SPOTLIGHT: Jack Nicholson

For our new Spotlight series, I decided to kick things off with one of the greats.  While this segment of the site may not always focus on big names, they don’t get much bigger than Jack Nicholson.  Exploring a career as acclaimed and a man as legendary as this is no easy task.  What these pieces will consist of are commonalities in the career of the subject, as well as five key films to see their work in.  As always, give us feedback about what you think!

Career: As previously mentioned, Nicholson’s career has been legendary for decades.  One of the greats of both the old and especially the new American cinema, he has forged an identity on the screen that is both iconic and consistently shifting.  A lot can be done with those eyebrows, and he finds something new every time.  Whether he raises them in madness (The Shining) or in smug victory (As Good as It Gets), they are part of what defines him as an actor.  Of course the other thing is that talent.  He has given us some of the most legendary movie characters of all time and also influenced many other fine actors.  His off-screen life is kept largely private, though he makes notorious awards show appearances and is a legendary playboy.  It would be ignorant to keep him out of those shows, since he alone has won three Oscars and been nominated for 12.  At the forefront of American screen legends, Jack is not afraid to take risks, and has made it a point to work with every director he’s wanted to work with and only rarely cashing in on his image (The Bucket List).  Though there are far more than five great performances from him, here are the highlights that showcase a different side to Hollywood’s definitive wily renegade.

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric, chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is an enduring masterpiece for many reasons, one of which is Nicholson’s stunning performance.  He captures Jack Torrence’s descent from American dad to madman while being undertaker at the Overlook hotel one winter.  You’ll see what Kubrick thinks of the American family when they are stuck with each other.  Dad will come after mom and son with an axe, chanting pop culture mainstays (“Heeeeerrreee’s Johnny!”) all the way.  It’s one of the best performances in film history, and one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Chinatown (1974)

As a smooth-talking Los Angeles Private Eye, nowhere is Nicholson’s swagger and leading-man ability put to better use than in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  J.J. Gites finds himself surrounded by intrigue and filth as an investigation into a marriage affair turns into an intricate web of corruption and murder.  The world has gone mad, but Gites keeps his cool.  Whether questioning people or taking a beating, Jack keeps the character restrained at the right times, and lets him loose at the immortal conclusion.

About Schmidt (2002)

Every actor that has an established image can’t always break it successfully.  Nicholson did in this memorable movie about rebirth after a loved one’s death.  Warren Schmidt hits the road after he finds his wife dead.  Gone is the snarky, grinning Jack of old; Warren is a quiet man, with a solemn face and a boring life.  A small grin, a bowed head, and repressed feelings are something we hadn’t seen from him like this.  It’s only later, after Kathy Bates has entered a hot tub nude and his daughter has pushed him off, that we see a glimpse of a traditional Nicholson performance.  It was weird to see Nicholson get under this skin with such grace, and it is proof that is indeed capable of anything.

As Good as it Gets (1997)

Even in the year where Titanic snagged almost every award, Nicholson still towered above the Best Actor category playing an obsessive compulsive author who has the audacity to fall in love.  This clever, hilarious, and ultimately uplifting film takes you on a journey through bruised souls looking to find something, anything.  He throws a dog down a garbage chute, sure, but he also makes you feel Melvin’s pain.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Nowhere else is Jack Nicholson’s career personified better than in Milos Forman’s terrific psych ward drama.  As McMurphy, Nicholson tackles the established order in a mad house he sneaks into.  He battles Nurse Ratched with a smile and a wink, but he couldn’t be more serious about escaping and beating the system.  Getting the other inmates as well as Ratched to bend slightly to his will, he soon becomes an iconic image in the clash against authority.  It isn’t until the explosive conclusion that it takes a separate path from Nicholson’s career.  McMurphy won’t be remembered in the film’s fictionalized world, but Nicholson will live on that screen forever.

Notable Mentions: Batman, The Departed, Easy Rider, Something’s Gotta Give, and A Few Good Men.

Catch up on all these great Jack Nicholson films at LOVEFiLM. With of 70,000 titles and counting you’re sure to find something to watch!

8 thoughts on “SPOTLIGHT: Jack Nicholson

  1. Of course Nicholson could have been a b-picture nobody had he not found himself in the right Hollywood circles back in the late 60s/early 70s. Who would have though Wilbur Force from Little Shop of Horrors would become a top movie star. He had a career that was a decade long before anyone really noticed him. Then came Easy Riders (to which he owes a debt of gratitude to Dennis Hopper) and the rest is history.

    I can’t argue with those five choices – probably his finest work (of which One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is my favourite). But I’d also add Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail to the list of notable mentions – fantastic film.

    • Yeah, he recently made an appearance at the Hollywood walk of fame with Hopper before he died. Haven’t seen The Last Detail, but I may check it out now that you mention it.

  2. Easy Rider should be mentioned here. It’s the movie that launched his career. But the movies presented here are good at showing the variety of roles he has played. In another little known movie, Wolf, Nicholson plays a werewolf.

  3. John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985) has since slipped from collective memory. This spectacular movie showcases three wonderful performances from Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, and Angelica Huston, the director’s daughter and an Oscar winner for her work here. Nicholson is Charley Partanna, a mob hitman. He meets Irene Walker, played by Kathleen Turner, at a Prizzi wedding, and they are immediately attracted to one another. Indeed, Charley even flies to California from New York for a day just to meet Irene for a few hours. Charley and Irene marry. Maerose Prizzi, played by Angelica Huston, eyes their union with great jealousy. However, she is a mob daughter hardened by experience, and she plays an insider’s game to win Charley back. Maerose has evidence that Irene offended the family honor prior to her marriage with Charley, and Maerose’s machinations begin a hilarious sequence of events that will set Charley and Irene out to kill one another. You see, they’re both in the “cleaner” business, and they’ve been ordered to knock off each other. While Charley has reservations about killing a woman he deeply loves, he eventually comes to his “mob” senses. After all, for the longest time, he has served the Prizzi family, and loyalties die hard. Likewise, Irene genuinely loves Charley, but her tough as nails attitude means that she’ll do anything to survive. Richard Condon’s screenplay has many surprises and a rather complex plot involving kidnappings, blackmails, and racketeering. Each character, regardless of their screen time, feels fleshed out and three dimensional. I don’t think I’ve seen any mob film that takes its genre so seriously while at the same time having a fun outing with the genre’s conventions. For example, Partanna’s a talkative guy, as wiseguys are wont to be in the movies. When Nicholson uses hitman lingo, he sounds perfectly eloquent and at ease in his environment. However, when he talks about something above his limited experience, he still blabbers on and on, hilariously grasping to find words to express himself. Nicholson has always been a funny guy, and this is one of the best performances of his great career. We see Nicholson and Turner falling madly in love, and their delightfully funny turns endear their characters to us. By the time Charley and Irene realize their predicament, they become simultaneously tragic and comic figures. And, while Angelica Huston disappears for long stretches in the movie, her presence underlines the sharp intelligence of the film. Huston plays it straight for the length of the movie, but in the final moments, she gets big laughs for her devilish grin. This classic movie doesn’t figure much into popular imagination anymore. However, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Nicholson delivers his finest performance. Kathleen Turner does perhaps her best work here. And, for you fans of “The Addams Family,” this is another opportunity for you to see Angelica Huston’s droll persona. John Huston created many great movies, starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and continuing through The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), We Were Strangers (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1960), Fat City (1972), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Prizzi’s Honor can proudly stand beside any of them.

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