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.