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The Devil Doesn’t Take a Holiday

For a few hours last Wednesday, it looked as though Satan might be retiring.

Right before lunch, Radar Online and Star published a rumor, from an anonymous but “highly placed” source, that Jack Nicholson was retiring from the acting business. He’s old. His memory is shot. He forgets his lines. The internet caught fire.
A few hours later, yet another source chimed in to say that Jack was fine. He’s reading scripts and looking forward to his next project. At that point, it didn’t really matter because the story was the story.

I asked my old book-club buddy, a veteran PR guy named Ryan Holiday, about it. He said this:

“Nobody in the celebrity gossip space cares if they get a story wrong, so why wouldn’t they repeat these rumors once they started? Look at the Daily Mail’s piece. They didn’t say they are reporting it. They are saying that Radar and Star reported it. So if it turns out to be wrong, they’ll blame someone else and get the pageviews both ways.”

You can sense the disgust. This guy has done PR for American Apparel.

It’s really easy to spread a toxic rumor about anyone who’s even somewhat famous. Try it. Make some absurd allegation and then trade it up the chain. Pitch it to a hungry small-time blogger in Brooklyn or Los Feliz. Watch it hit Twitter and Reddit, where people agree with things like they’re trained to do. (A teacher told me recently that a Retweet releases more endorphins in the brain than sex, which may be the most depressing thing I’ve heard this year.) Wait for it to get soaked up by Gawker and HuffPo. Boom! News! It makes absolutely no difference whether or not it’s true. As long as it’s true for us.

You have to start with a story that a lot of people would like to believe.

Jack Nicholson is the devil. He’s not playing a character. You can’t fake that sort of sadistic charm. We’re not conflating the man with his roles here. Read the books behind The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the screenplay for Chinatown. His characters are dark, sure. But that incredibly dark photo-negative version of what humans generally regard as acceptable and good – that comes straight from Jack.

The devil isn’t a nihilist. Rank nihilism only works for maniacs, college kids, and very recent divorcees. With eternity on his hands, the devil will develop his own distinct system of ethics. If only out of boredom. The devil gets easily bored. That’s the whole point of being evil.

All of Jack Nicholson’s characters have distinct systems of ethics that are completely unique to them, and that they’re incredibly passionate about.

Jake Gittes takes his quest for truth all over Los Angeles and ruins a bunch of people’s lives, for no real payoff, because that’s exactly what he would do. Mac Murphy thinks of acute antisocial personality disorder as a moral obligation. Jack Nicholson is a diehard LA Lakers fan, and takes good care of his personal friends – guys such as Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, and… Roman Polanski.

Roman Polanski is a piece of shit. And he’s no Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson, the devil, is famous for a reason. We all want a little piece of pure evil, a moonrock from hell. We all try our hands at being that once in a good while. Secretly, we’ve all wanted to be evil, full-time. But we’re terrified that we wouldn’t be that good at it.

We’re envious of well-done evil. We like to watch it get punished. But that happens all the time, especially in Chicago. We’re only really interested if the fall from pure-evil grace is interesting.

Born in Neptune City, New Jersey, in 1937, Jack Nicholson has been active in Hollywood since 1958. He was married once, to Sandra Knight, but they divorced in 1968, before Jack’s big hits came out. He’s had dozens of well-known barely-legal girlfriends, but broadcasts the veneer of almost complete self-sufficiency.

When we heard that he was losing his memory, we were intrigued. That’s quite a memory bank to lose. For a few hours, Nicholson was weak. Vulnerable. Not unlike us.

The devil doesn’t go out like that.

I don’t believe in the devil, insofar as I don’t think a human being can perfectly embody everything I find objectionable. I despise hero worship – it’s great for teenagers, but the task of a lifetime is to become your own hero. If you’re in your 30s and you think an actor is doing it better than you are, you’ve failed.

Every woman I’ve ever loved has had a crush on Jack Nicholson.

As a teenager, my heroes were Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Jack Nicholson. At some point, I realized that what these guys had in common was that they didn’t outwardly try to be anyone other than Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, or the devil, respectively.

I’m not particularly religious. But I can understand the appeal of Satanism.

Categories: Pop Culture.

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