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Jack Nicholson's face-off

Jack Nicholson’s face-off — With the opening of ”Hoffa” and ”A Few Good Men,” will the actor have to compete with himself at the box office?

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The first movie-scheduling wrestling match of the Christmas season, which promised to offer up dueling Jack Nicholson films, instead has led to a strategic withdrawal. Hoffa, Twentieth Century Fox’s Danny DeVito-directed biopic, starring Nicholson as the gutsy labor leader, was supposed to open Dec. 11. Then Columbia Pictures moved A Few Good Men, its military-courtroom drama starring Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Kiefer Sutherland, and Demi Moore, from its original Dec. 18 date to…Dec. 11. It would have marked the first time in recent memory that a major star opened against himself on competing screens.

Reason for the switch: After successful test screenings, Columbia was eager to advance Good Men‘s opening while avoiding following Hoffa into the marketplace, and it expected that Hoffa, faced with Good Men‘s turbo-charge of Nicholson and Cruise, would back off.

But Fox didn’t blink — at first. ”Any time you said A Few Good Men, you mentioned Hoffa,” says Fox executive vice president Tom Sherak. ”That was good for Hoffa.” But a source close to Columbia complained, ”Fox is mind-f—ing with us.”

Though after milking the minidrama for a few days, Fox did change its mind. Hoffa will now open Christmas day on 1,000 screens. ”It wasn’t a question of us blinking,” insists Sherak. ”It was a question of us playing it out as long as we could and then going to the right date. A Few Good Men will be huge and that will help us with Hoffa.”

Columbia chairman Mark Canton is relieved. The showdown, he says, ”could have been a headache for Jack.” Instead of competing with himself, Nicholson is now scheduled to open against another big-budget biopic, TriStar’s Chaplin. Unless, of course, somebody else blinks.