Jack Nicholson Still a “Hit” Man
June 7, 1985
By Greg Tozian
NEW YORK — Jack Nicholson strolls into the Manhattan movie theater dressed in his favored “50’s junk shop” threads: electric blue suit, navy silk shirt riddled with white ovals, and two-tone black-and-white loafers.
And, though it’s 10 p.m., Ray Ban shades are a standard accessory, as they are at the LA Lakers’ basketball games the 48-year-old actor attends religiously. In fact, this Saturday night interview was moved up from a planned Sunday morning appointment so that Nicholson could fly to a Lakers-Boston Celtics playoff game the next day.
Dressed as he is, this star, who can command from $3 million to $5 million for each starring role, looks like a bunch of cool characters from a bunch of his movies. And with his easy patter, sounds like a sly cross between Jack Kerouac and a lounge lizard.
Because it’s so dark in the theater where his new film, “Prizzi’s Honor,” has just screened, the balding actor takes off his sunglasses, revealing his deep-set hazel eyes.
And when asked what he thinks is different about the John Huston-directed “Prizzi’s” (pronounced Prit-zees), a black comedy about the underworld based on Richard Condon’s novel, Nicholson flashes his signature Cheshire Cat smile and quips, “It’s kind of like an action-comedy, like ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and ‘Henry V.’
“Well, really,” Nicholson shrugs, settling down, “I’ve never done anything quite like this. “But it’s not different from John Huston’s work. I think you can relate it to ‘Beat the Devil’ (the 1953 Humphrey Bogart black comedy) “which is one of my favorite films of his.”
Nicholson, who never bad-mouths a director he has worked with, is genuinely high on the talents of John Huston. Hardly surprising, since Huston is one of the greatest living American directors and screenwriters by almost any yardstick. Huston is, after all, the director who brought us (to mention only a dozen of his better films) “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Battle of San Pietro,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” “The Asphalt Jungle,” “The African Queen,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Fat City,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” and “Wise Blood.” He also helped bring into the world Angelica Huston, who co-stars in “Prizzi’s Honor” and with whom Nicholson has had a sometimes rocky 12-year relationship.
“John creates an atmosphere that he’s taking all the risks,” Nicholson adds about his latest director. “He’s the most important living American filmmaker. I he likes (a scene), that’s pretty good for me. Nobody,” says Nicholson, “wants to be the one who messes up a John Huston film.”
In “Prizzi’s Honor,” Nicholson plays Charley Partanna, a slow-witted hitman for a darkly inept but powerful Brooklyn organized crime family. Angelica Huston is a family member who loves the killer. But Charley’s only got eyes for a new, blond, hired gun (Kathleen Turner) who hits the mean streets of New York one afternoon.
Nicholson delivers all his lines in a thick “Brooklynese,” a dialect he’s familiar with, since he grew up not that far away, in Neptune, N.J.
“We didn’t have that much time to work on dialects,” Nicholson says, “But John had us read the script through for a few days to get used to each other. And we had a ‘Brooklynese’ (accent) coach.
“This one was a big one for me because I’m from here. It’s taken me a long time to not sound like this,” Nicholson says, smiling, “and now I don’t know if I’ll ever g rid of it again. But I love these shady characterizations.”
Nicholson admits he likes to research a character in the field, but where underworld portraits are concerned fact-finding can be difficult.
“I tried to do research,” he observes. “I went out to a restaurant I heard where people who were professional this and that hung out.
“I wanted a couple of guys real close and thought they were it. But I had to go to the men’s room. And while I was in the stall, they came in and stood at the urinal and started discussing why they were there, which was they were two cooks from Atlantic City.” He snickers, “But I used some (mannerisms) of them anyway.
“That gangster thing’s not an environment you ask questions in,” the actor adds. “I mainly thought about being in Brooklyn and the fact that it’s Italian. Other than that, I think that job categories tend to produce every type of person.”
The “kind of person” Nicholson’s Charley Partanna is is a complete departure for the actor, however, since he has always played intelligent, or at least street-smart, characters in the past (no matter how destructive, or just self-destructive they might be).
Charley in “Prizzi’s Honor” is the kind of single-minded cog in the underworld machine who reads Esquire magazines about the Oedipus complex and gets confused about the exact meanings of “hormonal secretions” and all the talk about motherly love.
“I think Charley’s understanding of killing people is less imperfect than his understanding of hormonal secretions and talking dirty to people on the telephone,” Nicholson admits.
“The film already had a lot of plot twists, and John’s (Huston’s) point of view from the beginning was that if it had the normal, Nicholson’s-up-his-sleeve duality it would be too hard to follow the plot. He wanted me to be extremely monolithic.”
Ironies abound in Nicholson’s career, which seems fitting for someone who so purposely courts an enigmatic image on the screen and in real life.
For instance, although he has been saddled with the image of playing mostly urban outcasts, wiseguys and crazies — Nicholson given a wide variety of performances in his films over the last 23 years.
True, he did 10 years of playing juvenile delinquents in American International cheapies — everything from his debut in the hour-long, teen murder-paranoia flick “Cry Baby Killer” (1958), just four years after he graduated high school in Jersey, to the whacky biker named “Poet” in “Hell’s Angels on Wheels” (1967).
And his best remembered roles are undoubtedly his loose-wire characterizations: the trouble-making nut house crasher, Randall Patrick McMurphy, in Milos Foreman’s screen adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; the violent Navy lifer Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky in Hal Ashby’s version of “The Last Detail”; and the axe-wielding Jack Torrence in Stanley Kubrick’s underrated horro classic “The Shining.”
But Nicholson has also played a wide variety of “quieter,” more sensitive men in such films as Bob Raffelson’s loveable oddity “The King of Marvin Gardens,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s art-house favorite “The Passenger,” and Warren Beatty’s half-baked Hollywood-does-Communism epic “Reds.”
When asked if he doesn’t feel the offbeat, archly comic “Prizzi’s Honor” might have a tough time at the box office, in a year when Hollywood comedy means the more gut-level-obviousness of “Goonies,” “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Back to the Future” and “Fletch,” Nicholson is characteristically cool.
“There’s a lot of comedy in some of the most successful films I’ve had, and it’s all dark humor,” he says. “There are certainly a lot of laughs in (‘One Flew Over the) Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and you got a few laughs in ‘Terms of Endearment’ (the cancer-stikes-the-young weepie). Besides,” asks Nicholson, “what is ‘black comedy’? All of the jokes are about dark things, murder and so forth. I don’t think there’s a tradition of success or failure with that, otherwise nobody would ever try to make one.
“And, in reality, ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ is about serious stuff,” Nicholson says. “But it’s funny, too,” he hastens to add, “that is if you dare laugh at something other than a frog jumping out of a bowl of milk.”