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‘Nicholson: A Biography’ tells sordid, rumor-fueled story of Jack being Jack

Dennis King Published: December 12, 2013

“They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.” That quote from George Hanson, Jack Nicholson’s free-spirited character in “Easy Rider,” seems to sum up a lot about the actor’s allure and his reputation as one of Hollywood’s scariest rebels and most freewheeling of power players.

There’s more than ample, though mostly second-hand, evidence of Nicholson’s horndog legend and his bad-boy mischief in “Nicholson: A Biography” (Crown Archetype, $26), writer Marc Eliot’s unauthorized, colorful but thuddingly written account of the actor’s illustrious career on screen and his equally illicit life off.

It all reads like a “tell-all” expose written in florid high-school prose by someone who picked up salacious gossip here and there and blended it skillfully but rather inelegantly with more traditional source material (biographical history, academic research, interviews with various industry figures, although not with Nicholson himself).

The result is pithy and more than a little salacious – about what you’d expect based on Nicholson’s roguish public image and larger-than-life exploits. But where rumor and gossip collide with provable fact, Eliot doesn’t hesitate to print the former.

For instance, among the explicit detailing of the actor’s numerous sexual dalliances (with Madonna, Joni Mitchell, Julie Delpy, Melanie Griffith, among many others), Eliot describes an alleged encounter between Nicholson and his married co-star Meryl Streep during the filming of 1987’s “Ironwood.”

Eliot points out that the two had a contentious relationship on their first film together, 1986’s “Heartburn.” But some anonymous source supposedly reported to Eliot that on the “Ironweed” set the two spent much private time in Nicholson’s trailer, which at times shook so passionately that it “seemed to be balanced on four overworked Slinkys.” (Both Streep and Nicholson have denied that any such assignations took place.)

Eliot is on more solid ground in reporting Nicholson’s admitted and prodigious drug use (although the suggestion that he smoked 155 joints during the shooting of one scene in “Easy Rider” seems a stretch). And there’s a certain uncomfortable insight to be found in the delving into Nicholson’s longtime struggles with weight, baldness and sexual dysfunction – all worries that belie his longtime status as one of Hollywood’s most energetic “swordsmen” (a decidedly sophomoric sobriquet for, well, enough said …).

On top of that, Eliot writes, Nicholson “also had castration fantasies, homoerotic fear fantasies and revelations about not being wanted as an infant.’ Yikes! Being a Hollywood playboy apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Eliot, who has also written books about Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, gets lots of mileage out of very little new information. If “Nicholson: A Biography” doesn’t quite do justice to the stature of its subject as a great actor, it certainly pays dubious tribute to has reputation as one of Hollywood’s most vivid and devilishly charming characters.

- Dennis King