There’s Jack, flashing a big, toothy grin. He sits in the front row of award shows. Sporting events. I met him once at a Lakers playoff game I attended with a movie star friend of mine. Nice to have one of those at playoff time when you can’t get tickets. Jack had that same smile on his face. It’s the kind of smile that makes you want to say, “What the fuck is so funny?”
Is he the modern day Mona Lisa? Was Mona Lisa just a smart-ass who couldn’t believe that anyone would be so interested as to paint her face?
Has it become a Parkinson’s stare? Is Jack’s face frozen in a perpetual grin of derision? Is he mocking every award ceremony he attends? The parade of boring “stars” that weep and kiss ass and pretend to really give a shit about the people responsible for their success. Or rather, the media conglomerates that are responsible for their success.
There’s a great moment in the documentary about the 1970’s era of maverick filmmaking A Decade Under the Influence, when Nicholson says to Bruce Dern that they aren’t good-looking enough to be stars, but that they’re “interesting.”
The filmmakers and actors of that era had a wonderful, rebellious, fuck you attitude that just so happened to be in sync with the social climate of the 70’s and allowed them to break into the business and take over. The result was arguably the most expressive, interesting work to ever come out of the studio system. The proverbial inmates had taken over the asylum.
I think Nicholson was surprised as anyone that he became a star. I’m not going to chronicle the guy’s career. As movie-goers we’re pretty familiar with his work and we’re even savvy enough to distinguish between his phoned-in self-parodies for a paycheck and the textured performances for the work that he really gives a shit about.
I guess I envy the smile. I wish I could pull it off, but it’s tough being a rebel in this town of franchise and theme-ride films. Federal law in the 1990’s allowed a few conglomerates to own the studios as well as the outlets for distribution and publicity. A handful of people control the majority of entertainment distributed to the entire planet. It was tough to maintain a Jack Nicholson smile when I climbed the wall of Paramount Studios for a meeting. (See blog entry, Climbing the Gates of Paramount, Archives, November 2006)
So, thank God Jack sits up front and smiles. It makes me feel good. One of the blue-collar guys made it into the country club. It makes the awards shows bearable.
Everyone in Hollywood has a favorite Jack Nicholson story, but I like to think of this one when I see that famous grin:
On a Los Angeles public golf course, I was paired with a guy who worked as a caddie at a very expensive country club. He told me that Jack Nicholson showed up one day, played a round of golf and hung out in the posh club. He wasn’t a member. He liked the course and kept coming back. The members loved it, but the guy who owned the course was furious. After a week of Nicholson hanging around, the owner asked the club’s manager to speak with Mr. Nicholson and escort him off the property. The manager was afraid of him and passed the job to the head pro. The head pro passed it off to the lowly caddie. So, here’s this 19 year-old kid working as a caddie forced to tell Mr. Nicholson that he can no longer play at the club. “Uh, Mr. Nicholson, I hate to have to tell you this…” as he loaded the actor’s clubs into the car, “…but Mr. So-and-so (the owner) said you can’t play this course anymore if you aren’t a member.” Nicholson stopped, tilted his head back and swung his eyes toward the caddie, “And Mr. So-and-so asked you to tell me this?” “Yeah, sorry.” “That’s okay,” said Nicholson as he walked to the car and retrieved his checkbook. “How much is the membership?” he asked. It was six figures to join. Jack wrote the amount on the check, signed it, handed to the caddie with a tip and said, “Here. Hand this to Mr. So-and-so and tell him… quit fuckin’ with the members.”