On Life and Death, The Jack Nicholson Way

by M-Gillies

Jack Nicholson is hanging on to paradise on earth for as long as he can.

A veritable Hollywood renaissance man, much has been said of Jack Nicholson over the lengthy course of his career. The Academy Award winning actor has been called the Mulholland Man, the man of no fear, a madman, a genius, but most of all, an influence. He’s the epitome of cool and sly. A man who knows what he wants and has never settled for less than just that.

“I’ve always fought against being controlled and manipulated and stomped upon by circumstances,” Nicholson once said during an interview with culture.com. “If you want your freedom, you have to be willing to work hard to exercise it. That doesn’t mean being selfish or inconsiderate, because you can still enjoy your individuality and respect other people. It’s a question of attitude. I’ve always had lots of friends who share my perspective, I guess you could say that I’m a guy who aggressively pursues his happiness.”

Now, at the age of 74, Nicholson doesn’t have anything more to prove, he’s been nominated for 12 Oscars, won three of them. His big-break with Easy Rider only landed him one solid performance after the other. His public persona is larger than the iconic characters he’s portrayed. Interviews? If one were to get past the gatekeepers of agents and managers, the sky’s the limit, but he doesn’t even have to consider them any longer, and why should he? He’s beyond established; beyond set-for-life, a man impeccably resistant to the rules of others. He’s Jack Nicholson, and while he might still only be a mere mortal man, he’ll always be immortalized in cinema as one of Hollywood’s unshakeable and unstoppable demigods. But Nicholson is more modest then that.

“I believe that a lot of the improvements in my character have come through ageing and the diminishing of powers,” Nicholson said. “It’s all a balancing act; you just have to get used to the ride.”

A veteran actor with over 50 years dominating Hollywood, Nicholson isn’t the youthful Hollywood rebel he used to be. Gone are the days of partying long into the night and the experimentation of uppers and downers, and the womanizing. At age 74, Nicholson has slowed down. In fact, the tone of the roles he’s taken in the last decade reflect the obstacles every septuagenarian is bound to come to terms with. Whether it be his portrayal as a retired widower in About Schmidt reflecting upon the loneliness of aging; or as a 60-year-old music mogul known for dating women under 30 in Something’s Gotta Give; or a billionaire hospital magnate, who after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer sets out to accomplish a series of goals before he and another patient ‘kick the bucket’ in The Bucket List.

If these roles say nothing else, it’s the age-old reflection of one’s own mortality. And given the subject matter, it doesn’t hit far from home. In fact, Nicholson isn’t any stranger from death considering in the last decade he’s lost two of his closet friends, from Marlon Brando in 2004, to Hunter S. Thompson in 2005, to the recent death of Dennis Hopper in 2010.

“One of the toughest parts of ageing is losing your friends,” Nicholson said recently in a Daily Mail interview. “At first it starts quietly, then pretty soon it’s every month, and you can’t help but think, “When is that bell going to go off for me?” And on top of that you feel this constant loss. At this time of life, you feel just a sword’s point from death. It’s frightening, who wants to face God and the clear white light? I know I definitely don’t… yet.”

Despite the recent losses, Nicholson has said he doesn’t fear death only that he doesn’t want his to be embarrassing.

“Fearing death stops people living in the now. I’ve always mistrusted people who say they don’t want to live forever. Then again, the question isn’t whether you want to live forever but whether you want to live forever at the expense of your children. If people suddenly stopped dying, we’d have a real ecological problem. I don’t have any sense of my own mortality. I reject thoughts of my own mortality. What’s to think about? I like the premise of the movie (The Bucket List), it’s about living.”

And live is something Nicholson has done. For years, he’s decorated his house on Mulholland Drive with a collection of art worth up to $100 million. Everything from Matisse to Warhol. He’s partied with the best of the best, and he’s lived the life of a rock star, so much so that Robin Williams once joked that Nicholson is the only man in the world to whom Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards would say, I have to go home now, Jack. These days however, not so much so.

“My life has changed,” Nicholson said. “I don’t enjoy the things I used to so much. I don’t go out to nightclubs, I don’t like clubs anymore. I don’t go out raging, looking out for women; now it’s just a game that isn’t worth the candle.”

While Nicholson might not be the partier he once was, he’s very much aware of the state of mind he’s in these days. When asked if there’s anything on his bucket list he said he’d love to see the Pyramids.

Even when it comes to planning his funeral sendoff, Nicholson said during a German TV Tele 5 interview where he considered a sky burial, “These are subjects that we think about all the time but don’t necessarily talk about. Everybody has thoughts about if they want to be cremated, buried or whatever, I want a big 25-foot pink statue that holds my grave. Or I also might like the way the Indians did it, they hang you up on the top of a tree and the birds eat you. No, really, I will probably end up in a crematorium as I’m too claustrophobic for a coffin.”

In the meantime, Nicholson doesn’t have much lined up for up-coming releases. Recently, he starred in the romantic comedy How Do You Know from Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks. With an open schedule such as his, Nicholson concluded in his Daily Mail interview, “I had a very late eureka experience not so long ago. I was up around where I live and I looked out at the blue skies and the clouds, and I realized that this was paradise. And that’s something pretty big to hang on to.”


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