An Appreciation of…Jack Nicholson (1937 – present)

What can be said about Jack Nicholson that hasn’t been said already over the duration of his amazing career? He’s been called “the next Brando” and “the greatest actor of his generation” and even “the best actor that ever was”. Pretty grandiose, right? They are, but one thing is for sure, they certainly are absolutely true.

Its honestly very difficult to write an article praising Jack Nicholson. Not to dismiss any of the previous subjects of this segment, but this is JACK NICHOLSON I’m writing about – very few actors can hold a candle to Nicholson. Every single one of Jack Nicholson’s performances are excellent, but the detractors will say he’s had some bad performances throughout his career – there is no such thing as a bad Jack Nicholson performance, only a bad film starring Jack Nicholson.

A constantly charismatic figure of cinema, Jack has a very odd personality – he’s sarcastic, often creepy but always brilliant. With his wide-eyed intensity and very distinctive voice, Jack was never going to be the smooth romantic lead, but always the slightly sinister but impossible to resist anti-hero. Jack Nicholson is possibly the King of the Weird, and its a crown he has worn proudly throughout his entire career, and he has used his eccentric nature and very interesting personality to great effect over the last 58 years of his acting career (can you believe he’s been acting for over half a decade?) and has done something much younger actors struggle to do – he has yet to exhaust the extents of his talents. He always chose interesting films and gave equally fascinating performances, year after year.

One thing has set Jack Nicholson apart from his contemporaries – he has never truly aged. As a man, he has aged tremendously (he certainly doesn’t appear to be the rambunctious young soul he was in the 1970s, but that’s not to discount his transformation into a truly classy older-statesman of cinema), but as an actor, he is as youthful as he was when he first started. Never downgraded into the roles of grandfathers and supporting roles that need “the old man”, Nicholson has permanently been youthful in spirit, and his timeless charm has allowed him to play such diverse characters, even in his older years.

As is a regular feature of this segment, I always list the Seven Iconic Performances that everyone should check out (if you haven’t already) that I feel will only aid in convincing the unconverted of the subject of the article’s greatness. Unfortunately, 58 years of performances make it very difficult to narrow it down to seven, but I certainly have tried my best to list Jack’s best performances. But let’s be honest, they are all brilliant, every single one of them.

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ah, the obvious one. Jack gives one of the greatest film performances of all time as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nuanced, eccentric and absolutely bursting with his trademark charm, but also showing signs of the sinister maliciousness that underpins all of his performances of the period, Nicholson’s performance here is definitely his best ever.
  2. The Shining. This is a divisive one, and the film itself is controversial. I personally consider The Shining one of my favorite films of all time, and Nicholson was at the centre of the film’s brilliance, and he brought an element of craziness that has gone unmatched in horror performances since then. Jack is absolutely sublime here, and as time goes on, the performance will just grow to become more of the cinematic institution it has evolved into.
  3. About Schmidt. This is my favorite Nicholson performance, mainly because I am an adherent to the Church of Independent Cinema, and here, in the breakthrough film for indie kingpin Alexander Payne, Jack plays Warren Schmidt, a simple man who goes through extraordinary change after his wife’s death. It is a subdued and calm performance, and Nicholson does the complete opposite of most of his most famous performances – he isn’t a lothario, he isn’t a charmer – he is just a man looking for meaning. I have rewatched this film so many times, and I find something new every time in Jack’s performance here.
  4. As Good As It Gets. Another love it/hate it performance, that I adore. As Good As It Gets is a simple romantic comedy with so much heart, and quite frankly isn’t at all original or inventive, but is just a well-made film with great performances from Nicholson and Helen Hunt. It is sweet as sugar, and wonderfully quirky, and shows how Jack is capable of still holding a romantic lead role in his older years and never bordering on the limits of creepiness.
  5. The King of Marvin Gardens/Five Easy Pieces/The Last Detail. Yes, three films is cheating – but Jack’s filmography from the 1970s alone rivals that of any other actor’s entire career. This three films are not as brilliant as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in any way, but they certainly are great films with performances from a young man who was about to become the greatest actor of his generation, and it is nostaligic to look back at where his career truly blossomed.
  6. Terms of Endearment. Not a great film, but one that shows Jack at his best, playing supporting role, and knowing how to be a scene-stealer without stealing focus from the actual leads. Jack is the best part of this film, and elevates is extraordinarily.
  7. Batman. What else is there to say? Best Joker ever…

I have to wrap this up here before I continue rambling on. Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of all time, and has possibly the greatest filmography of all time, and he has done some amazing work. Unfortunately, it looks like Jack is done making movies for now, but I join his countless fans in hoping that he comes back, because cinema needs more Jack. Honestly, it does.


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