Jack Nichols is singing “Three Blind Mice” for his visitor. Actually, singing might be the wrong word for the eerie droning intonations he’s producing; it sounds more like ritual chanting.

Nicholson is emitting these strange sounds while standing in the middle of the living room of his home on top of one of the Hollywood Hills— a hilltop he shares with Marlon Brando, although Brando’s house is on somewhat higher ground.

In order to generate these particular noises, Nicholson has assumed a posture that suggests his post-shock-treatment mode in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His arms hang limply at his sides, his shoulders droop into a posture that verges on the simian. His jaw is slack, his face drained of expression. To his left, out beyond the glass wall of his living room, the canyons of Hollywood are beginning to redden with the sunset. To his right, on the opposite wall, is one of his Picassos— an interesting early Cubist work that looks to be a painting of a painting of a woman. And from Nicholson’s middle comes pouring out, in deep, resonant, utterly uninflected, cello tones:


He is not, of course, attempting to impress his visitor with heretofore hidden talents as a crooner. What is Jack Nicholson up to? He says he’s demonstrating a Method acting exercise he learned from his second acting teacher, Martin Landau.

“I sang ‘Three Blind Mice’ for two years in his class,” Nicholson says, grinning with a mixture of pride and rue. “It’s an exercise Lee Strasberg invented, the song exercise, and the purpose of it is what’s known as ‘diagnosis of the instrument.’ The job is to stand relaxed in this position, look directly at the class, and sing a song, preferably a nursery rhyme, in such a way that you make each syllable have a beginning and an end. You just do the syllable, not the tempo of the song or the meaning. And you elongate. The idea is to get the physical body, the emotional body and the mental body into neutral. Then you should be able to hear through the voice what’s actually happening inside. I’m sure you heard some changes in my voice—it’s a way of locating the tensions, the tiny tensions, the problems with your instrument that get in the way of getting into a role.” He reaches back and grabs his buttocks with both hands. “One of the main ones everyone’s got is … ” he grins, “heinie tension. It’s an indescribable kind of thing, this exercise, but I guarantee I can tell you what kind of actor you are from hearing you do ‘Three Blind Mice.’ ”

In fact, it is possible to say something about what kind of actor Jack Nicholson is from hearing him perform “Three Blind Mice.” He’s one of those fanatic believers in the method and mystique of the craft of acting, an actor who, even during the dozen lean years in Hollywood when he was doing only B pictures, D pictures, biker epics and schlock, would nonetheless devotedly go from acting teacher to acting teacher seeking truth the way others of his generation would go from guru to guru or shrink to shrink.

The tendency of those who watch Nicholson on screen and read about his colorful private life is to see him as an “instinctual” actor, as opposed to, say, Dustin Hoffman, Nicholson’s chief rival for recognition as premier film actor of his era, who is known for his methodical, cerebral approach to a role. While Hoffman has become known as some kind of demon for actorish preparation, Nicholson is merely seen as some kind of demon.

He jokes about it. “I’ve been studying to play the Devil,” he says of his next project, the role of John Updike’s Mephistophelean rogue, Darryl Van Horne, in The Witches of Eastwick. “Of course, a lot of people think I’ve been preparing for it all my life,” he adds with a suitably demonic grin.

Still, the view of Nicholson as an instinctual, easy rider of an actor relying on some high-octane-powered “natural gift” misses an essential element of his creative identity: the side of him that would sedulously sing “Three Blind Mice” for two years, that is constantly “diagnosing his instrument.” This is a man who still analyzes his roles in terms of Strasbergian “polarities,” who, during those lean years, would sit around in Los Angeles coffee houses for hours discussing Stanislavskian metaphysics with similarly inclined cinema theorists, who would use their meager earnings from biker epics like Hell’s Angels on Wheels to support themselves while making austere Beckett-like nouvelle vague “westerns.”

If Nicholson’s film persona tends toward world-weary disillusion and cool cynicism, Nicholson himself is still the kind of excitable acting-theory enthusiast who is capable of great earnestness on the subject; capable, for instance, of suddenly pushing back his dining-room chair and leaping up from the table to paraphrase Camus on the actor’s life:

“The actor is Camus’s ideal existential hero, because if life is absurd, and the idea is to live a more vital life, therefore the man who lives more lives is in a better position than the guy who lives just one.”

“Right about the time of Easy Rider,” he says, “I had gotten myself locked right into the sociological curl— like a surf rider— and I found I could stay right in there, ride this, and cut back against it.”

He’s also capable of confiding to an interviewer that he believes “the actor is the litterateur of his era,” meaning that the actor is capable of “writing,” even shaping the inner history of his age through his choice of roles and how he plays them.

And a case could be made that Nicholson has inscribed an idiosyncratic character on the face of our age, one that has reflected and shaped the contemporary personality in the way that only a very few film actors have done. “There is James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda,” says director Mike Nichols, who worked with Nicholson on Carnal Knowledge as well as Heartburn, which opens July 25. “After that, who is there but Jack Nicholson?”

In the same way that men of earlier generations imitated Cagney and Bogart, incorporated their mannerisms and attitudes into a version of the American male personality, few men between the ages of 25 and 50 in America today have not delivered a line with some imitation or caricature of Nicholson’s trademark, mocking, deadpan drawl. You can also see his influence in William Hurt’s disenchanted character in The Big Chill and, more remotely, in David Letterman’s acid, deadpan demeanor.

In part, it’s been a matter of timing, a confluence of the content of Nicholson’s roles with the concerns of the baby boom generation, growing out of adolescence into adulthood. While Marlon Brando’s and James Dean’s naive rebelliousness could be models for teens in the silent generation of the 50’s, Nicholson’s characters embody the modulations those adolescent attitudes must undergo to survive the disillusion of adulthood.

Nicholson is aware of the fortuitous timing that brought the roles he created into sync with the generational realities.

“Right about the time of Easy Rider,” he says, “I had gotten myself locked right into the sociological curl— like a surf rider— and I found I could stay right in there, ride this, and cut back against it.”

Staying ahead of the sociological curl means the search for projects in which he can play what he likes to call “cusp characters.”

“I like to play people that haven’t existed yet, a future something, a cusp character. I have that creative yearning. Much in the way Chagall flies figures into the air— once it becomes part of the conventional wisdom, it doesn’t seem particularly adventurous or weird or wild …. ”

And it can be argued that the particular cusp Nicholson’s characters are most frequently found on is that painful one between illusion and disillusion. His most memorable characters are fallen angels of one sort or another, whether in the guise of a grounded astronaut (Terms of Endearment), disenchanted Don Juans (Carnal Knowledge and Heartburn), self-destructive artists (Five Easy Pieces and Reds), defeated rebels (Cuckoo’s Nest and Easy Rider), disaffected writers (The Shining and The Passenger), or various embittered romantics. Of the latter, his role as J.J. Gittes, the disillusioned private investigator in Chinatown, may have the most lasting resonance. The shattering discovery Gittes makes at the end of the movie— that beneath the deepest levels of political corruption is something even darker and more frightening, the ineradicable corruption of the human heart— gave that 1974 film the added dimension of being a kind of farewell to arms for 60’s idealism.

Stanley Kubrick, the director, has said of Nicholson that he brings to a role the one unactable quality— great intelligence. And it was fascinating in the course of visiting Nicholson and discussing his work to see that intelligence at work preparing for one of his greatest challenges, playing the ultimate fallen angel, the Devil himself.

“Take a look at this,” he demands, shoving a huge, musty tome into my hands. He takes it back  and opens it up.

“It’s Dante’s Inferno, and these are the original Gustave Dore illustrations. Look at that,” he says pointing to an etching of a bat-winged demon tormenting a soul in some lower circle of hell.

He’s been immersing himself in the subject: “Aquinas and all those people discuss this, but they never arrive at a definition of evil, which I found interesting. The only thing they could come up with was that you couldn’t define the principle because it was always a paradox of opposites.”

He has fairly high ambitions for his performance. “When I played Carnal Knowledge, I knew that women weren’t going to like me for a while. That was a given. I’m going to play the Devil, and I don’t want to play him safely. I want people to think Jack Nicholson is the Devil. I want them to be worried.”

A bit later he takes up the Witches screenplay and opens to a passage of dialogue to explain how he breaks down a script. The page of dialogue he opens to is a seduction scene between his character, Darryl Van Horne, and one of the witches, to be played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Nicholson has affixed numbers from 1 to 4 along the margins of this particular page, and he explains that each number represents a single “beat,” or moment of response, in a scene. The first thing he does with a script is divide it up into “beats and measures”— a measure being a sequence of beats— to get at the fundamental rhythm of the part before playing it in rehearsals.

Beyond breaking down the script, what Nicholson is also doing at this point is looking for some “secret” to the role, some inner emotional dynamic, a prop, a piece of business, that captures for him the essence of his character’s nature.

“I have secrets in all these parts,” he says. In fact, he’s particularly pleased with himself today because he thinks he has made a breakthrough to the secret in Witches.

“I’ve come up with a dynamic I think is devilishly clever,” he says, a dynamic that has to do with his relation to his three co-stars, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher and Susan Sarandon. “I’m going to impregnate this artificial world we’re creating with that dynamic.”

Asked to get more specific, he starts to, then has a change of heart and demands that this secret not be divulged. “I’ll feel revealed ….  That’s a very primary thing I was taught— you never give these secrets out, certainly not before you’ve done the thing, because you’ll feel exposed, the mystery …. ”

Well then, he is asked, what about revealing some “secrets” of previous roles? Surprisingly, he agrees.

“All right. The secret to Cuckoo’s Nest— and it’s not in the book— my secret design for it was that this guy’s a scamp who knows he’s irresistible to women and in reality he expects Nurse Ratched to be seduced by him. This is his tragic flaw. This is why he ultimately fails. I discussed this with Louise,” he says, referring to his co-star, Louise Fletcher. “I discussed this only with her. That’s what I felt was actually happening with that character— it was one long, unsuccessful seduction which the guy was so pathologically sure of.”

It’s a particularly interesting “secret” because what seems distinctive about Nicholson’s Oscar-winning performance in Cuckoo’s Nest, what distinguishes his Randle Patrick McMurphy from Ken Kesey’s hero, is the suggestion of a dark side, a pathological impulse behind the drive for pure liberation, a self-absorbed quality that ignores the destruction that “liberation” can bring upon more fragile souls.

“One of the secrets of Chinatown,” says Nicholson, continuing, “is that there was a kind of triangular offstage situation. I had just started going with John Huston’s daughter, which the world might not have been aware of, but it could actually feed the moment-to-moment reality of my scene with him.”

“Are you sleeping with her?” intones Nicholson, in an unmistakable imitation of John Huston’s line from that scene. Nicholson shifts again: “Throw me another picture.” “What about your Eugene O’Neill in Reds?”

“One of the keys that unlocked O’Neill for me was the fact that he couldn’t write with anything but a pencil. He couldn’t adapt to the typewriter. He couldn’t dictate.” And so, Nicholson says, when O’Neill came down with a degenerative disease, “he literally couldn’t hold the pencil. I mean, there’s something very sensual about lead coming off the pencil. It’s one of the purest feelings.”

Impure feelings entered into his O’Neill characterization also. “I’ll tell you another secret from Reds. That poem I gave to Miss Keaton. I wrote a real poem that was extremely revealing.” The scene is a climactic one between Nicholson and Diane Keaton, who plays Louise Bryant. He gives her a poem in an envelope only to hear that she’s abandoning him for John Reed, played by Warren Beatty. Nicholson’s poem was “in that envelope when I gave it to her on camera. It’s the kind of thing no one else sees, but you know it’s there. And believe me, I did not misplace that prop.

Nicholson played writers in four films and no actor has captured so well the dark side of the writer’s disposition, the special bitterness and melancholy, even horror of it.

“Here’s another example. No one knows it, it didn’t matter to the character, but I wore the exact same glasses that my father wore for that part in Easy Rider. It’s not necessarily meant for a result but for what it does for you.”

What it does for you: only a slight knowledge of Nicholson’s family background is required to guess at what seeing the world through his father’s glasses might do for him emotionally. The person he knew as his father was a bright, gentle man who pickled his early promise in alcohol, not unlike the good-natured but weak Southern lawyer, George Hanson, who comes to such a brutally disillusioning end in Easy Rider. “What about Prizzi’s Honor?” Nicholson is asked. “Well, Prizzi— what I recall to be the secret there is actually something more that you hope to get across by inference. It’s a kind of observation that I’ve made about the difference between a street mentality and a jail mentality. People talk about— ‘Oh, he’s a street person, he can get along …. ’ But the difference between the street mentality and the jail mentality is that street mentality gets eaten alive in jail. And jail mentality— that covers like a blanket the mind of a killer. That slightly deeper level of reality. You know there’s no angels in there to save you. And if you’re in that head and someone else is not— well they’re like under a magnifying glass,” he says, holding out an imaginary specimen and regarding it with the dead, cold stare of his Charley Partanna character in Prizzi.

“You can’t help sit here and wonder and say—” he drops into his Charley Partanna Brooklynese, “Who cares so much about this?”

“You know, the first thing that John Huston said to me on this was”— and now he’s doing John Huston’s voice—“ ‘It seems to me, Jack, everything you’ve done is informed by intelligence. And you can’t have that with this film. It’s got to be dumb, very dumb.’ He said, ‘I’ve got an idea. I think you should wear a wig, a bad wig.’ ”

Nicholson resisted the bad wig idea but, “I took a certain level of intelligence away from the character.”

“Tell me about Five Easy Pieces. What was the hidden dynamic there?”

“Well, the fact that I was playing it as an allegory of my own career is the secret there: ‘Auspicious beginnings.’ ”

Those words are from the famous scene in which Nicholson’s character has a final conversation with his stroke-paralyzed father. He’s trying to explain to his father, who can’t speak (making it a wrenching, one-sided conversation), the mess he’s made of his life, why he abandoned his promising early career as a classical pianist to play Prince Hal among the rednecks on the oil rigs of Bakersfield, Calif.

“I guess you’re wondering what happened to me after my auspicious beginnings,” he says to his father, and suddenly begins to sob.

It was undoubtedly Nicholson’s breakthrough scene in a leading role, and it’s a particularly interesting one because that dialogue doesn’t exist in the shooting script of Five Easy Pieces, the 1970 film directed by Bob Rafelson. In fact, in Nicholson’s copy, I found a whole different speech, which he had energetically crossed out. In the margin, he had scrawled: “Something else?”

He tells the story of the search for that “something else.” There was a crisis on the set the morning the scene was to be shot, he recalls. “I’m in conflict with Rafelson, because he fears my lacking ‘sentimentality.’ He’s always afraid I’m going to make the character too tough and too unapproachable for an audience. So we were down to a few scenes and he was nakedly now saying to me, ‘Hey, I want you to cry in this movie.’ Now that’s one thing, as an actor, you never say. You don’t go for an emotion— or one doesn’t if they work the way I do. And this is the last kind of direction you want to hear. But,” he sighs, “everything is not class. This is the professional game.

“So we were out on the field where we shot it, and I wrote it that morning. I tried to get all of what I thought— as you know, I’ve been a writer also, I know why writers fear the thematic scene, and so I tried to get it down to the least amount of verbiage. And that phrase ‘auspicious beginnings’ is what I thought the guy was all about.”

The crisis produced what he recognizes as one of his finest moments, something more than an auspicious beginning. “On take one, away I went. And I think it was a breakthrough. It was a breakthrough for me as an actor, for actors. I don’t think they’d had this level of emotion, really, in almost any male character until that point. You know, an actor hears the difference where an actor touches that level of emotion for real. So that’s part of the creative process.”

In fact, it’s such a strong memory for him, “I can see the grass on the hill and I know what the air was like and I can remember that day and what happened after we went on.”

Jack Nicholson is playing the violin. Here again, “playing” is a bit misleading. He’s sawing away at his instrument under the intermittent guidance of a violin teacher he’s hired. It’s part of his preparation for playing the Devil, who in Witches displays mesmerizing skill on the violin, among other accomplishments.

In the film, of course, the violin music will be dubbed over, but Nicholson has been studying the motions so he’ll be able to make it look like he’s playing. The lesson is taking place in the smaller building on the Nicholson compound, a combination guest house and rec room dominated by a massive array of weight-training equipment. (Nicholson’s been on a health kick recently, employing a personal trainer.) The sound of Nicholson sawing away on the fiddle has brought his dog trotting out to sit at his feet, gazing up at the source of the sounds in a rapt parody of the “His Master’s Voice” look. Nicholson, sensing a more appreciative audience than the humans present, has begun playing to the attentive dog. He’s found that by sawing away up toward the fretwork he’s able to make the dog suddenly sit up at attention and cock its head to one side as if transfixed by beauty and wonder. By sawing away lower down on the instrument, he can drive the dog to dive suddenly to the rug, curl up and assume a hopeless and mournful look.

Nicholson is taking great delight in using his primitive powers over the instrument to drive the hapless dog through this limited but pronounced range of responses, all the while flashing various parodic versions of demonic grins at the human audience in the room. It’s a hilarious performance and in some ways a self-portrait of an actor in love with the pure pleasure of manipulating an audience—any audience.

“I was always a fantasist,” Nicholson says later, apropos of his childhood in Neptune, N.J. “I always wrote my way out of trouble in school. I had to stay after class every day my sophomore year, and they would assign you to write a 1,000-word essay story, and I’d write thousands of words. By the time I knew no one would be reading, I’d slip in all sorts of mean comments about the people who ran the school. I developed these two characters, a genie and his boy. It’s one of the few things I wish I could actually recover. A genie and his boy—God knows what was influencing me at the time.”

Mike Nichols believes it’s precisely Nicholson’s ability to be a loving devil’s advocate for his characters, his sympathy for the devil in them, that gives them their corrosive power, or what Nichols calls their “specific gravity.”

Nicholson’s complicated family life may well have influenced his genie fantasy. The man he knew as his father would often be spirited away by the bottle-genie of alcohol. (This difficult family situation took a dramatic new turn in the mid-70’s, when Nicholson learned that the woman he had thought was his older sister was actually his mother, and the people he thought were his parents were in fact his grandparents.) “I hitchhiked everywhere,” he says, continuing to describe his origins as an entertainer. “And, you know, I was forever making up things while waiting for a ride. I taught myself to juggle while I hitchhiked, and the camel walk …. ” At his visitor’s request, he gets up and demonstrates the camel walk, a kind of weird shuffle dance step that seems to anticipate the “King Tut” moves of certain break-dancers.

“And of course,” he says, “I was a tremendous movie fan. I mean I got insane over Thunderhead, which was the sequel to My Friend Flicka. I mean, me and my two guys— my mom kept a box of pennies and I used to reach in there and take a handful and we went every day. That picture got me. I always loved movies.”

In his last year in high school, Nicholson says his classmates voted him Class Optimist and Class Pessimist, an uncanny foreshadowing of his ability to embody the cusp between illusion and disillusion. That same year he took off for Hollywood. It was supposed to be a brief visit to Los Angeles before college, but he never came back. After a couple of years of odd jobs, acting classes and occasional stints on Divorce Court, his career had its first— false— auspicious beginning.

A one-time member of Nicholson’s first acting class, Roger Corman, soon to be known as “King of the B pictures,” gave Nicholson the lead role— a troubled teen driven to desperation—in an earnest low-budget production called Cry Baby Killer.

It was 1958, Nicholson was 21, and it was the kind of role that could have made him a contender for the much-sought-after status of the next James Dean.

But it didn’t. In fact he didn’t get another part of any kind for nearly a year, and after that he was mainly offered “character” roles in such Corman schlock as The Raven and The Terror.

Frustrated and disillusioned in his acting ambitions, Nicholson continued to “diagnose his instrument” in acting classes but also turned his attention to the offscreen creative positions in the film-making business. He began to write screenplays, first Corman-style knockoffs like Thunder Island and Flight to Fury, then the more ambitious nouvelle vague western Ride in the Whirlwind (in which he also starred as the existential gunman) and the McLuhan-influenced 60’s fantasies The Trip and Head.

The difficulty of writing left its mark on Nicholson. He would later play writers in four films (Antonioni’s The Passenger, Kubrick’s The Shining, Beatty’s Reds and Nichols’s new movie, Heartburn), and no actor has captured so well the dark side of the writer’s disposition, the special bitterness and melancholy, even horror of it. There is one scene in particular in The Shining—an underrated film that is the first horror movie about writer’s block—which is treasured by every suffering writer who has seen it, because it comes closest to the awful truth of creative frustration.

In that scene, Nicholson proceeds, in the space of a few lines, to move from a slow burn to a veritable meltdown of poisonous rage that captures for all time, with horrifying verisimilitude, the impotent fury of the blocked writer.

“That’s the one scene in the movie I wrote myself,” Nicholson confides. “That scene at the typewriter—that’s what I was like when I got my divorce. I was under the pressure of being a family man with a daughter and one day I accepted a job to act in a movie in the daytime and I was writing a movie at night and I’m back in my little corner and my beloved wife, Sandra, walked in on what was, unbeknownst to her, this maniac—and I told Stanley [ Kubrick ] about it and we wrote it into the scene. I remember being at my desk and telling her—” he shifts into the hate-filled unctuous voice of that character—“ ‘Even if you don’t hear me typing it doesn’t mean I’m not writing. This is writing …. ’ I remember that total animus. Well, I got a divorce.”

Of all his offscreen roles in the movie-making process, directing has been Nicholson’s greatest source of satisfaction and disappointment. He speaks proudly and protectively of his two directing efforts as if they were beloved but misunderstood children, and he’s touchingly eager to explain their unappreciated virtues.

Drive, He Said, made in 1970, was not a commercial success, but it exemplifies Nicholson’s ongoing interest in cusp characters, in this case college revolutionaries on the cusp between rebellion and madness. But he’s particularly proud of Goin’ South, a 1979 film he both directed and starred in. Although it aroused little enthusiasm among audiences or critics, Nicholson claims the film has developed a fanatic cult following. “The fact that Goin’ South fans are the closest thing in the world to Boston Celtics fans is kind of satisfying,” he says.

He feels everyone else missed the thematic subtext of the film, a western farce about a drifter who marries a widow with a gold mine. He sees it as a film about post-revolutionary disillusion.

“No one extracts the serious plot from Goin’ South,” he complains. The characters, he says, “were once all members of Quantrill’s raiders, the original guerrilla warfare unit in America. And what do you do with these people once they’re now home? The fact that this wasn’t even touched on critically was disappointing to me.”

“Are you saying it’s a story of our time?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he says, “It’s about gender conflict, too.”

Gender conflict: it’s been the source of some of Nicholson’s best—and most controversial—work. When it comes to male-female relationships in his movies, Nicholson likes to say he tries to “press on the nerves.”

It’s an interesting choice of phrase, “press on the nerves,” because depending on the context it can imply pleasure or pain, and Nicholson uses it mainly to imply pain. Describing the way he intends to play the male-female dynamic in The Witches of Eastwick, Nicholson says, “I want to drip acid on the nerves with this role.”

The phrase comes up again when he’s discussing his sure-to-be hotly debated performance in Heartburn. The surprise of that performance, the surprise of the movie, is how sympathetically Nicholson plays a character who’s pretty much an unmitigated rat in Nora Ephron’s novel of the same name— a philandering husband who chooses his wife’s pregnancies as opportune times to cheat.

Still, the very tenderness, charm, exuberance and sympathy Nicholson brings to the role are what make it so problematic.

“If the guy is so charming and lovable as you genuinely make him seem, what makes him do this fairly rotten thing to her?” he is asked.

“Well, here’s where you press on the nerves,” Nicholson says. “Are we all rotten? Because surely, you have friends and you know half of them, say, are capable of this behavior. And I don’t think that you think that half your friends are rotten. That’s where you press on the nerves. That was what was delicious about the part. My first acting teacher, Jeff Corey, used to say that all art really can only be a stimulating point of departure. You can’t change the world, but you can make the world think.”

Mike Nichols believes it’s precisely Nicholson’s ability to be a loving devil’s advocate for his characters, his sympathy for the devil in them, that gives them their corrosive power, or what Nichols calls their “specific gravity.”

“Jack’s gift is his generosity of spirit,” says Nichols. “The self-parodying self-hatred of Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge becomes a Dostoyevskian thing— and it can only be acted with a positive feeling toward the character. This is what I always felt about Jonathan— that Jack’s generous nature was spilling over the side of Jonathan ….  Over and over, Jack plays a character that ends up with more specific gravity than anyone would have guessed from reading the screenplay. Many of the ways he does this are unknowable, but one of the things that makes it weigh so much is that generosity— that throwing away of vanity … with both hands  ….  Look at what he did in Terms of Endearment with that stomach hanging out,” he says of Nicholson’s role as the former astronaut, Garrett Breedlove.

“One of the things that motivated me with that character is that everyone was starting to make a total cliche out of middle age,” says Nicholson, himself now on the cusp of 50. “Everybody was supposed to have a middle-age crisis, they were dissatisfied, they hated their job. I just went against the grain of the cliche. I just wanted to say, ‘Wait a minute, I happen to be this age and I’m not in any midlife crisis. I’m not an object of scorn and pity by anybody 10 years younger than me. There’s got to be other people like me, so I’d like to represent that in this movie.”

Nicholson can be passionately earnest about his belief in the mission of the actor to subvert the conventional wisdom of his age.

“You once quoted Chekhov to the effect that the purpose of the theatrical enterprise should be to undermine the assumptions of middle-class institutions— is that what you mean by pressing on the nerves?” he is asked.

“Yeah, I think that’s it,” he says. “There are these predigested images, these preconceived concepts of how things are. I suppose I’m still crying out for people to try and face the immediate facts of understanding. Get to clarity before you get to power. It becomes weighty and pretentious to say this, but you know, you have to reach beyond yourself. You have aspirations—you just do—and I guess everybody who works at what I do, they’re all hoping to make the world better in some way—and that’s what pressing on the nerves is about.”

The impulse to disrupt the old order of things, to remake the world, is perhaps responsible for Nicholson’s continuing fascination with the character of Napoleon. He’s been interested in the idea for at least 10 years, ever since Stanley Kubrick wrote a screenplay for a Napoleon movie with Nicholson in mind. (It never got off the ground.) Nicholson himself paid a quarter-million dollars for rights to a book called The Murder of Napoleon. He says he hasn’t decided if he wants to play the role or just produce and direct the film.

“I’ve invested a lot in the subject,” he says, meaning more than money. “I sort of look at it like Shaw, Nietzsche, those kind of thinkers did, who consider Napoleon the man.

“When I was thinking about him, I got a feeling of autobiography about it— again, in terms of poetics—in the sense that he was a man who conquered the world twice. And became a symbol for the Devil. That’s the way they described him in England. But he was ultimately the man who overthrew feudalism, after all ….  Up until that time, it was all about family. And now, after him, you could just be who you are …. ”

Nicholson sounds like Napoleon in a besieged mode when he discusses the forces arrayed against creative projects in Hollywood these days. He complains about “conglomeration” narrowing the studio’s vision.

“Do you feel like a creative person trapped in an uncreative age in the industry?”

“Well, you know, last night I saw— what’s that movie—Ferris something?”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?”

“Well, that movie made me feel totally irrelevant to anything that any audience could want, and 119 years old.”

He sighs deeply. “Believe me, everyone else watching it liked it. And you know, I literally walked out of there thinking my days are numbered. These people are trying to kill me.”

Despite this dispirited view, Nicholson has his eye on the next cusp in the development of his work. “You know, they say it takes 20 years at a minimum to make an actor, a full actor, and that’s the stage I’m talking about,” he says. “After you’ve got some kind of idea of how your instrument is, after you have developed some kind of idea thematically of what you think you’re about, after you’ve got some kind of ease with the craft, then possibly you might have some style. And that’s a later stage. I know an awful lot about film making and I also know less is more. And that a lot of things you learn, you have to forget about so that it’s fresh now. And because of this paradoxical thing, what I seek now is naivete.”

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