Nicholson Makes 'The Pledge'

Professionally, both are unafraid to take roles their agents and advisers might suggest steering clear of. And both have tackled directing, producing and writing. "Having worked with [Penn] before, I've watched how he has evolved as a director," Nicholson says. "You kind of let yourself go when you know that audience of one man, the director, has very fine taste. A lot of times, directors don't really know how to talk to actors exactly. When Sean gives a direction, it's very, very specific and precise. He's got great eyes. I don't worry about anything when I'm working with Sean. Nobody's going to rush us. Nobody's going to say you can't do that. We're going to do it as well as we can."

Proud of His Body of Work

In The Pledge, Nicholson's character tries to explain to his former boss why he is so determined to continue investigating a case the police department has deemed closed. "I made a promise," Jerry says to a police chief. "You're old enough to remember when that meant something."

To Nicholson, that bit of dialogue also has meaning in his own life. "When I give my word, I think it means something," he says.

Nicholson arrived in Hollywood from his native New Jersey in the mid-1950s. His first job was as an office boy at MGM. "I saw every great movie actor who ever lived walk through those gates," he recalls. "That's really why I was there. I was movie-struck."

His acting career got off to a less than stellar start with Roger Corman's 1958 crime thriller Cry Baby Killer, in which he played the killer. For the next decade, he appeared in mostly forgettable roles. It wasn't until he replaced Rip Torn in 1969's Easy Rider that he got his breakthrough part and the first of several Oscar nominations. He went on to appear in successful and highly acclaimed films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Terms of Endearment and A Few Good Men, among others. In 1995, he was honored with the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award.

Nicholson says he's proud of his body of work but doesn't like to dwell on the past. Asked to name his favorite film, he says slyly, "I don't really have a favorite, but that's primarily because I'm a little vain. I like all my movies."

As Good As It Can Get

To this day, he still loves movie-making and movie stars, but he has noticed changes in Hollywood over the past 45 years.

"Frankly, the thing I most miss is the glamour," he says, resembling on this particular day a tenured university professor in tweed jacket, green polo shirt and brown pants. "I love the glamour of Hollywood. I'm just so happy to have been here to see what that was like when (the acting community) sort of had their own world — Hollywood. They ran it however they wanted to, and they put on a good show everywhere, and it wasn't all about what it cost or this or that. It was about more graceful things."

Even deal making these days is a big turn off to him. "The negotiating period of a movie is now very uncomfortable," he says. "I've never been a top-dollar seeker as a negotiator. If I'm interested in a film, I figure all that will come out in the end. You can't make a simple deal anymore, and it takes an endless amount of time. In that sense, there's a lot of vitiated time just in the deal-making process."

Despite his grumbling, Nicholson has made some of the most lucrative deals in Hollywood. For Batman, for example, he took a percentage of the box-office proceeds rather than a fee, which garnered him an estimated $60 million on the blockbuster.

Next on his plate is a film called About Schmidt, with writer/director Alexander Payne (Election). It begins shooting this spring. But now, back to the matter at hand.

As Nicholson gets up to leave, he puts his sunglasses back on and coyly makes one final push for The Pledge.

"Be good to the picture," he says, "or you won't get any more."

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