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Nicholson at nite

If you want to glimpse forlorn faces, take a look at the Hollywood banquet circuit these days. Charities that used to pack the ballrooms are papering the house. Studios, networks and their assorted supplicants and mendicants increasingly rebel against paying $ 1,000 a plate for rubber chicken and lame entertainment. The causes may be worthy, but the attendees are dour.

At one recent benefit I watched three top-ranking Hollywood execs spend half an hour laying wagers over who could orchestrate the quickest escape. At a recent ceremony honoring a studio chief, the audience looked like it was attending a wake.

The entertainment isn’t helping much, either. The old days when Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin would enthusiastically work a SHARE banquet are long gone. Today they usually fly in an entertainer fresh from Vegas who doesn’t even bother editing out his gambling jokes.

Even the estimable American Film Institute, whose annual “lifetime achievement” dinners have often been fascinating events, has found itself with some problems and lagging TV ratings. Imitators have copied its format — the mix of star reminiscences and film clips. And it’s not always easy to sell tickets to honor an octogenarian.

The AFI found a quick fix this week — his name is Jack Nicholson. The youngest individual ever to be honored by AFI, the 57-year-old also helped sell the most tickets ever and provided the best show. Indeed, the evening was a vivid reminder of Nicholson’s unique status in the pop arts. Who else could draw an audience where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would rub shoulders with Danny DeVito (Kareem had to stoop), or Bob Dylan with Warren Beatty, or Don Henley with Mike Nichols?

The evening served as a reminder of what is wrong with most industry events: They are dominated by “the suits.” At the Nicholson tribute, instead of lofty pronouncements by number crunchers, the audience was treated to a seemingly impromptu duet by Art Garfunkel and Harry Dean Stanton. It also heard a splendidly crazed Dennis Hopper confess that “I’m the schmuck who didn’t want Jack Nicholson to get the role in ‘Easy Rider.’ ”

The tribute contained its quota of good one-liners. Witness Candy Bergen explaining that “Jack doesn’t act, he simply is.” Or Beatty patiently relating that Nicholson makes exceptionally good rice pudding, but don’t dare serve him fruits or vegetables. Or Shirley MacLaine pointing out that Nicholson has now mastered the art of doing multimillion-dollar one-week cameos in movies –“First you steal the money, then you steal the movie,” she declared.

Unlike most industry events, this one provided some amusing insights. Consistent with rumor, for example, Bob Dylan can actually sit through an often hilarious four-hour evening without even once cracking a smile — no small gift. And Harry Dean Stanton can still sustain a 10-minute monologue without resorting to a moment of intelligibility.

Much was made of the fact that Nicholson was really too young to be rewarded for lifetime achievement — Macaulay Culkin may be next year’s recipient, Beatty warned — but on the other hand, he’s made 50 movies in 36 years, which is in itself a remarkable achievement. He served his 10-year sentence in B pictures. For his first good role in “Easy Rider,” he was paid $ 392 a week. He did his initial “big picture”–“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”– for $ 12,500. As the cliche goes, he paid his dues.

At the outset of the evening, Beatty warned that Nicholson’s conversational style followed its own rules of syntax and sentence structure, and, in closing out the evening, the star did not disappoint. Unfinished sentences dangled helplessly; errant thoughts collided with one another. An idea would begin in joy and end in tears. Only a consummate showman could bring down the house without making one iota of sense.

His secret, of course, is star power, whatever that may be, plus another quality as well. With all his quirks and tantrums, Jack Nicholson is the most beloved star of his era, beloved by his co-workers as well as friends. It was those qualities in the end that lent the evening its memorability — the sense of artists and craftsmen still pulling together against considerable odds to create work that may make some money and also make everyone proud. His colleagues were clearly very proud of Jack Nicholson.

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