Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Jack Nicholson (times five)

I don’t like Jack Nicholson very much. At the same time I’d be immediately read to assert that he’s probably one of the 30 best actors alive at the moment – perhaps of all time if you only include American and British. As far as the males go he’s the closest thing to Oscar royalty, what with his record breaking twelve Oscar nominations and whatnot. Despite my feelings, though, he’s always fascinated. One undeniable fact about Nicholson is that he’s charismatic. I remember when I was watching The Departed with a friend of mine and she was positively repulsed by Nicholson’s Costello. “The man’s hideous,” she said. And yet he’s built a career as a sort of atypical ladies man, more than a ladies’ man though something that never fails to intrigue me about Nicholson and his Oscar wins is the fact that each time he won the Oscar he was accompanied to the podium by the leading actress in his film – namely Louise Fletcher, Shirley MacLaine and Helen Hunt. The only thing close I can think of in Oscar history is Katharine Hepburn winning her final three Best Actress slots for films that went on to win best screenplay (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, On Golden Pond). In celebration of CS' LAMB Feature, I'm doing a shoddy attempt at profiling....grading five performances of his.

R. P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest B+
There’s a slight irony that this is the film Nicholson is most remembered for since I feel the same way about the film as I do about him. It’s brilliant, no doubt, but I feel little for it. Looking back at the category that was a relatively good year for men, but it was Jack's "time" as they call it and going crazy is a good way to win Oscar. What's more he's obviously the best in show, I'm very sceptical about Fletcher's Actress win but that's a conversation for a whole other day....
Garret Breedlove in Terms of Endearment B/B-
The eighties weren’t a horrible decade for film, but it was a poor one for Oscar. Save for Amadeus and depending on my mood maybe Out of Africa I’m more often than not confused by their choices for Best Picture. Terms of Endearment is one of those films which I’m constantly trying to find the appeal of. Sure, Shirley MacLaine is brilliant and Debra Winger, Jeff Bridges and Nicholson offer up good performances but it’s resounding acclaim always leaves me feeling a little out of the loop. Jack is fine here, definitely playing Jack but of the three wins it’s the one I’m most surprised by. Considering that none of the gents from The Big Chill made the lineup (WTF?) I suppose Oscar weren’t thinking too clearly in the category.

Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets B/B+
I don’t hate Helen Hunt as much as many do, though I’ll say she was easily the least deserving of the nominees that year. But the movie belongs to jack irrevocably. The crazy antics are Jack’s but it’s more than just him being an automatons. Even when he's playing drama Nicholson still has the tendency - exasperating at times - to be a comic, so something like Brooks' antihero works wel on him. I will say that Greg Kinnear gives him a good run for his money, but really it's the Jack Show. Shameless hamming at times, but it works...

Incidentally one of the two Jack performance I’d single out as his crowning achievement is one that’s generally quite forgotten. His Eugene O’Neill in Reds is the performance I’m always somewhat miffed he lost the Oscar for. It’d get an A in a heartbeat from me. the thing is Reds has got to be one of the most underrated films of the eighties, sure it’s 3 hours long and an epic about communism; but it’s freakin’ brilliant. It features Warren Beatty’s best work (writing, acting and directing) Diane Keaton’s strongest dramatic work, Nicholson’s strong work (says me) and an excellent supporting turn from Maureen Stapleton. 
The thing is, Jack is fine when he’s hogging the camera but I always like him when he’s supporting and you have to wait for him to turn up – that’s when the appreciate grows a little more like in The Departed. His performance in Chinatown is another one I'm quick to laud. Like his performance in Reds he doesn't put too much Jack in it, even though he still has all that charisma. Maybe it's  because Chinatown is so tightly focused on plot with little interest in becoming a character study so he's forced to act as succinctly as possible, or maybe it's one of the treasures of having a scene partner as brilliant as Faye Dunaway. Either way, this would get another A from me. And once again this is a performance that's defined by its leading lady. 


TomS said...

Jack's best work was in the films he made between 1969-1975. That's when a film starring Jack Nicholson was deemed something of importance. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces (my favorite of all of his films), The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Cuckoo's Nest, make up an impressive body of work that goes to the heart of Jack's appeal. I think the movie that ruined him was "The Shining". Since then, with a few exceptions (and I do share your admmiration for his O'neill in Reds), Jack has seemed to be a parody of himself.
Terms of Endearment was a film that stirred people's emotions very deeply, and did so effectively. It was a rare film that looked at a middle-American family and its foibles, and tragedies, and rarer still for
1983, a movie that reached people's feelings. Jack provided the comic relief needed to temper the melodrama.
Nice post about an actor I have followed for decades.

Alex in Movieland said...

make that 12 nominations :P

you should see Ironweed, at least for Meryl. :) I like Jack Nicholson's acting style, he's always fun. except for Prizzi's Honor; he's so Razzie worthy in that.

Jose said...

I'm a Jack in Chinatown kind of man.
Five Easy Pieces comes second.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tom i don't know if i was expecting too much from terms but it seemed so turgid to me at times. overall it was fair, but little else and i still go WTF at lithgow's nod, bridges is easily the strongest male of the film for me.

alex i actually planned on ranking ten of his twelve noms, easy rider and ironweed being the two i have not seen. but it's been a while since a few AND i was doing this woefully late.

jose chinatown is definitely a worthy nod, it's been a while since five easy pieces though i do remember karen black being good.

Paolo said...

Reminding me that Jack Nicholson went from The Shining to Reds reminds me of how awesome his career trajectory. I'm still debating between him and Dustin Hoffman, but Jack Nicholson has the most eclectic choices.

rtm said...

I'm usually not too fond of Jack, hence I haven't watched too many of his movies. But I thought As Good As it Gets was a great film and his performance was brilliant (and so was Greg Kinnear, wow!) I'd agree with you that the movie really does belong to Jack.