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Jack Nicholson: An enduring affair

Jack Nicholson is 66, but still endears to women. Some call him the sexiest man on earth.

Although, this American actor has not been flashy with his romances and affairs, his charming ways with ladies have never been a secret. Once married to Sandra Knight, he had been a delightful companion to John Huston's daughter, Angelica for two decades, and then to Rebecca Broussard, whom he met in 1990 during the filming of "The Two Jakes". There was also Laura Flynn Boyle (of "The Practice") in his life.

He might not have been high on fidelity in his off-screen existence, but Nicholson has always managed to hold the loyalty of his audiences.

Obviously, he is an excellent performer.

Often compared to Brando and Bogart -- like them, he is fascinatingly understated -- his laconic style and eccentric (who said women are not drawn to eccentricity) moods have helped Nicholson remain attractive. He will probably be so for a long time yet.

His latest movie, "Something's Gotta Give", reveals how good he looks at his age, and how sensational his acting flair and finesse still are. Director Nancy Meyers wrote this movie with him in mind. She said that she had never seen him fall in love on the screen.

Nicholson does that in "Something's Gotta Give". As 63-year-old  Harry Sanborn, rich and devilishly charming, he only dates women  under 30, till he meets a 50-something writer (Diane Keaton) and  the world turns round for our man, who literally acts out a  romantic story.

Of late, Nicholson has been surprising us. He physically  transformed himself into a stoop-shouldered loser retiree in "About Schmidt". It won him an Oscar nomination -- the 12th -- last year. Earlier, he was a goofball turn opposite Adam Sandler  in "Anger Management": this work showed that he can mix it up with the most sophomoric.

Nicholson's early life hardly showed such talent. Born on April  22, 1937, New Jersey, he lived with his mother, a beauty parlour  owner who was deserted by her alcoholic husband. He chanced on  films during a trip to California when he was 17. He first  appeared in "The Cry Baby Killer" in 1958, a cheap horror movie  that led to many more such disasters. After years of frustration, his break came in 1969, when he played a small-time lawyer in  "Easy Rider". It fetched him his first Oscar nomination. 

He went on to become an intriguing actor, who was capable of not  only interpreting a wide range of roles but also of changing his  appearance every time he faced the camera. I still remember him in two of his early movies: Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974)  and Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger" (1975), where he displayed his enigmatic personality.

Nicholson's crowning glory was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975. It earned his first Oscar. Playing a sane man in a lunatic asylum, he enlivened those around him, and, certainly, viewers. Someone described him as a "post counterculture hero".

There were more Oscars for Nicholson. But, when one talks about an actor like him, awards seem so irrelevant. His own view is precisely that. When one listens to him, it gets clearer with every word he utters that his most enduring love affair has been with acting, and here he has never been dishonest. He has been extremely faithful, never cheated !

Ask him today after all these years about his failure to get an audition for "The Graduate" -- which was released in 1967 -- he still feels like tearing up his thinning hair. Here is a guy on top of the acting pyramid who feels that the rejection happened only yesterday.

That is humility. Nicholson is still uneasy with adulation and attention. Once, he had walked into a Van Gogh museum, taken advantage of the silence and stood drinking the magnificence of sheer art. When he turned around, he found some people near him not looking at the masterpieces, but staring at him.

"That's the most uncomfortable example of the fascination with film stars," Nicholson told a magazine sometime ago.

However, there was a time when he himself was star-struck."When I came from New Jersey to Los Angeles, I got a job as an office boy at the MGM Studio, primarily to see movie stars. It was fake, but I loved it."

Now, after nearly five decades, the three-time Oscar winner ("One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Terms of Endearment," and "As Good As It Gets") is still not quite comfortable with fame, though he  no longer expects "not to be recognised".

It is only natural that Nicholson is reticent, far more reticent than what others in cinema tend to be. He just keeps remembering  his mother, who used to cut out words of wisdom from a column in the neighborhood newspaper in Newark. "One of the truest is: 'Self-praise stinks!' " he says. "It deserves a magnet on every  actor's refrigerator!"

His mother had a lot of influence on him. She raised him to be  well-rounded. When Nicholson was in his 30s, he would tell  friends his own age, "If we do not develop our own social graces, we will be bored by the time we are 50. You just cannot sit back,  you have to maintain interests in life, or you will begin to lose your own light."

He practices what he preached. He is active in athletics - skiing, golf, and some tennis. He travels a lot, has friends all  over the world.

A spirit to be admired, a spirit that will not let him retire. Once, he and Clint Eastwood had had an elaborate discussion about retirement. When they met some time later, both had not ceased to  work !

Nicholson is not just an icon, but an extraordinary example of what a human being ought to be.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 23 2004)

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