Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Jack Nicholson's best films

Jack Nicholson turned 75 two days ago. I've seen every film he has been in since Easy Rider, and some performances predating the road movie that brought him his first Oscar nomination. He was for years my favourite actor, though the many, many bad movies he's acted in have sapped my faith. He's had a weird career, starting with ten years of independent low-budget films of mostly indifferent quality and ending with a string of schmaltzy Hollywood productions. Then again, when was the last time you saw Robert de Niro in a good film?
On the positive side, there was a period in the 1970s when Nicholson produced a succession of stunning roles in superb films. My selection reveals my biases clearly. I'd rather watch an interesting failure like The Passenger than a well-constructed star vehicle like Terms of Endearment. And yes, I unapologetically prefer Michelangelo Anotinioni to James L. Brooks. So here are my top eight Jack Nicholson films:

8: Easy Rider. 1969. Director: Dennis Hopper
Nicholson's very good in it, and the movie's a cultural landmark, but it isn't a particularly good film as a film. One-dimensional and rather unsympathetic protagonists. I'm not surprised Dennis Hopper became fiercely right-wing later in his life. Apparently, the actors were stoned while shooting Nicholson's stirring monologue about civil rights, and the reason Jack stared into space throughout was that he'd burst into giggles every time his eyes met Hopper's or Fonda's.

7: The Shining. 1980. Director: Stanley Kubrick
Another one-dimensional film, but that one dimension's exceptional. The Shining changed Nicholson from an actor who imbued each character with complexity into a bit of a ham. It's a direct line from this role to the Joker in Batman.

6: The Passenger. 1975. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
The final shot (technically the penultimate one, but it feels final) is legendary, and deservedly so. The extraordinarily complicated take isn't just Antonioni showing off, but mirrors, in its still-haven't-found-what-I'm-looking-for vibe, the emotional state of Nicholson's protagonist who chooses almost arbitrarily to give up his own identity and take on that of a stranger.

5: About Schmidt. 2002. Director: Alexander Payne
Payne and Nicholson maintain a fine balance between farce and seriousness throughout the film, endowing the relationship between the retired bean counter Schmidt and an orphan in Africa called Ndugu (who might not even exist) with a wonderful ambiguity.

4: Reds. 1981. Director: Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty as John Reed, Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, and over a dozen interviews with eminences born in the early twentieth century like Will Durant and Arthur Miller. Nicholson is a scene stealer in all his cameos but unlike, say, Broadcast News, Reds has enough substance to absorb the power of his performance and turn it into something beneficial for the film as a whole. Also, the romance at the film's centre holds its own against the epic historical backdrop. Apparently, Nicholson grew infatuated with Keaton during the shoot, but she was seeing Nicholson's best friend Beatty, so an off-screen love triangle mirrored the one on screen. The Beatty-Keaton relationship didn't survive the difficult creation of Reds.
Nicholson appears in this clip from 10.00 onwards:

3: Five Easy Pieces. 1970. Director: Bob Rafelson.
Nicholson manages to capture the angst and frustration of a generation in essaying the character of Bobby Dupea, classical pianist and oil rig worker. American films rarely touch on conflicts between high-brow culture and working class dreariness: it goes too much against the grain of the nation's self-image. 

2: Chinatown. 1974. Director: Roman Polanski
Probably the best film Nicholson's been in, but I've placed it second because his performance in Cuckoo's Nest is superlative. I've watched it six or seven times and could easily watch it six or seven times more.

1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 1975. Director: Milos Forman
I wonder how many people today would be sympathetic to Jack Nicholson's Randle McMurphy justifying statutory rape: "She was fifteen years old going on thirty-five, Doc, and she told me she was eighteen, she was very willing, I practically had to take to sewing my pants shut. Between you and me, uh, she might have been fifteen, but when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of you, I don't think it's crazy at all and I don't think you do either. No man alive could resist that, and that's why I got into jail to begin with."

Be that as it may, Cuckoo's Nest remains one of the great anti-authoritarian films, made by a Czech emigre who knew a thing or two about authoritarianism. And Nicholson is incendiary in it, volcanic, so one feels, when his rage boils over that it is just a fraction of the pent up anger within him.


Mrinal said...

oh cool! one flew over the cuckoos nest tops my list too. then comes witches of eastwick and ummmm well here it comes - a few good men...

Girish Shahane said...

Hey Mrinal,
I'm glad there are people out there who like Witches of Eastwick. A Few Good Men is sheer star power, right? It was a blockbuster, and yet it's just a courtroom drama with hardly any exterior scenes or action. Without big stars it wouldn't have earned a tenth of the box office it managed. Nicholson did what he had to, though his final admission about ordering the Code Red still seems unlikely. I'm also biased because I don't think army officers who watch the Cubans from Guantanamo are doing anything at all to make Americans sleep safer at night. And the chaps now incarcerated at Guantanamo kind of proved it.

adrian mckinty said...


I think I'd put Chinatown #1. I dont think Cuckoos Nest has aged that well. I'd put The Shining #2, Five Easy Pieces #3, About Schmidt #4.

No love for As Good As It Gets?

No, me neither.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, I've wondered about how well films like Reds and Cuckoo's Nest have aged; haven't seen either for over a decade. So maybe, if I were to see all the films again today, I might end up with your ranking. I'd also like to watch Carnal Knowledge again, my memory of it is very faint, and I watched it on a very bad VHS tape.

adrian mckinty said...


What about The Last Detail? I've always enjoyed the grungy wool coat feel to that film. Nicholoson gives an understated performance that I think is one of his best. I still dont know if it was worth turning The Godfather to be in it but still...

Girish Shahane said...

I saw the Last Detail a couple of years ago on TV, and found it rather silly. Strange to see what happened to Randy Quaid, looks wise, between that film and Brokeback Mountain. Nicholson was very good.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that Nicholson morphed from a top leading man to someone who mostly mugs for a living. He's kind of a caricature of a Hollywood slob, going to Laker games and sitting in courtside seats to stay in the spotlight and living off his roles and reputation from losg ago.