It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that Jack Nicholson is my favorite living actor, and has been for a good thirty years or so. And don’t come to me with that ridiculous claim that he’s always “Jack Nicholson”, because saying it in my presence comes with a lecture. Anyone who spouts that falls into one of two classifications—and more than likely both of them. They know zip about acting and/or they haven’t seen nearly enough of his films. Sure, Jack phones it in occasionally for the paycheck(I have yet to bring myself to watch his two most recent films, 2007’s “The Bucket List” and 2010’s “How Do You Know”), but the VAST majority of his 60+ films are more than worthwhile. In the last dozen years alone are some of his best performances in 2001’s “The Pledge”, 2002’s “About Schmidt” and 2006’s “The Departed”. He’s been nominated 12 times for his acting abilities(the record for men), and has taken home the statue 3 of those times(tying the record for male actors). So, why the detractors? Well, for one thing, like Bogart before him—Jack has a very distinctive vocal cadence and delivery. There is almost never any doubt who you are watching. Then, of course, there is the case of two of his most popular, iconic creations that bookended the 1980’s: Jack Torrance in “The Shining” and The Joker in “Batman”. I would love to get a percentage poll of people who have seen only these two Nicholson flamboyant characters. My bet is that the number is pretty high. Those viewers have no clue as to just how subtle and masterful Jack can be. So, do you want to learn something? I will give you the “Super Six”…six different films from a very exciting 6-year period(1969-75), that should quell a good portion of the uninitiated and delusional. How indispensable is this period for Nicholson aficionados? All six performances garnered him Golden Globe nominations and 5 of the 6 a nomination from the Academy Awards. Of those 11 nominations, he would win three times, but not getting the coveted Oscar until that very last ceremony of the six-year period—in late March of 1976. No wonder Walter Matthau can be seen exclaiming from his seat at the ceremony, “It’s about time”! You said it, Walter.
In 1968, after 10 years and 18 films, Jack Nicholson had all but decided that his acting career was not going anywhere. Apparently his own agent told him this as well, and Nicholson started to turn some of his attention to writing and directing(he had a taste of those duties on four 1960’s films, “The Terror”, “Flight to Fury”, The Trip” and “Head”). He was 30 years old and ready to turn his back on a life in front of the camera. Then something wonderful came along in the form of counter-culture giant, Dennis Hopper-directed, “Easy Rider”. And it almost didn’t happen. In a role originally intended for Rip Torn, Jack would eventually receive his first Oscar nomination for playing lawyer George Hanson(for Best Supporting Actor). The film changed Hollywood when released in the summer of 1969. It was a MONSTER hit that brought worldwide fame and recognition to its three stars: Jack, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Hopper(who co-wrote the screenplay)and Fonda(who co-wrote and also produced)are often given credit for creating one of a triumvirate of late-1960’s films(the other two being 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate”)that would usher in the great decade of 1970’s American films and film-makers. Their careers would eventually flounder for various reasons—while Nicholson’s star just never stopped rising after this. The standout performance made him a movie star.
Up next was 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” from Bob Rafelson—a starring role for Nicholson and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor this time around. Jack’s character of Bobby Dupea is branded in the annals of motion picture history for the “chicken salad sandwich” scene. I remember being shown this scene in an eighth grade English class that was chronicling film history. Sometimes I wonder if that teacher realized how seeing it changed my life. Already greatly interested and active in acting and the arts, this riveting time capsule of Jack “dressing-down” a waitress made me an instant(and eventually obsessive)fan. I revisit the film every few years, and it is my personal Nicholson favorite.
1971’s “Carnal Knowledge” was controversial for its frank sexuality—and would eventually face an “obcsenity” suit in the state of Georgia. The film never shows as much as its reputation would suggest, but the emotional and relationship angle of the piece is still potent today. Jack’s “Ballbusters on Parade” film within a film sequence has always been on my list of great Nicholson moments, although the showing of it has offended some of my female friends in the past. Admittedly, it’s a portion of the film that is certainly aimed squarely at men. Somehow, Oscar ignored Nicholson for his performance in this film, but Golden Globe nominated him and his co-stars Art Garfunkel and Ann-Margret(who also received an Oscar nomination for her perf). In a career of many invaluable works, “Carnal Knowledge” is one of director Mike Nichol’s top achievements.
“Badass” Buddusky is Nicholson’s fierce and riveting characterization from director Hal Ashby’s 1973 masterpiece, “The Last Detail”. It features a collection of now recognizable faces throughout(including Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Carol Kane, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner), and contains a line about the virtues of beer that I’ve quoted around a hundred times to perplexed, but appreciative revelers. This was Jack’s 3rd attempt at winning an Oscar, and 4th for the Golden Globe…and it was getting a bit ridiculous by this point.
There was probably never a better film from Roman Polanski than 1974’s “Chinatown”. Most critics and film historians seem to agree upon this(me included). Oh, the misfortune of being released in the same year as “The Godfather, Part II”! “Five Easy Pieces”-love or not, “Chinatown” is the greatest work that Nicholson and female lead Faye Dunaway would ever appear in—and Jack even performed a large portion of the film with a large bandage on his nose! It wasn’t a real injury, but part of the plot involving Polanski(in a wonderful cameo appearance)showing Jack’s J.J. Gittes what happens to “nosy” people. It’s an indelible(and at that time unheard-of)image for a major motion picture star. Again denied the Academy Award win for this, but Golden Globe finally handed it over. The following year he would not be denied either.
Is there anything left to be said about 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. It was the first film to gather all five major Academy Awards since 1934’s “It Happened One Night”(Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay). Jack was awarded the Oscar, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA for Best Actor—and various critics awards too. His nut-house R.P. McMurphy and his sparring matches with ice queen Nurse Ratched(Louise Fletcher)enthralled critics and audiences alike. It is the pinnacle of director Milos Forman’s career(although he would win an Oscar again for 1984’s “Amadeus”). Nicholson, at 38, was now the King of Hollywood.
Is it really possible that Jack Nicholson is now 75 years old? The magic of film keeps him forever young—as the rest of time marches on. It has been said that he is semi-retired now. Indeed, he has only appeared in two films in the last six years. He could never act again, but what he’s accomplished already is legendary. So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Nicholson! Some of you may want to celebrate by watching one of his films. You would not go wrong with any choice from this “Super Six”. And if you haven’t seen them…you really don’t know Jack. Grade for all 6: A