Over the weekend Jack Nicholson turned 75 years old, and besides just wishing him a happy birthday (and many more), I wanted to be able to pay tribute to him in some small way, and decided to do that by citing his best performances and also to basically have a space for you all to talk about your favorite works of his. Few actors have been honored during their career as much as Jack has (3 Oscars, 7 Golden Globes, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), but even so, there are still plenty of his performances that have flown under the radar. I’ll be citing one or two below, but I hope everyone recognizes that Nicholson can do much more than just simply play “Jack Nicholson”. I won’t be ignorant and claim that he never falls back on his comfort zone like that, but he’s capable of much more than I think he’s currently given credit for, so I’m going to give him a late birthday present and rectify that a bit. I was going to just do a countdown of his 10 best performances (in my humble opinion, of course), but since he’s 75 I thought I’d do an even dozen instead (plus 7 and 5 added together equals 12, so there’s that as well). As always, I’ll expect your lists to follow in the comments section, plus some healthy debate of course, but for now let’s dive into some of the best work of Jack Nicholson’s!
12. Reds- Playing Eugene O’Neil in Warren Beatty’s epic film, Nicholson does something very interesting. He has a drunken outburst, but it’s not the normal type of outburst that one expects from him. There’s more sadness, and it’s an incredibly touching scene for me in a strange way. Plus, this gets bonus points for actually being one of the first movies I ever saw him in (my grandfather loved the film and showed it to me…yet another reason to love him).
11. The Last Detail- Hal Ashby’s naval dramedy is a favorite of many a Hollywood heavyweight (Judd Apatow among them, as you can see a poster for this flick displaying prominently in ‘Funny People’), and while I won’t claim it’s my favorite Ashby film, I do love Nicholson’s portrayal of “Bad-Ass” Buddusky in it. For me, this was Nicholson developing the type of character he would play time and time again, but with a great twist to it.
10. Easy Rider- A counter-culture classic from the late Dennis Hopper, this was for many an introduction to Jack Nicholson, and that included the Academy, which bestowed on him his first Oscar nomination for this supporting performance. He’s not the focus of the film, but he owns the screen when he’s on it. I highly recommend seeing this if you haven’t…it could actually make for a perfect double feature with the upcoming ‘On the Road’.
9. The Shining- Heeeeeeeere’s….one of the more obvious choices on the list. I probably rate this performance of his slightly lower than many others do, but I still recognize how good it is. It’s become iconic at this point, and easily mocked (most recognizably by a Halloween episode of ‘The Simpsons’), but if you just watch the film without any of that in your head, you’re still left with quite a bit of acting to enjoy.
8. The Departed- I know not everyone loved this somewhat self aware performance by Jack in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner, but he was the perfect comic relief and exactly the type of out there villain I love to see. Not only that, but I far prefer this take on evil from Nicholson than his portrait of The Joker in Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. Go figure…
7. Five Easy Pieces- I’m not even going to comment on how great this performance is. I’ll let this classic diner scene (found here) speak for itself. I will say this though…if you’ve never seen this flick, get on that. You’re really missing out in that case, so give it a shot.
6. A Few Good Men- Not only could I handle the truth, but I handled this performance and very nearly ranked it in the top 5 of the Nicholson pantheon (it originally was there, but some last minute tinkering landed it here at #6). This is one of my favorite films, combining top notch Aaron Sorkin dialogue with a courtroom battle between Jack and Tom Cruise. What’s not to love?
5. As Good As It Gets- Another performance I know most will think I ranked too highly, but I stand by how hilarious Nicholson is in this comedy. He hits the dramatic beats as well as you expect him to, but this is comedic brilliance for me. I’d never really completely loved him as a romantic lead, but he won me over here. Yes, he made me want to be a better man…
4. Chinatown- Some consider this to be Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance to date. I’m not quite there, but it’s a solid Top 5 pick for me. There’s a quiet intensity here that just slowly burns up the screen. This movie also had the distinction of being one of his very first leading roles. With ‘Chinatown’ he was on his way to A-list status, and this was a terrific performance to do it with.
3. The Pledge- Perhaps his most underrated work ever, Sean Penn’s offbeat look at a retiring police chief’s obsession is a very good film made excellent by Nicholson’s quietly desperate performance. He’s never been as subtle yet powerful (but also weak as a character) at the same time, and it’s a performance I’m just in awe of. He breaks your heart with this work, and it’s something that you’re definitely not expecting either, which only adds to its power. If you’ve never seen this movie, you’re truly missing out on a piece of acting for the ages.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest- Another iconic character essayed by Jack, I absolutely loved this battle of wills film, as much as anything for his performance. There’s humor and pathos to be found in the character and the performance, and it deserves every bit of acclaim that it’s received. It’s one for the ages.
1. About Schmidt- I know I’m in the minority here, but I’ve never seen Jack Nicholson do better work than he did here with this beautifully understated performance in Alexander Payne’s equally beautiful film. The movie essentially seeks to have his character try and find the meaning of life, and he touched me in a way that few performances do. For me, this is the best work of Nicholson’s career, bar none.
There you have it, 12 of Jack Nicholson’s finest bits of work. Now it’s your turn to honor the man. Let us know what your favorite performances of his are. It can be just your favorite, or a whole list. The ball is in your court…so have at it!
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