There are many great actors and even more celebrities in the crowded star-obsessed media landscape that is 2007. But few so wholly embody both titles like Jack. (Fewer still need no last-name mention for a nod of recognition.) Each performance has marked the American experience in the 20th Century, whether it was as the ultimate rebel (Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) or the embodiment of paranoia (Jack Torrance in “The Shining”). Jack Nicholson became a star in 1969 with the release of “Easy Rider.” Just five years later he had already earned his fourth Best-Actor Oscar nomination for “Chinatown” (today he’s up to 12 nominations with three wins). This week, new collectors’ editions of “Chinatown” and its sequel, “The Two Jakes” (one of only three films Nicholson has directed in his career), are being released on DVD.
Nicholson spoke with MTV News in an extremely rare, extensive interview last week. The wide-ranging conversation extended well beyond the initial agreed-on parameters of the interview, both in terms of time and subject matter. For that reason we are running the conversation in two parts. Check out part two of our Nicholson dialogue , which includes his thoughts on everything from the Oscars and his recent health scare to his surprising thoughts on Heath Ledger taking on his famous role as the Joker.
In the first part of the interview, Nicholson recalls “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes” (a film clearly still close to his heart, although it met with critical and commercial disappointment when released in 1990) with humor and candor. He also discusses in detail the third part of the Jake Gittes trilogy that he and renowned screenwriter Robert Towne hatched over 30 years ago, a film that hasn’t been made but, if Nicholson has his way, may yet still.
MTV: I know you don’t do this a lot, so I appreciate you taking the time.
Jack Nicholson: Well, I appreciate you wanting to interview me because I, of course, admire my own work. [Laughs.]
MTV: Let’s get the important stuff out of the way. What do you make of the situation with Kobe Bryant? You are, after all, the most famous Lakers fan in the world.
Nicholson: I’m also a Yankees fan. The implosion of these organizations is what’s driving me crazy. I just want to see ballgames and be entertained. Kobe is a great player. Of course I want him to stay here. But being a fan I know we have a lot of good players here. I’ve seen them play together well for stretches. Potentially we’re a lot better than people think. However, it is about the organization. Look at the Celtics. That’s nothing but good management. They got a player I wish the Lakers had drafted, Gabriel Pruitt. He shut down every point guard he played in the NCAA, and that’s the player the Lakers need really. I have followed sports since World War II. And when it comes up that they can’t play together because they don’t like one another, it’s like, what? Give us a break! They wouldn’t have this problem if Jerry West was there because they respected him.
MTV: As a Yankees fan, I appreciate your insistence on not wearing a Red Sox hat as Martin Scorsese wanted you to in “The Departed.”
Nicholson: Yeah. I couldn’t go that far. I stepped outside my job category for that. [Laughs.]
MTV: Let’s talk “Chinatown.” Was the story of Jake Gittes always conceived for a trilogy arc?
Nicholson: We always planned on making three films. We wanted it all to be tied into elemental things. “Chinatown” is obviously water. “The Two Jakes” is fire and energy. And the third film was meant to be about Gittes’ divorce and relate to air.
MTV: Screenwriter Robert Towne wrote the part of Gittes specifically for you.
Nicholson: Yeah. I actually never think it works when somebody writes for me. It doesn’t leave me enough room to move. But I didn’t think that way that far back. I just liked it because it was a departure from most films. It was a detective with no gun. [Director] Roman [Polanski] was an old friend of mine and we’d always wanted to work together. Roman’s a very realistic guy. I loved when I saw his interviews on the DVD how he emphasized how it was just a job to him. [Laughs.] He’s a classicist and a world-class director, and he did it the way he’d do any movie.
MTV: He talks on the DVD as if he were just some director for hire.
Nicholson: Yeah, right. And I know it’s true. Roman is not a mystery to me. He’s a dear friend and I respect his attitude.
MTV: The tragic ending of “Chinatown” is one of the most famous in all of film, and it famously was a point of contention between Towne and Polanski. Whose ending did you believe was correct at the time?
Nicholson: I believe I was out of town for most of the discussions. At the time though, I did think it was more daring to have a neat ending where the villain is punished. I’m glad Roman’s point of view prevailed, but that was more what was happening at the time. That was the “no happy endings period” at that time. At the time, Robert’s [happier ending] felt more unusual. But I’m glad Roman prevailed. As he says, “If you wrap everything up, the audience forgets it before they’re at dinner. If you leave them up in the air, you have a chance that they’ll talk about it for a few minutes.”
MTV: You mentioned the villain. John Huston’s performance is one of the most haunting I can recall.
Nicholson: Tremendous. Tremendous. I remember when John didn’t want to keep going he’d say [doing a John Huston imitation], “Yes, well, what exactly would you like, Ro-Mahn?” He’d call him Ro-Mahn. When that “Ro-Mahn” came out I’d start chortling that evil little classroom laugh. I remember [Huston’s daughter] Anjelica walking up when John and I were rehearsing that scene where we talk about my character’s involvement with his character’s daughter. I’ll never forget that particular moment of synchronicity. [Laughs.] [Ed. Note: Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston at the time.] It was one of the great privileges of my life to be around John Huston. He was, of course, a father figure to me. I loved him to death.
MTV: How did you approach returning to the Gittes character in “The Two Jakes”?
Nicholson: I kind of bulked up a bit. I wanted to look like a guy settling in. America was wanting to get moving again after the war. It’s classic saga writing. Gittes, who was kind of a ne’er-do-well, disrespected guy, now has been in the naval intelligence. He owns the building he works in. He’s in a country club. These are classic character developments and why Robert’s writing is so perceptive and good. I was most pleased that Roman felt that “The Two Jakes” was a perfect fit for what it was intended to be. It’s the middle section really. The middle part of a trilogy has more of a pastoral to it.
MTV: There were a lot of behind-the-scenes battles before you got “The Two Jakes” filmed. Robert Towne was supposed to direct it.
Nicholson: That was a messy situation. The reality is I directed it because at the time it seemed the only way to end the talk of lawsuits. It was expedient. There was no one else who would or could do it that they would accept. It was a difficult situation off-screen. I asked unsuccessfully, “Please, people, there’s enough chatter about this. Let’s talk about the movie.”
MTV: It’s said that Robert Evans was initially going to play the “other” Jake that Harvey Keitel eventually played.
Nicholson: Early on. That was part of what caused the early problems. Yeah, sure.
MTV: Do you believe what happened off-screen compromised the reception to the film?
Nicholson: Definitely, because people couldn’t shut up about it. It definitely affected the response to the film.
MTV: On the DVD it’s said that you weren’t shy about yelling on the set.
Nicholson: Oh yeah. I’m a different person when suddenly it’s my responsibility. I’m not very inhibited in that way. I would show up one day, and we’d scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You’re out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit.
MTV: It keeps the adrenaline flowing at the very least.
Nicholson: Yeah. I’m a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You’ve got to get something on there. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it’s wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can’t. You can’t imagine the things that come up when you’re making a movie where you’ve got to adjust on the spot. I wanted models on the boat. I called [producer] Harold Schneider. He said, “My God, tomorrow? What about wardrobe?” I said, “Put them in towels.” [Laughs.]
MTV: The prints on these two DVDs are quite good.
Nicholson: I couldn’t look at “The Two Jakes” because of the quality of the television print. I would see this horrible orange hair on Meg Tilly and I’d want to shoot myself. I literally couldn’t watch it. I loved doing the print for this thing. It’s a major improvement. I want to do it for the other two films I directed too because things get away from you and nobody cares. When I get the time I’m going to redo the sound and picture on them.
MTV: That’s the lure of going back to these films, isn’t it? By sprucing them up for the DVD, these are now the films of record.
Nicholson: Exactly. I didn’t want to fix any of my mistakes on “Two Jakes” but I couldn’t help myself. In a few spots I did change a few things. I did a total color correction. I took some of the narration out, and there were too many music cues in it.
MTV: Was the third film in the “Chinatown” trilogy ever scripted?
Nicholson: No. I would imagine Robert has some kind of outline. I can tell you it was meant to be set in 1968 when no-fault divorce went into effect in California. The title was to be “Gittes vs. Gittes.” It was to be about Gittes’ divorce. The secrecy of Meg Tilly’s character was somehow to involve the most private person in California, Howard Hughes. That is where the air element would have come into the picture.
MTV: Would you consider doing the film still? I would think if you and Towne said, “We want to do this,” Paramount would say, “Go for it.”
Nicholson: I certainly would consider it. I would imagine Bob would as well. [But the second film’s behind-the-scenes problems] left a few bruises. I don’t know how Paramount would be. The timing is about right.
MTV: Did the poor critical and commercial reception to “The Two Jakes” sour you on directing? It’s been 17 years since you stepped behind the camera.
Nicholson: It may have. I thought I might direct a bit more. I don’t remember if I’ve been asked seriously to direct a picture. I understand that. I’m very good business for people as an actor and perhaps they’d rather I didn’t [direct]. But yeah, that [reception]’s going to take a little wind out of you.
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