Jack Nicholson is a Hollywood icon. If he’s in a movie, we want to see it. Jack has been a force in the movie industry since he burst onto the scene in the sixties. By the seventies he was one of the biggest stars, winning his first Oscar for his starring role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1976. Jack was nominated a staggering 13 times for an Oscar. He won again for Best Supporting Actor in 1984’s “Terms of Endearment” and then for Best Actor in 1998’s “As Good as It Gets.”
Jack kept making movies into the 2000s with star turns in films such as “The Departed.” He made his last film in 2010 and seems to be happily retired as he continues to show up on the social circuit.
Jack Nicholson became a legend for more than just his amazing acting career. He lived his life to the fullest, enjoying what he called the “simple pleasures of life.” He earned his reputation as one of the leading hedonists in Hollywood, and many of us remember him as a fixture with his courtside seats at Lakers games. It’s difficult to think of anyone who enjoyed his fame more.
Jack’s IMDb page lists 79 acting credits, so we’ll have to be selective in what we cover here. There are so many great performances to choose from.
“Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)
Bob Westal lists this Roger Corman film in his “Scary Movies for Super Wimps” feature. Regarding Jack’s third film appearance of his career, Bob notes that “cinephile tradition also obligates me to mention Jack Nicholson’s famous early turn as a masochistic dental patient.” Watch the scene here. Bill Murray famously played this role opposite Steve Martin in the 1986 remake of the film which you can watch here.
“Easy Rider” (1969)
Jack’s performance in this counterculture classic helped make him a star. But in his Blu-ray review, Bullz-Eye critic Jason Zingale is lukewarm on the film: “Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, which he also wrote with co-star Peter Fonda, may have its share of admirers for the way that it captures the spirit of the hippie counterculture movement during the late 1960s, but it’s a largely uneventful road trip movie with no real narrative drive and a pair of thinly developed, unlikable leads. Though its groundbreaking rock soundtrack changed the way that Hollywood used music in film, and Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated performance as boozy lawyer George Hanson (his first major movie role) is so good that it’s like watching a star born before your very eyes, it’s not enough to offset the sheer monotony of the rest of the film.”
This masterpiece directed by Roman Polanski racked up an amazing 11 Oscar nominations but had the misfortune of going up against “The Godfather, Part II.” Jason Zingale notes the following about Jack’s performance: “Nicholson was at the top of his game, and while many might point to his Oscar-winning role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as the best of his career, it’s his work in “Chinatown” that remains the actor’s most accessible performance to date.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1976)
Jack established himself as one of the great actors of his generation with this performance as Randle McMurphy that earned him a Best Actor Oscar, beating out Al Pacino who had delivered one of his all-time best performances in “Dog Day Afternoon.” The film also won an Oscar, beating out an impressive field led by “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Jaws” and “Nashville.” What a year in movies! Louise Fletcher is brilliant as Nurse Ratchet and the film was the second ever to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay) and it often shows up on lists of the greatest films of all time.
“The Shining” (1980)
This is one of Jack’s iconic performances, with his deranged “Here’s Johnny!” line becoming one of the most quoted movie lines of all time. The film is a horror classic, even though Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick‘s interpretation of his novel.
In 1989, Jack Nicholson was the obvious choice to play the Joker in the new “Batman” reboot, and he lived up to all the expectations. It was a fabulous performance. We’ve seen other talented actors interpret that role since then, and we can argue about who did it best, but Jack’s Joker will always be in that conversation.
“The Two Jakes” (1990)
Most sequels should never have been produced. This is one of those examples.
“As Good as It Gets” (1997)
Jack is brilliant as Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive writer of romantic fiction who’s rude to everyone he meets. He wins his third Oscar for his performance, which is matched by memorable performances from Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. Definitely add this one to your list if you haven’t seen it yet.
“About Schmidt” (2002)
This role is a bit of a departure for Nicholson. Jason Zingale notes in his review that “Nicholson shines once again in a part that was just waiting for his aging career.” He earned a a Best Actor nomination for the performance.
“Something’s Gotta Give” (2003)
This role is vintage Jack. “Something’s Gotta Give” has real charm, throwing Nicholson in the slapstick role of an overconfident sex machine that plays perfectly against (Diane) Keaton’s uncertain self. Both stars carry the film over its rough spots most of the time, but the second half drags its heels a bit.” Nicholson and Keaton are perfect together. Keanu Reeves, Amanda Peet, Frances McDormand and Jon Favreau are also excellent in this film.
“The Departed” (2006)
Jack stars as crime kingpin Frank Costello in this Martin Scorsese film that won the Oscar for Best Picture and finally delivered Scorsese a Best Director win. Jack leads an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin and James Badge Dale. All of the performances are excellent here, but Wahlberg stands out and is rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
“The Bucket List” (2007)
Few critics liked this film. Our own Jason Zingale wasn’t impressed. But audiences liked it, and there was clear chemistry between Jack and Morgan Freemen which helped to carry this film. it’s nowhere near Nicholson’s best, but it’s a guilty pleasure for many fans.
It would be interesting, I suspect, to survey hotels around the world and find out how many people take a pass when they’re offered Room 237. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel really, really pissed King off, and 17 years later, he was still sufficiently in the heat of anger to make a TV miniseries of the book in its entirety. It probably made King feel better, but Steven Weber sure as hell didn’t make anyone forget Jack Nicholson’s performance here as Jack Torrance, the husband and father who, while serving as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, slowly but surely goes completely out of his freakin’ mind, man. (Over the top? Hell, you can’t even see the top from where Nicholson’s performance goes.) Until Sam Raimi raised enough money to make “The Evil Dead,” this was the definitive Steadicam flick, with Kubrick racing down the halls of the Overlook and through the hedge maze, providing a full-on assault of the senses. The creepiness of the two Grady girls will make even the most red-blooded American male rethink the idea of going anywhere near a set of twins. Oh, and speaking of blood, when those elevator doors open and the waves of the red stuff come pouring out, it’s a sight that you’ll revisit in your nightmares for years. Redrum, indeed.
Between Good & Evil: Hollywood Heavy Hitters Going Toe to Toe
This feature covers some of the best good vs. evil battles in film, and the battle vs Nicholson’s Joker and Michael Keaton’s Batman gets an honorable mention:
It’s not very often that the villain gets top billing (especially in a movie named after the main protagonist), but Jack Nicholson certainly deserved it for his over-the-top performance as the Clown Prince of Gotham. Though Heath Ledger and Christian Bale would eventually upstage the duo nearly two decades later, there’s nothing quite like an original, and Michael Keaton and Nicholson were nothing if not that in their most famous roles to date. They may no longer be the definitive versions of those characters, but they’re still a close second.
“The only way to break a bad habit was to replace it with a better habit.”
~ Jack explaining why he switched from cigarettes to cigars