in 1958 Jack’s had flings with starlets, models, waitresses and even his 33-year-old daughter Jennifer’s best friend. Of course a lot of the stories casting Jack as a Hollywood playboy have been wild fabrications, but you never hear Jack complaining.
“Sure, I’m a little embarrassed that people look at me that way, because they’re giving me too much credit,” he says, “but I can’t go around saying I’m not a womanizer, because that’s silly. It’s good for business, if people think that.”
And in his professional life Jack admits sex is normally the main thing on his mind.
“Sexuality is the key. When you’re acting you have to determine: what is your sexuality in this scene? Everything else comes from that,” he explains.
This philosophy goes a little way to explaining why Nicholson is still idolized by men who wish they could be him, and women who wish they could bed him. So how does it feel to still be considered a sex symbol at 60?
“Well, it’s a little more exciting in the evening than in the morning,” he teases – and then turns on adorable shade of crimson.
“No, it’s great, but as you can see I’m perspiring a little – you’d think with a man like me, who’s heard it all before, that is wouldn’t make me so shy. But being called a sex symbol is great, it’s wonderful.” He grins proudly, preening himself like a peacock and adjusting his tie, and the can’t resist adding: “I’ve always been that way.”
We’re in his hotel room in London. He sketches madly on a piece of paper in front of him while I ask the questions. The tougher the questions, the more furiously he sketches.
It’s the last leg of his European trip to promote his latest film, As Good As It Gets. Not that the film needs much promoting. It’s brilliant and has already won Golden Globe awards for both Jack and co-star Helen Hunt, plus Oscar nominations.
It reunites Jack with his old time buddy James L. Brooks, who directed him in Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. As Good As It Gets is kind of comedy and kind of romantic – but it’s also a lot more than that. Jack plays a guy with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Melvin) who’s the neighbor from hell to Greg Kinnear’s sweet gay painter (Simon). Helena Hunt plays a waitress who partially humanizes Melvin, and Simon’s dog (who should have been up for an Oscar too) brings the three altogether.
“Melvin is a sick man,” laughs Jack. “I would simply describe him as a New Yorker.”
He’s not joking.
“Having been born there myself I’d have to say all New Yorkers are like that,” he says. “Take the first scene in the picture with Cuba Gooding Jr – most people are going to view that and say: ooh, Melvin’s a racist. Right? Well, the actor never looks at it like that, I look at it as here’s a man who if you’re going to imply that he’s a racist, he’s gonna be an even bigger racist. This is the way a New Yorker operates.”
Like many of Jack’s previous characters, Melvin is disturbed. It’s tempting to conclude that Nicholson’s attracted to these roles because he’s rather insane himself, but he reckons nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’m probably one of the sanest people you’d ever meet,” he insists. “And anyways, Melvin’s disorder has nothing to do with psychology. It’s completely chemical. The only treatment for it is to take pills. No analysis or therapy will help.”
“You know the biggest misconception the public has about me is they see me as a kind of off-the-wall and wildly deranged, random human being, which of course is almost the opposite. I’m very, very well designed, very pulled together. After all, I’m a multi, multi-million-dollar industry sitting here before you. These things don’t happen by mistake,” he roars with laughter.
One thing Jack could not be accused of is being humble. Boasting must be his middle name, but his honesty is kind of endearing. After being Batman’s Joker he collected no less than $50-million in pay and merchandising profits!
“It’s impossible to make it by mistake in Hollywood. That’s what makes Hollywood strong, you see. If it could happen by mistake they could make their uncle rich and famous – but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t buy these jobs. Either you are a movie star or you ain’t. Period. You can’t fake it. Sure, you can do it for one picture, but withing a year you’re forgotten. Most of us work many times before we get to be somewhere.”
Jack first ventured to Hollywood as a high-school drop-out who wanted to catch a glimpse of his hero, Marlon Brando. He became a messenger at MGM, one of the biggest movie studios in old Hollywood. Fame and fortune were far from his mind.
“I got my job at MGM for an opportunity to see movie stars,” he says. “It would have seemed too far above me to think about being an actor at that point. I was a teenager and I was like every other teenager: what am I going to do?”
He would never have dreamed that by the age of 60 he would have collected 11 Oscar nominations, two Oscars (for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment) with another pending, and have become the 2077th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Today Jack Nicholson is the star’s star. He’s the dude that all the other actors, males especially, love to name-drop in interviews. Everyone has a Jack story. The sweetest tale perhaps comes from his latest co-star, Greg Kinnear, who says that on the evening that he was called to Jack’s house to read through the script, he was so nervous that to combat his diwwiness he ate a huge bowl of spaghetti and meatballs before driving up to the Nicholson residence. When he got there, Nicholson offered him a bowl of his home cooked spaghetti and meatballs – and like all good Jack Nicholson fans would, Greg at the entire bowl without once mentioning that he’d just eaten.
“And when we first started filming together I was still nervous,” admits Greg. “Talking to him during the first few weeks was very strange. It was one of those conversations where you see the lips moving but you hear silence! But in a relatively short time I did at least lose that desire to want to tell him: you’re Jack Nicholson!”
Jack loves reminiscing back to a time when people didn’t who who he was – and he was the one star-gazing.
“I worked as an office boy – or a production assistant as I like to ‘grandise’ the job – and all I wanted to do was see Marlon Brando, see Lana Lurner, everybody. And that’s basically what I did. I would do my job and then I’d go and stand on the sound stage and watch. And my nature has always been the same – I talk to everybody,” he laughs and mimics himself waving and going in that trademark Jack way, “Hi, how are you doing?”
“I didn’t think of myself as a social climber, that’s just how I am. And one day a producer asked me if I’d ever though about being an actor and I said no, and that was the end of that.
“I went back to my job and my boss, Bill Hannah, called me in the office and he said ‘Jack, did Joe Pasternak ask you today did you wanna be an actor?’ I said yea. ‘And what did you say?’ I said I said no. And Bill Hannah said, ‘Jack, what the fuck do you wanna be – an office boy?'” His gruff laugh fills the room and then he goes back to sketching.
“And so they took me, and that’s how I got started. They sent me to a small theater in Los Angeles where I went back to what I did when I was home in New Jersey, which is manage the theater, and then I got some small parts there.
“And I went to actin classes for 12 years and never missed a class, though I think most of what I learned was from watching my own bad works – you know what I mean?” he grimaces. “I never watch any of my old B-rate movies any more, and I wouldn’t recommend you do either!”
His breakthrough role came in 1969 in that male-bonding movie, Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper. But throughout his career, Nicholson’s been linked to an endless stream of women though he’s only ever married once (to actress Sandra Knight for four years). Then he lived with Anjelica Huston for 17 years – but she moved out in 1990 when he made Rebecca Broussard pregnat.
Although Rebecca is now the mother of two of his children – Raymond (5) and Lorraine (7) – he never allowed them to live with him. Instead he gallantly settled them into a house down the road from where he lived preferring to live alone and have his “space.” Actress Susan Anspach keeps rearing her greedy head to cleam more money off him for her son, Caleb (27), whom she claims Jack fathered. Then there’s also the 24-year-old waitress, Jennine Gourin, who gave birth to another of his sons four years ago. Father’s Day must be quite something at Jack’s house!
Rumor has it that he’s currently trying to woo Rebecca back after she almost married actor Daniel Quinn. She was last seen skiing with Jack in Aspen, Colorado.
Although controversy has dogged Nicholson’s life, perhaps the most bizarre and tragic story of his life is that he grew up thinking his grandmother, Ethel May, was his mother and that his mother, June (17 years his senior), was his sister. He discovered the truth only when he was 37 after a Time magazine reporter unearthed the facts while researching a cover story on him. Sadly both Ethel May and June had died by then, though he was able to get official verification from his surviving sister Lorraine. Ethel May and June took the secret of his father’s identity to the grave with them.
“My only emotion to them is gratitude, literally, for my life. If they had been of less character, I would have been aborted and never have gotten to live. These women gave me the gift of life. It’s a feminist narrative in the very pure form. They trained me great those ladies. I still, to this day, have never borrowed a nickel from anybody and never felt like I couldn’t take car of myself.”
It’s impossible not to be moved when listening to Jack talk about June, a woman he tenderly refers to as his “sister mother.” She was a dancer in her early years and he speaks of her small-time career with the kind of pride reserved only for sons.
As touching as his ode to his family is, it’s hard to believe Jack when he professes to love women, His history hardly bears witness to a man who respects the female species, and although he may not be the womanizer the press have painted him out to be, he sure is outrageously sexist in conversation.
When asked wether it would be his secret ambition to beat Katherine Hepburn’s all-time record for having the most Oscar nominations, he retorts, “No, because I don’t compete with women.” He spits the last word out with contempt and then drags on his cigarette with a devil-may-car attitude.
“And if I was going to pick someone to beat it wouldn’t be Katherine Hepburn, I can assure you of that,” he grins wickedly, making no pretense that he’s still talking about a competition for awards.
Jack Nicholson is undoubtedly one of the most arrogantly confident, despicably sexist men you could ever meet – but he’s also the most interesting, the most honest and the most seductive. It’s impossible to hate him. As movie stars go, Jack Nicholson is as good as it gets.
PERSONALITY March 6 1998