Correction to This Article
The article misidentified the film that Jack Nicholson brought to a halt because he was reluctant to play a scene in which a son breaks down in front of his father. The movie was "Five Easy Pieces."
Books On Film

The Guarded Lives of Public Figures

Sunday, February 24, 2008

FIVE EASY DECADES How Jack Nicholson Became The Biggest Movie Star In Modern Times By Dennis McDougal | Wiley. 484 pp. $25.95

Dennis McDougal paces his excellent biography of Jack Nicholson, who recently became a septuagenarian, with the command of an experienced marathoner. Nicholson's constant pursuit of success demands a writer who can keep up: The theme of the story is Nicholson's compulsion to escape his impoverished childhood in Neptune, N.J., and the low-paying Roger Corman films he cut his teeth on. "With a couple of exceptions, all the movies I've made since 'Easy Rider' have gone into [net profit]," he proudly told an interviewer. Observing Warren Beatty's ability to get ahead as a producer, writer and director, Nicholson was consumed not with jealousy but admiration; he nicknamed Beatty "the Pro."

Money has had plenty of rivals for his affection, though. Women, for one -- his long on-again-off-again relationship with Anjelica Houston produced no children, though McDougal's diligent interviewing and scouring of the public record reveal that he's a father as many as eight times over. Nicholson's family tree was another obsession, and it defined his behavior as an actor and filmmaker. In 1974 Nicholson learned -- from a Time magazine fact-checker, of all people -- that the woman he knew as his sister was in fact his mother, and the identity of his father has long been unclear. Nicholson's reluctance to play a scene in which a son breaks down in front of his father brought the filming of "The Last Detail" to a halt, and he continuously optioned Don Berry's 1971 novel Moontrap, taken by its themes of fatherhood and illegitimacy.

The Nicholson that emerges remains a sphinx in Ray-Bans and often the rascal that his reputation suggests: He has hosted drug-fueled parties befitting his role as Marlon Brando's next-door neighbor, and at last year's Oscars he made a pass at a very married Nicole Kidman. But McDougal also successfully presents Nicholson as a full-blooded filmmaker who got to have it both ways: He helped establish Hollywood's risk-taking culture in the '70s and knew how to make a buck off of it. There may be no more revealing quotation than what he told Bruce Dern after he won his first Oscar, for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": "I got gross now." That is, Nicholson now had the financial leverage to be truly influential.

CONVERSATIONS WITH WOODY ALLEN His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking By Eric Lax | Knopf. 416 pp. $30

Woody Allen isn't prone to such exuberance in this book, which draws on interviews conducted by Eric Lax between 1973 and 2006. Nobody who knows his films would be surprised though. Allen is a famously on-time, on-budget director, and despite his constant protestations that he's lazy, he's usually juggling at least two projects whenever Lax arrives with his tape recorder. Their chats often drift into fans-only turf: how Allen edited a sequence, how a shower helps him process an idea, how he got a plum deal to include opera music in "Match Point" cheaply. There's little chatter about stars ("I don't talk to them," he says at one point) and less about his personal life. For that, read Lax's 1991 biography, updated in 2000 to reflect Allen's split with Mia Farrow and his marriage to her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

Despite that scandal, Allen appears a little bloodless. But he also never seems old -- an enthusiasm for filmmaking radiates from him even when he knows he's making a clunker like "Scoop," and Lax's informed (though rarely provocative) questions allow Allen to speak with intelligence and maturity without sounding worn down. Somehow the neurotic comedian has discovered the fountain of youth that Hollywood tries to simulate with face-lifts and soft-focus lenses. It's like he hasn't aged a day.

--Mark Athitakis is the arts editor of Washington City Paper.

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