Life is Jack's one true love

Actor has enjoyed a good career, if not enduring romance

December 15, 2003|By Joe Neumaier | Joe Neumaier,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Jack Nicholson takes a moment, cocks his head and stubs out his cigar. He's pondering if the lack of an enduring romantic relationship over three decades has been good for him. Or if, perhaps, acting has been his one true love.

And that's when he takes the sunglasses off.

Being unattached, says the famously single Nicholson -- whose new film Something's Gotta Give opened Friday -- allows "mobility, in every sense, even if it's just going to a party. You can come and go at your own tempo. ... But I'm open to the possibility -- always have been, always will be. I think that's what affairs of the heart are about. Almost everybody's happy to be a fool for love."

It's the kind of answer true screen icons know how to provide: a fusing of the public face and the private soul. It's what makes "Jack" more than just a bigger-than-life personality -- who's still got that Cheshire Cat grin, whose eyebrows still boomerang up his forehead when he makes a point -- with an indelible body of work.

In 1969, Nicholson became a star via his supporting role in Easy Rider. Now, at 66, the three-time Oscar winner is at a point that's almost as rewarding for him as was the first half of the 1970s (when he made Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) or the first half of the 1980s (The Shining, Reds, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi's Honor). "Because of the oddness of what appeals to me," he jokes, "I've once again mismanaged myself into the pinnacle of my career."

Among the films Nicholson has made since 1995 are two gritty stories directed by Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) and As Good as It Gets, for which he won his third Oscar. Last year he racked up his 12th Oscar nomination for About Schmidt.

Something's Gotta Give is a romantic comedy co-starring Diane Keaton. Nicholson's role in it -- a legendary music executive who inexhaustibly woos younger women -- contains echoes of his real life.

Nicholson has not only been one of Hollywood's best and most bankable actors for more than 30 years, but one of its unapologetic ladies' men, rarely dating within his age group. After his six-year marriage to Sandra Knight ended in 1968 (the couple had a daughter, Jennifer, in 1963), his liaisons and flings became the stuff of lore. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with Anjelica Huston for more than 15 years, and was involved with B-list actress Rebecca Broussard, who was half his age, from 1989 to 1992 (they had two children -- Lorraine, now 13, and Raymond, 11).

More recently, he dated actress Lara Flynn Boyle, 33 years his junior. They broke up earlier this year. But Nicholson says he resists getting melancholy, about love or anything else.

"To reminisce is an easy trough to fall into," he says. "But it's like when someone asks, `What are you doing for Christmas?' -- my impulse is to say, `Hey, don't rob me of my future!' Because that keeps you from being present right now. And that is the closest thing to religion that I have: to actually be in the here and now. A lot of people can't remember things because they weren't actually there to begin with -- they don't take it all in."

He says he's content with the way he has conducted himself in his career and with his pals. "I haven't ever cheated or lied to somebody inside the business, and Hollywood draws on honesty [despite] being experts in phoniness. ... I have a lot of friends of over 40 years, which a lot of people [don't have] in their life. ... I'm a good friend."

Does he think he has been a good man?

"Well, I'm more comfortable with myself than that!" he says, laughing. "Much more, in fact."

Yet when it comes to being called a great American actor, Nicholson admits to some trepidation. "I'm not as comfortable" with that title, he says. "I'm content with the fact that I made a decent effort. That's what I've always worried about: that I wouldn't try hard enough. You know, it's easy in an interview to say, `Oh, well, I've just been very lucky, right time, right place.' But I studied, I've tried to exercise my own good sense, and I've made the effort. Of course, a lot of people don't get the same opportunities. But a lot of people do, and they don't capitalize on it.

"I [was] conscious enough to have had a plan of some kind. I thought it was a good plan; very little actually went the way I planned it, but most of it went better than I'd hoped. And I'm vainly proud ... that I've been involved with a lot of good movies."

So, has moviemaking been his one great love?

"Acting is more comparable to relationships in the sense that it's one of my great love-hates," he says. "I mean, I'm someone who doesn't like getting up early in the morning, so right there, I've had my moments of `God-doggit!' But really -- life is the great love of my life."

And he has enjoyed it fully?

Nicholson's eyebrows pop up.

"Like a glutton!" he says.

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