JACK NICHOLSON, DOWN
(AND DIRTY) TO THE LAST DETAIL
1974, when Jack Nicholson was in Manhattan to promote "The
Last Detail," he had not yet won an Oscar. But we were all
willing to bet it was just a matter of time. And "One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Terms of Endearment" and
"As Good As It Gets" proved us right. On his very best
behavior for this New York Times interview, he nevertheless revealed
traces of the eternal bad boy that he surely is.--Guy Flatley
felt weird all day long, like I'm standing aside and watching myself.
And I look strange. What do you suppose this bump is on the side
of my face? I've never had anything like that before. And my eyes
feel all squinty. I must look like some guy doing a Bufferin commercial."
His eyes do look a little squinty, but he could never pass for a
guy hooked on Bufferin. Nor does he look much like Jack Nicholson,
the blissfully blunt, boyishly lewd cut-up of "Five Easy Pieces"
and "Carnal Knowledge." Yet it is Jack Nicholson sitting there on
the lumpy hotel sofa, slumped sideways, droopy-eyed, thin-haired,
decked out in conservative gray slacks and a red-and-blue plaid
shirt like the one you gave your dad for Christmas back in the fifties.
But after a while, just about the time the aroma of pot has disappeared,
telltale signs begin to surface--a cynical smile here, a sudden
flash of wicked laughter there, an obscenely accurate appraisal
of one public official or another. He's the same bad boy who made
good as a boozy dropout in 1969's "Easy Rider," all right, and he's
nipped into town now to promote "The Last Detail," a salty saga
in which he is so good as "bad-Ass" Buddusky--a sweet-souled, sewer-mouthed,
trigger-tempered, beer-belching, skirt-chasing sailor--that he's
sure to grab the Oscar nomination that Hollywood mysteriously denied
him for his knockout performance as Jonathan, the kinky womanizer,
in Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge." (To
read Guy Flatley's 1976 interview with Mike Nichols, click
"The Last Detail" opens today at the National
and Coronet, and like a good boy, Nicholson is here to spread the
hoorays--partly because he's in for a percentage of the profits.
But it's clear that an interview is the last detail he really wants
to bother with. "Oh, my God, I've been through this a million times,"
he sighs, not genuinely vexed, just sort of embarrassed. "'Born
in Neptune, New Jersey, in 1937...got a job in the cartoon department
at MGM...acted on television and in horror movies...kept company
with loose women...got into drugs...became quasi-political...' And
then the reporter simply figures out the best stylistic way to say
it all over again."
Well, just tell me if my questions get out of bounds.
"Nothing's out of bounds. You take your chances, and I'll take mine."
Your father abandoned your mother when you were born?
"My father and mother separated when I was a baby. I saw him extremely
intermittently. He was a nice man. He's been dead for some time.
My mother is also dead. So I'm an orphan."
It's also been said that the formative days and nights of Jack Nicholson
were devoted to raising holy Ned in Neptune. "Just regular adolescent
frustrations. I wasn't a car thief or anything, though I've seen
one or two stolen in my day. Actually, I was in competition with
the school for entertainment value. I was even in high school plays,
much to the horror of my immediate peers."
Although Nicholson--more charismatic than conventionally handsome--is
considered by the Playboy set to be the bachelor's bachelor, a free
and frolicking agent with his pick of Hollywood's prettiest, the
truth is that he got married in 1961 and did the domestic drudgery
bit for five frustrating years. He is also a father.
"Jennifer is 10 now," Nicholson says in his quiet, nasal drawl that
seems more Nebraska than New Jersey. "I see her every week. We have
a real good relationship, very one-to-oneish, if you know what I
mean. It's always been easy for us to talk to one another because,
genetically, we have the same emotional tracks."
Nicholson also finds it easy to talk to Anjelica Huston, the dark
and fetching daughter of director John Huston-possibly because Tootie,
as Nicholson calls her, is seldom more than a whisper away. Even
now, she is in the very next room. Would Nicholson, a lotharian
legend in his own time, care to take a stand on the sticky issue
of sexual fidelity?
"I don't think you can have a policy about it," he says after a
second or so of meditation. "I think everybody is possessive--it's
one of those things than enhance male-female feelings. Of course,
being overly possessive is obviously going to irritate the person
you're having a relationship with. But I don't like to share my
lady, really. And I assume she feels the same."
Nor does he necessarily want to share a marriage contract with his
lady. "It's not that I'm dead set against marriage. But I really
do find--except for the purposes of an interview--that it is not
the least rewarding to have opinions on these things. Once things
start happening, you will do what you will do, no matter what pronouncements
you've made in the past."
Spoken more like an elder statesman than a raunchy rebel. Is Father
Time playing some premature trick on Nicholson? "I'm aware that
I'm getting older--I'll be 37 in April. I don't really think much
about it, but there was a song at the Dylan concert--I think it
was called 'Forever Young'--that started me wondering just how much
anxiety I do feel about growing old. I try to feel that it's just
the actual meat that's getting older. I gain extra weight and I
wonder if maybe this time I won't lose it again. There are dark
circles under my eyes that may not go away. My hair is going away.
Of course, if I weren't a maniac, I wouldn't be noticing these things.
"Old age--so what? If a truck hit me, I'd be gone right away. And
if there were cures for cancer and the other diseases, I'd start
worrying because I'd know I was going to die a violent death. Anyone
who reaches a certain age senses a loss of his powers. I just did
two movies back to back, and some days I was so tired that I knew
I couldn't do what I was supposed to do. That never happened to
me before. Oh, I went ahead and did the work, but not really. I
guess we all have an anxiety about growing old, about being excluded.
Thinking, 'Am I the wrong age now for this kind of behavior?'"
to say, flocks of feminists equate Nicholson's kind of behavior
with the behavior of a male chauvinist pig. Maybe it's because he's
so vividly vile as the man who treats women as sex objects. The
unsettling images of him ditching Karen Black in the ladies' room
of a gas station in "Five Easy Pieces" and bully-bruising Ann-Margret
to the brink of suicide in "Carnal Knowledge" cling stubbornly to
"I played those characters; I didn't editorialize them. They are
legitimate representations of male attitudes of our time, attitudes
which result in crippling negativism. I didn't try to make those
men any more or any less palatable to the audience than others I've
played. That would be pandering and pandering is the deadliest disease
of the artistic community. I don't try to force the audience to
feel one way or the other.
"A certain segment of women say we can't know them, because we're
men. Well, they're hurting themselves with their rhetoric and their
propaganda. And I'm not talking on a theoretical level; there has
been a very real backlash. Men are writing fewer female roles than
ever before because they're made to feel that if they do write about
women, they must give those women a point of view about the movement.
And that is very limiting. I'm afraid it will be another five years
before this quasi-dance of seduction between the opposing political
forces comes to an end. I myself try to duck conversations about
sexism. It's all so dehumanizing.
"I was a feminist long before women's rights became a fashionable
topic for discussion. I was talking with Bertolucci last night after
the Dylan concert and when I made some intimate little gesture to
Tootie, he said, 'Ah, you really do understand women, don't you?'
'Of course,' I said, 'just as you do.' And then he said something
which I find to be so true. 'You can write a book or a play or do
almost anything,' he said, 'but you cannot make a movie if you don't
Maria Schneider, the awesomely liberated sex kitten who is amply
appreciated by Bernardo Bertolucci and
who helped him hugely in making his "Last Tango in Paris" the red,
hot and blue firecracker it became, will no doubt generate megatons
of heat as the recipient of Nicholson's passion in"The Passenger,"
a top-secret flick directed by Michelangelo
Antonioni last year in London, Munich, Barcelona, Almeria and
the Sahara Desert.
"Working with Antonioni has its ups and downs."
Could the downs possibly have anything to do with the Maestro's
celebrated habit of viewing actors as sticks of furniture?
"Oh, I didn't mind that," Nicholson says, somehow managing to wink
without so much as batting an eyelash.
Forget Antonioni. What do you do with a problem like Maria?
Maria and I were old friends. I'd been out with her. I always think
of her as a female James Dean--she's a great natural. It's funny--Tony
Richardson told me he asked Maria what she thought of me and she
said, 'Well, Jack is a professional. He likes to know what he is
doing. I do not.'"
And, professionally speaking, Jack is doing plenty these days--perhaps
in an effort to make up for a slight dip in popularity stemming
from "Drive, He Said," a bleak look at lust and lethargy on campus
which Nicholson directed, but did not star in, in 1971, and "The
King of Marvin Gardens," Bob Rafelson's enigmatic 1972 drama in
which Nicholson was cast as the sexually insecure brother of superstud
Bruce Dern. Although the public spurned this somber side of Nicholson's
talent, both films have gone on to achieve cult status among discerning
Not that Nicholson didn't have his pick of the plums. "I passed
up Michael in 'The Godfather' and I passed up 'The Sting.' Even
though I am a non-mercenary artist, I had a pretty good idea of
the commercial worth of those properties. But, creatively, they
were not worth my time."
"Chinatown"--Nicholson's third movie set for release in 1974--was
worth his creative time. Directed by Roman Polanski and co-starring
Faye Dunaway and John Huston, it's a darkly bizarre detective story
set in the thirties. And, later this year, Mike
Nichols, who charted Nicholson's path through "Carnal Knowledge,"
will team him with Warren Beatty in an offbeat comedy called "The
And, with a little bit of luck, it will not be so bloomin' offbeat
that they'll ban it in Georgia--as they did "Carnal Knowledge"--on
the grounds that it is pornography, a judgment made possible by
the recent Supreme Court rulings on obscenity.
"They're crazy! All I've got to say is I wish the people who bring
the actions against a movie like 'Carnal Knowledge' would have to
appear at these tribunals and give their reasons in their own words.
No, I take it back. I don't wish that at all. They'd just make fools
of themselves and then I'd feel sad. Let them stay hidden out there
with their dumb ideas."
Nicholson feels that dumb ideas have been bouncing about the land
for some time now, none dumber than the idea that "Easy Rider" was
guilty of glorifying dope dealers. "The kind of dope dealers shown
in that movie need a little glorification. Those guys aren't even
in business any more. Their use is up. Today, the big money is in
hard drugs. I myself am not a heavy drugger. I know it's not fashionable
to be an old pothead, but what can I do? That's pretty much my level.
"The whole repression-of-drugs movement has had the exact opposite
effect of what was intended. Drug experts advised Nixon against
it, and they were proved right. Ever since he began cutting them
off at the border, there has been an extreme increase in the use
of cocaine. But Nixon...oh, forget Nixon, it's the whole country."
Nixon, however, is not an easily forgotten man. "I, for one, don't
want him to resign. I would like him to turn upon his constituency
and fight for his life and reveal the pressures that have motivated
him. Let's get a good look at the man, let's not accept some political
step-down that is made 'for the good of the government.' If we let
that happen, everything will be the same as before.
"I say this guy is running for a third term. I wouldn't put it past
him. And I'm sad to say the reason he still has his job is that
there is no one around who is willing to step up and say 'I'll do
the job.' If I were Nixon, I'd say, 'I'll put the issue before the
public--they'll believe me. I'll tell them I want a vote of confidence,
that this whole Watergate thing is nothing more than a muckraking
media plot.' I mean, who's going to run against the man? All the
politicians are too busy eating each other.
"I've hesitated saying these things about Nixon in the press because
I've been so afraid he'd like my ideas and use them," says Nicholson,
shaking his head in despair. "Come to think of it, I may be the
only man to fill his job. I'd better get on the phone--quick!"