Nearly 70, Jack Nicholson Remains True to Himself
Friday, October 6, 2006
It's a Thursday afternoon in September, and there is a house party to plan. But first there's middle school parents' night to contend with and a teenage daughter's early adventures in driving to worry about. Our host is just back from a two-week hospital stay brought on by a savage throat infection, so even if he'd like to be out hitting golf balls, he's still in his slippers. And bouncing around somewhere is a young one who keeps calling him a name to which he cannot adjust: Gramps.
Jack Nicholson is about to turn 70.
The term "middle-aged" no longer applies. The man -- the man who gave us on-screen acid trips, who made a certain brand of frightening, phantasmagoric tirade his trademark, whose self-styled legend has him bedding enough beauties to satiate the menfolk of most mid-size countries -- has somehow gotten on in years, settled into a kind of humdrum domesticity. He reads. He paints. He reads. He decides he might go "give the help a hard time for an hour or so."
It's a strange thing, probably, for the actor who first seized fame as an embodiment of youthful dissonance and vigor to find himself suddenly five years out from the average-life-expectancy mark. To know that some of his contemporaries are already considering retirement communities and investing in orthopedic footwear. To realize that he is, well, old.
And yet the qualities that defined the actor's greatness, brought him from suburban New Jersey to Mulholland Drive and made him an American icon are undiluted.
These things remain: Eyebrows like protractors. Lips that snarl and twitch and sometimes vanish into a curtain of big, familiar teeth, releasing a smile with the paradoxical power to both gladden and unnerve. A relentless, piercing wit that informs every action and utterance. (The lesson of an early acting coach -- "Do the surprising thing" -- could be the title of his career.) A voice that makes each word sound as though it traveled through a hundred menthol cigarettes and a pebble-mincing food processor before reaching his tongue. A cadence that opts, as often as not, to override any hint of a pause between sentences but can stretch a single syllable into wicked crescendo.
For instance: "The dildo was aaaawwwllll Jack."
The sex toy in question is one he found himself twice inspired to carry onto the set of "The Departed," a thriller in which Nicholson plays an Irish mob boss with -- ta-da! -- a husky appetite for carnal pleasures. The film, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama "Infernal Affairs," is noteworthy, if only for a cast that includes such names as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone, but mostly because it marks the first professional meeting between two kings of American filmmaking, Nicholson and Martin Scorsese. (See review on Page 36.)
It is also the event that prompted Nicholson -- notoriously press hungry and open in his early years, but dramatically less so in the last decade -- to participate in a 45-minute phone interview from his Los Angeles home on the eve of the movie's release.
"We're both cinephiles so we talked movies together for 30 years. . . . You know, I visited Martin on a dozen sets. I've always been in touch with him," the actor says, by way of explaining why a collaboration between him and Scorsese was so long in coming. "This is the first time we had an occasion, really."
Which may be at least part of the truth, but it's also true that the occasion nearly didn't present itself. Nicholson, who has collected three Oscars, for performances in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and "As Good as It Gets" (1997), turned down the role of Frank Costello when it was first offered, insisting the character was too flat. (Playing hard to get with industry suits is an old trick of Nicholson's, usually to the boon of his bank account, though he has, on occasion, protested to the point of regret. In 1974, Robert Redford was all too happy to nab the title role in "The Great Gatsby" after Nicholson took a pass.)
Goading from DiCaprio, whom he calls a friend, and an agreement with Scorsese that together they would reassemble the mobster into a richer, more layered character persuaded Nicholson to take the part. In the end, Nicholson came to consider Costello "the embodiment of evil," a man who holds nothing sacred as he engages in a cat-and-mouse game with Boston police officials and the mole hidden within his own ranks.