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Jack Laid-back

August 05, 1990|Jack Mathews | Jack Mathews is The Times' film editor.

ABOUT midway through Jack Nicholson's "The Two Jakes," the long-delayed and much-anticipated sequel to "Chinatown," private eye Jake Gittes finds himself on the defensive end of a one-on-one sexual fast break by the stunning widow of a man his client is suspected of murdering.

"Are you going to make me do it, Jake?" asks the feverish Lillian Bodine (played by Madeleine Stowe) in a voice that tells him exactly how to respond. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going to make you do it," Jake says, his back to the water cooler in his office.

But first, he needs a break. Some time to think about it. This isn't the same young Jake of "Chinatown," the impulsive ex-cop who stuck his nose out so far he almost got it cut off. Eleven years have passed since he got to the last act of that story of greed, incest and betrayal, and a lot has happened, to him and to America.

It is now 1948, and Jake is a decorated war veteran running a thriving business in boom-town Los Angeles. The years, the war and his memories have altered him; his face is as lined as a dry bean field, and a lot of good meals have come to rest just above his belt. Soaring domestic infidelity and a rich clientele of betrayed lovers are paying for a lifestyle that includes a membership in the exclusive Wilshire Country Club, dinners at swank Perino's restaurant and the sleek gray Hudson convertible that gets him back and forth from his home in the hills to the Streamline Moderne headquarters of Gittes Investigations.

For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 9, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4D Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In the profile of Jack Nicholson, "Jack, Laid-Back," by Jack Mathews, the magazine misspelled the name of screenwriter John Herman Shaner.

And now Jake is in a very interesting situation, facing not one but two conflicts of interest. Does he satisfy this woman he barely knows and risk the interests of his client? Does he stick around and get rug burns while his faithful fiancee dines alone? No prompting from the audience, please.

The answer is that after all these years Jake is still Jake. But that he hesitates at all is a sign--at least to the star and director of the movie--that he is no longer the hair-trigger guy he was before the war. Those years in Naval Intelligence have made him at least consider the consequences.

"The old Jake would have done it different, that's for sure," Nicholson says, with a grin that roars with mischief. "He's a little calmer now, a little less quick to fly."

"THE TWO JAKES"is called that because Gittes' client and adversary is also named Jake. But the two Jakes that Nicholson talks about are the same guy a decade removed. The movie is laced with incidents like the one above, in which the changes in Jake are apparent but not remarkable. "I like that element of this film, that part of the story is told by how you have the characters change," Nicholson says. "Gittes is still the same guy, but the fact that events have changed him is actually a literary element of the movie. This is not the same guy who jumped out of a barber's chair and went nuts."

When it's pointed out that one key scene ends in a wild brawl, with Jake shoving a pistol in a cop's mouth, Nicholson says, "Yeah, well, you can change some of your spots, but not all of them."

Jack Nicholson, now 53, seems a little calmer, too, a little less quick to fly. As the director of "The Two Jakes," he hesitated at the water cooler himself. He actually shot part of the lovemaking between Jake and Lillian, but the man who--on a breadboard with Jessica Lange in "The Postman Always Rings Twice"--gave the '80s one of its steamiest sex scenes, restrained himself and cut from Jake pondering his opportunity to the morning after he'd enjoyed it.

Friends who've known him throughout his career say Nicholson has mellowed, become more confident and assured, and Nicholson agrees. He says he's more reflective about life and, in fact, worked a favorite theme of his--that the past can be neither shaken nor ignored--into Robert Towne's script for "The Two Jakes."

Nicholson makes no apologies and says he has no regrets, except for having been so open about his views on sex and drugs in interviews over the years. "I put a certain amount of effort into being a good interview because it was better for all of us," he admits of that period when he courted his bad-boy image. "When you're younger, you get so tired of these pat phrases. . . . It's also another area of communications. I thought, 'Let's open it up a little.' You can't do that now; there's too much misinformation out there."

More than that of any other star, Nicholson's off-screen personality seems to match the nature of his on-screen roles. The expressions, mannerisms, speech patterns--the way his lips purse and his eyebrows arch--are similar as well. There has been something both charismatic and aloof about most of the people he has played, an explosive charge that is both exhilarating to watch and fearsome to ponder. As a movie star, he has ignored conventional wisdom and taken supporting roles, then put vanity on the run by growing an ample paunch and allowing it to be shot in naked profile at the outset of a love scene (with Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment").

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