In an attempt to reintroduce the ‘Defining Moments’ feature of the film section to you lovely readers, I thought it best to bring you the defining moments of the career of arguably the greatest actor of all time, Mr Jack Nicholson. For a man who’s career has spanned over 60 years, there’s a multitude of films that could have made the list, but to really delve into his defining work, I have selected 5 films that have shaped the career of the 3 time Oscar winner.
J.J Gittes in Chinatown (1974)
Arguably, it was in Easy Rider (1969) that Nicholson truly burst straight into the forefront of Hollywood with his first of 12 Oscar nominations, this time in the Supporting Actor category. However, despite a flurry of wonderful performances in the early 70’s such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), it was in Roman Polanski’s neo-noir magnum opus Chinatown as the nose bandage wearing private detective J.J Gittes that Nicholson morphed into the leading man that could carry any film on his extremely talented shoulders.
Nicholson eased into the character using his natural charm and delivered arguably the best screenplay ever perfectly. He showed his versatility with his innate ability to suddenly switch between emotions, from anger to sorrow, whilst all the time being inherently charming and incredibly humorous, such is a testament to the man’s talent.
His natural chemistry with other actors, especially his romance with Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn or his brief yet tense exchanges with John Huston’s Noah, just showed he was truly one of the greatest leading men since the Classical Hollywood age. It was his first true star making performance and his 4th Oscar nomination in 5 years, and it wouldn’t end there either.
Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Just a year after Chinatown, Nicholson finally won his first Oscar for Best Leading Actor at the 5th time of asking for arguably the greatest acting performance ever in arguably the best film ever made, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
As troublemaker Randle ‘Mac’ McMurphy, a man who faked the insanity plea to avoid jail time who lands himself in a mental institution; Nicholson swept up awards left right and centre and established himself as the best actor of his generation. Again it’s when his natural charm oozes into his character where Nicholson commands the screen, and in every exchange with the fellow members of the mental institution as well as the evil Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), it’s impossible to take your eyes of McMurphy and Nicholson portrayed him so wonderfully that despite his bad behaviour and obvious shady past, the viewer is constantly rooting for him and it’s no wonder he’s been voted in many polls as one of cinema’s greatest ever ‘heroes’, if you can call him that.
Nicholson’s performance in this film is personally the greatest I’ve ever seen, and it was the start of his Oscar success only rivalled by Daniel Day-Lewis and Walter Brennan.
Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980)
“Here’s Johnny!”, screams Nicholson in one of cinema’s most iconic scenes and perhaps his most famous role as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic based on Stephen King’s book The Shining. As a family man who becomes caretaker of an isolated hotel in the winter alongside his wife and son, Nicholson morphed into one of the most iconic psychopaths ever seen on screen.
As his time in the hotel begins to cause Jack to hate his life and his psyche unravels before the viewer, Nicholson carries the film on his more than capable shoulders. In The Shining, Nicholson is equally terrifying as somehow still charming, and his portrayal of the unravelling Jack was criminally overlooked by the big awards, as was the film itself, with Stephen King himself calling the film misogynistic and calling saying Nicholson was an actor who “was in 5 motorcycle movies and played the same part”.
Whilst King may hate this adaptation of his brilliant book, Nicholson’s iconic performance will forever remain a big part of cinematic history, and “Here’s Johnny!” will be regarded as one of Hollywood’s most iconic lines.
Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets (1997)
It could have been very easy to pick Nicholson’s 2nd Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in Terms of Endearment (1983) or another of his iconic roles in A Few Good Men (1992), best known for the famous line “You can’t handle the truth!”. Undoubtedly though, it was his euphoric, moving turn as the world-weary author Melvin Udall in James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets that won him his 3rd and final Oscar to date that is truly defining of the great man’s career.
At the ripe age of 60, Nicholson was still outshining his much younger peers, and capturing the compulsive, pessimistic, narrow-minded and sad persona of Udall was definitely his best performance since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
His chemistry with co-stars Holly Hunter, Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr. is absolutely fantastic, and the wonderfully uplifting character development that Udall goes through makes him one of cinema’s best redemptive characters, and Nicholson delivers Udall to the viewer like no other actor in history could. Despite being a mostly unlikeable and rude person for most of the film, once again, Nicholson’s signature charm never fades once and he’s still got the same boyish likeability as when he first came onto the scene.
Frank Costello in The Departed (2006)
In the 20 years since his last Oscar win, Nicholson has only acted in 7 films, and despite him getting a further Oscar nomination for 2002’s About Schmidt, certainly his most memorable role in the last 20 years and one that I feel sums up his personality perfectly, is his turn as gangster Frank Costello in Scorsese’s The Departed.
As we have seen Nicholson age on screen over his career, his turn as the old, crafty and rather psychotic mob boss Costello perfectly colluded with where Nicholson was in terms of his career. In the film, the characters played by the actors who define our current generation such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are brought through by Costello into his ranks, perhaps a metaphor for the greatest actor of his generation paving the way for someone to take his mantle.
It goes without saying that of course Nicholson is ever charming and hilarious in this film, delivering William Monahan’s script perfectly and creating a paradoxically brilliant character, who is both easy to love and hate. It was his latest great and iconic performance in a career that has seen so many, and it most likely won’t be his final defining moment.
Though some may argue that it’s Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis that should hold the title of the greatest actor ever, and it is purely subjective; but the sheer natural talent that Nicholson has puts him leagues above for me. He doesn’t do so called ‘method’ acting, he calls on his charm and his versatility to deliver iconic performances, and he has done for 60 years now. Despite him being 80 now, Nicholson is actually coming out of retirement to star in the US remake of German smash hit Toni Erdmann due to hit cinemas next year, and I cannot wait to see the final performance in the career of Hollywood’s greatest ever talent.
Honourable Mentions: Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), Batman (1989), A Few Good Men (1992) & About Schmidt (2002).
Words by Elliott Jones