Jack Nicholson draws upon his own hospitalization for The Bucket List

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Happy that test audiences dug The Bucket List’s dying-guys comedy, Nicholson would still like to get an “old-age” Oscar

Los Angeles—Jack Nicholson has always done his homework. He is known for researching his characters and doing whatever it takes to make the role work for the audience. However, even Nicholson wouldn’t voluntarily have done as much research as he ended up doing for the film The Bucket List. A few weeks before Nicholson was supposed to play a dying man who makes a friend in a hospital ward, he became ill and ended up spending eight weeks in a hospital.

In an L.A. hotel room, he says that as he prepared to begin work on the film, which costars Morgan Freeman, he became ill and had to tell director Rob Reiner that if he still wanted him in the film, he would have to wait two months. Reiner agreed and Nicholson went into the hospital as a patient for the first time in his adult life.

“I kind of panicked out,” he says of his hospital stay. “It was a saliva-gland problem. But all these antibiotics made me tired and I was worried about making the movie. I have spent a lot of time in hospitals, but I have only been there on my own behalf once. I even worked in a hospital, so I have had a lot of experience with it. That doesn’t mean that it informs you, but you do pick up impressions.

“I used to think it was my job to go into hospitals and make people feel better, but when I did this little stint [in hospital] before the picture, I was walking down the corridors at night and I was looking at these men sitting in these chairs,” Nicholson continues, putting his head down and rolling it around, eyes open. “I suddenly felt a little less antic and I am sure that I will behave quite differently in the future. I don’t think it was wrong to want to cheer people up. But you have to know your audience.”

In the film, which opens Friday (January 11) in Vancouver, Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a billionaire who has told the board of directors of the hospitals that he owns that private rooms should be eliminated from their budgets. When Cole is diagnosed with terminal cancer and has to be hospitalized, his assistant (Sean Hayes) feels that it would be poor public relations for him to have a private room. His roommate is another dying man, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), who has made a list of things he would like to do before he dies. Cole suggests that they spend the last of their days doing the things they have always put off.

Nicholson had never worked with Freeman, but he says he had wanted to work with him for a long time. He knew Reiner from A Few Good Men, which saw him famously tell Tom Cruise’s character, “You can’t handle the truth.” He says that he felt that if he was going to make a comedy that centred on two elderly men who were dying, he had to feel comfortable with the people he was making the movie with.

“I had worked with Rob and I had really liked working with him. Morgan and I had known each other from a distance for a long time. We would run into each other at the Oscars backstage and talk about all the women. We knew that we wanted to work together. That was pretty much all it took for me, and off we went.

“But it’s kind of a delicate thing, this picture,” Nicholson adds. “It’s a tough little puzzle, but I was happy that Rob found the tone early on. He said, ”˜We can’t make this movie nine times. Let’s get it right.’ This is one of the most fearsome subjects, so to do it in the manner of a comedy is a creative challenge. Until you see it with an audience, you can’t really know if it works, but at the first screening I went to I was impressed with how long the audience was moved at the end of the picture. If an audience sits there for 15 minutes, that’s something. They won’t do that if it is just about sentiment. If you get too sentimental, you’re going to lose them, so hats off to Rob.

“I actually asked people, ”˜Did this work out for you?’ I discovered that four or five people reconciled in the lobby at this screening. But the first important review came out when Morgan saw it and said ”˜Astonishing.’ We just threw it at the wall, and Rob did a great job in the editing room. It’s the kind of job that you don’t always get a lot of credit for, because it’s a two-hander. Directors usually only get credit for films where a lot of things blow up and there are special effects.”

Nicholson has always been happy to do print interviews. However, he doesn’t like talk shows or television interviews, assuming that he will be overexposed. His only real exposure comes with his annual visit to the Academy Awards, where he sits in the front row and talks back to the host. He has also been there on 12 occasions as a nominee and has won nominations for films made in five separate decades. He says that although it’s not the same show it was when he first attended as a nominee for 1969’s Easy Rider, it’s still the best show of its kind.

“I think there are too many award shows now that the awards period covers five months,” Nicholson says. “It kind of dilutes it. When I first started going to the Oscars, there was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and you could establish relationships with people like them or Bob Hope. There was all that glamour that I wish we still had, and so does everyone else. But it’s like anything. It’s our [Hollywood’s] fault. But I still like it. It’s a pleasant conceit, this whole thing about ”˜best this or that’, but somehow the criteria gets it right a lot of the time. For me, it is good for everyone, so why worry about it? I do wonder why it is that I don’t get an old-age sentimental Oscar the way several other people did, but that’s about my only complaint.”

Although Nicholson looks good for 70, there has been little vanity on-screen in recent years. He is dying in The Bucket List, had a heart attack in Something’s Got to Give, and went out of his way to look bad in About Schmidt. He says that he feels good for his age, something that doesn’t happen every time he has a birthday. But he admits that he is happy that everything turned out well on his latest film because there were times during production when he found it hard to keep up with the work.

“When I turned 70, it was the first time since 50 that I felt young for my age,” he says, “But before this movie I never met a movie crew that could outrun me. Here, I was worried halfway through that they might be going too fast for me. I got tired every day. We were shooting out of continuity, and there was a kind of anxiety. I was worried about the energy I might have left, having been in bed for eight weeks. But I got the kind of work I expected from Morgan, and we didn’t make a lot of mistakes along the way, so we were okay.”

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