Jack Nicholson is 73 and has made only six movies during the past 13 years (he has a seventh -- James L. Brooks' How Do You Know -- reportedly coming out sometime this year). He doesn't work more often because he doesn't need to. His name is known. He's a huge star, and five of those past six films have been hits. He also has more Oscar nominations -- and Oscar wins -- than nearly any other actor alive (or dead). That's more than Olivier, Brando or De Niro. He has every right to be contented, since he occupies a special place in movies, a place that hardly anyone ever reaches, no matter how popular or acclaimed. He has achieved a perfect balance between movie star and actor. In half of his movies, he's "just Jack," doing his usual casual, witty, cynical drawl, ever so cool and seductive. He can use his eyebrows as the most awesome instruments, expressing dismay at those who are not -- and can never be -- as cool as he.
And in the other half of his films, he's an actor's actor, capable of playing the richest and deepest roles, of sharing the screen with any kind of performer, from Boris Karloff and John Huston to Adam Sandler and Meryl Streep. Even Streep does not have it so good as Jack. Labeled as the "greatest actor alive," she has a lot to live up to with each new film. Jack just shows up, relaxed, his bag of tricks ever on hand. I'm convinced he could excel at Shakespeare, but perhaps he's not interested. Perhaps he'd simply dismiss the Bard in one of his terrific "saucy Jack" line readings.
He has three Oscars, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets, plus nine other nominations, for Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, Reds, Prizzi's Honor, Ironweed, A Few Good Men, and About Schmidt. That's at least one nomination per decade for five decades in a row. So many of his performances have become iconic, indelible images, part of the zeitgeist. There's the image of him riding on the back of a motorcycle in a football helmet. There's the one-man baseball game. There's "You can't handle the truth!" There's "Heeeeerrrre's Johnny!" And there's the Joker.
It was not always so. Nicholson started in the movie industry, working with Roger Corman, and with more interest in becoming a director or screenwriter. He has six screenwriting credits from these early days, and he had his first taste of directing doing uncredited re-shoots on The Terror (1963). To date, he has officially directed three films, all quite interesting: Drive, He Said (1971), Goin' South (1978) and The Two Jakes (1990). In those days, just about anyone, from Roger Corman all the way down to Jack himself, would have told you that his future was not in acting. You can take a look at any scene of Jack's, including his debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958), or his little "cameo" in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), or in The Terror, and it's easy to see why. He's kind of stiff, kind of whiny, and just not star material.
Maybe it was the drugs on Easy Rider, but Jack loosened up and learned how to use his natural gifts. From then on out, he was unstoppable. He became a symbol of the unsettled, rebellious 1960s and 1970s, and even in the 1980s he became a symbol of a free-spirited soul who could speak freely and still get everything he wants. And since then, he has merely been an icon; his presence alone was enough to elicit a certain reaction. But even then, he did not give up. He kept acting. And when he's not acting, he's "just Jack."
From this awesome career, I had a tough time trying to choose a best role, so I'm going to count down my favorites and hopefully wind up with something good at the end. I should start with some honorable mentions, like John Huston's Prizzi's Honor (1985), which I adored back in the 1980s, but which I now find doesn't quite hold up. I also want to mention a couple of underrated films, Danny DeVito's Hoffa and Nicholson's own The Two Jakes; I'm very fond of both of them, and enjoy revisiting them when I can. There are many more, but I'll just get started.
At the start of my list, I have the dual Westerns Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), which were financed by Roger Corman, directed by Monte Hellman, and shot back-to-back in the Utah dessert. Nicholson produced both, acted in both, and wrote Ride in the Whirlwind. (Incidentally, The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, who went on to write another of Nicholson's best movies, Five Easy Pieces.) The two Westerns have been called "existential" for the way they use their rambling, searching plots to find some "deeper" meaning. I dearly love them both, and count them both among my top favorite films of all time, but I can't call them Nicholson's best role(s) because they were made slightly before he emerged with his fully-formed style.
Next is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), which is another masterpiece of cinema, and certainly one of the greatest and spookiest of all horror films. It's definitely one of Nicholson's signature roles, and he's very intense. Violence oozes from his eyes; he genuinely looks as if he's gone around the bend. When he's drinking that ghostly booze with the ghostly bartender, you can just feel the stuff going to his head. But even the film's defenders bemoan the fact that Jack (also named "Jack" in the film) is obviously crazy from the start. During that opening sequence, during the job interview, Jack utters the line "that'll be just fine" with the same creepy venom as "Heerrre's Johnny" (just with less volume).
Next, we have George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick (1987), which I watched once in the theater and then a dozen more times on video. This is "just Jack" at his very best; he's hilariously naughty, irresistibly seductive. Every guy who watched this movie wanted to be him -- big belly, balding pate, long, pink coat and all -- and every girl wanted to sleep with him. No guy who has ever been dumped has failed to be roused by the "Women! A mistake? Or did He do it to us on purpose!?!" speech. Miller gives the movie a ripe, erotic atmosphere, where the blonde (Michelle Pfieffer), the redhead (Susan Sarandon) and the brunette (Cher) all let down their hair. However, the movie fails during its final stretch by forgoing Jack in favor of visual effects. A mistake.
I admit that part of the reason I like Sean Penn's The Pledge (2001) is because it's so desperately misunderstood and underappreciated. But I also believe now, as I believed then, that it may be Nicholson's most layered performance, full of history and wisdom and sadness. It's perhaps a bit like those "existential" Westerns, in that it's set up like a detective story, with a killer on the loose, but the catching of the killer is ultimately less important than the hero Jerry Black (Nicholson) going through his own journey. It's almost like a challenge that viewers did not want to accept.
When I started considering Nicholson, the first film that popped into my head was Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). To me, it's the most ageless of his 1970s films, the most perfectly formed, and the most uncompromised. Part of this is due to its period setting; it plays a little like a Bogart film, with Nicholson fitting right into that mold. But it's a little dirtier, a little scuzzier. After all, Jake Gittes starts off not by catching a killer or a robber, but by taking nasty pictures of a cheating wife. Underneath the crisp suits and neat cars and sunshine and orange groves lies the worst, most sickening kind of corruption. Nicholson was the perfect actor to straddle both worlds (more so than Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye from the previous year). He's at once classically Bogart, but also modern and cynical. It's a masterpiece, and even more surprising for a film this rich and complex and challenging: a big hit!
But there's one more film I like a tiny fraction better: Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975). I like to think that Nicholson is pretty proud of this particular film, as he gave up his seat in the front row (and his sunglasses) to hand Antonioni an honorary Oscar in 1995. It's both a counterculture film and a timeless masterpiece, and yet another "existential" film. Antonioni liked to explore the elusiveness of life and identity by surrounding his characters with vast, empty spaces. (The Passenger has much in common with Antonioni's great Italian masterpiece L'avventura.)
Jack plays David Locke, a reporter who switches identities with a dead man in his hotel, and finds that the dead man was a kind of arms dealer. This setup promises some Bourne-style intrigue and suspense -- as well as romance with the luscious young Maria Schneider -- but it quickly becomes an interior exploration (Maria's character doesn't even get a name). And it has an ending as good as Chinatown's. For this lone film, Jack was forced to give up both "just Jack" and his acting chops and strip himself down to his barest essence. It could be argued that it's his "purest" performance; it's the one in which he reveals the most, and the least. David is a beautiful cipher, a mystery for the ages and a match for Nicholson himself.
In some ways, all of Jack's movies are about life, and Jack is a little like a guru. He gives us little pointers and little hints, making us think about who we are, encouraging us and reminding us to enjoy life in things like The Bucket List. Then there's perhaps his best line of all, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: "I tried, didn't I? Goddammit, at least I did that." And then some, dear Jack. And then some.