Jack Nicholson, Hollywood's joker in the pack, is 60 next month. In this exclusive interview, he talks frankly about his extraordinary upbringing, his long career and - oh dear - his views on the sex war

Jack Nicholson has been busy lately - though it comes as a shock to hear that Hollywood's most inquisitive bachelor has worked so hard because he feels his life is empty. He did The Crossing Guard for Sean Penn, a remorselessly bleak film even by Nicholson's own standards for avoiding sentimentality and looking less than pretty on screen. He affirmed his allegiance to Batman director Tim Burton by playing the idiot president (and a roguish country singer) in Mars Attacks!. He honoured Shirley MacLaine and his role in Terms of Endearment by doing a cameo in the sequel, The Evening Star. Later in 1997, he will appear in the lead in Old Friends for James Brooks. And, more immediately, he is in Blood and Wine (certificate 15; out here on Friday), his sixth film for old crony Bob Rafelson. (They go back as far as Head, in 1968, with Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Man Trouble as their other collaborations.)

As a matter of fact, it was Rafelson who in the late Sixties argued to get Nicholson into Easy Rider (after Rip Torn had walked out on the role of the young lawyer who joins the bikers), and who then saw that the actor got a piece of that film's epic profit. Until then, Nicholson acted largely to support his career as a director and a writer, crafts that still mean a lot to him. His three efforts as a director (Drive He Said, Going South and The Two Jakes, the ill-fated follow-up to Chinatown) have won scant praise or revenue. But Nicholson believes in directors, and hankers to do more himself.

He still likes tough, creative movies about real problems - dysfunctional families, an uneasy society, sexual misunderstanding and the dark romance of psychosis. He regrets the soft, pulpy state of many modern movies, and he remains a fighter for all he believes in. In so many ways, he has the insolent, risk-taking, mischievous air of the guys in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Yet he will be 60 next month. He is very, very rich, and he is a figure in American culture now, somewhere between Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Joker from Batman.

That he is the best and most dangerous actor around can be quickly credited - who else would have done Hoffa with as much verve and passion, despite every warning that audiences did not want to like or understand the notorious Teamsters union leader? And he did The Crossing Guard, facing a reunion with his once and long-time love, Anjelica Huston - and then telling her, in character, on screen, "I want to see you die." There was an edge of poison and loathing in that scene that surely helps illuminate Nicholson's very mixed feelings about women.

This Interview was done over the phone - it had to be (such is a Hollywood star's schedule). Yet Nicholson was ready to talk about anything. He loves talk. He is as candid as an actor can be, which is to say he wants to tell the truth that applies to the character he feels at any moment. He is smart, funny and a chronic entertainer. But he is sad, too, as the interview reveals. He lost Anjelica. He has lost the long friendship with the writer-director Robert Towne - together they were going to make a trilogy based around LA detective Jake Gittes but the dream produced one gem, Chinatown, and then the broken Two Jakes. He talked about his two children by Rebecca Broussard, who has since left him. And he recalled the extraordinary discoveries he made about his family in the mid-Seventies: he had grown up believing he was being raised by his older sister and mother in New Jersey (the father having died); what was then revealed was that his "sister" was in fact his mother, and his "mother" was actually his grandmother.

We spoke late one Saturday morning, and I asked him first to pretend he was a novelist, and to invent a first paragraph for a book in which he was the central character. Most novelists would object to the question, hesitate, experiment and come up with something far less fluent (and interesting) than the opening Nicholson offered, without so much as a beat of pause:

"Not many people had the foresight to have the portrait of the dog painted before it passed on. But then not many people had a Bouguereau angel, in some kind of beatific grace, on the opposite wall. None the less, his face was drawn, the blinds were not. The clock said quarter to noon, or midnight. It was another lovely day in the only undeveloped valley in Los Angeles County. It still looked great. It was still what he thought about wherever he went. And he saw the position where he laid in his bed - what he lovingly called `the dent', which used to amuse his former love- life and partners." At which, Nicholson breaks out in heady, rascal's laughter, ready to go off with this "character".

"You would never leave Los Angeles?" I ask.

"Well, I'll tell you what. I'd do almost anything if I could think of something better to do. But the reason why I originally liked it here still exists. It's just the easiest place to live. It's nothing original, but you can't beat the climate - the desert by the sea. You know, my ears pop when I drive up here, on top of the Santa Monica hills. It's high enough, for a boy who comes from New Jersey."

"Suppose someone came to you and said, `I'm the director of the National Theatre in England. I'd like to offer you two plays - one of your choosing, one of ours - and it goes with a pittance compared with what you can earn. But come to London and do some theatre.' "

"I'd have to know this person a good deal better first. But I always assume that the advantage of the good fortune I've had is that I can pretty much follow my whim. And if that seemed to be the most creative thing, I wouldn't hesitate. When I was doing The Shining over there, I was going to try and get the producer Michael White to arrange some kind of out- in-the-country, afternoon-ladies'-tea theatre - that's about my speed. I've always thought I would have done a play if one had come along. I was kind of interested in doing Hurly Burly with Mike Nichols, but schedules wouldn't permit. Arthur Miller sent me a play. And Alan Jay Lerner wanted - and I considered it - to write a musical for me, because he knew from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that I could sing passably."

"You said recently that film in America seemed to have had a golden age in the Seventies, which has passed. What caused that?"

"Well, when I came to Los Angeles in 1954, I came from what was then a thriving American film underground. And that has been absorbed by the film-school people, which has produced its own generation - Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis. Number two - conglomeration, which affects all of America's product. Everybody now yearns for the old movie tycoons, and I started just at the end of that period. There were people then like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster who had thriving independent film companies producing interesting work. But now we have conglomeration where film companies have become parts of larger corporations. It became chic for executives to be the interesting thing. And money became the headline of every review. And then there's the nature of the computer. Because everything must compute. Things become so programmatic. Man tends to imitate his tools. You can't really get a good re-write anymore, because of the computer. The writers go home and dip into their memory bank and there's something lost in that process. Having said that, this is one of the most creative years in film- making in quite a while."

"A good deal is made in writing about you about the shock of the discovery of your parentage. Was it shocking?"

"In the sense that it was a surprise. However, I was raised in what today would be called a single-parent home, with two older `sisters' [in fact, one was his mother and one his aunt], and I was into my thirties when I found out. The people were deceased, so I did not have to revise all of the relationships. But it did explain a lot about them in a certain way. I'm one of those people they call an `actor' - very introspective and self-involved - so I know what I felt and I simply felt extremely grateful. After all, this kind of activity was not common. Today, people have an abortion because they don't want to miss ladies' lunch - and I might not be here. I was instantaneously aware of that."

"Do you know now who your father was?"

"No, and I really hadn't much curiosity about that."

"Would you rather not know?"

"I suppose that would be the way to put it, since I haven't really gone after it at all. I mean I'd love to meet two or three people now with the ability to keep that kind of thing to themselves and not blab it to every tabloid in the country. It speaks well of my family's character. They took good care of me. They wanted me. And I was raised in a household of women so I was not repressed by a dominant male figure. They always encouraged me. I was aware even then of the extra freedom I was allowed. They said we don't really care what you do, just make sure that you don't lie to us and that you tell us where you are. And if I was anywhere they didn't want me to be they let me know about it."

"You didn't feel they had lied to you?"

"No. Many people have asked me, isn't there some resentment about the deceptiveness of women? - well, I didn't need them to find that out. When you think about it, I'm sure it caused them a lot of problems and soul- searching."

"It makes me think of The Passenger - made only a year after you found out - and all about a man who, effectively, gives up his real life to be an actor in a story that has no script."

"I did The Passenger because of the director - Michelangelo Antonioni - and because of a kind of affinity with the material. I own The Passenger, you know."

"And control all screenings of it."

"Well, I look on it as a great work of art by Michelangelo, and the way the story is done in that movie is so germane for the period. A reporter is creating the international image of a war. He becomes exacerbated by the fact that he's at a distance. He decides to join this war, and he can't find it! And then he stumbles into an identity and, as people often do in a real war, he doesn't even know what side he's on. You try to get that film made today, based on that synopsis, they'd look at you like you were from Mars. Then, it didn't seem so strange...

"And certainly I was attracted to it. It's like an off-the-back-wall way of doing what I believe is philosophically correct anyway, which is - live in the moment, live in the immediate moment, there's no `you' over there. That's where we're all trying to get to."

"I know that The Shining is another film which means a great deal to you" - in large part because in Nicholson's eyes it was so poorly reviewed - "Are there moments in that when you tried physically to resemble Stanley Kubrick?" I had always had the feeling that Jack Torrance, the character of the writer played by Nicholson in The Shining, might have been a veiled self-portrait of the reclusive director.

"No, I couldn't say I pursued that. I always have some tangential physical image of what a character might look like, and with the character of Jack Torrance all I can remember is when he's in the maze, thinking of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All that roaring and wandering."

"You like Jack Torrance, don't you?"

"Yeah," the assent is nearly sighed, a sinking in, the most heartfelt word in the whole interview.

The Conversation turned to Robert Towne and The Two Jakes. Nicholson and Towne had first met at an acting class in Los Angeles in the late Fifties and were close friends for nearly 30 years, a relationship that led to Towne writing The Last Detail and Chinatown. It had always been their plan to do three films about Jake Gittes and Los Angeles. The second was to have been The Two Jakes. The film had been set to go in 1985, with Towne directing, and Nicholson and Robert Evans playing the title roles. But then there were hesitations. Towne decided that Evans - a very old friend and producer on Chinatown - could not carry the part. On the first day of shooting, everything fell apart. The project languished - and then four years later it was revived, with Nicholson directing and Harvey Keitel as the second Jake. The critical and commercial failure of the film which was eventually released in 1990 has made it a lot harder for Nicholson to continue directing.

"Am I right in thinking you don't even talk to Robert Towne anymore?"

"I haven't spoken to him, I guess, since I showed him The Two Jakes. It's odd. I had never really lost a friend because of professional things."

"What went wrong on that film?"

"Well, first of all, I have that director's arrogance. I've made three films where you could say, `What went wrong?' And I think they're all just dandy. The film is what I tried to make. But that film was destroyed for any public before it even came out because nobody could shut up about it...

"Directing it for me was pretty much to get us out of the entanglements created by the breakdown of the partnership between Robert Evans and Robert Towne - the two Bobs, as I call them. But once I got the assignment nothing went wrong other than everybody on the project being very upset with Robert Towne."

"What went wrong with the first attempt to make the film, in 1985?"

"There were a lot of factors. Robert Towne, to his credit, is quite intransigent creatively. But he was captured by the idea that Evans could not play the part which he had originally written, if not for him, then about him. This was not really the issue. As I saw it, they had bungled the producing, so they had made me co-producer. I sat with them and said what any producer would say: `Look, we have to start shooting in three or four days. It has taken a year and a half for the two of you to arrive at a deal - the contract negotiations are two feet thick! If you think you can drop Evans at this time, you're seriously mistaken.' So I said, `Let's shoot and see how it goes' - the second Jake was not due to work until a couple of weeks into the schedule. But there was something else there - at the time I thought it might be stage fright of a kind - on whose part I don't know."

"Your new film, Blood and Wine, is the sixth you've done with Bob Rafelson. What does he mean to you?"

"Well, Bob has always been there. I co-wrote and co-produced Head [1968], his first directing assignment. And that was the beginning of a meeting of the minds. In Blood and Wine, for instance, here's a film without that saccharine, sentimental character-development begging the audience to admire you. There's no one in the film who asks to be liked. That's courageous creatively in today's world and that's the thing Bob has. He's very intelligent and pretty much wants to make his own films. He has integrity."

"There's a sexual pattern in Blood and Wine: your character is involved with two women [played by Judy Davis and Jennifer Lopez] who're a lot younger than you are. That's not uncommon in private lives in Hollywood. Do you feel it represents elitism, privilege, or is it a dream that all men have?"

"Well, I don't think either; I think it's simply circumstantial. With the character in Blood and Wine, he's disillusioned with one woman, and he's using the other to extricate himself. That's the kind way of looking at it... In real life, if you're not a member of a conventionally coupling society - and I'm not - you're going to be around younger women because older women are simply not there. As to `the dream of all men', when they're there they often think of them as nightmares. The grass is always greener... If you think this coupling is driven by the innate need to reproduce, then it seems only natural that no matter what the age of the male the women will be younger."

"But you can see how women regard that as monstrously cruel and unfair?"

"Well, you know, women are monstrously cruel and unfair in their way too. Believe me, it will never be in the newspapers, but there are a great majority of women living lives of quiet desperation today who would possibly not be doing that under a different social climate. Every human being is not cut out to be the president of a corporation. The majority of women who want to work want to be actresses or models. So, yes, I understand the resentment or rage of women, but nature's a balancing element. Women still control men. Not necessarily in the sense of gross national product or income, but if you look at relationships, the everyday walking-around nature of life, I think you'd see that the female controls the home. And in a relationship the woman has the power that comes from man's inability to think about anything but women.

"You know, my views on this are not really going to do me any good - not fit for publication, as they say - but I express them and I have as many lady friends as I do men friends. And I believe on an individual basis they'd speak well of me."

"You have two young children. How much do you see of them?"

"Oh, we do everything. I'm taking them this weekend to my ranch house. We have a good time being out there. I took Raymond, my son who's five, to the Lakers v Chicago Bulls game - he has fallen under the spell of Michael Jordan. I was so pleased that he never stopped cheering for the Bulls, despite the fact that he had a nervous breakdown when he discovered that I'm a Laker fan. He never backed off and I was very proud of him. And we do all kinds of things. You know, children are a boon to man, and there are sad things about separated families and then there are great things. I'm at a slightly older age than normal for having young children, and that's an advantage to me."

"You've worked six times with Rafelson, yet there are several key directors of our time you've never worked with. Do you prefer old friends?"

"Well, I don't know. I was going to do Tucker with Francis Coppola. We had a mutual interest in that, but then he had this passing idea to do it as a musical and we parted company. I'd love to work with Scorsese and we talked about the painter in New York Stories - the part Nick Nolte ended up playing. And, of course, Martin has this working relationship with Robert De Niro - maybe the best we have. Oliver Stone talked to me about Nixon, but I told him to think of Warren Beatty. And I think they did talk [Anthony Hopkins got the part]. But I've worked with the best directors - John Huston, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski, Hector Babenco, George Miller, Michelangelo Antonioni - so I think I've been open."

"Watching your films now, I recall how, in the Seventies, even when you were playing doomed figures, there was a kind of fun, energy, merriment in you. Mischief. It just came out of you naturally, and it was like a boyishness that the world loved. But I have felt in recent years an increasing sadness - it's in the face, your look."

"Yes, I think you're near the mark. I don't know the films much better than you do, really - and I don't know if it doesn't have to do with the fact that I can't play boyishness any longer - but, personally, there's a lot of things that are saddening in society at large. Every day something graceful is ground out by mendacity. It's not that we're not more efficient, but there's this contention and polarising. You know, I come from the World War Two era, when a lot of people would look at us and say those people are so full of themselves. But we've lost so much - the night clubs, the city street to walk through, the entertainment value of company. There's no family dining out. It's all fast-food. Conglomeration is dehumanising. That's what's wrong inside the film business, and what's wrong in the culture.

"I don't always confront these things, and I'm not in that way a boy any longer. But I'm still after everybody... I'm still passionate. I had a conversation with a friend last night. I said, you know, I may never make another movie, because I don't know why I'd be doing it. But in reality I'm also sitting here hoping for something big to come along. And you have to be patient. You know, I started writing and producing long before I became a movie star - I drifted away from that position by circumstance and this extremely fortunate life. But I was always an axe-bearing artist. There was attack in all the movies I made in that period.

"But I'm not happy about the polarisation of the genders, the races, the nations. It's all magazine fakeness. And the longer you invest in the popular and untrue fashions and theories, the heavier the price later. The havoc in relationships all comes from the militancy in the feminist movement. You can sweep dust under the rug, but you cannot sweep reality. We get a divorce now if someone looks at another woman. In Europe, they think that's crazy. One of the first things I noticed about Britain was that the men talk to the women socially. That doesn't happen here in Los Angeles. But dealing with the way men and women are together, that's where my creative heart is. It's what I try and support in the work of others as an actor.

"My original writing partner's son - Dean Devlin, son of Don Devlin - was one of the producers of Independence Day and I went to see it, and enjoyed it, and laughed. But a lot of what I was laughing at was that this is a film that neither I nor Don could have conceived of making. In fact, it's a film we were sort of against. And yet both of us, on his son's behalf, are overjoyed. I'm always happy with anyone's success, and after all I originally worked in science fiction (back in the Roger Corman days), but ... I remember, 10 or 15 years ago, I said, `Look, any actor who's still standing in 10 or 15 years, and isn't a robot, is going to be very important!' "

I asked if he would still want to make a film from Henderson the Rain King - a pet project based on Saul Bellow's 1959 novel about a wealthy, successful but disillusioned American who decides to go off to tribal Africa to find fresh challenges.

"Well, I'm almost old enough to play the part! It's one of the few properties I've ever owned, and I had a meeting about it with Saul Bellow, one of my great heroes. We were never able to bring it around. I worry most of the time, and finally my answer to `Why didn't you do this?' is `Because I did that'. And I'm a man who considers himself lazy. I've just done five things in a year. Because I looked at the year and said, well, I really have no life - for one of the first times in my life - nothing, no life. So I laid it out with work, getting away from the pretension of being a diva, and being a workman."

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