The Sunday Dozen: Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson was my favorite movie star when I was young. I had to see every movie the first week it opened. In those days, you couldn’t count on cable networks and streamers to air the latest hit by Jack. In some cases, it was big screen or bust.

As far as I was concerned, Jack was not only the coolest guy in the world, but his presence in a movie was also usually a sign of quality. One exception was the over hyped Missouri Breaks in which Marlon Brando and Nicholson acted together. I saw it on the first day it came out. The theatre crackled with energy which subsided as the movie droned on. Jack was solid, but Brando was as hammy as Charlton Heston on meth. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Jack’s road to stardom was strewn with potholes and pitfalls. He was a Jack of all trades for Roger Corman and played many small roles in low budget movies and teevee shows until his big break came with Easy Rider.

I began with 30+ candidates before winnowing the list down. I cheated a bit and created a sub-list of the best half-dozen movies Jack had a supporting role in. What’s a little listicle cheating among friends?

The movies are arranged in order of preference. The order changed several times. The top 2 were easy but numbers 3-8 are of equal quality, so I shuffled them several times. Oh well, what the hell.

All the movies merit 4 stars but numbers 10-12 grade out at A-. What can I tell ya? I’m a tough grader.

The movies are framed with quad posters located before the write-up. Enough with the preliminaries.

On with the show this is it.

Roman Polanski is a problematic creep, but Chinatown is a great film. It’s one of the reasons I became a film noir buff. It’s the best neo-noir movie ever made

Chinatown features Jack Nicholson at his coolest as well as brilliant performances by Faye Dunaway and John Huston. Robert Towne’s script is perfection: He was always at his best when writing for Jack.

It’s a pity that the 1990 sequel The Two Jakes was only fair to middling but we’ll always have Chinatown.

I love Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the play based on it. I was dubious about Jack playing McMurphy. He was a big galoot in the book and Kirk Douglas, who owned the rights. would have been perfect in the part. He couldn’t get the picture financed but his son Michael did.

I was wrong about Jack as McMurphy. He was superb and finally won an Oscar after a string of nominations.

The scenes between Jack and Louise Fletcher are to die for. Holy love hate relationship, Batman.

Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made Jack a star. It was directed by Jack’s old comrade Bob Rafelson and co-starred Adrastos crush Karen Black.

The diner scene is classic as is Jack’s performance. The Seventies were the glory days of the New Hollywood, which faded away after summer blockbusters ruled the screens. Jaws can bite me; figuratively, not literally.

The Last Detail was one of the most profane movies of its time. It was, of course, about sailors with Jack as the head squid. Randy Quaid may be a right-wing buffoon now, but he was great as the arrested sailor off to the brig.

In addition to  great acting, The Last Detail has a brilliant script by Robert Towne and was directed by Hal Ashby, one of the finest directors of his era. The Last Detail is one of his best movies.

Fuck yeah, Jack. I had to curse once since I mentioned all the swearing in the movie. Fuckin’ A. I’ve never known what that meant but I like the sound of it.

Prizzi’s Honor was something of a family affair as it was directed by John Huston and co-starred Jack’s longtime main squeeze Anjelica Huston. It was one of the few times Jack played a dumbass. His character was frequently befuddled, especially when confronted with the hottest hit person ever, Kathleen Turner.

2002’s About Schmidt was a late career triumph for Jack. He played an insurance man from Omaha coping with loss and retirement. The highlight of the movie were the letters Jack wrote to his African foster-ish child. The salutation Dear Ndugu still brings a smile to my face.

The Departed is the only time Jack worked with Martin Scorsese. It was an artistic and commercial triumph as it scored the Best Picture Oscar and Marty’s long overdue best director trophy.

Jack’s Irish gangster character was a thinly disguised take on Whitey Bulger. Jack played the part with great gusto. The Departed is full of great performances. Mark Wahlberg as a potty mouthed copper was also a standout. He would have fit in nicely on The Last Detail.

The Departed was shot on location in Boston. I wonder if Lakers super fan Jack was heckled by any rabid Celtics backers.

Reflecting the times, 1971’s Carnal Knowledge is a bleak and cynically funny movie about what was then called the war of the sexes. Jack was the experienced dramatic actor in the cast. He stole most of the scenes he was in; except when Ann-Margret lit up the screen. It’s a mystery to me why she didn’t get more juicy parts after this great performance. Hollywood moves in mysterious ways.

Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but everyone else loved it. It’s one of Jack’s hammiest performances, but chewing the scenery was called for in this horror classic.

What’s the outlook for the Outlook Hotel? Bleak and bloody. Whatever you do, don’t open the elevator door.

 The Passenger was a mid-Seventies art film that Jack made with the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. The quad poster I chose is ironic: the movie is a dark and brooding story about war and arms dealing. It’s one of Jack’s most underrated performances. Our longtime readers know that I dig underrated things.

Jack won his second Best Actor Oscar for As Good As It Gets. He played an uncharming eccentric who fell hard for Helen Hunt who also won an Oscar.

It was the third fine film Jack made with James L. Brooks who directed and wrote the script. Many people think it’s lesser Nicholson, but I disagree. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for Jack and the dog. Arf.

That’s as good as this blurb gets.

Jack as the Joker. Michael Keaton as Batman. Directed by Tim Burton. Say no more.

That concludes the Jack Nicholson Dozen.

Here’s a quick and dirty version of the list.

  1. Chinatown
  2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  3. Five Easy Pieces
  4. The Last Detail
  5. Prizzi’s Honor
  6. About Schmidt
  7. The Departed
  8. Carnal Knowledge
  9. The Shining
  10.  The Passenger
  11. As Good As It Gets
  12.  Batman

It’s cheating time. As time rolled on, Jack was willing to accept supporting roles as long as the script and character were worthy. He won an Oscar for the first film below and was fabulous in the rest. He only had a small role in The Little Shop Of Horrors, but I added that in lieu of lagniappe.

  1. Terms Of Endearment
  2. Broadcast News
  3. Reds
  4. Easy Rider
  5. A Few Good Men
  6. The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)

That’s it for this week. The last word goes to Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest:


3 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Jack Nicholson

  1. An anecdote I heard about the Batman movie; I won’t vouch for its veracity, but it’s too good. As they’re setting up for a scene in the tower fight, Michael Keaton’s Batman has Jack Nicholson’s Joker by the lapels. The set up is taking some time and the actors are holding their pose. Nicholson looks Keaton square in the eye and says, “We’re grown men.”

  2. I’d find a place to squeeze “The Witches Of Eastwick” in there, if only for Nicholson’s apt performance as…himself?

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