So vivid are the wild images of Jack Nicholson — McMurphy, hair and hospital gown askew, manning the spray nozzle in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Torrance grinning demonically as he puts a fire ax through a door in The Shining — that it’s almost shocking to encounter the man himself, striding into his Mulholland Drive living room one sunny noon (quite early in the day for him) toward the end of the Bush administration: a cozy, bulky, slightly sleepy-looking fellow in an orange, buttoned-to-the-neck golf shirt under a brown cardigan. He reaches over to shake; he has big, strong-looking hands, golf hands, and an easy grip. His smile appears straightforward and friendly, its usual insinuation tamped down. With his clubhouse outfit and sparse M-shaped hairline he might almost be a bank executive on his day off — but then you see the extravagantly peaked brows and poly-ply eyelids, the level, veiled green-eyed gaze. No bank executive looks like this. Nobody else looks like this.
Nicholson’s 2.5-year-old daughter, Lorraine, has entered with him. Moon-faced, pale-skinned, staring, she’s the image of her mother, actress Rebecca Broussard, whose three-year relationship with Nicholson recently ended. As her father and I settle into big felt chairs in the comfortable, painting-and-book-filled living room (you have to look hard to find the two Oscars, for Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment, on an upper shelf), the child grasps his sweater, gaping over his arm at the visitor. ”I want a bottle,” she whines.
Nicholson takes a Marlboro Light from a wooden box, lights it, exhales a big cloud of smoke. ”Go ask (the babysitter), she’ll give it to you,” he says, his voice grainy and tired.
”You — I’m workin’ here. Go ahead.”
Thus the wheel has turned: from Jack Nicholson, obscure B-movie player, to Jack Nicholson, superstar and Hollywood wild man, to Jack Nicholson, grumpy dad. No doubt his mood would be better if the chair opposite him were empty. Nicholson gives interviews with the enthusiasm of a man undergoing minor surgery.
”Look,” he says, in the patented, measured Nicholson cadences. ”I’m not great at this, I don’t like it, it’s caused me” — he laughs, a little — ”nothing but aggravation; (but) it’s good for the pictures — if you do none, people think you don’t endorse the product.”
I ask why he won’t appear on TV.
”I don’t want people to know what I’m actually like,” he says, with some asperity. ”It’s not good for an actor. They get to put you in their bedroom, turn you on and off; they form a lot of…more concrete misconceptions about what they think you’re all about. You know, anybody can fool the audience in one picture. The hardest thing is after they know you, how do you reconvince them that you’re not you but Jimmy Hoffa? Or Nathan Jessep, in A Few Good Men?”
It’s beyond me, I say.
He sits up straight and smiles faintly. ”Well,” he says. ”It’s the pro game. It’s the real reality. It’s the part they can’t teach you in acting school.”