By People Staff
Updated December 25, 1989 12:00 PM

Before the Joker, before Bruce Wayne, before Guber-Peters, before Time Warner and even before the merchandising, there was first the Killer Smile. Wickedly arched eyebrows. Malevolent rolling eyeballs. Flashing teeth. Add to that a clown’s makeup and a demonic laugh, and you have the most compelling proof ever of George Orwell’s dictum that, at 50, everyone has the face he deserves. In Batman the 52-year-old Jack Nicholson inhabited the Joker’s role with such fevered invention that he stole the film and helped turn it into a $250 million monster that’s on its way to becoming Hollywood’s all-time box office champ. When the Joker drops $20 million on greedy Gothamites, he shrugs, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve got enough.” So does Jack: Profit-sharing and merchandising provisions in his contract may bring him $20 mill or more after the last Batman lunch box is sold in Kathmandu.

By the time the $24.98 Batman video was rushed out last fall, though, Nicholson was making news for a different kind of performance. In November the actor learned he had more than just a piece of the action at Helena’s, the L.A. hot spot he partly owns. It was reported that Rebecca Broussard, 26, an ex-waitress there, was due to bear a child by Jack next spring. A month later, starlet Karen Mayo-Chandler, 28, used a Playboy pictorial to claim that she and Nicholson had a torrid, months-long, pre-Batman affair. Jack in the sack, she said, was “a nonstop sex machine.” Anjelica Huston, Jack’s longtime love, was said to be stung by the news, and it wasn’t certain if their 15-year romance could weather the alleged escapades.

Nicholson ignored the brouhaha and turned his talents to finishing The Two Jakes, the 15-years-in-the-gestating sequel to Chinatown. He is both star and director of the film, which will be released next year. After three decades and 40-plus movies, Nicholson has become that rare public figure whose art permits him to float, beloved and bankable, almost beyond criticism or scandal. As Meryl Streep, his co-star in Heartburn and Ironweed, has said: “He’s a serious artist—I think he’s a master. He’s got a voracious appetite for the work. He’s never satisfied but he’s always churning. It’s wild. There’s nobody out there that far in the movies. Nobody!”

This year did nothing to prove Streep wrong.