Fifty-three. For the average successful American male, it’s definitely not the prime of life. Your body has launched a paunch, your children are taller than you are, you’re dabbling furtively in your wile’s wrinkle cream and nervously eyeing a condo in the Sunbelt. You’ve joined the minoxidil generation and it’s all downhill from here. Are there consolations? A few. You can add sliced peaches to your oat bran. You can sleep with your bank statement. Or you can contemplate the wonder of Jack Nicholson. 

“Hey, I’m well aware that I’m one of the luckiest people who ever lived,” Nicholson noted a few weeks ago, flashing his famous killer smile. At 53, when even megastars like Gable, Stewart, Lancaster and Peck began to dim, the ex-lifeguard from Neptune, N.J., is burning up the Hollywood career track and has clearly lapped the field. For range and brilliance, only the work of Dustin Hoffman rivals his recent performances: the party-hearty astro-nut of Terms of Endearment, the nerdy mafioso of Prizzi’s Honor, the horny Devil of The Witches of Eastwick. And his portrayal of that gaudy fiend, the Joker in Batman, a role that may ultimately stuff $60 million into his already bursting wallet, has made him by far the most powerful actor in Hollywood. “If Jack wanted Canada,” says a top movie agent, “some studio boss would buy it, paint it red and park it in his driveway.” 

Here, in short, is a man who has everything, yet to date he has shown no inclination to rest on his greenbacks. Out of loyalty to friends and to a star-crossed project, he agreed to direct, coauthor and play the leading role in The Two Jakes, the long-delayed sequel to Chinatown, the ultimate film noir of the ’70s. The Two Jakes is a daring attempt to match a masterpiece and at the same time establish the directorial credentials of an actor whose earlier efforts behind the camera, Drive, He Said and Goin’ South, had been less than well received. 

From the struggle that ensued, a subtle, somber thriller emerged. How will the public react? For months the Hollywood gripevine carried depressing bulletins about the picture, and Jack himself seemed to fear its fate at the box office. “Given what’s grabbin’ ’em these days, it’s chancy,” he mused. “This isn’t Die Hard 3. We don’t have a thirty-ton truck that crashes through a brick wall, mows down a row of fruit stands and winds up on top of a three-month-old infant. But what the hell, in whatever I do I like to feel I’ve got a little gamble going.” 

Jack invariably has a little gamble going in his private life. “He’s the old gray wolf of the West,” says a friend. “Given a choice between Jack and Warren Beatty, women prefer Jack two to one.” Though actress Anjelica Huston has been the object of his affections for more than 17 years, Nicholson’s name has also been linked with a score of famous beauties—among them Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton. Michelle Phillips, Susan Anspach and Margaret Trudeau. The man has also maintained a revolving harem of momentary delights. One of them, a British actress named Karen Mayo-Chandler, tattled in a recent issue of Playboy that, Jack is a “nonstop sex machine” who eats peanut butter in bed “to keep his strength up”—a legend the smiling Irishman admits he has “done nothing to discourage.” 

Recently, however, Jack raised the ante in his game of love. While The Two Jakes was in production, he conducted a torrid off-camera love affair with Rebecca Broussard, the 27-year-old actress who plays his secretary. Warm, natural and dreamily beautiful, the lady has hair like tousled light, sky-blue eyes flecked with gold and the kind of see-through skin you can’t buy in a bottle. But what really hooked Jack was something far more deeply interfused. “This one,” he says almost reverently, “is all soul.” 

“He’s like a set of Chinese boxes,” says a close friend. “There’s a Jack inside Jack inside Jack inside Jack.”

Yet in July 1989, when Rebecca became pregnant, Jack was not a happy camper. Twenty-six years had frisked past since his first child was born—Jennifer’s mother is his former wife, actress Sandra Knight—and he was far from ready for a reprise. But as Jack later confided, “I really had no choice in the matter.” Rebecca was ecstatic at the prospect of motherhood, and on April 16 she gave birth to a seven-pound, 14-ounce baby girl who was named Lorraine Broussard Nicholson. 

Jack acknowledged the baby and undertook her support. Hollywood buzzed with speculation. Would the Jack of Hearts actually settle down with the mother of his child and become a devoted daddy? Or would he go right on playing the bull with Hollywood’s prize heifers? Or maybe even backtrack to Anjelica—who had angrily cut off their relationship when word reached her that Rebecca was with child? 

Guessing which way the cat will jump becomes peculiarly difficult when the cat lives all nine lives at once. “He’s like a set of Chinese boxes,” says a close friend. “There’s a Jack inside Jack inside Jack inside Jack.” The sexual athlete, says a woman who knows him intimately, is paradoxically “never macho, never exploitive. He truly respects and loves women.” The all-night roisterer and sampler of controlled substances (“How I do love to play!”) is also a disciplined craftsman. The bellowing booster of the L.A. Lakers has a pinwheel imagination and a poet’s way with words. A longtime friend finds him “human, real and absolutely true to himself,” yet Jack is also a cunning manipulator who plays the Hollywood power game with icy skill. “He’s the mayor of the town,” says Harvey Keitel, the other Jake in The Two Jakes. Lincoln chokes when Jack pinches a penny, but he may suddenly offer the shirt off his back—“Don’t ask him to put out $100 for dinner,” says Harold Schneider, who coproduced The Two Jakes, “but if you need $100,000, there’s no problem.” Jack buys houses for his friends, gives them jobs and pays their medical expenses.

Yet there’s a dark streak in this amiable fellow, and it surfaces in his work. In his most celebrated roles he plays rogues (Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor), renegades (Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or demons (The Shining, The Witches of Eastwick). He’s the antihero of the age, a mocking image of the shadow we all cast, and the fact that we revel in the evil he portrays is further evidence of his complexity and mysterious power. His creative energy is formidable, and to no small degree it is generated by the devils that stoke his internal fires. There is anger in Nicholson’s work, the anger of a Nietzschean naysayer, and a stream of the same negative voltage surges through his private life. Up to now he has refused to shed the ethos of the ’60s, refused to build a life with one woman, refused to create a family, refused to abandon cocaine. 

“I believe in living life to the hilt,” he says with his chin at a jaunty angle, yet in pursuing the romantic dream of absolute freedom and total experience he often seems to have lost touch with his innocence. “I sense a tremendous sadness in him,” says a colleague. “Great longing, great pain. He’s come a long way from the Jersey shore, and he’s left some earlier selves behind. They call out to him, and sometimes he listens. I think he’d be a much happier man if he listened more often. His past is universal, full of stories. It drives his work, and that’s good. But in the last year he’s pushed himself beyond his strength, and he knows it.”

At about one P.M. Jack wanders into his office. He looks awful. His face is ashen with fatigue, his jowls are slack, his eyes are dead grapes. He’s 40 pounds overweight, and he’s wearing a dingy sport shirt and drab gray pants that look like elephant legs. A few discouraged strips of hair cling to his big bald dome. “Hey, Goofy!” he calls out as he collapses on a plump sofa. “How ’bout bringin’ me my drink.” 

“Coming right up!” a woman’s voice calls back cheerily. It’s obvious that Goofy is a term of endearment. 

“Makin’ a movie is like bein’ a lifeguard,” Jack explains. “You gotta watch maybe 300 people at once, and the minute you look away somethin’ could go wrong—and usually does. So I didn’t take time to eat right, mostly just crullers and coffee cake, and I got pretty pudgy.” 

Jack’s assistant, an attractive young woman named Diane Dougherty, arrives with a vase-size glass filled with a strange gray-green fluid that resembles melted rubber. 

“Thanks, Goofy,” Jack says sweetly, then takes a deep breath and drinks the concoction down, grimacing between gulps. “Terrible stuff,” he says, “but it’s doin’ me good. Couple months ago my cholesterol hit a level where I shoulda been spread on bread. I’m still tired and got a right to be. Haven’t had a day off in two years. I came straight off Batman, and then it was one damn thing after another.”

It’s been one damn thing after another since 1985, when The Two Jakes first faced the cameras. It was planned as a loving reunion of the Chinatown team: producer Robert Evans, scriptwriter Robert Towne and actor Nicholson. But love soon flew out the window. Towne, who was to direct, fired Evans, who had agreed to play a leading role, and after two weeks of emotional melee Paramount stopped production. Four years later the project was revived with Nicholson in the director’s chair. 

“I’m not afraid of my own imagination,” he says, “or anybody else’s. Imagination’s full of surprises, and surprises make work exciting.”

Jack cocks a diabolical eyebrow. “You got any idea what it’s like to direct a movie and star in it too? I’ll tell ya. You’re up at six and on the set at eight. You shoot all morning—settin’ up shots, directin’ the actors, playin’ your own part all at the same time. Then you miss lunch ’cause you’re thrashin’ out production problems. In the afternoon you shoot till dark. The actors go home—you don’t. You got two hours of conferences before you look at what you shot the day before. Suddenly it’s midnight, and you haven’t had supper.” 

Jack is up and pacing now. “So you go eat, and if you manage to get home by two A.M. you’re lucky. You’re dead beat, but you can’t go to bed yet. You’re also an actor. You got to study your lines for the next day. So you put out the lights at three, and three hours later the alarm goes off. That’s the normal routine. However, Bob Towne and I had to rewrite the script while we were shootin’, and the only time I could write was in the wee hours. So for about three months I got one, two hours of sleep a night.” (“Filming Jack wasn’t easy,” says director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. “I had to cover up all that weight and use tricks to hide the red in his eyes.”) 

Jack shakes his head, bemused by his memories. “I used to laugh at Stallone. Now I admire him. The Two Jakes is the hardest work I’ve ever done. The whole experience was a specific test of my character.”

Did he pass the test? “I think so. I love the movie. It’s less shockin’ than Chinatown but darker. It comes at you on a lot of levels.” Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? What do these people really want—as compared to what they seem to want? Behind the detective story you can hear the low hum of history. Chinatown was set in the late thirties, when L.A. was just startin’ to grow. The Two Jakes happens in the late forties, when L.A. is about to become a monster. We’re in post-atomic America, and J. J. Gittes is older, heavier, wiser, sadder. 

“He came home from the war a hero, but he’s still catchin’ guys with other guys’ wives. He’s joined a country club—he’s got a fiancée and a handicap. But he’s haunted by the past, by what happened in Chinatown. In The Two Jakes he puts some ghosts to rest. I flatter myself we’ve done an original piece of work. Sure, it’ll be compared to Chinatown, and you can’t win a face-off with a classic. But if we’re half as good, I’m doin’ cartwheels.”

Jack is in a black Irish rage—but you’d never know it. He’s sitting in a darkened screening room, watching scenes that have been color-corrected. He had specifically requested that the colors be low-key, muted, warm. In every frame the colors are high-key, brilliant, cold. What he’s seeing amounts to a technological slap in the face. Yet Jack controls his temper. Ever the shrewd manager, he knows he can get more out of a donkey with a carrot than with a stick. 

Jack’s expression is pleasant as he patiently reissues directions. “Needs to be darker, more toward the end of the day, more golden …. Needs to be richer here, I’d say. We’re goin’ for Van Gogh’s colors …. ” After an hour of grinding frustration, he delivers final instructions. His smile is easy but his eyes are hard. “I’d like you to move in exactly the opposite direction. And, gentlemen, let’s really go for it.” 

Once outside, Nicholson explodes. “Incredible! If this is my first film, I’m vomiting. It’s like they never heard a word I said! They figure I’m an actor, what the hell do I know. Never mind. We play it right, we’ll get what we want.” 

Nicholson is a genius at playing it right. With all his coworkers he is open, warm, respectful. “I wouldn’t mind bein’ the maestro,” he says with a grin, “but somehow it doesn’t suit me. I work better in collaboration. I lead by followin’, you know? I find talented people and then draw on their abilities. Oh, I’m a planner. I make notes on a tape machine and organize every scene on three-by-five cards. But I wanna hear other people’s ideas. When actors are as gifted as Harvey Keitel and Meg Tilly, it’s more interestin’ to throw it open and see what they come up with.” 

Need it be said that actors worship the man? “Being in Jack’s presence is like being in the grip of a great novel,” Keitel declares. “There’s hundreds of people inside him, a whole world. And he can call on all those people when he thrashes a role through.” Tilly is dazzled too. “Jack’s energy is superhuman. Exhausted as he was, he managed to take care of us all. Working with him is like dancing with a really great dancer. It’s magical!” 

Jack’s ability to improvise is in fact awesome. “I’m not afraid of my own imagination,” he says, “or anybody else’s. Imagination’s full of surprises, and surprises make work exciting. I wouldn’t have had the balls to make a picture like Two Jakes that moves slowly, inexorably, and delivers its punch in the last reel. But at a certain point the old creative unconscious took charge, and that’s what I got. I figure I was lucky.”

“My little red house,” Jack calls it. It sits at the base of a cliff a thousand feet high, and a wild little mountain river plunges past his terrace. In a neighbor’s meadow a hundred horses graze and cavort, and when he lazes in the hot tub next to his pool Jack can see in the distance a perfect snow-capped peak. “I don’t allow no movie talk around here. This is where I come to heal.” 

After just one day at his retreat in the mountains near Aspen, Colo., Jack looks almost healthy again. Sounds of cooing and gurgling drift in from the next room. “You know,” Jack says softly, “some people score, and they don’t know it. When I score, I know it. At my time of life I get to watch the evolution of a pure new being, totally natural, totally without guile.” 

Rebecca strolls in, carrying her baby. They look glorious together, a Botticelli Madonna and child. Jack jumps up and coos, “Hellooooo, Liddy Pooooo! Luddy Puuuuug! Oooooooo, she’s a perfect baby!” 

Rebecca beams. “Look! She smiled! She stopped crying!” 

Jack beams too. “Oh, she sooooo beautiful!” 

Can this be the hit man who flipped a stiletto into Kathleen Turner’s larynx? 

“Say bye-bye,” Rebecca burbles. “Tell Daddy we’re going for a little walk now.” 

“Bye-bye, Liddy Pooooo!” 

Back in his armchair, Jack interprets.”Now there is the soul in its purest form. She really communicates. And what she’s communicating is the raw stuff of existence. She’s right out front, life without tactics. She goes straight from a laugh to a shriek, and nobody would ever say she’s being extreme. She’s just being. He sighs. “When I hold that tiny, fragile head in my hands, everything else tumbles to gibberish.” 

“You can have terrible fights with people you love and entertaining dinners with people you hate. Friendship is tenacious. I’m not at all comfortable with the concept of ex-friend.”

Is this a new Jack, a man determined to rebuild his life? The impression continues to grow as Jack speaks of Rebecca. “She’s great—just great! All the way,” he says with deep feeling. Will their relationship continue? He smiles happily. “You got a baby, you bet the relationship will continue.” Will he be involved with other women? Suddenly the room chills and the mask goes on. There is anger behind it. He chooses his words carefully. “I’m genuinely where I’m at, and whoever I’m relating to knows that. I’m not going to misrepresent who I am or what I feel for any seductive reasons, so I’m not anticipating conflicts in that area. It’s like Nietzsche said. If the model of your ethical life is defeating you, change the model.” 

What exactly does that mean? A friend elucidates: “Rebecca’s Number One, but they live in separate houses in L.A., and he does see other women.” Another friend adds: “Jack really loves this lady a lot. How could he not? But Jack can’t give himself to one woman. He loves them all. I’m sure he still loves Anjelica—and always will.” Mask still on, Jack puts it this way: “I still have a deep and ongoing affection for Anjelica.” But events have opened a gulf between them. “It hurts Anjelica to deal with Jack now,” says someone who knows both of them well, “and it’s hard on Jack too. I don’t think they speak privately, not even on the phone. We all believe they’ll heal the breach somehow, but at the moment Anjelica’s not a happy woman.”

Rebecca is radiant. She’s been asked to talk about her baby, and the words come tumbling out. “Her cheeks are so fat! They must weigh five pounds apiece. She sleeps all night. I just lie there and stare at her for hours. I can’t even believe how much I love that little girl. Jack can’t get enough of her. You know, she’s already coy with him. She flirts! Sometimes I feel like I’m just the chow wagon.” 

Rebecca says she met Jack in New York in 1983. Raised in Kentucky, she was plucked out of the University of Louisville to become a New York model. She moved to L.A. after Jack signed her to play his secretary in the 1985 production of The Two Jakes. Since then she’s made TV commercials and worked as a movie extra. The Two Jakes is her big break. “Jack was so patient,” she says. “When I couldn’t get something right he worked with me until I did. Jack thinks I should build my career slowly. Anyway, I’m a new mother now, so it’s not a priority.” 

Warm feelings stream out of Rebecca when she speaks about Jack. “He’s very strong yet very vulnerable. The public doesn’t realize how gentle and caring he is.” Jack was there, she says, “through the whole birth. I was in labor for six hours, and I thought I was going to die. But he got me through. So now I have a healthy baby, and there’s so much love around me.”

How does she feel about the fact that Jack sees other women? The flow of words abruptly shuts down. Jack the naysayer is an almost palpable presence in the room. “I’d really rather not talk about my relationship with Jack,” she says. “I think that should be private.” 

Jack slips on his Ray-Bans, throws a leg over his sleek black Harley-Davidson and goes roaring through the back country. The road ends at a tiny lake, a blue jewel set in a ring of red peaks streaked with snow. 

He gestures toward the mountains. “That’s one reason I love Aspen. Plus, you can ski. And I love my little house. Home to me is a six-room apartment. One room in Beverly Hills, one in Aspen, one at the Carlyle in New York, one at the Connaught in London, a couple hotel rooms in Paris. This is no attempt to view myself as a world colossus. It’s just a fact of my life as a movie actor. Everything in between those places is my property—I just don’t know the groundkeepers very well.” 

Jack says friends visit him often in Aspen. “I’m not a cronyist, but my friends are very important to me. If a friendship is vital, it’s subject to change. In fact, it’s vital only if it does change. A woman I once knew said a wise thing. ‘Never fight with anybody you don’t love.’ You can have terrible fights with people you love and entertaining dinners with people you hate. Friendship is tenacious. I’m not at all comfortable with the concept of ex-friend.” 

Do career pressures interfere with friendship? “If I let that happen, I’d feel it as a defeat. You don’t give up your life for an individual activity. Don’t get me wrong. My career is important to me. I’ve been in a good position for a long time. The thing is not to destroy that position, yet to do movies that aren’t necessarily just about the money they make. I’ll give you an example. I don’t know diddly about opera, but the hair stands up on my neck and arms whenever I hear Maria Callas sing. I want to make a movie about her and I want Anjelica to play the part. She could lip-synch while Callas sings. God, she would be magnificent! 

He stares up at the huge red teeth that bite into the sky. The view is celestial. It seems the right moment to ask about his religious feelings. “I envy all those who have faith, but unlike a very fine dinner, it’s not for sale. I don’t have conflicts about it. What I know, I know. What I don’t, I don’t.” Then his voice fills with feeling. “One thing I do know. Love is at the heart of life. Love a woman, love a child, love a country—it fills your life. It’s like Bertrand Russell said. Love is everything. All the rest is standing on the edge and staring into the abyss.” It’s clear from his tone of voice that he has done a lot of staring into the abyss. 

A group of hikers interrupts Jack’s reverie. “You’re a great actor, Jack,” someone calls out. “One of the best.” 

The eyebrow cocks. The wicked grin glides across Jack’s face. “Oh?” Jack murmurs. “Just one of the best?”

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