Jack Nicholson gets third billing in "Terms of Endearment," the heartwarming and heartbreaking new movie about 30 years in the lives of a mother and her daughter. He's billed after Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine, just as, 14 years ago, he was billed beneath Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider." The uncanny thing is how Nicholson's third-billed appearances tend to haunt the memory. They're not "supporting roles," they're great and strange and funny characters who bring whole worlds into the movie with them.
In this new movie, Nicholson plays a former astronaut named Breedlove, who has unbuckled his last safety harness and retired, but not quietly, into a life of leisure in a wealthy Houston suburb. The squeals and shrieks of a parade of one-night-stands echo from his backyard pool, and that upsets his neighbor no end. She is played by MacLaine, as Aurora Greenway, a sweet, slightly goofy widow who has been sexually abstinent since her husband died. Her husband has been dead 15 years when she finally accepts a luncheon date from Breedlove.
Aurora: That's very rude, looking at another woman while you're out to lunch with me.
Breedlove: What we need to do is get drunk.
Aurora: I do not get drunk, and I do not approve of escorts who get drunk.
Breedlove (raising one eyebrow, leaning closer and confiding): Well I've made a study of this situation and I've arrived at certain conclusions and I think that what YOU need is a LOT of drinks.
Cut to: Later that afternoon, as Breedlove sits on the top of the front seat of his convertible while steering with his feet, and Greenway keeps her foot on the gas.
The astonishing thing is that this scene does not descend into slapstick, and it does not destroy the mood of what is essentially a civilized, observant and loving human comedy. That's because Nicholson isn't just pulling a stunt, he's in character the whole time, and he has thought a good deal about the character. Another one of the ex-astronaut's important scenes comes at the end of the film, at a funeral where he quietly steps in and uses a little of his leftover astronaut's glory to try to cheer up a sad little kid. Monday in New York, he talked about that scene.
"One of the things I learned while I was reading The Right Stuff was that 40 percent of the graduating classes of those guys died," he told me. "Breedlove may have a lot of things screwy with him. He may be claustrophobic, he may be squeamish about diseases, but when the actual problem of bereavement presents itself, he's your man. He can handle it. He knows the funeral atmosphere."
The movie can handle it, too. This is a film with an important death in it, a death that is handled with quiet dignity and can wipe you out emotionally, and yet "Terms of Endearment" is basically a comedy. Nicholson's astronaut is involved in one of three important relationships in the film. He's in love with MacLaine. She and her daughter have a 30-year tug-of-war that's mostly affectionate but sometimes exasperating. And the daughter (played by Winger in one of the great performances in recent movies) has a marriage with a guy named Flap Horton, who hauls her and her steadily increasing family from Houston to Des Moines to somewhere in Nebraska, in search of his career as an English professor.
"What I like is the way the movie understands how complicated a relationship is," Nicholson says. "All of the relationships in this movie change a lot from beginning to end. How many movies can you say that about? There's a line of dialogue I really love, where Winger's friend is asking her how she can stand this guy who is cheating on her and not respecting her, and she says, 'He's cute.' After eight years of marriage and three kids she can still say that."
The movie was directed by James Brooks, whose previous work has been on television for shows such as "Mary Tyler Moore." When he bought the original novel by Larry ("The Last Picture Show") McMurtry and started trying to find studio backing for it, there was some resistance because of the theme of death as a major part of the picture. "I read the screenplay, and became the first enthusiast," Nicholson said. "How many scripts make you cry? I read dozens if not hundreds of screenplays every year, and I don't read that many parts where I can say, like I did with 'Easy Rider,' that, yeah, sure, I could play that guy. I know just how that guy feels."
And it didn't bother you that it wasn't the starring role?
"My whole career strategy has been to build a base so that I could take the roles I want to play. I'd hate to think that a shorter part might not be available because I was worried about my billing."
And what about the way the ex-astronaut looks? Apparently your vanity wasn't involved in playing this guy, who has a gut and is a little over the hill.
"I have vanity. I have a lot of vanity. When I stuck the old gut out there in the crucial scene, I had doubts about it on the set when I did it, and in the editing, and last night at the premiere I had a lot of doubts, and I was wondering if for my next picture I should play Tarzan and afterward at the party when Ben Gazzara said he saw me stick out that stomach, I said, 'Yeah, Ben, but you and I both know it doesn't work that way in real life, and that's why we're both actors.'"
We were having this conversation in one of those private hotel suites that millionaires maintain on the Upper East Side, and rent out by the week to movie stars. The view from the window was based on the opening shot of Woody Allen's "Manhattan." There were original Rauschenbergs on the walls and real books on the shelves, and Nicholson was stretched out athwart a designer chair next to a round glass coffee table that held his Winstons and a Xerox of Time's review of "Terms of Endearment." From time to time, Nicholson would take out a cigarette and hold it for a long time, rolling it between his fingers and sighting down its length, before finally lighting it. Our conversation drifted into more general philosophical areas.
When you make a picture that involves death, I said, does it make you think about your own personal death?
"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values."
He lit the cigarette.
"Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great . . . but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.'"
Nicholson did the husky growl of Huston's voice.
"As for me," he said, "I like that line I wrote that, we used in 'The Border,' where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want? I know I can act. There aren't too many other jobs I know how to do. Financially, I've lost money and made money, but I know my way around financially. I've been too many places. I'm like the bad penny.
"I used to think that one of the great signs of security was the ability to just walk away. I'd think that I could be in the middle of Africa, and I could always say 'excuse me,' and walk away. The thing is, though He exhaled, a long sigh. "The line of work I'm in now, I can't walk away. Because there is no 'away.' Wherever I walk to, I'll be known. There's alone, but there's not away. Maybe I could retreat into a kind of exterior."
That makes me think, I said, about Bob Greene's piece on Muhammad Ali in the new Esquire, where he says Ali isn't punch-drunk in the conventional sense, he's, just shell-shocked by 20 years of constant attention and fame during every single public moment.
"Yeah. They know who he is and who he was, and he realizes he can't be that other Ali for them, so it's like he's playing possum in the ring, waiting to find an opening."
If you can't get "away," I said, where do yon go? Where do you spend your secret time?
"Last winter I was up in Colorado with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, continuing our study of American history."
You are referring to the author of the Fear and Loathing books?
"Yes. At the time, Hunter was cranking up to cover the Pulitzer trial for Rolling Stone (magazine). To set the stage for his reportage, he and I were reading the life of Lord Dangerfield, who founded the Hellfire Club in England. You are familiar with Dangerfield?"
The Rodney, yes, but not the Lord.
"Lord Dangerfield was one of the great supporters of the American Revolution in the Britain of his day. As a young man, he and his tutor went off to Italy for one of those lordly sabbaticals which was allegedly devoted to studying art and was actually devoted to getting drunk as hell. They came upon this religious shrine where all the devotees were flagellants who beat themselves with tiny whips. The next day, Dangerfield returned with a big black cape and he bullwhipped some 300 people into submission, shouting, 'You want penitence? I'll give you penitence!'"
Nicholson lit another cigarette.
"Well, wouldn't you know, he then had a religious conversion where a four-eyed monster appeared to him in his room. But when his tutor later convinced him that he had overindulged and that the four-eyed monster was actually only two copulating cats, that was when he founded the Hellfire Club."
Nicholson stopped, triumphant, his story complete.
And then, I said, Thompson went to cover the Pulitzer trial?
"He felt he was ready for it. He's writing better all the time."
What are you going to do next? I asked.
"Well, I'll probably be making "The Mosquito Coast" with Peter Weir as the director. I love the scene where the father gets his family into the rain forest and convinces them that a lightning storm is the nuclear holocaust and they can kiss their credit cards goodbye. Then . . . I've finally bought the rights to Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King from MGM. I took a year and a half retirement after my last three pictures, after 'The Shining,' 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'The Border,' and I think one reason I wanted to do 'Terms of Endearment' was to see if I still had my chops up before launching into some of these other projects."
What kinds of movies do you hate? "Movies where 50 to 60 minutes are devoted to nostalgic rock 'n' roll hits of the '50s and '60s. 'I Heard It on the Grapevine' and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' can no doubt support any scene from writing a letter to chasing some guy through the subway, but I prefer movies with smart talk in them, people saying things, like in 'Terms of Endearment.'"
You really think this is a good one.
"Yep. We've really done it this time. Last night at the premiere, I invited about 100 of my friends because I knew they would like it, and afterward, it was the oddest thing, I was awkward about how to accept their compliments. Because you know, down deep in my heart, when all is said and done, I still live under the illusion that basically people think of me as an up-and-coming young actor." .