By John H. Foote
Just Jack, we know him by the first name only or did for nearly forty years.
Publicly he seemed to always the best seats at the Academy Awards, as though he were presiding over the event like the mayor of Hollywood, and courtside at the games of his beloved Los Angeles Lakers, he was treated like a king. So great was his public persona, it was often forgotten that he was among the greatest actors in the history of the movies, perhaps the finest that has ever graced the silver screen.
Through his career, Nicholson has been active in films both lead and supporting, and a cameo or two, depending on the part. No part was too small he said if it grabbed his interested. Over fifty years he portrayed a vast array of characters, including romantic leads, dark portrayals on anti-heroes or psychopaths, sometimes the good guy we least expect him to be. Almost always he was in some way a rebel, the eternal outsider, the sardonic drifter, smarter than everyone else in the room, or at least thinking he was, in rebellion against the social structure he so despised.
Through my career as a film critic and before, during my fascination with actors, I have seen few that compare to him. Brando of course, Streep, Dustin Hoffman in the right role, Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, only a handful. Out there somewhere is an undiscovered actor who might yet challenge Nicholson as the screens very best actor. It is remarkable how many young actors you encounter working in the theatre who possess extraordinary talents, yet they will never be discovered. One of the very best I ever worked with, was my brother Steve, an actor of astonishing gifts. He portrayed for me Biff in Death of a Salesman, Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, Reverend Hale in The Crucible, Phil in Jitters, Joe in The Shadow Box, Hal in Picnic, and the Count himself in a sort of rock and roll version of Dracula, each performance unique, never copying the original, drawing from within and the script. Oh, that he had been given a break or a chance to show his natural gifts to the movie world. And not just for the work he did with me, he gave fine performances for other directors as well, though I believe he and I had a language only we understood as we both had the same theories about acting, that only the truth mattered. Like many young actors, Steve looked to Nicholson for inspiration and Jack, the most remarkable actor of our time provided just that.
Each new performance was met with interest because he was unpredictable, exciting on screen, you just never knew what was going to happen. He dominated the seventies with diverse, thrilling performances that could not be equaled. When Martin Scorsese finally worked with him in The Departed (2006), Nicholson agreed to the role only if he could improvise and do some work on the character, as he felt there was nothing new to it when he first read it. Scorsese gave him his blessing and the actors Leonardo Di Caprio and Matt Damon admitted they were terrified of what he might do next, that they might not be ready for. On their toes for the entire shoot, Nicholson created a horrifying mobster, while the younger actors received a master class in performance art. Established with nothing left to prove, he still wanted to push the limits of what would work, he still wanted that challenge.
His best work, as I have stated, was in the seventies, but he gave a star performance in 1989 for director Tim Burton in Batman portraying the Joker that brought him to an entirely new generation of movie fans who embraced him and his early work. The work he did in Batman (1989) gave his career a shot of energy and he continued to astound audiences and critics into the next century. KInd of sad his last film was unmemorable, even his second to last film, The Bucket List (2009) with the great Morgan Freeman. Had they switched roles, then we might have had a film? As it was, we were all too familiar with their characters.
Choosing ten great performances for him was impossible, I went to fifteen, and could have gone further to twenty.
Here are his fifteen greatest performances.
- THE PLEDGE (2001)
After making a promise to a distraught mother that he would find her child’s killer, Jerry Black (Nicholson) a cop on the verge of retirement slowly descends into madness with his obsession on the case. Making mistakes, taking huge risks, putting people he loves in terrible peril, Jerry is not thinking about anything else except that promise he made and fears he will break. Nicholson is powerful in the film, directed and written by his good friend Sean Penn. A superb cast surrounds the actor, but it is his film. Nicholson superbly captures a volatile man struggling with deep grief, loneliness, and yet an almost perverse sense of honour that keeps him looking for a killer that might have been found. Shamefully, he was snubbed for a nomination as Best Actor.
- A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
In an alarming supporting role, looking for all the world like my grandfather Hurst (creepily so) Nicholson is the power-mad Jessup, the commander at Guantanamo, where he rules with an iron fist, breaking rules if he must. Knowing the risk of being attacked, understanding his duty at that delicate border, he demands his men be strong, and if not, he is prepared to do what needs to be done to make them that way or eliminate them. when called out for ordering the killing of one such man, he is put on trial, stunned that anyone would dare put him in a courtroom. When he explodes admitting his guilt, he cannot again, believe that they take him into custody, his path to the White House ruined. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, it is an extraordinary performance.
- AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)
Nicholson won his third Academy Award for this performance as Marvin, a romance writer with all kinds of OCD issues and misanthropic beliefs. He speaks his mind, with no censor, a huge problem because he is homophobic, racist and even cruel, though deep down he has no intention of being such, he truly cannot help himself. When he falls in love with a young waitress portrayed by Helen Hunt, he wants to get well, he wants to have a normal life with her. It is a tough battle, but one that sees some incredible kindnesses emerge from the hateful writer. We come to like him by the end of the film, even seeing what she sees in him, but for the first hour, he is a perfect bastard. I am not of the mind he deserved the Oscar for Best Actor that year, Robert Duvall in The Apostle (1997) gave a performance for the ages, but Nicholson gave a hugely entertaining performance audiences and critics embraced. As a much-loved member of the Hollywood community, he was a shoo-in to win.
- THE CROSSING GUARD (1995)
Working with Sean Penn for the first time, with Penn the director and writer of this film, Nicholson dug deep to give a profoundly moving performance as a man torn apart by the death of his daughter, killed by a drunk driver currently serving time. Freddie (Nicholson) has watched his entire life fall apart since the death of his child because he is consumed with vengeance. His plan is to kill the man who hit his daughter the day the man is released. What he does not realize is that the man, portrayed with wounded fury by the underappreciated David Morse is that he has also been torn apart by what he did, never forgiving himself. They do encounter one another, Freddie gives a day to get his affairs in order, then goes looking for him. Yet, when they meet again it is at the grave of his daughter and he realizes the man is in as much pain as he is, and they reach out to one another perhaps to heal. The film was a small-scale work, an independent work with a low budget but Nicholson liked the role so much he cut his price and talked his ex, Anjelica Huston into playing his estranged wife. An angry, often bitter performance, but well worth a look.
- THE DEPARTED (2006)
Working with legendary director Martin Scorsese for the first time, the two make dark magic in this Oscar-winning Best Picture, with Nicholson as mobster Frank Costello, loosely based on Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger. Nicholson goes over the top sometimes, but it works because his villain is so indulgent, so wildly unpredictable from snorting coke off the buttocks of a hooker, to emerging from the kitchen of a bar his hands and forearms dripping with fresh blood. No question, Costello is dangerous and paranoid, and Nicholson radiates that danger, and paranoia, from the first moments we see him on screen, discussing his theory of living with a very young Matt Damon, bringing the child over to the dark side. Whether teasing, without mercy a priest, toying with a cop who is on to him or smiling in the face of being accused of being an informer to the FBI, Costello is a remarkable creation, the darkest of his career. Where was his Oscar for this??
- PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
The boldest performance of his career, the Brooklin accent, the stiff upper lip, the slightly dim eyes that take some time to compute what he is being told, we had not ever seen Nicholson in a role like Charlie Partanna. Hitman for a powerful mafia family, he finds himself in a predicament when he falls for a hit woman who is hired to kill him, while he too is hired to kill her. They marry in secret but are split up by the vicious Maerose (Anjelica Huston) in an Oscar-winning performance as the mastermind of a black widow who wants Charlie for herself. Nicholson is very funny in the film, and incredibly people missed that they were seeing a comedy, a black one, but without a doubt a comedy. He gives one of his best performances in the film, working with the late great John Huston who he loved like a father.
- REDS (1981)
Portraying the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill, Nicholson brought an intense, raw sexuality to the role, capturing the heat of the writer, his love for his best friend’s wife, his passion for his work. Though a supporting role, in just three or four scenes, Nicholson burns a hole in the screen with his smoldering intelligent performance. Warren Beatty directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film as John Reed, author of the seminal journalistic novel Ten Days That Shook the World, exploring American Communism within the picture. As a good friend of Reed, it was known that O’Neill had an affair with his wife, Louise Bryant, and her refusal of him damaged the writer for the rest of his life. His work was tainted with the wounds she left on him, many of them turning up in his work. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, among them Best Supporting Actor, which he should have won.
- THE SHINING (1980)
The first time I saw The Shining in the summer of 1980, I remember when Nicholson came through the door swinging that ax, screaming out “Here’s Johnny!” the audience burst into laughter. Try it this way. Imagine you are on the other side of that door, imagine you are his target, which is how Kubrick intended you to experience the film, and thinking like that it is not funny at all. Experiencing it like that the whole thing becomes terrifying, which is what the director intended. Years ahead of its time, Nicholson gave a huge, perverse performance in The Shining as a writer being driven mad by the ghosts that exist in the Hotel he is managing for the winter, high in the mountains. Though empty, the ghosts of the past lurk around every corner, drawing him into their world. They want his son dead because the boy shines, and can tell when they are about, and it is Nicholson they choose for the deed. It is a tremendous performance, walking the line into the absurd without ever stepping over it, truly terrifying. One of the greatest horror films ever made, the Academy missed it in every single category.
- TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
“Now, who would have expected you to be a nice guy,” she tells him as they sit on the steps of the hotel where she has been staying, caring for her daughter who is dying of cancer in a nearby hospital. He hugs her tight and she collapses into his arms, finally, her grief pouring out to him, a friend when she most needed just that. As Garrett Breedlove, a one-time famous astronaut, now an infamous skirt chaser, Nicholson is a comic delight. The first scenes of he together with his date, the more mature Shirley MacLaine, in the performance of her career is hilarious, and we see him growing as a person with her because he can talk to her. But he backs off, afraid of getting too involved, only to come to her when she needs him most. Nicholson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and every other acting award available to him that year. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actress, Director and for Nicholson his second Oscar.
- FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
With his performance as the restless Bobby Dupea, born into wealth, a gifted concert pianist who flees his upbringing and that world to drill oil in the fields, Nicholson firmly established himself as the seventies anti-hero, capturing the spirit of the youth unsure of what they want. Nicholson is superb in the film, his breakthrough as a leading man, having dazzled audiences and critics the year before in a supporting role in Easy Rider (1969). As Dupea he displayed a range few saw coming and it was only the beginning. A true redneck (we think) into his work, women, boozing, and bowling, he is called home after his father suffers a massive stroke. There with his noisy girlfriend in tow, we see he came from wealth, that he tossed aside a career as a musician for what he is doing now, but he is at least happy. He considers his brother a pretentious fool, his sister a frigid wallflower, though he does love his father, falling apart when he sees him. When he leaves with that noisy girlfriend, beautifully portrayed by Karen Black, he leaves her at a diner, hitching a ride with a trucker headed to Alaska. Bobby does what he has always done, he runs away, forever restless. Catching the spirit of the American youth to perfection, Nicholson was instantly as white-hot as an actor can be.
- IRONWEED (1987)
In this demanding, deeply depressing film, directed by Hector Babenco, based on William Kennedy’s novel about hobos in Albany, during the Depression, Nicholson portrays Frances, a homeless man who it turns out has a family awaiting his return. This comes as a surprise to us because we believe Frances is with Helen (Meryl Streep) a hobo who like Frances sees visions. For Frances they are of the men he has killed or been part of killing through the years, though the ghost he wears hardest is that of his infant child, who he dropped on the floor, killing the child. For that reason, Frances has stayed away from his home, fearful of what they think, more ashamed of himself than they can ever be. When he returns home to them with a turkey, he finds they welcome him with open arms, even offer him a bed, and place to live, the past forgiven. Nicholson digs deep here and gives a brilliant performance as a deeply troubled man forever haunted by a past he knows he cannot change or escape. Looking bone weary, it is a miraculous piece of acting in a film that wears one down, bleak, a downer in every way, no hope. Streep and Nicholson are outstanding together, but is that any surprise? The two best actors in film together? Sadly the film is rather underappreciated despite the Oscar nominations both actors received. Nicholson won Best Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, so admired was his performance.
- ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002)
One word, combover. After reading the beautiful screenplay, Nicholson said those words to director Alexander Payne and accepted the part. It is among the highlights of his career, portraying against type a quiet, bullied little man who worked for an insurance company his entire life believing he made a difference when in fact he knew deep down he did not. He will retire and no one will miss him. No one. Shortly after retiring his wife drops dead, leaving him alone to take care of himself, something he has never done before. Lost without her, he loads himself into the large mobile home they bought and heads across the country to talk his only child out of marrying a man he considers beneath her. On the way and upon arriving, Schmidt will find out a great deal about himself and accepts her decision to marry, knowing she is happy. As a father, you can ask for no more. He returns home to a pile of mail, one of which is a letter from the child he sponsors, and a painting. AS he reads the letter he realizes to this single person he matters, and Schmidt bursts into tears, for the first time in the film knowing he is wanted, that his life was not useless. It is a superb piece of acting from Nicholson who welcomed the chance to play a character, unlike anything he had done before. Awards poured in from the LA Film Critics Association, the Golden Globe for Best Actor, so many but not the Oscar which he was expected to bring home.
- CHINATOWN (1974)
As suave, sharp as a tack, yet shady private investigator JJ Gittes, Nicholson had one of his finest and most critically acclaimed roles in one of the very best films of the seventies, directed by Roman Polanski. The film was an extraordinary work, the screenplay was written by Robert Towne one of the finest ever created, and Polanski actually made the film darker with the changes he suggested. Though cynical, like Bogart, there is a naive side to Gittes that catches us off guard when he is pulled deeper and deeper into the hell that is the world of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) who is less the femme fatale than a victim herself, but without question the danger that pulls Gittes in deeper. Raped by her father, Noah Cross (John Huston) she is trying to keep the teenaged child away from the perverse old man who would likely rape the girl too. Cross has the money to bury his daughter without anyone asking a question, but once Gittes knows he tries to help, bringing an end to Evelyn. We feel the pain in him as he walks away being told, “Its Chinatown Jake….” meaning it is everything horrible in life. A truly brilliant Nicholson performance that earned him yet another Oscar nomination to go along with the eleven in all the film received. Arguably the greatest film noir ever made.
- THE LAST DETAIL (1973)
Badass Buddusky is a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, tough as nails bonny rooster of a sailor, a career Navy man tasked with taking a hopelessly naive young thief to the brig for stealing. Seeing the trip as the chance for some fun, he and his partner take the young man about the city, drinking, good hamburgers, hookers they show him a good time, knowing full well they are taking him to jail. They are hard men, driven men, disciplined tough men who like the young man but just the same he is going to jail. Their initial plan is to take the kid to jail in two days and enjoy the rest of the week having a blast, but Buddusky takes a liking to the younger man, played with sweet charm by Randy Quaid, and take him along. They make a man out of him, teaching him to stand up for himself, so much so he tries to escape from them. Nicholson is the life force within the film, a broad, life-loving man who thinks the kid is getting a raw deal, but who is he to question orders? He captures the contradictions in the man to perfection. Defiant, but also world-weary, Nicholson vividly brings the character to life in one of his very best performances which won him the Cannes Film Festival Award as Best Actor and a second Oscar nomination as Best Actor.
- ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
The most breathtaking performance of his career, one of the greatest five ever captured on film, Nicholson is simply astounding as R. P. McMurphy the anti-hero of the infamous Ken Kesey novel that became this Milos Forman directed the film. When McMurphy fakes mental illness to get out of labour at the local prison, he does not realize he has been committed, that it is the decision of the state when he be released. Thinking it is an easy detail, he makes it his mission in life to bring down the authority of the Nurse (Louise Fletcher), a passive-aggressive metaphorically castrator of the men who she has reduced to sheep. Seeing this he makes her life miserable, but in doing so places himself in great peril without ever knowing it. When he finds out she can keep him in the hospital for as long as she wants too, he lashes out in anger to get at her. Little does he realize his actions bring back to their men their manhood, seeing him inspires them in every way and they too begin to fight back. For the men, his behaviour is infectious and they love him as much as the Nurse despises him. His love of life is something they have not experienced before finding joy in the little things, and even when the Nurse takes something away he makes something extraordinary of it. Surrounded by a cast of gifted character actors and real-life patients, Nicholson is dazzling in the lead role, his thirst for freedom governing his every move. Yet as the men love him, so is he loyal to them and when escape is possible, he stays to make sure the men are safe, and it costs him his mind. In a last act of love, his massive friend the Chief (Will Sampson) suffocates him, setting him free before he escapes in a manner McMurphy once described and tried, though he failed. The men awake, thinking he and the Chief have escaped together, and at last, he is free. The film was a massive crossover hit, critics hailed it a masterpiece while audiences formed lineups around the block to see it. Finally, after three consecutive nominations for Best Actor, four in all he won Best Actor, one of five the film collected becoming the first film since It Happened One Night (1934) to sweep the major categories. A miraculous performance in one of the greatest American films ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.