Friday, April 22, 2011

Jack Nicholson: Four Decades of Genius

Today is a few things.  A day for people of faith and people of the hippie persuasion to rejoice simultaneously (although, probably not for the same reason).  What it also happens to be, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, is Jack Nicholson’s 74th birthday.

Honestly, who the hell can pick a favorite Nicholson performance?  Sure, the go-to answer is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  But is R.P. McMurphy a better incarnation than J.J. Gittes?  What about The Shining?  It is, after all, impossible to think of Jack Nicholson without picturing Jack Torrance’s head forcing its way through an ax hole in a door.  

The Joker, Col. Jessep, Melvin Udall, Warren Schmidt, Frank Costello; these are indelible characters to the film medium, all portrayed by one of the most charismatic dudes to ever shield a pair of Ray-Bans.

But looking on Nicholson’s IMDB page, I was hit with a harsh realization: he was only in six movies last decade, two of which sucked (Anger Management, The Bucket List), one was phoned in (Something’s Gotta Give) one nobody saw (The Pledge) one was masterful (About Schmidt) and the final was hyperbolic bliss (The Departed).

Instead of picking a favorite role, let’s track Nicholson’s career by decade. Hopefully my choices will dissuade you from the filth littering our theatres, and force you to stay in with Old Jacky Boy this weekend.

(Note: For the purpose of conciseness, I’m detailing Nicholson’s career from 1970 onward, thereby skipping over Easy RiderEasy Rider is a great film, but we don’t have all day here.)
Role count: 15
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Robert Dupea
The Last Detail (1973) – Buddusky
Chinatown (1974) – J.J. Gittes
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – R.P. McMurphy [Won Oscar]
The Missouri Breaks (1976) – Tom Logan
Assuming you’ve seen Chinatown and Cuckoo’s Nest (if you haven’t, then, you know, do…) let me suggest the little seen Last Detail.  In The Last Detail, which is, for my money, Hal Ashby’s best film, Nicholson plays a naval officer ordered to take a fellow soldier to prison, but decides to show him one last good time before dropping him at the clink.  The film is brilliant in the way it seamlessly shifts from drama to comedy, and is anchored by a profanely iconic Nicholson performance.

Role count: 12
The Shining (1980) – Jack Torrance
Reds (1981) – Eugene O’Neill
Terms of Endearment (1983) – Garrett Breedlove [Won Oscar]
Prizzi’s Honor (1985) – Charley Partanna
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) – Daryl Van Horne
Broadcast News (1987) – Bill Rorich
Batman (1989) – The Joker
Terms of Endearment is interesting because it highlights a kind, venerable side of Nicholson that is rarely seen, while The Shining and Batman crazily emphasize the other end of his spectrum.  But for some reason, I feel the need to point out Nicholson’s brief but memorable turn in Broadcast News

Broadcast News is mostly remembered for what Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks brought to their respective roles.  But you can’t deny the power of Nicholson coming into frame in his few brief scenes.  For his role, Nicholson requested that he not be paid, nor advertised in the marketing campaign, as to not take away from the principal cast members. His presence in the film knocks the wind out of the characters, and in turn, the audience as well.    

Role count: 10
The Two Jakes (1990) – J.J. Gittes
A Few Good Men (1992) – Col. Nathan R. Jessep
Hoffa (1992) – Jimmy Hoffa
The Crossing Guard (1995) – Freddy Gale
As Good as It Gets (1997) – Melvin Udall [Won Oscar]
Gotta love Melvin Udall and his hilariously un-PC one liners, but let’s be honest, it’s all about Jessep.  Based on Nicholson’s game changing performance in A Few Good Men, I’ve since dubbed similar characters as having a “Jessep Complex.” As soon as you see them, you fear them.  We know nothing about his character or his motivations, but as soon as Nicholson blurts out: “Who the fuck is Pfc. William Santiago?” we know we’re in for a hell of a ride.

Role count: six
The Pledge (2001) – Jerry Black
About Schmidt (2002) – Warren Schmidt
The Departed (2006) – Frank Costello
If Chinatown and Cuckoo’s Nest encapsulate the best of young Nicholson, then About Schmidt is the perfect embodiment of old Nicholson. Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is unlike any other character he’s given us: reserved, heartfelt, and… ordinary.  He's a kind, bumbling man that you wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to if walking past him in the grocery store.  He’s an everyday Joe.  A regular fella.  And Nicholson couldn’t have handled it better.  I could make a strong argument that About Schmidt is the best performance of Jack Nicholson’s career.

As of April, 2011: Of the titles mentioned, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Shining, Batman, Hoffa, The Pledge, and Anger Management are available on Netflix Instant Play.


  1. My first Jack Nicholson flick was Anger Management (and I personally love the film). But The Bucket List is a piece of shit.

    1. Never saw The Bucket List. Didn't look like my kind of movie at all.