Easy Rider (1969)
The Role: George Hanson
Why It’s The Best: Just when you thought Dennis Hopper’s counter-culture classic couldn’t get any cooler, in swans Jack Nicholson half way through to steal the show as boozey lawyer George Hanson.
Nabbing himself a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his troubles, Nicholson creates an indelible impression in his relatively brief time on screen, his disillusioned speech concerning the state of the nation resonating long after the credits have rolled.
Iconic Moment: His maiden joint is a riot, but it’s his quiet decency that sticks in the memory. “This used to be a hell of a good country,” he laments. “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”
Jack Says: “Each time I did a take (during the campfire sequence), it involved smoking almost an entire joint. The main portion of that sequence is the transition from not being stoned to being stoned. After the first take or two, the acting job became reversed.”
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
The Role: Robert Dupea
Why It’s The Best: Another Oscar-nod for Jack, this time as Best Actor as he announces himself as genuine leading-man material. It’s a sparkling performance throughout, as Nicholson’s angry young man routine is given centre stage in all its shouty glory.
However, it’s the pronounced sadness behind all the bluster that really marks this out as a special performance. Although the bit where he rounds on a barking dog is pretty good too.
Iconic Moment: The chicken-salad standoff is the obvious highlight, with Jack’s steadily rising temperature striking a chord with anyone who’s ever encountered the surly immovability of the jobsworth.
Jack Says: “When I was maybe 20, I cleared a table that way a coffee shop on the Sunset Strip.And Bob Rafelson and I had gone through something like the bit with a ‘no substitutions’ waitress. So, knowing me, Bob just put the two incidents together and into the script.”
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The Role: Jonathan
Why It’s The Best: Controversial at the time of its release on account of its unflinching approach to modern sexual appetites, Mike Nichols’ film gives Nicholson free reign to show off his lascivious side. And boy does he take advantage…
Shallow to the point of mania, he rejects girl after girl in pursuit of finding one with a perfect body. Although not before bedding them anyway, naturally. Taking the ladies man routine two far? Maybe so, but that didn’t stop him getting another award nomination, this time from the Golden Globes.
Iconic Moment: The “Ballbusters on Parade” slideshow is a hilarious “how-to” of misogyny.
Jack Says: “I have many nonsexual relationships with women; I'm not trying to get into the pants of every woman I'm interested in. Jonathan, in Carnal Knowledge , is exactly the opposite. I don't think he knows any way to communicate with women beyond screwing them.”
The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)
The Role: David Staebler
Why It’s The Best: An impressively restrained turn from Nicholson, his straight-laced radio performer a far cry is from the OTT performances he’s more readily associated with.
It’s a commendably selfless piece of work from Jack, allowing Bruce Dern to shine as his loose-cannon of a brother, whilst Ellen Burstyn brings an ageing sex appeal to proceddings. Worth digging out if you’ve not seen it, it’s a nice counterpoint to some of his showier roles.
Iconic Moment: The opening monologue. Six minutes of intense facial close-up, with nothing else on screen? Who else but Jack could pull it off?
Jack Says: (On his “Un-Jack-like” performance) “I don’t want people to know what I’m actually like. It’s not good for an actor.”
The Last Detail (1973)
The Role: “Bad-Ass” Buddusky
Why It’s The Best: Released as America were retreating from the mess of Vietnam, The Last Detail is a study in disillusionment, with Jack the embodiment of the embittered serviceman railing against both the powers that be and the civilians that turn a blind eye.
It’s a road movie first and foremost though, and Nicholson has plenty of fun along the way as he teaches Randy Quaid’s petty offender how to enjoy himself before shipping him off to prison. And who would you rather have show you a good time then old Jack?
Iconic Moment: “I AM the fucking shore patrol motherfucker!” Jack’s attempts to buy a beer are about as successful as the wheat toast fiasco in Five Easy Pieces .
Jack Says: " The Last Detail is a strong anti-war statement, but the characters in it are just doing their job. I think that's the most effective way of approaching it.”
The Role: J.J. Gittes
Why It’s The Best: Contrary to what you might expect, Jack’s ‘30s gumshoe is no wisecracking hard-ass. To the contrary, he’s as lost and bewildered as the audience by the corruption he stumbles upon in an LA that’s rotten to the core.
Gittes is a far cry from the scenery-chewing anti-heroes beloved by hard-boiled crime writers. Instead he’s a man out of his depth. A gifted sleuth, but crucially, a vulnerable one. Another Oscar-nom for Jack duly followed.
Iconic Moment: The cameo from Roman Polanski as the thug who jams a blade up Jack’s nostril. Wince-inducing, every time!
Jack Says: “I just liked it because it was a departure from most films. It was a detective with no gun.”
The Passenger (1975)
The Role: David Locke
Why It’s The Best: Under-rated and under-watched, Michelangelo Antonioni’s thoughtful thriller casts Jack as a burnt-out war correspondent who takes the opportunity to escape the tedium of his old life by assuming the identity of a dead arms dealer.
Car-chases and gunplay ensue, but Nicholson’s understated turn ensures that the focus stays personal. For all the high-octane tension, the predominant mood is one of malaise. New identity or no new identity, he can’t hide from himself. Masterful stuff.
Iconic Moment: The seven-minute continuous take that brings the film to a close is a master-class in tying up loose ends.
Jack Says: “It was the biggest adventure in filmmaking I ever had in my life.”
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
The Role: R.P. McMurphy
Why It’s The Best: Ask the Academy. One Flew scooped all five of the big Oscars (Picture, Directors, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), with Nicholson’s bravura performance as a doomed but defiant mental patient the cherry on a particularly lavish cake.
His running battle with Louise Fletcher’s monstrous Nurse Ratched might be comic at times, but when it reaches its inevitable conclusion, it’s truly heartrending. Playing McMurphy with just the right amount of mania that the audience don’t forget why he’s there in the first place, this is the definitive Nicholson role. Standing up to the establishment never seemed so vital.
Iconic Moment: His conversation with the Chief, who speaks his first words of the film. Not the showiest moment, but one of the most touching.
Jack Says: “It was the highest-grossing picture in the history of the movies, which I found particularly delightful.”
The Shining (1980)
The Role: Jack Torrance
Why It’s The Best: It was only a matter of time before Nicholson’s trademark rage was channelled into a truly nightmarish creation, and sure enough, Stephen King’s washed-up writer is the perfect vehicle.
More straightforwardly nuts than King’s original creation, Jack is clearly having a ball throughout, leering, barking and cackling his way from one scene to the next. King was never keen on the casting, fearing Nicholson wasn’t enough of an everyman to stay true to the character. Frankly, who cares when he’s this much fun?
Iconic Moment: The moment when Jack is driving up to the house…who are we kidding, it’s “Here’s Johnny” isn’t it?
Jack Says: “I like to do every take a little bit different. As I told Stanley: ‘If you think (take) 100 is it, believe me 101 will be better!’ But that was just to psych him out, actually.”
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
The Role: Frank Chambers
Why It’s The Best: The chemistry between Nicholson and Jessica Lange is absolutely white-hot for a start! Another successful collaboration with director Bob Rafelson, the common criticism of the film is that it fails to live up to (or rather, improve upon) the original, and thus seems somewhat unnecessary.
However, taken on its own merits, it’s a perfectly enjoyable erotic thriller, and perhaps the only film using that moniker not to be a steaming pile of garbage. Nicholson’s animal magnetism is cranked up to eleven throughout, bringing charisma to spare to this pleasingly black yarn.
Iconic Moment: The kitchen-table sex scene. So intense, it was long believed that Nicholson and Lange were having sex for real…
Jack Says: “I've always muted the sexuality that I always thought was my strong suit as an actor, (but this was a chance to do) the most erotic performance of my life.”
Terms Of Endearment (1983)
The Role: Garrett Breedlove
Why It’s The Best: Another Oscar win for Jack as the avuncular former-astronaut, and ageing playboy Garrett Breedlove. Sure, he’s more or less playing himself (or at least a version of himself), but when he’s this charming, who’s complaining?
With the tears provided by the mother-daughter duo of Shirley MacLaine and Deborah Winger, Jack’s presence is all the more vital in bringing a bit of levity to proceedings, as he sends himself up a treat.
Iconic Moment: His touching heart-to-heart with Troy Bishop’s character Tommy. Hankies at the ready…
Jack Says: “How many scripts make you cry? I read dozens if not hundreds of screenplays every year, and I don't read that many parts where I can say yeah, sure, I could play that guy. I know just how that guy feels.”
The Witches Of Eastwick (1987)
The Role: Daryl Van Horne
Why It’s The Best: It may not be the best dramatically speaking, but in terms of charisma, Jack’s rarely been more magnetic than his turn as the cloven-hoofed Devil incarnate.
Playing Old Red as a womanising lounge-lizard with a particularly loud wardrobe, Nicholson’s riotous antics are almost enough to make you forget you’re watching a film that stars Cher. Almost, but not quite…
Iconic Moment: His explosive bout of vomiting over a church congregation. Bleurgh!
Jack Says: “I was fooling around career-wise…I think I was kind of losing it a little in the quality department. I was doing some movies that I should have backed away from.”
The Role: Francis Phelan
Why It’s The Best: After a schizophrenic, alcoholic drifter are you? Sounds like a job for Jack. A rare commercial flop in a relatively blemish-free career, Ironweed might not have blown the box office away, but still boasts a pair of heavyweight performances from Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
Cheerful it ain’t, but for a portrayal of the despair brought about by drink, you won’t find much better.
Iconic Moment: Francis’ visit to the grave of his infant son. Painful stuff.
Jack Says: (On his ladies man reputation) “Meryl made fun of me. She loved ragging me about it.”
The Role: Jack Napier aka the Joker
Why It’s The Best: It says something about the impact of the Joker, that Jack Nicholson is still predominantly associated with OTT clowning, no matter how many deadly serious roles he’s played before and after Tim Burton’s gothic crime caper.
Decked out in lurid purple and green, Nicholson absolutely owns the Clown Prince of Crime, to the point that the film visibly sags every time he’s off-screen. Heath Ledger might be the purist’s choice, but in terms of demented showmanship, Nicholson wins every time.
Iconic Moment: His appearance from the shadows, transformation from Napier to Joker complete. The throwaway line of “Aaah, what a day,” after filling someone with lead, rounds the scene off nicely.
Jack Says: “The Joker comes from my childhood. That's how I got involved with it in the first place. It's a part I always thought I should play.”
A Few Good Men (1992)
The Role: Col. Nathan R. Jessop
Why It’s The Best: A Few Good Men is a showcase for Jack at his most pumped. As the great man says himself, he stormed into the first reading, “feeling like the fucking Lincoln Memorial.” It shows.
Tom Cruise is forced to summon up every ounce of pluck not to simply wither in the presence of such powerhouse grandstanding, as Nicholson throws everything into his portrayal of the snarling Colonel. Seething in the dock like a cornered animal, he’s simply terrifying!
Iconic Moment: Oh, what’s that line? Something about the truth? Nope, it’s gone. Sorry.
Jack Says: “Sometimes, when you read a script, you can tell when you reach the writer's favourite line. They are my least favourite lines, because of the expectations. ‘You can't handle the truth’ was one.”
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The Role: President James Dale / Art Land
Why It’s The Best: For his second collaboration with Tim Burton, Nicholson shoulders dual roles as both the President and a sleazy casino owner. Naturally, he steals the show with both of them.
An oft-misunderstood gem, Burton’s spoof may not be quite as funny as the sum of its parts, but when it’s good, it’s excellent. It’s no coincidence that most of these moments coincide with Jack taking centre stage…
Iconic Moment: Upon hearing the destruction of France over the telephone, Jack responds with a deadpan, “Mon, Dieu!” Priceless.
Jack Says: “Tim Burton’s a genius.”
As Good As It Gets (1997)
The Role: Melvin Udall
Why It’s The Best: Despite cleaning up at the Oscars, As Good As It Gets is prone to moments of extreme schmaltz throughout. How does it get away with it? Jack Nicholson, that’s how.
Playing Udall as the misanthrope’s misanthrope, Nicholson fires off a string of incredibly offensive one-liners which cut straight through the movie’s sickly-sweet centre. His relationship with Greg Kinnear’s gay artist is the highlight, simultaneously bilious and heartwarming, and enough to bag Jack yet another Oscar.
Iconic Moment: His neighbourly advice to Kinnear: “Never, never, interrupt me, okay? Not if there's a fire, not even if you hear the sound of a thud from my home and one week later there's a smell coming from there that can only be a decaying human body and you have to hold a hanky to your face because the stench is so thick that you think you're going to faint. Even then, don't come knocking.”
Jack Says: (On offering director James L. Brooks the chance to re-cast his part) “I didn't feel I was what he was after. It was one of the toughest movies he and I will ever do.”
The Pledge (2001)
The Role: Jerry Black
Why It’s The Best: Shock, horror! Jack Nicholson growing old gracefully? The paunch is on show, the hairline receding, and the wildman charisma stripped right back for this brilliant portrayal of an obsessive detective grappling with an overactive subconscious.
A wonderfully low-key turn, Nicholson is lucky enough to be working with a meticulously paced screenplay and a sparkling return behind the camera from Sean Penn. An excellent slow-burner of a thriller, with a classic central performance from Nicholson.
Iconic Moment: Jack’s interview with Mickey Rourke’s bereft father crackles with big-screen magic, as two of Hollywood’s most electrifying performers go head to head.
Jack Says: “It was a very dark character and I find it easy to identify with that. There's a sense of hopelessness and absurdity to his life and those are philosophical kinds of issues that have always been very close to my heart.”
About Schmidt (2002)
The Role: Warren Schmidt
Why It’s The Best: A stunning transformation, given what audiences expect from a Nicholson performance. There’s barely a trace of Jack in Warren Schmidt, what with his drooping face, and crumpled sense of self-esteem.
His determination to make something worthwhile out of his remaining years is deeply touching, but it’s his ultra-dry wit that steals the show. The increasingly tetchy letters he pens to an African child he has sponsored are particularly hilarious.
Iconic Moment: Take your pic kfrom any of the, “Dear Ndugu” sequences!
Jack Says: “Every day I would look into that mirror and think, terrified: ‘What if I get stuck in this character? What if I can't get back to me?’”
The Departed (2006)
The Role: Frank Costello
Why It’s The Best: In a film packed to the gills with scene-stealing pretenders (Baldwin, Wahlberg…we’re looking at you) Jack still manages to reign supreme as mob king-pin Frank Costello.
Thanks to the booming voiceover that opens proceedings, it’s clear from the off that this is Nicholson’s movie, his thick Boston accent unable to disguise the sheer star-power of a genuine icon on form. Sure he goes a little OTT in places, but there’s plenty of menace behind the charm. See the scene with Leo’s arm for details…
Iconic Moment: Jack’s opening voiceover, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. “I don’t wanna be a product of my environment…I want my environment to be a product of me.” How cool do you wanna be?
Jack Says: “My design for the character was a king gone mad, which was why there was all the leopard skin and all that business.”