In honor of Jack Nicholson’s 78th birthday today, this list has been compiled to summarize the vast, and versatile, career Nicholson has achieved in his forty-six year film career. Below are ten films that aren’t in any specific order or even function as a definitive list. Instead, this is a list that represents the litany of characters he has portrayed and the various audiences he has succeeded in identifying with. Jack Nicholson’s career is astounding when identifying and recognizing specific roles in his career. For that, Nicholson is an acting rarity and truly is a living acting legend.
The Shining (1980)
Critics and film viewers have long clashed as to whether Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is acting brilliance or is campy, yet neither can deny this role has become iconic both in mainstream film and Nicholson’s career. His role in this Stephen King film as a hotel caretaker who is snowbound with his family and slowly goes mad before he grabs an ax to murder them, is one of Nicholson’s most identifiable roles.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Nicholson’s screen time is limited within this court drama, but it is his final scene in the film’s conclusion that will forever immortalize Nicholson’s presence within this film. “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” is the infamous quote from Nicholson in his role as a Colonel who is responsible for the coverup of a marine murdered due to a “code red” order.
As Good as it Gets (1997)
Nicholson showed tremendous range in this romantic-comedy as the obsessive compulsive Melvin Udall, who finds himself falling in love with the waitress who serves him breakfast every morning (Helen Hunt) and finding affinity with his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear) who he initially despises. This performance won Nicholson his third Oscar, his second Lead Actor win.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Nicholson first made his presence known in 1969 with his supporting role in Easy Rider, but it was his performance in Five Easy Pieces that immediately put him at the forefront of everyone’s recognition. Nicholson is the perfect mixture of hilarity and dramatic in this film as a classically trained pianist who has chosen a blue collar life instead and decides to go on a cross-country trip with his waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) to reacquaint himself with his family. The infamous “chicken salad” scene alone is worth watching this film for.
Arguably, Nicholson’s performance as The Joker in Batman is his most recognizable role, and also is the most profitable performance of Nicholson’s career. His performance is animated and more of an homage to the 1950s television show with a twist of diabolical mania. Nicholson may have been strange casting for this role, but he rose to the challenge and delivered one of his most memorable performances.
In one of the best films of the 1970s, Nicholson starred as a detective who uncovers more than he should know when he learns of the corruption of a town and the tycoon who run its water supply. This is one of Nicholson’s more underrated roles, yet he is a dominating force as someone who wants to learn the truth, yet doesn’t know what to do once he has learned it.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Regarding Terms of Endearment, Nicholson’s character was not originally in the novel the film was adapted from, but rather was created specifically for the film. Nicholson is the perfect contrast of liberation and comedy needed in the film when paired next to the bitter and repressed Shirley MacLaine, who he eventually breaks out of her shell. Terms of Endearment would have been a miserable tear-jerker if it weren’t for the comedy Nicholson infused into this film. Nicholson won his second Oscar in the supporting actor category for this role, and the film won the 1983 Oscar for Best Picture.
About Schmidt (2002)
Nicholson’s performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt is perhaps the most vulnerable and profound performance of his career. Starring as Warren Schmidt, a recently retired actuary from an insurance agency whose wife passes away suddenly. After her funeral, he is left speculating on what difference has his life brought anyone and embarks on a cross-country journey to find his purpose. The performance tugs at the heart due to Nicholson’s tremendous ability to convey loneliness without ever uttering a word, yet he is also able to incorporate moments of hilarity that deviated the performance from being solely a depressing one.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
By no stretch is this film equal to any of the incredible performances Nicholson has achieved in his career, yet this box office bomb from Tim Burton is worth acknowledging when it comes to Nicholson’s career for one simple reason: This movie showcases Nicholson’s sense of humor and how he is able to deliver a performance that is deliberately campy. Nicholson delivered a dual performance as the incompetent President of the United States and as a Texas real-estate tycoon in Las Vegas who is undeterred by the Martians invading when it comes to the grand opening of his Galaxy Hotel. Despite how awful the film is, it still manages to grab satirical laughs. Also, don’t forget the infamous quotes from Nicholson in this film, “We still have two out of three branches of government working and that AIN’T bad!” or “Why can’t we all just…get along?”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Perhaps the most famous, and career defining, performance of Nicholson’s was his role as Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Starring as an inmate who believes he can leisure the remainder of his prison term in an psychiatric ward and instead he finds himself at war with the sociopathic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fetcher), Nicholson gave the role his all by offering both a relatable and conflicted character. His breaking of the rules is not to challenge the system directly, but to prove to the patients, who are under the control of Nurse Ratched, that they are capable of living their lives to the extent they want to. This performance won Nicholson his first Oscar for Best Lead Actor. If there ever was a single film that associates with Jack Nicholson, thereby is the pinnacle of his career, it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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