By John H. Foote
Long ago Jack Nicholson passed Marlon Brando as the greatest screen actor of his generation. As good as his friend Brando was, Nicholson had greater range and was fearless with his image. He knew what audiences liked and could not care less, he took roles that interested him, that challenged him be they lead or supporting. What was thrilling about Nicholson was that he was both a consummate artist and a movie star, and he understood what was required for each role.
It seems inconceivable that Nicholson is now eighty-two years old, where has the time gone? As I have recently explored the great performances of both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, I would be amiss in not covering Jack Nicholson, and forthcoming are Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman and a few others.
Given his admission that he can no longer remember his lines, it seems highly unlikely we will ever see a new Nicholson performance, sadly given How Do You Know? (2010) was his last performance, an uninteresting dud of a film, a rarity for him. Even The Bucket List (2009), sentimental drivel with Morgan Freeman, would have been a stronger final film! Imagine the two great actors switching roles?? Now that would have been a movie!!
His best work came in the seventies, where he exploded onto the acting forefront and became the anti-hero of the decade. Restless, defiant of authority and social norms he rebelled, often to his detriment, but always true to himself and the character. With a mere look, he can convey an edginess, a nastiness, that could be switched in a heartbeat to tenderness, even stoicism, while, always, just below the surface was simmering anger that could come to the surface without warning.
Audiences loved the rebel Nicholson, the warm Nicholson but responded equally so to the strange Nicholson, even the insane Nicholson characters, they just loved the man. Brando never invited such love, never wanted it. When they finally came together onscreen it was Nicholson who earned the better reviews, Brando accused of showboating his way through The Missouri Breaks (1976).
What always impressed me about Nicholson was that despite his established stardom, despite the fact he was at the very top of the Hollywood heap, he continued to grow as an actor, he was always looking for something he had not done before. Where there missteps? Of course, there were, no actor can grow without failure, because they learn through that failure.
Nicholson dominated the seventies and eighties, ending the eighties with his acclaimed portrayal of the Joker in Batman (1989) stealing the film from Michael Keaton who had been controversially cast as Batman. His demented crime lord was the highlight of the film and expected to land the actor an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, which did not come. Though he worked less in the nineties, the performances were no less substantial, and he would a third Academy Award for As Good As It Gets (1997) as an obsessive compulsive writer.
Gradually his output of films slowed down, yet he was consistently brilliant in what he did choose to do finally working with the great Martin Scorsese in The Departed (2006) as Frank Costello, based on Whitey Bulger. Nicholson asked Scorsese that he be permitted to improvise on set and he came up with some startling sequences on his own, simply impressing his fellow actors even more. How he was bypassed for an Oscar nomination I will never understand.
Through his career he worked with some of the greatest directors in movies, Mike Nichols, Bob Rafelson, Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, Milos Forman, Ken Russell, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Warren Beatty, James L. Brooks, Hector Babenco, Tim Burton, Rob Reiner, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese but he was also available to new directors such as Danny De Vito, Sean Penn, and Nancy Myers. His professionalism was constantly discussed whenever his name came up, showing up on set prepared to honour the directors vision, lines done and ready to go off-book and improvise. He was the consummate professional.
The most nominated actor in film history, Meryl Streep long ago went past him for Oscar nominations. By my count, Nicholson should have won four Oscars for Best Actor, and another four for supporting actor. In the piece, I will point them out.
He might not make another film, but is forever immortal on screen. Here are his fifteen greatest performances.
RUNNERS UP : EASY RIDER (1969), CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972), THE PASSENGER (1975), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), THE BORDER (1982), BROADCAST NEWS (1987), BATMAN (1989), HOFFA (1982), BLOOD AND WINE (1994), SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (2003)
15. THE CROSSING GUARD (1995)
Sadly underseen film directed and written by Sean Penn, a close friend of Nicholson that gave the actor a plum role. Nicholson is Freddy, a jeweler who is friends with all the strippers in the club he hangs out in, most of the time to escape the paralyzing grief he experiences each day grieving his dead daughter, killed by a drunk driver. That driver, equally devastated by his actions is about to get out of jail and Freddy has waited a long time to kill him. There is a powerful scene between Freddy and his ex-wife, portrayed by Nicholson’s own ex Anjelica Huston and their own very personal pain from their long-time failed relationship becomes the pain of the characters on screen. There is something deeply heartbreaking watching the two together, each trying to move on but Freddy is stuck, unable to move past his grief. It is a demanding film, beautifully acted by all, but the film belongs to Nicholson.
14. AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)
Hugely popular film with audiences, Nicholson won his third Academy Award for his performance as Marvin, a caustic, angry writer with no filter, spewing whatever crosses his mind, part of his obsessive-compulsive disorder he is fighting each day. The problem with what Marvin spits out is that it ranges from intensely homophobic to racist, to being simply unacceptable in society. A popular writer of romance novels, there is no connection to his work and the man he is, because Marvin, is a nasty piece of work. Though there is one exception, he adores and trusts his waitress, portrayed by Helen Hunt. Watching Marvin struggle with his disease is both heartbreaking yet moving as we come to learn there is a truly decent human being living under that rage, racism and homophobia. That we get to see it makes the pay off all the more rewarding. One of his most enjoyable performances but I am not sure he deserved the Oscar for this over some of the other work nominated, Robert Duvall in The Apostle (1997) specifically. One of his most popular performances, it remains a hugely enjoyable film.
13. THE PLEDGE (2001)
Sean Penn directed and wrote this tight ensemble piece in which Nicholson gives one of his most affecting performances as a retired cop Jerry Black, who during his last case makes a promise to a distraught mother to find the killer of her daughter. Once retired, Jerry buys a gas station but never stops looking for the pedophile who murdered the child. When he takes up with a young single mom portrayed with gentle sadness by Robin Wright Penn he becomes a surrogate father to her child, a little girl who adores him. Haunted by the crime he could not solve he digs in and begins looking for the killer in earnest, making the mistake of using the child he loves as bait to catch a killer. Where Nicholson shines is portraying a man losing his grip on reality and the last shot of Jerry is truly heartbreaking, as he sits talking to himself, his mind rotted away in madness and grief. How did the Academy miss nominating his performance in this film? They did and it was a huge snub because it was easily among the best five performances of the year.
12. A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
As Colonel Jessup, headed towards being a General, perhaps President, Nicholson is superb as a man corrupted by power, aware of it, near drunk with it. Sitting in Guantanamo in Cuba, in charge of the US troops and prison, he has complete power over the men who are stationed there. Intensely aware of what he can do and what he cannot do, Jessup flexes his muscles and orders a code red, which means he orders the death of an American soldier. Brought to trial, he is cross-examined by a tough young lawyer believing in the truth, and he goes after Jessup. Stunned that he is being questioned at all, Jessup explodes in rage on the stand, his infamous “you can’t handle the truth” one of the screens great courtroom sequences. Undone by his own authority and rage, we watch him come apart in the courtroom, his military career in ruins. Nicholson received his fourth Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for this film, well deserved.
11. THE DEPARTED (2006)
When the chance to work with legendary director Martin Scorsese came up, Nicholson read the script and balked, believing there was nothing written interesting to him. He was given the chance to work with Scorsese and bring the character to life, take the character in a different direction, basing him on Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, and he did just that, giving a larger than life performance as a vicious criminal who has gone perverse, walking the line between sanity and insanity. It was bold and brash and perfect for the film. Be it snorting cocaine off a naked hookers buttocks, entering his bar with his hands covered in fresh blood, or shooting a woman in the head and then casually remarking “She fell funny” he was terrifying. It brought an edge to the film not previously there and added to the performances of Leonardo Di Caprio and Matt Damon because they truly never knew what was coming next. Like Costello, Nicholson was unpredictable and terrifying. The lack of an Oscar nomination feels criminal.
10. REDS (1981)
Cast as the great playwright Eugene O’Neill, Nicholson exudes a confident intelligence and burning sexuality in this brilliant film directed by his best friend Warren Beatty. Beatty had long wanted to make a film about John Reed, the journalist who witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1917 and wrote about it in his seminal book Ten Days That Shook the World, still one of the greatest journalistic pieces ever written. O’Neill and Reed were good friends, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) would come between them breaking O’Neill’s heart, leaving him bitter. He seduces her with his eyes and poetry and destroys her with the same, bringing to the role a quiet intensity that was thrilling to see. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he should have won the Oscar, just as Reds (1981) should have been the years best film. Beatty, the Best Director winner, was robbed of Best Picture.
9. FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
The film that began his legend was this quiet drama where he portrays a man running from his past, his family, his legacy and his gifts. As a talented musician, Bobby has fled to work in the oil fields, a blue-collar job his family believes is beneath him. When he returns home after his father has a massive stroke, we see the pretension he left behind, the great wealth, the stifling manners and claustrophobic world closing in on him. He sees his family looking down their noses at his brash, silly girlfriend, portrayed beautifully by Karen Black, and he does what he has always done, he runs. Capturing the restless spirit of the seventies youth, Nicholson became the rebel hero incarnate, a man who did not possess any real loyalties, a man who could drop everything and leave because he wanted no attachments to anyone or anything. It is a powerful performance, bristling with anger barely concealed. The restaurant scene is still a powerful scene and the moments with his father will break your heart. His performance brought him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
8. PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
If you did not realize the film was a vicious black comedy, you might not appreciate it. But f you get it, you will love it. Nicholson is a comedic delight as a not so bright hitman for the Partana family, beloved by the Don, favoured over even his sons. But when he falls hard for a hitwoman, and they end up with contracts for one another all hell breaks loose. In the background, pulling the strings is Maerose, brilliantly portrayed by Anjelica Huston who won an Oscar. Nicholson should have for his dim hit man speaking with a thick Brooklin accent, very good at his job, an excellent killer, but not as good at reading between the lines. John Huston directed the film, an oxygen tank at his side, guiding the actors through some of the finest work of their careers. Kathleen Turner is well cast as the woman Nicholson falls for moments after meeting her and then is told to kill her. Nicholson is brilliant, very funny, but manages to find the darkness of the character to whom killing is just business. Deservedly he won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor.
7. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
“Now, who expected you to be a nice guy?” his character Garrett is asked in the final act of this film before she collapses into the safety of his arms. In this superb mother-daughter story, Nicholson is the astronaut who lives next door and ends up in a relationship with Aurora Greenway (Shirley McLaine). A randy womanizer, AUrora is the first woman he has been with his age, but when he senses she is falling for him he backs off. When her daughter is dying he goes to her, hence the line about being a nice guy, because he knows she needs him, and he loves her as best he can. The scenes between Nicholson and McLaine crackle with comic energy as they bounce off each other beautifully. Nicholson won an Oscar for supporting actor, one of five the film won including Best Picture and Best Actress. One of the greatest films of the eighties.
6. IRONWEED (1987)
Working with Meryl Streep for the second time, Nicholson is superb as Francis, a hobo who long ago left his family after dropping his infant child who died. AShamed, devastated, he fled the family but finds himself drawn back to them in this film. Set during the depression in Albany, New York, he and Helen (Streep) are a couple, but he cannot deny his feelings for his wife are still there, and he knows she would welcome him back home, in separate rooms at first. The film gives great insight into the homeless and what they see that we might not. Francis is haunted by the ghosts of his past, as real to him as you are reading this, but invisible to others. They follow him, they haunt him, they keep him from returning home because he cannot bear the shame. His graveside scene, where his infant boy lies is devastating in its raw, visceral power. Again, he should have won that Oscar he was nominated for, the New York and LA Film Critics honoured him with their Best Actor Awards. A tough film to watch, but brilliantly acted.
5. THE SHINING (1980)
Though his broad, big performance drew laughs in the theatre when the film opened, I ask you, how funny is it if it is you on the other side of the door he is chopping through with his axe? Suddenly, it becomes terrifying which is exactly what Kubrick and Nicholson intended when they made the film, you do not watch it, you experience it. As Jack Torrance, a writer being driven insane by the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains where he and his family are isolated for the winter, Nicholson gave one of his best, beloved, most terrifying performances. He walks the line of going over the top, never crossing it, his performance perverse and twisted, just like the best ones in all Kubricks films. His scene in the bar with Lloyd, the ghostly bartender is a classic, positively brilliant in its humour, though tinged with the knowledge he is speaking with a ghost. But then a short time later he menaces his wife with a baseball bat, planning on doing her harm, and he is terrifying. Kubrick liked perversity in his films, and in NIcholson he found the perfect actor to bring that to the character and film. Nicholson gave a towering performance that was ignored by the Academy, which remains shameful.
4. CHINATOWN (1974)
In this great, stylish Roman Polanski film, one of the greatest film noir pictures ever made, easily one of the greatest screenplays written, Nicholson portrays JJ Gittes, a successful private investigator in thirties Los Angeles. Most of his cases are husbands wanting to know if their wives are cheating or fathers seeking confirmation that their sons are homosexuals, but when Gittes becomes involved with the families of Cross and Mulwray he is taken into a nightmare from which he will never recover. Behind the doors of great wealth are horrific secrets that not even cynical Gittes suspected. John Huston, the great director, portrays the rich and unspeakably evil Noah Cross, who has fathered a child with his own daughter Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) in a brittle, near hysterical performance. Gittes sinks further into the pit, and the further he goes the more appalled he becomes at what has happened to Miss Mulwray. It is a great performance from the actor, who had the lack of vanity to portray the character with a large bandage on his nose after a knifing his character suffers while snooping around. There is something Bogart-esque in his performance, heightened by a neo modernism that is simply perfect for the film. Forever haunting.
3. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002)
The comb over. We notice it at once and realize what kind of man Warren Schmidt is. He is unlike any character Nicholson has ever portrayed, quiet, bullied, content to go with the flow, and when he retires, he finds himself spending all day, every day with his wife. When she suddenly dies, he is at his wit’s end, both freed from her tyranny, but unable to do anything for himself, so he hits the road to go visit his daughter before her wedding with hopes of talking her out of marrying the man she is in love with. Before his wife died he began writing to a child he is sponsoring in a third world country, sending a cheque each month. He tells the child his inner most thoughts which we hear in narration, gaining an understanding of how terribly lonely Warren really is. What advice could a child living in a Third World country offer him, yet it turns out just by talking he is helped. Reading the most recent letter, he realizes he has helped this child, and if his life amounted to nothing else, by reaching out, he has aided this child, and he was OK with that. Breaking down, Warren weeps, deep racking sobs as he realizes that after all his life has meant something. It is a beautiful, emotional performance about growing old.
2. THE LAST DETAIL (1973)
As a Navy lifer, Billy Badass Buddusky is a loud, profane banny rooster of a sailor, cocky, fearless, hard-drinking, a brawler, a womanizer, and a fun guy to be around. When he is selected to escort a naive young man to jail for seven years for stealing a charity box, he decides to show the shy kid a good time, maybe even make a man out of him. He and his partner in crime Otis, make the journey to the military jail with the goofy kid, portrayed by Randy Quaid in tow, and each is stunned by the boy’s lack of life experience. They get him drunk, have him send back a hamburger not cooked the way he likes and even get him laid. They teach him to stand up for himself, something Badass excels at as we see in bars and washrooms across the US. So great is their mentoring to the young man he attempts to escape, forcing them to draw their weapons on their new friend. Nicholson is wonderfully confident as Badass, a cocky smile on his face when he knows he is going to get into trouble, the smile an indication he could care less. Directed by Hal Ashby, the film was shot in and around Toronto but no one will be looking at the locations, all eyes are on Jack throughout. He won the New York Film Critics Award for his performance and was nominated for an Academy Award.
1. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
Breathtaking. That is the best word I can think of to describe the performance of Nicholson in this film. His acting in this film has such a profound purity there is no better word than breathtaking. There are few performances I describe as breathtaking, but the purity with which Nicholson portrayed R.P. McMurphy was utter perfection. Based on the counter culture novel by Ken Kesey, filmmakers had been trying to make the film for years before Kirk Douglas gifted the rights to his son Michael who went outside the film industry for money, partnering with record producer Saul Zaentz to make what would become an American cinematic masterpiece.
In jail for statutory rape, he fakes mental illness and is committed to the state mental hospital thinking he will spend the rest of his sentence in relative ease and comfort unaware as a committed patient they can keep him there indefinitely. Railing against the Nurse who runs the ward, portrayed with unblinking confidence by Louise Fletcher, McMurphy makes her life hell, turning the men against her and letting them know they are not ill at all, that she beats them down, intimidates them, controls them and metaphorically has castrated them. As the leader of the men he spends his time raising hell until the sadness of the ward tires him and he knows if he stays there, he will die. When the escape attempt fails, it is left to his friend Chief Bromden to set him free. Nicholson was magnificent as McMurphy, the perfect merging of an actor with a role, very few actors could have given this performance if any! He brought an authenticity to the character, a born hell-raiser who has always bucked the system and fought authority until finally he is faced with one who can beat him, and does. Or does she? Will the men ever truly be under her thumb as they once were? Has he not given them the very things she took away, namely choice, courage and hope? His performance will stay with you for years after you see it, just as his memory will forever be with the men, and he won every major acting award for his work including, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor, the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, the Golden Globe for Best Actor, and, finally one of five Academy Awards the film won. One of the screen’s greatest performances and the best work Nicholson has ever done.
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.