Nowadays, lots of smart actors toggle between big studio movies and smaller ”art” films, but, as in all things, nobody’s done it like Jack Nicholson. Back during his golden run of 1970s classics, between Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson gambled brilliantly with 1975’s The Passenger, a dense and challenging thriller about a TV correspondent who gets caught up in gunrunning intrigue after assuming a dead man’s identity. He made the film largely to work with the director, Italian art-house mainstay Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up).
Long unavailable, The Passenger is being rereleased in select theaters starting this week (a DVD will follow next year), and Nicholson, 68, clearly holds the movie dear: When the 20 minutes the publicist allotted for this interview were up, Jack signed off and then, out of the blue, called right back to keep talking in his singular lion’s purr — and for another 40 minutes — about Antonioni, blockbusters, the ”cinema,” his new Martin Scorsese movie, and retirement.
Why rerelease The Passenger now? This movie is the exact antidote to the movies of the moment, in the sense that we’ve been involved in melodrama since — well, whatever you want to call the E.T. or Exorcist period of time.
By melodrama, are you referring to the era of blockbusters? Yes, it’s pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnics are part of melodrama. I thought this fashion would move on by now, as movie fashions do. But it hasn’t. I was way off on this. And Antonioni is the absolute opposite of melodrama. A chase scene in his movies might be a camel walking for a very long time. To see something like this is to see a lot of ways and places that movies can and have gone. But the audience has always liked melodrama better. And there’s no point in ruing it. The audience of the time is the audience of the time.
Who knew you were such a serious art-film fan? Well, cinema’s what it’s about for me. There are certain movies — like [Satyajit Ray’s] The Music Room or Il Posto by [Ermanno] Olmi — if you haven’t seen them, you haven’t seen movies, the best of them. You know, I was gonna be a director. I became a movie star by circumstance, and then de-emphasized my own directing career. I actually thought I’d make one movie as a director for every three I made as an actor. And [laughs] I’ve done three [Drive, He Said (1971); Goin’ South (1978); and The Two Jakes (1990)].
Are you worried there are no Antonionis working today? It’s always a mistake to think that. You know, the Spike Jonze of it all! I talked to him and his partner once about a different kind of Batman movie. I hear a lot of very exciting ideas. And there are always interesting directors. They come in all forms. I’m gonna talk next week to Mr. [Paul] Haggis [writer-director of Crash].