I attended the AFI 40th Anniversary Gala at the Arclight last night - 1o classic films introduced by their stars. This was a pretty amazing lineup: Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner introducing When Harry Met Sally, Kirk Douglas for Spartacus, Julie Andrews for The Sound of Music, Angela Lansbury for Beauty and the Beast, George Lucas for Star Wars, Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, Tippi Hedren for The Birds, Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, Sylvester Stallone for Rocky, and, last but not least, Jack Nicholson introducing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Jack has been my primary celebrity obsession since I was in junior high, and since I moved to LA four years ago I'd seen him in person three times: twice at Laker games, once at the premiere of Something's Gotta Give. When the tickets for this AFI gala sold out instantly, I resorted to overpaying on ebay. I just couldn't miss the chance to hear him speak.
We arrived early and were immediately thwarted by security who forced us to take the long way around the theater so as not to soil the red carpet. It was clear, and not surprising, that the common people were going to be sequestered from the stars.
Once inside, we made a beeline to the auditorium to secure one of the limited number of official souvenir programs. We then grabbed free popcorn and sodas. We hit the bar. We didn't see any stars even though showtime was only about 30 minutes away. We moved to a spot near the lobby but security guards were pretty determined to keep the area clear. I did get to see Jack walk in, but I didn't see any of the other stars. Lurking around outside by the red carpet might have been a better strategy but, really, I saw who I came to see.
The movie started almost an hour late. Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI President and CEO, came onstage and apologized for the lateness and assured us it wasn't Jack's fault (true - he was about 15 minutes early). Maybe she had to introduce all the screenings or something, we surmised. She introduced Jack, and the crowd leapt to its feet. Jack looked kinda rumpled and his hair was all askew. One TMZ commentor likened his hairstyle to a baby orangutan.
Jack launched into a rapid-fire free association of stories about making the picture. I love it when movie stars refer to movies as "pictures." It's just so Old Hollywood. Some highlights of his comments:
- Kirk Douglas played the role on Broadway but by the time the film was ready to be made, Kirk was 60, and his producer son Michael deemed him too old for the role. Jack said Kirk still gives him a hard time about it, even that night on the red carpet. (I guess Kirk got the last laugh - he got the Cinerama Dome for his screening)
- He said he'd spoken to Louise Fletcher recently and praised her performance and her cold blue eyes.
- He also said he'd spoken to ex-flame Anjelica Huston recently and recalled she was in the film in the scene where the inmates hijack a boat and go fishing. I hadn't realized that and if you blink you'll miss it - she's an extra in the crowd scene as the boat returns to shore.
- It was the 2nd movie to win all the major Oscars (picture, actor, actress, director, screenplay). The first was It Happened One Night and since Cuckoo's Nest only Silence of the Lambs has done it.
- As a struggling writer/actor, Jack had tried to option the rights to Ken Kesey's book but got trumped by Kirk Douglas. When he got the role, he knew the material well and gave a few suggestions such as "cutting out the Big Indian's monologues".
- Good friends Jack and Danny DeVito met on this film and Jack was impressed by DeVito's improvisation of throwing the basketball at the fence during the basketball scene.
- Jack said his own improvisation in the scene where the Doctor (a real shrink, not an actor) does his intake interview was one of his favorite improv scenes and that he had been showing off that day because his daughter Jennifer was on the set.
- Scatman Crothers kept them entertained on the set and convinced Jack to get him roles in 2 other films - The Fortune and The Shining.
- He expressed admiration for his stuntman who executed the acrobatic climb over the razor-wire fence.
- He told some story about his dog and coming home to find duck feathers all over the yard one day. Like I said, free associating.
Once he finished, he left the auditorium and the film began. I quickly came down from the high of seeing Jack and remembered why I hadn't watched this film since high school - it's freakin' bleak. My friend pointed out that watching it and knowing the outcome is even harder because you find yourself willing the characters to do whatever's necessary to avert the ending. But still, it's a powerful film - and a powerhouse performance - everything from the bold improvised World Series game... to the thoughtful, wordless expressions on his face as Billy and Candy have their date in the other room and he's on the verge of passing out, waiting to escape... to the final rage against the big nurse.
Thanks, AFI. Thanks, Jack. Nights like this remind me why I live in LA.
Read my sordid tale of Jack Nicholson obsession on Ape Culture