Pauline Kael put it best when she described Jack Nicholson’s appeal as “a satirical approach to macho.” At 47, Nicholson looks like a vintage Chevy that’s seen too many joyrides: the hubcaps are loose and the stuffing’s coming out of the seats, but the engine still revs hard when you gas it up.
“Come on in, bub,” the voice growls, beckoning me into an art-lined sanctum sanctorum, where quilted curtains blot away all undesired traces of the mid-May California sunshine from the huge, wall-sized TV screen. Slumped back on the raised couch in his den, Nicholson is engrossed in the tape of yesterday’s Celtics-Bucks playoff game, wearing a red Cadillac Café T-shirt, his tanned, muscular legs protruding from a pair of baggy grey gym shorts. With his hair disheveled, sticking up like wild antennae, Jack looks like an unmade bed today—as if he’s just gotten up (it’s 1 p.m., he probably has). It occurs to me that the Raphael Delorme painting above his head—five ripe voluptuaries in various states of undress—is probably far more indicative of Nicholson’s true sensibility than anything he’d ever tell me. Still, even though his gimlet blue eyes are mostly riveted to the screen and his attention distracted by calls from friends, Cannes, art dealers and somebody who sounds like his bookie, Nicholson kicks back, arms folded and eyebrows cunningly arched, and fields these questions with good-natured bemusement.
MT: A lot of people laughed at the humor of the character in Terms of Endearment when he fell down drunk, chased young women, because they thought in the back of their minds, “ah ha, that’s what Jack is really like.” What is there about you that makes people think you’re this high-living maniac of Herculean proportions?
JN: The main thing is that I don’t do anything much about shaping a public image. I’m also very very protective of my private life—you could come through this house and not find out a thing about me. Therefore, into this vacuum comes other impressions from the little bit that people do know about me from my background—plus the roles that I’ve played, of course. Take the way you’ve set the question up: my friends know that I don’t drink that much; and when I do get loaded, twice in my life, I think, I’ve fallen down. But more generally, I don’t do anything like that. Chase girls? Certainly, as all men have. I’ve done that in my life—and now I hate it. If it’s a chase, it’s too long. I didn’t always feel that way.
MT: Well you’ve also always been very candid in the interviews you’ve done about matters like sex and drugs. After all, you’re a man who once discussed in a Playboy interview that until the age of 26 you suffered from a case of ejaculatio praecox. You also discussed LSD and birth trauma, so you have a reputation for candor.
JN [laughs]: I did believe that candid was what you should try to be—and, if you saw Rolling Stone ten years later you could read how much I regretted that kind of candor, because it’s only misused. I have become disillusioned. I was one of the first people in Hollywood out of the closet with marijuana. I thought the only thing to do was to be honest about it. Now, I’m sorry to say, I feel differently about it; I won’t tell anybody anything like that ever again. The drug thing has blown completely out of proportion. I gave the press this conference in Europe, and I said great stuff about the fucking picture Terms of Endearment, and all they wrote about was cocaine, which I didn’t even say anything about! They said stuff that they assumed because of my reputation. And I sued, because there you win [court] costs. I knew I wouldn’t lose because what they said wasn’t true. It’s personal: I was hurt because it was a great fucking press conference—and I know because I’ve done thousands of them. I felt if you’re going to invent what you write, why don’t you just write it and not waste my fucking time. In my position, I cant really know what my reputation is, but I can tell you from what I hear that it’s extremely distorted.
MT: Speaking of revelations, what do you think of Bob Woodward’s book [Wired] on John Belushi? You were one of the people he interviewed.
JN: The man is a ghoul and an exploiter of emotionally disturbed widows. I’ve read an excerpt that came out. . . . Here’s a guy who has a reputation, right? I’ve obviously seen this kind of work before—it’s the lowest. I talked to him because Judy, John’s wife, asked me to because John had always behaved towards me as if I were an uncle. By that I mean he’d say things like, “oh, not me—I’m not doin’ no dope, Jack.” That approach. Personally, I didn’t have anything to say that could get me into trouble. But it’s like three different versions of the story. I told him, “Look, Bob, I don’t know what you think, but if you’re out here to do a coke/Hollywood sensation book, you don’t understand what the karma will be on you.” This guy is actually finished. I believe that.
MT: Does the distortion of your own image annoy you?
JN: Everything that you don’t like to hear about yourself is a little bit annoying. On the other hand, I recognize it’s part of the territory, and some of these distortions don’t always work against me. I can be too candid. After “Cuckoo’s Nest,” I had been so lucky for so long as an actor that I felt overly praised. Well, I said that for two pictures and they got up my ass for five years in a row. I’m not sure I didn’t do it myself by trying to be honest and pointing out that there was a distortion about my acting and the way it was perceived. But the result was that people started applying a different standard to me and thinking, “Yeah, this fucking guy is overpraised. Let’s attack the living shit out of him!” And they did.