All Paris Loves the Jack

I HAD a conversation with Jack Nicholson the other day. Actually the word ``conversation'' may be a bit intimate to describe what transpired between us. I asked him a question, and he answered it.

But it was the way he answered my question, coming as it did from (OK, I admit it) a total stranger, that made me feel like I was a close friend. Like maybe we were sitting together at the Los Angeles Coliseum as he half-watched his beloved L.A. Lakers, and he simply picked up on a comment his b-ball buddy had just thrown out. Maybe that's a particular talent of actors, maybe that's why the Great Communicator was so popular with the American public. Maybe Jack Nicholson should run for president.

The whole thing started when the engraved invitation from the Minister of Culture crossed my threshold, inviting me to the induction of Jack Nicholson into the French Order of Arts and Letters.

As the Paris correspondent for an American newspaper (the one you hold in your hands), I get a lot of these things in the mail. Invitations to everything from seminars on ``Making it in Post-1992 Europe'' to art exhibits, receptions for soon-departing embassy officials, even new-business ribbon cuttings. (My wife pays little attention to all these ecru, double-enveloped invites, mainly because they rarely involve her, or interest her for that matter. But when the call to the christening of the Paris beachhead of Haagen-Daz ice cream arrived, she sat up and took notice. ``Now that interests me,'' she said. We had to skip it, however: A serious deadline got in the way).

To be honest, not many of these invitations interest me, either. But I was intrigued when in early January I received a nicely engraved card from the Ministry of Culture informing me that Bob Dylan was to be made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, the highest French honor for cultural achievement.

What made this bit of information especially delicious was the recollection that the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, had roared into office in 1981 on a crusade against American culture. It was imperialistic, hegemonic, and bent, he said, on snuffing out other cultures that had neither the inclination nor the capitalist backing to dominate the world.

But that was when France's socialists, newly voted into power, were talking nationalizations and the evils of money. Since then these same socialists had turned off the state-run highway for the wilds of the free market. The country has prospered, and the Gaullist anti-American tendencies have been relegated to the political fringes. Even that apotheosis of American culture, the Magic Kingdom, has been lured with a Napoleanic red carpet, and now Euro-Disneyland is preparing for its inauguration at the gates of Paris in 1992.

So I went to see Bob Dylan. Mr. Lang put a ribbon from which dangled the order's cross around the reclusive singer's neck, even gave him the customary kiss on the cheek. The photographers were out in full force (``Bob! Bob! Bob!'' they called, all trying to get the singer-legend to turn in their direction) but a visibly uncomfortable Dylan mumbled a merci and was whisked from the room. The crab, watercress, and rocquefort petits fours notwithstanding, it was a disappointment.

Not six months passed when here came a second invitation, this one for the induction of none other than Ella Fitzgerald. But Miss Fitzgerald had to do without me, my job having called me out of town. Then in September - conveniently timed, no doubt, to coincide with the American Film Festival in Deauville (the same festival the then-anti-American Lang had boycotted less than a decade ago) - came the invitation to Jack Nicholson's induction. The Americans, it seemed, were on a roll.

The memory of the ho-hum time that had been had by all at the Dylan induction was still strong enough to discourage another trek to the minister's quarters overlooking the garden of the Palais Royal. But this was Jack Nicholson. The man who'd had so much fun portraying the Joker in ``Batman'' was sure to be good for a little mischief. If nothing else, I figured he'd raise his signature eyebrows at the pomp of the affair, and that would be enough.

This being September, the ornate second-floor room at the ministry was abuzz with tales of la rentr'ee: literally the ``reentry'' to Paris from the long August vacation. To judge by the small talk, Paris already had everyone busy, busy, busy. But the fact that all these people had found the time for the early-evening reception belied an essential fact of Parisian life: There's always time for something that promises to make such a good impression on the next morning's cafe circuit.

The actual ceremony lasted much longer than the earlier one in honor of Mr. Dylan. First, because Minister Lang gave a windy, effusive speech; which, by the way, offered the honoree plenty of time to raise his eyebrows - sending the jostling photographers into photo-op heaven - and to wave prankishly to uncharacteristically giddy Parisiennes (``Bonjour, Jacques!'' called out one, standing on her stylishly shod tiptoes).

Then the actor himself, once duly made a commander of the order, gave an acceptance speech in respectable French - a fail-safe method of assuring acceptance in France.

It was not until the guest of honor moved outside for photos on the Palais Royal's balcony that the two of us had our Q&A. The photographers seemed to momentarily retreat, which left me at the actor's side.

I hadn't anticipated asking him any questions, but when there was a lull in a radio journalist's interview, I spoke to him of the sensitivity in France over the fact that American movies are so widely distributed here, while French movies get very little play in the US.

``Is there anything people in power in the industry can do to change that?'' I asked.

His answer came quickly but effortlessly, as in a casual conversation. He said it wasn't a problem for governments to solve, any more than the industry itself. ``You know it's really in the hands of the audience, they're the ones who make the choice,'' he said. ``No government can stop them from preferring the big action productions, and those tend to be American.''

He spoke softly and easily, as though it was as much a relief for him to talk with another American as it was a treat for me to talk to a star. He said he was trying to pull back from the action-packed syndrome himself with his most recent release, ``The Two Jakes,'' but that response to the film had been mixed.

Then the photographers, picking up on the arrival at Mr. Nicholson's side of Roman Polanski, redeployed and settled like locusts once again. 30-{et

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