Jack Nicholson without the smirk

The Oscar-winner says `About Schmidt' is his least vain performance

January 06, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

His beloved NBA Lakers are wheezing, but Jack Nicholson is thriving. In basketball terms, the 65-year-old actor is in the fourth quarter of his career. Yet he seems to be handling it with the savvy of a veteran point guard: all the right moves to compensate for a lost step.

Nicholson wisely resurrected his humility in his latest movie, About Schmidt, which opened Friday. It wasn't easy.

Warren Schmidt, the title character, doesn't date beautiful women nearly four decades his junior. He doesn't flash self-conscious smirks. He sports a big belly and a small wardrobe.

"I couldn't look at myself in the mirror the whole three months I was doing this picture because I thought I would never return to myself," Nicholson said. "Schmidt's a very sedentary American. This is the least vain performance I've ever given."

Schmidt retires from the insurance game and begins to assess life beyond actuarial tables. His wife's sudden death intensifies his seeking. Clinging to immediate purpose - his daughter, Jeannie, is about to marry a mullet-wearing boob in Denver - Schmidt captains his Winnebago from Omaha to the wedding.

But, of course, the journey is more for Schmidt to find himself. Writing letters to a Tanzanian orphan whose name he can't even pronounce, Schmidt putters through a bleak Midwest landscape like a marooned astronaut tethered to the world only by his unhappiness.

"Schmidt is a miserable man to inhabit," Nicholson said. "Worse than any drama I've ever done. Everything goes wrong. He's a liar. He hates his wife. He's ashamed to tell everybody he hates his wife. He unloads his heart to some abstract child in Africa. He's a middle-brain mess."

Nicholson balked at the idea of playing a pensioner for the second straight film after The Pledge. Both films begin with retirement parties at which Nicholson seems to be having an out-of-body experience.

But director Alexander Payne (Election) convinced him the moment was pivotal. For Nicholson to pull off the role, the director needed Hollywood's most enduring rogue to embrace being pathetic.

"Any vanity he seems to have seems to come out of being vain enough to be most truthful to the character he's playing," Payne said.

Nicholson's reputation as good-guy bad boy remains intact, although he hasn't impaled a 9-iron into another motorist's windshield since 1994. His clipped speech and his sneer are as indelible as the visages on Mount Rushmore. He is more imitated than any celebrity north and south of Mulholland Drive.

"I always work with very strong directors," he said. "They don't want whoever you actually are. `Don't give me Jack.' That's pretty consistent with them."

Something has worked. Nicholson has been nominated 11 times for Oscars and won three (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets). He has said that 85 percent of what an actor offers is himself. The remaining 15 percent makes the difference. His role as Schmidt began with a daily comb-over before he slipped into Schmidt's petty existence.

Perhaps it is a turning point that Nicholson was not cast as the curmudgeon who can still reel in the babes. Even in The Pledge, Nicholson's scheming gumshoe earned the romantic trust of Robin Wright Penn, now 36. This time his romantic other is 67-year-old June Squibb, who plays the departed Mrs. Schmidt.

"I thought that was probably the most subtly revolutionary thing about the movie - to have my spouse be my age," he said.

One of the movie's more overt touches was a nude Kathy Bates, as his daughter's future mother-in-law, coming on to him in a hot tub at her home.

"It's not a flattering thing for her, and I really admire the way she acted that scene," he said. "There was not a flicker of reservation about it. If it was me, I'd be dying, but you know, I'm vain."

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