Jack Nicholson’s own story rivals any of his films.
Born in New York City, he grew up in New Jersey. He grew up thinking his grandparents were his parents, and his mother, his older sister.
When years later, he learned the truth, he realized he had no clue who his real father was, and he decided he was not all that curious to find out. He’d already carved out a path for himself.
But getting there wasn’t all that easy.
When he first got to Hollywood in the late fifties with a dream to make a living in the movies, Jack was not an immediate hit.
For a time he was an assistant at Hanna-Barbera, and actually showed promise as an animator. But drawing cartoons wasn’t his reason for being out there. So he quit.
He then worked with B-movie king Roger Corman on-and-off for several years, appearing in such cult items as The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960) and The Raven (1963).
By the late sixties though, he still had not hit pay dirt as a screen actor, and was gradually resigning himself to working behind the camera as a writer/director.
Then fate played a hand.
His good friend Dennis Hopper was getting ready to shoot Easy Rider and had a huge falling-out with erratic character actor Rip Torn, who’d been cast to play gonzo lawyer George Hanson in the film.
All of a sudden, Rip was out, and Jack was in.
Jack very nearly stole that movie, earning himself his first Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Though clearly he’d broken through, it’s still doubtful he — or anyone else — could have predicted the level of success that was to follow.
Over the next six years, Jack would be nominated for Best Actor four times, and win his first Oscar in 1976, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To date, he has been nominated 12 times, and won three Academy Awards. That’s a record, folks.
So, though it took awhile for his star to rise, since its ascent it has never really fallen.
It does not seem quite possible that Jack Nicholson could be turning 75 today. He seems ageless, particularly when you revisit his best films.
And that’s just what we should all do to mark the occasion.
In my view, there are twelve titles that stand out in the roughly seventy films he’s appeared in over half a century. I have ranked them in order of personal preference.
Pick the ones that strike your fancy, and on his birthday, revisit Jack at his very best.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) — Randle McMurphy (Nicholson) is an incorrigible convict who acts crazy, believing he’ll do easier time in a mental hospital than a prison. Getting his wish, on arrival he immediately disrupts the routine imposed by head nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), which begins a power struggle for the damaged hearts and minds of the inmates. In McMurphy’s crusade, the loons (including Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and William Redfield) awaken from their stupors and regain a measure of vitality, but the powers-that-be see this as insurrection, one they stem by targeting its leader. Milos Forman’s bravura filming of Ken Kesey’s book stands as Nicholson’s peak. It seems incredible Kirk Douglas wanted to do the part years before (his son Michael actually produced the film), since it’s hard to imagine anyone but Nicholson as McMurphy. All the inmate performances are first-rate, including Will Sampson as “Chief,” the silent Indian giant who plays a pivotal role in McMurphy’s oddball odyssey. A brilliant film, pure and simple.
Chinatown (1974) — Hired by glamorous Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to snap incriminating photos of her husband, private dick J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) thinks he’s on a routine investigation of spousal infidelity. It turns out Evelyn is actually the daughter of powerful baron Noah Cross (John Huston), and the seamy revelations only mount from there, drawing Jake deeper into a hornet’s nest of incest, betrayal, and corruption in seedy 1930s Los Angeles. Cynical, brooding, and knotted with mystery, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” is an inspired update of the private eye picture that equals most anything Bogart did in the forties. The cast, of course, can’t be beat: Nicholson puts his own stamp on the familiar character of a private eye in over his head; Dunaway excels playing a dangerous woman that most men would walk off cliffs for, and Huston delivers a titanic performance as the arrogant Cross. Watch for Polanski himself as a knife-wielding thug with a grudge against nosy people. Chinatown earned eleven Oscar nods, but snagged only one win, for Robert Towne’s dense, twisty script. Viewed today, it’s all too clear: It should have won more!
Five Easy Pieces (1970) — Disaffected, hard-drinking oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) is not what he appears at first sight: Born into a patrician clan from Puget Sound, Bobby has turned his back on bourgeois comforts and a promising career as a classical pianist for life on the road with dim-witted girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Bobby’s drawn back into the family fold, however, when he learns his father Nicholas (William Challee) is dying. One of the definitive, highly acclaimed films of the early-70’s New American Cinema, Bob Rafelson’s edgy, deep character study features complex and courageous performances from Nicholson and Black, both of whom were Oscar-nominated. As an existentially pained outcast of upper-middle-class breeding, Jack’s pent-up Bobby is especially absorbing to watch, as he denigrates Rayette’s crass singing efforts or spars with a waitress over the vagaries of a chicken-salad sandwich. A moody portrait of alienation and unresolved pain, Rafelson’s Pieces will stick with you.
The Last Detail (1973) — Hal Ashby’s seminal ’70s film has career sailors Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) escorting a younger convicted enlistee named Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to New Hampshire for an eight year sentence in the stockade. Taking pity on the painfully naïve, benumbed young man, the two older men resolve to show Meadows a wild time en-route, in the hopes of making his upcoming incarceration more bearable. But are they really doing it for Meadows, or is to ward off their own feelings of imprisonment? This gritty, wildly profane movie is equal parts funny and tragic, a tricky balance director Ashby sustains throughout. The Academy Award-nominated Quaid is wonderfully dim and pathetic as perennial loser Meadows, but Nicholson’s performance as Buddusky is a revelation, easily up to his better-known work (it earned him his third Oscar nod in four years). This Detail is definitely worth enlisting for.
Carnal Knowledge (1971) — Mike Nichols’ razor-sharp study on the ever-thorny relations between the sexes traces the lives of two male friends from girl-crazed frat boys to jaded, disillusioned middle-aged men. Physician Sandy (Art Garfunkel) is the innocent (relatively speaking), who ends up in a less-than satisfying union with Susan (Candice Bergen), his college flame. Meanwhile, the cynical, neurotic Jonathan (Nicholson) has serious commitment issues, much to the frustration of his long-suffering girlfriend Bobbi (Ann-Margret). Less universal to some than Nichols’ equally acute film The Graduate, Knowledge boasts a biting script from Jules Feiffer, and Nichols endows the film with a vivid sense of time and place. The film also provided an early showcase for Nicholson in a role he was born to play. Ann Margret also scores as Jonathan’s unfulfilled mate, netting an Oscar nod for her intense, deeply felt performance. Using a long-term friendship between two lost men to explore the darker side of life- isolation, loneliness and missed opportunities, Knowledge still packs a punch.
Easy Rider (1969)- After securing a major drug deal in Los Angeles, free-spirited potheads Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt, a/k/a Captain America (Peter Fonda), buy choppers and hit the road, traveling from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to Florida, where they plan to retire on the booty hidden in Wyatt’s gas tank. Along the way, they encounter rednecks, take LSD, visit a hippie commune, and land in jail, all in the name of living the American dream. The ultimate counter-culture classic, Hopper’s Rider jolted a Hollywood in transition when it became an unexpected hit in 1969, encapsulating the freewheeling spirit of the times and the divide between the youth culture and the Establishment. Nicholson became a bona-fide star playing a football-helmeted, hard-partying lawyer, while Hopper and Fonda merely amped up their reputations as iconoclasts. Along with its pulsating rock soundtrack, Rider endures as the ultimate psychedelic road-trip.
The Shining (1980) — Jack Torrance (Nicholson), a frustrated writer, takes a job as off-season caretaker at a remote hotel with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). The cavernous, empty place holds past secrets that won’t stay hidden, and over time, the atmosphere begins to affect Jack’s temperament — for the worse. When Jack finally grabs an axe and starts bellowing “Heeerre’s Johnny!”, you’ll be sorely tempted to rush for the exits yourself. This brilliant, creepy horror entry from wunderkind director Stanley Kubrick boasts mesmerizing camera work and several bizarre, arresting set pieces. Nicholson is a marvel to watch as his character evolves from a slightly odd but functioning adult to raving psychopath. Scatman Crothers is also memorable as the hotel’s only other resident. Based on Stephen King’s book, the film has Kubrick’s slightly twisted genius all over it. Look for those wild tracking shots as Danny rides his tricycle indoors, and we get to join him for one extremely spooky ride.
As Good As It Gets (1996) — Melvin Udall (Nicholson) is an obsessive-compulsive neurotic with no friends, who ironically makes his living as a successful romance novelist. Melvin is forced to come out of his shell when gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear) is injured and Melvin must care for his dog. Then there is Melvin’s growing attachment to the waitress who works at the diner he frequents. Carol (Helen Hunt) can handle Melvin (a major achievement), but she has a lot more on her plate, including carrying for an asthmatic son. Is this a scenario where love could blossom? You’d be surprised. This quirky, ultimately touching film is an old-fashioned charmer, as three societal misfits find each other and against steep odds, ultimately connect. Nicholson fits oddball Melvin like a defective glove, but Hunt is also fabulous as the beleaguered, world-weary Carol. (Both stars won Oscars for this). Also watch for Cuba Gooding in a hilarious turn as Simon’s protective partner/boyfriend. An unlikely romance with a big heart, this gem truly lives up to its title.
Terms Of Endearment (1983) — James Brooks’s engrossing, award-winning drama traces the various turns in the lives of overbearing but adoring mother Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her equally strong, somewhat bemused daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), with whom she has a stormy, complicated relationship. Told over the course of three decades, this heartbreaking mother-daughter tale is punctuated by the male relationships affecting both women over time. Ultimately, we watch how these two strong females deal with Emma’s cancer diagnosis. Brimming with humanity, the poignant Endearment makes us laugh and cry in roughly equal measure. MacLaine netted a richly deserved Oscar playing Aurora, and Winger holds her own as long-suffering Emma. (Indeed, their onscreen chemistry helps obscure the fact that the two actresses look nothing alike). Supporting the female stars are Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, and of course, Jack, stealing every scene he’s in as a hard-drinking, womanizing former astronaut.
A Few Good Men (1992) — Assigned to defend two Marines accused of murder at Guantanamo Bay, pampered, insouciant Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) thinks he’s dealing with an open-and-shut case, and strikes a plea bargain with prosecutor Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon). But Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), brought in to assist the sharp but inexperienced Kaffee, points out discrepancies in the testimony and convinces him to pursue the case in court. The more they dig, the more secrets they uncover, leading them right up the ladder of top Navy brass. This engrossing military-legal thriller from director Rob Reiner soars thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s gripping, expertly paced script (based on his hit Broadway play) and a brawny, high-wattage cast: Cruise and Moore make a winning pair of legal eagles, Bacon is commanding as Kaffee’s courtroom nemesis, and Jack delivers one of his most indelible performances as Guantanamo Bay’s ranking officer, the arrogant, tough-as-nails Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, who may or may not know more than he claims. Dealing with illegal hazing, government cover-ups, and the outer limits of military honor, “Men” packs a double-barreled wallop. Can you handle the truth?
About Schmidt (2002) — After a long career of dutiful service to an Omaha insurance company, Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires and finds himself trapped in a meaningless existence with nothing much to look forward to. When his wife Helen (June Squibb) dies suddenly, Schmidt decides his own days may be few, so he packs up a whale-size Winnebago and sets out for Denver, where he hopes to convince daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) not to marry dim-witted salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Alexander Payne’s indelible dramedy examines regret, loss, and melancholic self-awareness. Nicholson gives a brave, brilliant performance as Schmidt, a decidedly unglamorous, ordinary man disappointed in his life, his marriage, and his daughter, achieving a late-career high. Mulroney, Davis, and the formidable Kathy Bates — playing Randall’s randy mother — all provide exceptional support, but this movie really belongs to Jack, who brings ingenuous warmth and heartbreaking honesty to his role. Based on Louis Begley’s novel, Schmidt strikes just the right balance between despair and hopefulness, poignant tragedy and hilarious hijinks.
Something’s Gotta Give (2003) — The 60-ish Harry Sanborn (Nicholson) is a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so, given the endless supply of young women he constantly and contentedly dates. When latest paramour Marin (Amanda Peet) takes Harry home to meet mother Erica (Diane Keaton), Harry’s romantic rules fall by the wayside as he’s increasingly drawn to a woman close to his own age. Will Harry run away or face the music? A charming old-fashioned romantic comedy for literate adults, the kind they don’t make anymore-or too damned infrequently. This soufflé-light concoction rises based on the natural chemistry between its two veteran stars. Everything else, including a silly turn by Keanu Reeves as a young doctor besotted by Erica, is window dressing, but with Nicholson and Keaton in such rare form, who cares?