In his latest film, Something’s Gotta Give, Oscar winning legend Jack Nicholson plays an aging playboy attracted to younger women and scared of serious commitment. So it’s not surprising that the veteran star had a major hand in developing his character. After all, as he admits with a lascivious grin in between puffs of a cigarette in a New York hotel room, he knows men like those only too well.
“Well, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I haven’t been a rogue most of my life,” smiles the actor, further admitting that he would still be one “if I had the energy for it, but right now, I just can’t do the dance,” he says, puffing at the remnants of his cigarette. He laughingly recalls being at a restaurant the night before this interview, sitting in its lobby and thinking how easy he could have knocked off two thousand women, “every age, their mothers, some of them were with their mothers and they’re together. I’m not saying where I’d knock them, but I had them. I think that I told one of them, ‘I just can’t do the dance anymore, and if I do, they’ve got to be a really good dancer.'” Nicholson smilingly adds that the “good dancers” are hard to come by these days anyhow, describing himself as “a rogue”, but with taste. “What’s saved me is that I’ve always been very discriminating. I’m easy to get to if it’s real. If it’s not, I’m impossible to get to.”
Nicholson has been married only once, and says he liked the experience at the time. Why hasn’t he married since? The actor mulls over the question before slowly responding in true Nicholson style. “I’ve never really had a policy towards it, thinking that was the more intelligent approach to life. This is a very individual dynamic, so why clutter it up with presuppositions? It’s hard enough to learn about yourself, and a relationship is that hard squared, so, if you’re going to be really intimate, you don’t want to have a lot of predispositions. I know that I believe that because I’ll pass that on to my children.”
There’s nobody special in Nicholson’s life, and the actor happily admits to spending far more time alone at home than he used to. “Early on, if I was alone two three nights in a row, I’d start writing poems about suicide,” he says laughingly. “I don’t prefer it, but I really enjoy it now. I still don’t have much time, and I see my children every weekend, so, there’s not that thing, that’s separate from the week.”
For Nicholson, at age 66, it’s his work that keeps him alive. He is still impassioned about acting, as long as he can entertain audiences, rather than depress them. “I have decided what movies I want to do, and the fact that I’ve marginalized like an artist in another medium might by saying, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to make my living depressing people.’ 9/11 knocked me out.”
Something’s Gotta Give is classic Nicholson, a comedy in its purest form, yet one that dabbles in themes that this Hollywood star can relate to, or at least can discuss, such as fear of intimacy, which his character, Harry Langer, clearly has. “Do I think that people have it? I don’t have any fear of intimacy, but rather thrive on it, which is rare in a public person. It’s very hard even to explain even to your mother or your sister that, ‘Look, if you talk about me in South Africa, I’m going to hear about it personally within a month or two.’ That’s a fact that you observe in the position that I live in, so I’m very judgmental about what intimacy is.” As to the other dominant issue raised in the film: Harry’s obsession with younger women, the actor won’t be drawn as to whether he is attracted to younger women in his own life. “Well, a younger woman is a type, but not necessarily a type for me, and what is a younger woman? I mean, I’m pretty old, so almost everyone is younger,” Nicholson responds, with a wry chuckle.
Though Something’s Gotta Give was written with both Nicholson and co-star Diane Keaton in mind, he did the film because to this actor, it was a perfect script that could induce him to work as hard as he did. “There was simply nothing to criticize about this script. I wouldn’t have worked because I was tired. I knew that this would be a difficult job because comedy is more difficult, because it’s more exacting. At this point in life, I was surprised that I’m in the same sentence with the word ‘romantic’, so, naturally, that was very appealing to me, and I remember my first talk with [writer/director] Nancy Meyers. I said, ‘I’m like everyone, I like to appear to be brilliant, and I’d like to tell you a lot of things about your script and so forth, but frankly, other than a few phrasings and this and that and the other thing, it’s so good I don’t have that much to say. Let’s get rolling.'”
Early critical buzz suggests another possible Oscar nomination for Nicholson, but for an actor who does take the Oscars seriously, he knows that the Academy is reluctant to award comedic work. “Most of my friends tease me after they see a movie of mine. They say, ‘Well, what can we say, Jack? Routine brilliant.’ Believe me, it pisses me off too.”
It’s hard to imagine that Nicholson has been at the top of his game for nearly 40 years, and over time, the mythology of Jack Nicholson has grown as much as a film career that has garnered him three Oscars and 12 nominations since 1969’s Easy Rider. But when it comes to figuring out what lay beyond the actor’s so-called womanising façade, Nicholson tries to separate myth from reality. “Well, I’d like to start with separating the myth from what Jack Nicholson is,” says the emphatic actor. “I commit like a freight train, number one and always have. I think that’s what throws people, and also I don’t date as such. In this way, you could call me a little weird.” Nicholson further admits, despite his apparent bravado, that he is “kind of nervous and I don’t like to know what’s going to happen in the future or have to prepare for this or that and that makes me more of a play it as it lays kind of guy. Of course, I’ve never dated any certain kind of woman, so, that’s the difference between the Jack that you described who I’m now going to say is allegedly different from Jack in the picture.”
Nicholson remains a top box office draw, and asked if he is surprised by his longevity, the actor pauses slightly. “I had a plan like everyone does, but nothing sort of went the way I planned it and pretty much, most of it went better. So, I don’t know how to answer that, but I always did have a plan for longevity, and once I got rolling, it’s not shocking to me, and I hope that’s not pretentious, but I have a certain belief in the fact that this is part of being responsible for yourself. We have to take more responsibility for what we actually do and with me, that entails more changing my habits, but also about the good things that I’m responsible for. It’s the old thing that he who cannot accept praise wishes to be praised twice, and those kinds of thoughts. This is part of what I’m additionally learning about life because it’s very easy to say in your company, for instance, ‘Well, how did it happen?’ ‘Well, I was just lucky.’ It’s very easy to just say that because it’s polite. It’s not anything, but the fact of the matter is that I had a lot to do with it. I did go to classes for twelve years. I’ve made a lot of my own decisions if only I know who’s good, then that’s I try to work with whether I’m any good or not. Almost every actor that I’ve ever worked with makes me look good. That, I do know. There are not a lot of things that I absolutely know about my job, but that’s one thing that I do know.”
As to his own life, Nicholson’s surprising fear is his own mortality, he adds, picking up another cigarette in the process. “I would be so happy if I didn’t smoke, for a lot of reasons. I can’t believe that I can’t break the habit. I don’t want to be lying around, dying in Cedar’s Sinai Hospital and thinking that I was as stupid enough, a man who is as petrified of dying as I am, to have done it to myself. I’m a real fraidy-cat about mortality.” Even legends have their fears.