INTERVIEW / Great film, Jack, now let's talk about you: Jack Nicholson

THERE'S always a bit of messing around when you do superstars - conditions laid down, complicated arrangements that you fear will go wrong should the superstar wake up grumpy on the day and say bugger it, I ain't doing nothing. Jack Nicholson was only in London for two days on a private visit, but to help along his new film, Hoffa, which opens on 19 March, he'd agreed to do just two interviews. I had to see the film first, at a private viewing in Soho, at 10.30. In the morning? No, evening. Oh, cripes. That's when I have my cocoa and go to bed.

I saw the film, and Mr Nicholson is brilliant. Unquote. His performance as the controversial American union boss Jimmy Hoffa is remarkable.

The appointment was at Claridges. He was standing in front of the television, watching golf. 'My hero,' he said pointing to Seve Ballesteros. A bit plump round the tum, quite tall, just under six feet, tanned and healthy-looking, compared to Hoffa, in which he mostly looks awful - his face battered, eyes puffy. He was wearing a shapeless woollen shirt, baggy trousers, golfing socks and fake leopard-skin shoes, bought eight at a time in the King's Road, Chelsea, some years ago.

'You won't talk about the film,' he said, sitting down, lighting up. Excuse me? 'They never do. They never talk about the film.' He was flashing his half-mocking, half-menacing smile, the one he can turn on with the curl of a lip, the one his fans know from his 40-odd films, the one that excites women, makes you smile, makes you shiver.

'And because THEY NEVER TALK ABOUT THE FILM,' he said, going into headlines, 'I'm putting these on.' These were heavy Ray-Bans, so big and dark that they practically covered his face. 'I only want to be photographed with these on. OK?'

Mr Nicholson has a complicated way of talking, amusing enough, charming enough, but often incoherent, so you can't tell whether he is being pretentious or sending himself up. 'For years it was my teeth. That's all photographers ever wanted to see. Now it's my eyebrows. It's an example of Reichian particularism. People are dismembered in order to negate them. With a woman, they pick out one tit, one leg, and show each part, one at a time. It's to stimulate the fetishness in the mass mind.' If you say so, Jack.

'So, if you can't see my face, you'll have to talk about the film. OK?'

More big smiles. 'Actually, I don't do promotional interviews these days. I have that written into my contract, unless it's a film I have a share in. I haven't got a share in Hoffa. See, I know how to mention the film in every sentence, when I want to. I'm doing this interview to help Danny (Danny De Vito, the film's co-star and director). And I chose the Independent because it's my favourite paper when I'm here.' Creep.

'It's the first film I've done about a real-life person. I was able to watch old newsreels and I met his son. I adopted a higher-pitched voice as he got older, did you notice that? Basically, all I ever try to do is be in good movies, but now and again a part comes along which is an actor's part, which has drama in the character. It was hard to do, but very stimulating. My main object was the same as ever - to make it look easy. I think it's the best thing I've ever done.'

More self-mocking, pursing his lips, waiting for me to say I bet you say that all the time. Instead I said oh come on, take those stupid specs off. I can't see your face. And he did.

He's 55, born in New Jersey. Until the age of 37, he thought he'd had a conventional upbringing, too boring to write about. 'And I once tried, but couldn't find much to say, except that my mother had a very good job, making dollars 5,000 a year from a beauty parlour. She was a top businesswoman.'

Then it transpired that his parents were not his parents but his grandparents. And June, whom he'd looked upon as his big sister, some 16 years older, was in fact his mother. A classic case of a family hiding illegitimacy. Very common, pre-war. His real father, a drunken Irishman, had done a bunk.

'I first heard the true story from Time magazine. They were doing some research on my family. They never actually wrote about it, but they told me. At first I kept it secret. But my grandparents and mother are all dead. It doesn't matter now.' Do you think it affected your personality? 'Nope. I think I would have been the same. I was always against authority, hated being told anything by my teachers, by parents, by anyone. At school I created a record by being in detention every day for a whole year. Today, I suppose I'm still in love with what I think. I don't like listening to what other people think. I wish I could listen to people more.'

At 17 he ran away to California, not to get into films, but initially to spend a holiday with his sister-mother, then living there. 'I always meant to go back and go to college, but after a year I decided to stay and try to be an actor.' Because you thought you had talent? 'I've always been talented. At everything.' More big smiles. 'I got high marks in all tests. I could have been a sports writer, which I was thinking about, or a lawyer, if I'd wanted to. Perhaps not a scientist, though I was in the top 2 per cent in maths.'

He became a tea boy with a film company, worked in the cartoon department for another, attended acting lessons in his spare time. He got parts in cheapo B movies, often westerns, some of which he helped to produce and direct. By the age of 32 he was always in work, but not great work. 'It's the worst possible position for an actor. I was making a living, everyone who knew me said I was good, but everyone who knew me said I wouldn't make it - because I hadn't made it so far - I think that's worse than being totally unknown. Of course I suffered, the normal story of angst, but I'd already decided I'd direct instead.'

That was his aim when, in 1969, he won a small part in Easy Rider and stole the film. 'It wasn't till Cannes, when I saw my character going on, and I could feel the audience's reaction, that I knew that was it, I'd made it.'

He's been a star ever since. Even when he's chosen to do cameo roles, the mark of a truly confident actor. He married early and divorced early, and has a daughter aged 28. Then began a sequence of affairs, too well known, too boring to recount. When did you first realise you were attractive?

'If you think you're attractive, you're always attractive.'

Yes, but you're not Robert Redford. Before you were famous, did you have difficulties with girls?

'What do you mean?'

Well, Paul McCartney once told me how at the height of Beatlemania, when girls were climbing through every bedroom window, he left the besieged hotel, put on an old coat and went to a fairground, where he tried to pick up a girl. And failed.

'That's a troubadour's legend,' he said, lighting up again. 'It's for unknown people, to make them feel better. I never had any problems, apart from the usual teenage worries. I had terrible acne and my face was a mess. Then in my middle years in high school I was, let's say, stout. When I started going out with girls, I did the usual things we all did in the Fifties - shooting off into the girl while you're dancing with her.

'I remember being proud of my hair. I was so good at doing my DA I used to comb the hair for the other guys. Brylcreem was my best friend.' When did it start thinning?

'In my early thirties they were describing me as a 'balding, rumpled young actor'. The people who wrote that stuff are now total baldies. I haven't lost much since - I quite like my hair. Yes, it's all real. What you see is what there is.

'Today, obviously, I have no problem finding girls, because I now have the entree, but the world has changed. We have lost our innocence and freedom. Now we think, will this be the death fuck? There is a fear of pleasure. Sex now has to be preceded by a medical examination. I can't deal with those sort of negatives as a form of foreplay. Before you take a girl to bed these days you have to have a medical discussion about the plague. So I don't bother so much.

'The other day in Paris I was with Warren Beatty and three other guys, all Playboys of the Western World, and guess what we talked about? Babies.'

He has recently had a daughter, Lorraine, by the actress Rebecca Broussard. In California, he takes Lorraine to school each day and says she is now the main passion in his life.

'I'm writing a daily diary to her, which I'll give her when she grows up. Last night I wrote to her about being in London. No, I can't tell you, but if I say I'm having a nervous breakdown, I'll end the day by saying 'all falls for love'.'

It then came out that he doesn't live with Rebecca or his daughter, although they live nearby. Why?

'Oi, oi,' he said, in his best Jewish accent. 'It reminds me of a French film I saw, about this married man whose wife leaves him, his friend leaves him, everyone leaves him, because all he wants to talk about is his problems. You've probably got your own. You don't need mine. Let's just say that we have personal differences of opinion. My problem is that when I'm happy I become arrogant and provocative, volatile, difficult to live with. Will that do?'

At work, though, no one says a bad word against him. They praise his intelligence, professionalism and financial acumen. Batman earned him dollars 50m (pounds 35m). His fee for a normal film is dollars 10m. He feels no guilt, he denies that people like him are ruining the business.

'I can only think of three films out of my 40 which didn't get their money back - Ironweed and The King of Marvin Gardens. Goin' South, which I directed in 1978, didn't make money at the time, but last year I started getting royalties. I am probably the most successful actor in the history of movies, financially speaking. I only wish the world would listen to me more, instead of bothering about my teeth and eyebrows. It reminds me of a character in a Saul Bellow story who's been in a hit show on a Broadway for a year, attracting a huge public, yet he's taught them nothing.'

But why should the world listen to actors, however successful? 'The Pope was an actor, and so was a recent President of the United States. We all have things to say.' Come on, then, what would you like to say?

'I predicted 15 years ago that the Russians and Americans would end up allies, but no one wrote that down. I say that drugs have to be legalised, because they're ruining the political and legal system. I say that the power of television has to be stopped. I hope that Clinton, after his rough start, will settle down and transcend the power of television. We now have government by sound bite. No man is bigger than the television, not even the President of the United States. Television determines the schedule, who sits where and what's said. It's monstrous.'

He's also worried about films becoming more violent and pornographic. 'I hoped the audience would react against what's happening, and turn the business round, but audiences are becoming less literate. I haven't done so well as a director because I tried to do literate films. I think films should inform you about life, not just show violence. I worry about where movies are going. It doesn't matter to me. I can run away. I don't need the money. I'm fine.'

Did the imminent Oscars cheer him, especially one awfully nice British film?

'Howards End is the brainy person's favourite picture of the year, so it's bound to win something. It's very well done, to the last second. I don't think as highly of The Crying Game as everyone else - I didn't care for the acting, except for Miranda Richardson. She's terrific. I've tried to get her in my films, and hope I'll persuade her some time. Damage I think is wet. Quite an interesting novel, but as a film it's soppy.'

As for his own film future, he'd like something sexual and sensual about the middle aged, people such as himself, who still have relationships.

'Our parents' generation were ancient at our age, past it. We are more active, take greater care of ourselves. We're the 'new old', but people don't make films about us.'

In the meantime, he's agreed to do a film called Wolf, to be directed by Mike Nichols, along with Michelle Pfeiffer and Mia Farrow.

'I can't tell you what it's about, but I'm the eponymous protagonist. After that, I don't know. I've stopped saying 'this will be my last film'. I've said 'this is the last time' too many times already. About films, and many other things. Anyway, nice meeting you. I was right. YOU HAVEN'T TALKED ABOUT THE FILM . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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