- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

NEW YORK — Jack Nicholson refers to his “Something’s Gotta Give” co-star Diane Keaton, the celebrated Oscar-winning actress, as “Keaton.” Asked to explain his penchant for younger women, he sums it up with a single word: “Flesh.”

If you have to ask why, then you don’t know Jack.

Audiences eat it up, his alpha-male mojo. So do Oscar voters: He now owns three of the gleaming statuettes.

Fans feel they know the man whose cocked eyebrows can say more than a page of dialogue, but they’ve only scratched a methodically crafted surface. He seldom appears on late-night talk shows and submits only infrequently to magazine profiles.

He has learned the value of rationing himself.

“Mystery is an important commodity to an actor,” he explains. “The less someone knows about you, the easier it is to convince them you’re someone else. That’s my job.”

Of course, sometimes even men of mystery have to sell product. At a press conference at the Waldorf Towers last month, Mr. Nicholson tried to preserve the mystique while promoting “Something’s Gotta Give,” a new romantic comedy in which he co-stars with “Keaton.”

Mr. Nicholson plays a 60-ish Lothario who falls for the mother (Miss Keaton) of one of his young conquests (Amanda Peet) but isn’t quite sure he’s ready for an adult romance. As if that weren’t enough, the film offers another Christmas gift to its target demographic, women in their middle years: A young doctor played by Keanu Reeves battles Mr. Nicholson’s character for the same older woman.

Mr. Nicholson, who recently uncoupled from thirtysomething actress Lara Flynn Boyle, claims to date women of all ages. The paparazzi invariably miss his outings with more age-appropriate women. Must be that these older women are already home in bed by the time the shutterbugs emerge.

His reputation notwithstanding, Mr. Nicholson professes disgust for men who date younger women for their trophy value alone.

“I’ve always felt far superior to them,” says Mr. Nicholson, more gravelly-voiced and doughier around the middle in person than he is on screen. “It’s like a big-time New York number. I’ve never quite understood it myself, but I’ve certainly observed it.”

Mr. Nicholson, 66, first etched himself into popular consciousness as the tippling small-town lawyer in 1969’s “Easy Rider,” a film funded in part from “The Monkees” television series’ profits. The year before, a young Mr. Nicholson co-wrote the pre-Fab Four’s 1968 film “Head,” one of his rare failures.

He went on to star in a series of landmark films over the next decade, including “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Chinatown” (1974).

In his middle years, he alternated between sharply observed — and often less-than-top-billed — character studies (1981’s “Reds,” 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” “A Few Good Men” in 1992) and campy star turns in which his outsized persona brimmed over the sides of his characters: “The Shining” (1980), “Batman” (1989) and “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987). In “Witches,” he famously growled he was just your “average horny little devil” to a flustered Cher.

Last year, he put Jack back in the box to play the repressed protagonist of “About Schmidt,” a transformation for which he nabbed his 12th Oscar nomination.

In these dark and scary times, the actor sees his film roles as a form of therapy.

“The shock effect on me of 9/11 … made me feel immediately that I don’t wanna do anything too challenging or too depressing,” he says. “I wanna uplift not only people but myself.”

In “Give,” the comedy spills from the romantic clashes, and most of the observations ring true. The actor nimbly saunters through “Give” with the confidence of an aging lion still able to pounce.

Mr. Nicholson graciously defers to his co-star for much of his performance’s power, and he manages to compliment himself in the process.

“She’s like me; she’s pretty wild about fooling around,” he says of his co-star’s verbal improvisation.

“Sometimes for preparation, I’ll walk up to her, and she’ll look me in the eye and say, ‘You’re disgusting,’” he says, drawing out the last syllables into a wicked drawl.

“She approaches a script like a play. She has the entire script memorized before you start. I don’t know any other actors who do that. It’s almost a craft axiom that you learn the script a day at a time and then forget it.”

Her memory was not all he found to admire.

“When she walked in in that black dress in that scene, whoa,” the actor exhales.

Miss Keaton, in turn, describes working with Mr. Nicholson as “standing in front of the Grand Canyon. There’s too much going on there, and you’re just this speck on the precipice.”

The mystery. It gets ‘em every time.

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