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Jack Attack

Jack Nicholson is 75 years old today. He has only made 3 movies in the past eight years and his last great performance (About Schmidt) was a full decade past. His frequent absences would be a much greater loss to cinema if his current taste didn't lean more Bucket List and less Schmidt. But he has meant so much to so many moviegoers for so many decades that his big day is definitely worth celebrating.

So herewith ten random things off the top of my head that I love about Jack Nicholson... and it shouldn't surprise you that most of them involve his actress co-stars. That's not just because you're reading this at The Film Experience but because, for all of Jack's showboating style, he regularly ups the game of his leading ladies (and vice versa)

• "Dear Ndugu..." (About Schmidt)

• the fascinating and atypical restraint of his character work as Eugene O'Neill in Reds (1981). He lets Warren Beatty & Diane Keaton lead (which they do spectacularly well -- what a great movie) but manages to leave an indelible searing impression all the same. I sometimes wonder if it's his best performance.

• That it took him a good  long while to become JACK NICHOLSON -- he started in 1956 and he wasn't really JACK til 1969's Five Easy Pieces, and those slow burn rises to superstardom really ought to inspire all great actors who are looking for a defining breakthrough.

• The electric but very different push/pulls of his beastly seductions of Michelle Pfeiffer in Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Wolf (1994). They had great chemistry together. 

• Chinatown (1974) in general and in its entirety. Also specifically in just about every scene. Let's simplify...

 Chinatown (1974) !!!!

• "Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of dese?" Dumb pussy-whipped Jack in Prizzi's Honor (1985) who is talking about Irene (Kathleen Turner) but might just as well be describing his topsy turvy relationship with his ex (Anjelica Huston) too. 

...His women keep pulling the rug out from under him, the Oriental rug to be precise.

 Right there on the Oriental. With all the lights on. 

Everything about The Jack & Shirley Show within Terms of Endearment (1983)

His long friendship with Warren Beatty, also newly 75. Imagine the influence and power they've wielded in their time on American cinema.

• "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" My favorite Jack Nicholson moments are rarely the iconic ones that everyone knows (in which I always find myself feeling "pull it back!") but his literally splintering-crazy work in The Shining is the best of his YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH style screen beats. 

Your turn!

What's your favorite Jack Nicholson performance? Which screen moments from his long history stick with you.

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Reader Comments (25)

It's too hard to choose a favorite Jack Nicholson performance (but if I had to I would choose "Chinatown"). I frequently find myself repulsed by performances where the actor/actress is clearly showboating, a technique which almost always self-destructs not just the performance but the movie as a whole. However, I actually not just tolerate, but love Jack Nicholson's style of showboating (except "The Departed"). He's one of the very few performers who makes it work.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

I really don't think that Nicholson gets enough credit for his work in The Departed. Sure it's a riff on his own Jack persona, but Scorsese uses it to wonderful, often times audacious, effect. It's like Jack took every bad guy he ever played, mixed in his jackisms and pulled out a truly memorable villain that straddles the line between terrifying and ludicrous. It was a far worthier effort than Mark Whalberg's Oscar nominated, but one note, turn in the same film. I would love to see Jack and Marty together again.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean

One flew over the cuckoo's nest and the shining, because obviously

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNina

What a great pairing of damn good actors who made Ironweed a must see film (Nicholson and Streep)...

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I don't always get Jack Nicholson on screen, and I find several of his Oscar nominations bewildering. But I'll plump for some of his most interesting character work (in my eyes, anyway) in movies that still haven't built the audience they deserve: Blood & Wine, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge. I think he's a lot of fun in Mars Attacks!, too, and really compelling in Carnal Knowledge and The King of Marvin Gardens and The Passenger, three higher-profile movies than the other ones I've listed but still un-nominated. I agree with Nathaniel that Wolf was pretty special, and that he and Pfeiffer worked really well together. I love every story from every co-star who says who comforting and assuring Jack is on set, even if his legendary generosity in this way isn't always the first thing I respond to in the actual performances on screen.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Oh, and I like him in Heartburn and Something's Gotta Give, where he's absolutely uninterested in competing with the female lead but, like Nathaniel says, serves her performance beautifully. Maybe I like Jack more than I realized?

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Probably an obvious one, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will always remain my favorite Jack performance for just too many wonderful, brilliant reasons for just one comment on a blog post: I enjoy his other performances as well (cudos to Sean for picking The Departed, totally agreed!), but Cuckoo's Nest really is Jack at his craziest...which is to say, his best.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan M

I love when he goes subtle. I love the way his very American persona interacts with all those silences and ennui of Antonioni in The Passenger. It's like he's not even acting, at all. He just... disappears!

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

early jak one flew over the cuckoos nest,mid career jack reds,later jack about schmidt!!!

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

Batman '89

Why remind us that Michelle's the only witch of Eastwick without an Oscar? Wolf is a horrible movie with an ending that rubs it in my face that I even watched it. Nathan I love you, don't hate me.

Honor is an '85 release

I have a Jack Nicholson cost Kathy Bates a second Oscar theory. Since Nicholson can never win without his female co-star also winning—the Oscar most likely to go to Dench went to Jack's girl. When Bates returned in a category they felt most comfortable recognizing her—with a role that had all the fire and humor they initially appreciated with Misery nearly ten years ago—she loses to Dench because Jack's girl screws up the natural order of things. Come back some years later Bates is Jack's girl but this time Jack decides he's been awarded enough and campaigns for friend Roman Polanski and newcomer Adrien Brody—there was no sense of urgent incentive to makeup for denying Bates a second Oscar—it goes to Zeta Jones and Jack sits back enjoying the Best Director and Actor wins for his friend and the newcomer.

Only shot in hell for Bates to earn a second Best Actress nomination and a possible win in that category is to work with Nicholson again! Unless Anjelica Huston beats her to him first?

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

"About Schmidt" is my favourite. The wedding speech, the tears...

I do love when he gets wild, specially in "The Witches of Eastwick", a movie I'm very fond of because it was my introduction to Susan Sarandon. Her seduction scene is phenomenal.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I love it when Jack does Jack...he's just so undeniably appealing...I'm gonna go with Something's Gotta Give, About Schmidt, and As Good As It Gets as my faves. I gotta catch up on his 70's work. And I wish he would do another collabo with McLaine, Streep and Keaton, preferably in the same movie.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSoSueMe

Anything he does from Batman Heath Ledger's take on it and everything, but this is the one I grew up with and treasure it more.

And then of course every line he says in A Few Good Men is perfection. Such a great 90s flick.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

Jack has a very special place in my heart. My grandpa's favorite actor was Jack Nicholson and I saw so many of his movies with him, and I truly think he's in the upper echelons of the greatest actors. A few weeks before he died I saw Five Easy Pieces for the first time with him, and Jack simply wowed me from start to finish and I have a very big soft spot for that movie now. My other big Jack memory would be how much he terrified me in Batman when I was a little boy, I was so terrified that I had nightmares that I would meet him in real life and he would shake my hand and I would be burnt to a crisp. Oddly he never scared me in The Shining.

He's had one hell of a career, working with everybody from Kubrick, to Polanski, to Antonioni. All in some of the key director's best films of their careers. I really hope he does get to deliver one more performance on par with his Bobby Dupea, J.J. Gittes or Warren Schmidt.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeeking Amy

I know Premier magazine rated Nicholoson's performance in The Last Detail as one of the Top 10 movie performances of all time.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Happy Birthday Jack! The best in my book. I love The Last Detail-- very funny and a great badass! Cuckoo's Nest-- incredible all the way through! About Schmidt-- lost himself. A Few Good Men-- Amazing, on fire, and should have won the Oscar! Chinatown-- super cool! The Crossing Guard-- deep, heavy, very though provoking, a must see performance. The Pledge-- he's older but still hits a home run. Powerful performance. Easy Rider-- the break out role! Blood & Wine-- subtle, smooth, another layer of Jack. Batman-- way over the top but only he shows he can do it well, steals the movie, hilarious, entertaining, should have gotten Oscar nod! Prizzi's Honor-- at first not sure but he grows on you and the Italian mob Jack is sensational! Reds-- How can I not?!?? As Good as it Gets-- reminded me of my Dad, love him, you root for him and love the ending!!!

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

I know I come at this with a clear bias, but favorites are favorites - I like his turn in "A Few Good Men" the best. Heck, I like everything about that movie the best, especially the Aaron Sorkin script. His gift for smart, crisp dialogue that never underestimates the audience continues to offer rewards upon multiple viewings, and makes all of the performers look good.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

We all seem to watch a lot of JACK...

Well I am no exception, he is amazing in The Pledge, but there are two not mentioned that I really liked. The Border and Hoffa - cirtics never agree but quite often I BUY what they don't like. Jack takes me on TRIP(s) never taken, sometimes in places I still do not want to go... I believe it took him 10 seconds to defy De Niro, and make me laugh - I wait the whole movie (The Last Tycoon) and replay their scenes several times....

He is an amazing ACTOR, the Best

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalice

/3rtful -- eh. agree to disagree. I don't even think Bates should've been nominated in 2002. It still just kills me that Pfeiffer in one of her three greatest performances was shut out by two lesser one note comic performances (Latifah, Bates) from movies people just liked more.

seeking amy -- i love this story. sometimes i'm jealous of people who have such great family moviegoing memories. I have a few but mostly my parents weren't into the movies.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Can't believe no one's mentioned The Passenger, my personal choice for the best he's EVER been as an actor, mostly because the script forces him to turn his jackassery down to a much more subtle level. Also, to note, Five Easy Pieces is 1970, not 1969.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I actually adore As Good As It Gets, mainly for the main character who (admittedly) serves as a sounding board for a million Jack-isms. I prefer him over the top - I have a hard time taking him seriously in other roles. Loved him in The Shining, loved him in what I remember of Chinatown and Terms of Endearment (both need a revisit) and loved him in The Departed, which I remember people bemoaning as him phoning it in. Some of his big roles didn't work for me, but when he nails it, his crazy is like Kate Hepburn's brassy comebacks. Fun stuff.

Favorites quotes:
"Sell crazy someplace else. We're all stocked up here."
"I just want to BASH your BRAINS IN."
And his description of rats in The Departed is the perfect balance of hilarious and creepy.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Nothing about "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? That's Jack's shining moment.

Happy 75th! Hope he gets the Beverly role in "August: Osage County." That could be his next nod and win (and a farewell/retirement acknowledgment).

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLenny

Nathan—Streep is a lead in Adaptation. Funny she wasted energy believing The Hours was the one they wanted to reward her for. Clearly the actress playing Virginia Woolf would upstage even her.

I happen to agree with you that 2002 was a very rich year for supporting actress. My list would've been different. Yes I'd boost both Bates and Streep to lead. Category fraud for Bates you say? She's Jack's girl and with About Schmidt they were willing to give him Oscar 4.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

In no particular order,
Prizzi's Honor
About Schmidt

bonus for his bit in Little Shop of Horrors.

Witches of Eastwick is despicable on so many levels. Ironweed is overrated (except for Tom Waits) and an exercise in "ham" from its two leads.. The 1946 version Postman Always Rings Twice was better.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

3rtful: It takes a FULL HOUR for Bates to even enter the picture. In a 100 minute movie. With a blatant single lead. (Nicholson.) Bumping up Streep's performances in The Hours and Adaptation., those I understand (the structuring of those movies mean Streep, Kidman and Moore and Cage, Streep and Cooper are arguably co-leads in their respective films), but Bates in About Schmidt? It's an EIGHT MINUTE performance.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia
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