The name Jack Nicholson is synonymous with great acting and enormous talent. His capacity to portray raw, unchained emotions is unparalleled. If acting is an art, Nicholson’s works are nothing short of masterpieces. His illustrious career is a testament to his acting prowess. Since Nicholson has won three Oscars for Best Actor and has been nominated twelve times for the Academy Award, he truly has nothing left to prove. This, in itself, is a stupendous achievement.
And the best thing about the actor is that he not only dwells in the unhinged, he can sweep out of his comfort zone and portray characters that tap into complex human emotions. This marvelous ability to mould oneself is the hallmark of a great actor. Recently though, he’s been missing from the Hollywood scene for almost a decade. And truth be told, we all miss his on-screen wild charm and eccentricities. So, while we wait for him to make a comeback, let us embrace the madness and revisit some of his greatest works. Here’s our list of the best Jack Nicholson movies:
10. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
If there ever was a character who would have received the title of Devil in disguise, it would be Jack Nicholson’s character of Daryl van Home. He plays the role of a mysterious man who enters a town and completely changes the lives of three women. Now, these women are actually witches. They themselves, do not know about it. The movie seems to suggest that he is some evil entity. The role is endowed with some of the most powerful as well as charming performances by Nicholson. Critics pointed he was hardly acting in this film. And after watching it, you will come to know that this persona is just so much fun.
His diabolical personality with the devilish smile makes The Witches of Eastwick a memorable comedy. There have been many portrayals of the Devil in Hollywood. Yet Nicholson’s “horny little Devil” stands out from all. He becomes the very embodiment of sin itself.
9. About Schmidt (2002)
About Schmidt is a touching and beautiful tale about the purpose of human life. It deals with existentialism in a very human way. The movie depicts the life of a man who questions his purpose. After he retires from an insurance firm, his life suddenly becomes too lonely to bear.
Nicholson delivers an absolutely stunning performance. His portrayal of the aging and withering man with nothing to be proud of is nothing short of a marvel. The pain of solitude and the crushing depression that stems from feelings of needlessness is clearly showcased through the multi-layered emotions that Nicholson is able to recreate through his character. The continuous strife to reform one’s own life and the lives of those that are intertwined within familial bonds is both fulfilling and melancholic to watch.
8. As Good As It Gets (1997)
As Good As It Gets is a well-written and well-performed romantic drama. Now, that’s not the kind of film you’d expect Jack Nicholson to star in. Here, he plays the role of a misanthropic author who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The story revolves around his relationship with a waitress at the restaurant where he is a regular.
Quite unexpectedly, Nicholson delivers a performance that is touched by love. The intense emotional strife, the indecisive denials and finally the brave proclamation of love; all come together to create a character that is rich in personality and has a very human capacity for both love and flaw.
7. Batman (1989)
There is something about Batman‘s Joker that entices many of us. His scrambled psychology is a subject of intense study. We all remember the amazing performance given by Heath Ledger in his interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s Batman. And that truly has overshadowed yet another amazing portrayal of the antithesis of justice.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker was and is its own world of craziness and hence has the capability to inspire terror through his vision of planned chaos. He is a conniving and cruel character to the very core. Since, the interpretation that Nicholson drew up was clearly reminiscent of mob bosses and gangsters, it also allowed for a more methodical Joker than the one we have come to know and admire in recent times. His devilish smile compared with the unpredictable madness and chaos was a sight to behold.
6. A Few Good Men (1992)
A Few Good Men is a legal military drama that showcases one of the most conflicted and powerful performances of Jack Nicholson. He plays the role of a stern army man who stops at nothing to discipline his troops. His overzealous attitude towards the military and his egotistic notions regarding his role as a nation’s guardian leads to the death of one of his men. The movie is full of tense moments within the law court. The sequence of the court-martial is extraordinary. It is full of emotional drama and conflicting viewpoints. The best thing about Jack Nicholson’s portrayal is that we can actually sympathize with the man. His performance is genius.
The charisma that holds almost convinces us of his conviction. The verdict that he suffers feels too cruel. Nicholson is able to steal the limelight during his brief moments on camera. He never once falters and frustration over the continual accusations mount upon him and are clearly visible. His outburst at the end is a marvel to behold.
5. The Last Detail (1973)
The Last Detail is a beautifully tragic comedy-drama starring Jack Nicholson in the role of U.S. Navy grunt. A young man who has been court-martialed and dishonorably discharged is entrusted with him. Our protagonist has been charged to escort him to the brig where he would spend his time as if confined in a prison. The movie showcases how well Nicholson can embody the feelings of a character. The one he plays in this movie displays many different sides to him. This is accompanied by complex and varied emotions that are often quite unpredictable.
There is something special about the unapologetic navy grunt who spews profanity through his words but has a heart of gold. His capacity for empathy and his understanding of the value of time in a human’s life far outweighs his outwardly crass behavior and lack of sophistication. How he tries to distance himself from the unfortunate young man shows on Nicholson’s face. We can feel his anguish as he desires to set the man free but also beats him up when he tries to escape.
4. The Shining (1980)
Utter madness. Pure, unadulterated evil. These are the only words that come to mind when I think about the performance of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. That singular portrayal of terror has left a great impact on many. This behemoth of a psychological horror story was inspired by a novel written by acclaimed horror writer Stephen King. The movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick and he cast Nicholson against the wishes of the author. This movie pushed the actor into giving one of his most memorable, unhinged performances. Many of his most quoted lines from the movie are actually improvisations.
He was able to instill a notorious fear into the minds of the audience. His performance is haunting and sticks with us long after the film. No special effects are used to drive the terrifying image of a deranged man who is coming to kill you. His facial expressions exude brutal killing instinct and the rage that spreads carnage all around. There exists, not a single flaw in the way in which Nicholson gives a metaphorical birth to an immortal yet living character on screen.
3. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
The role of an anti-hero truly suits Jack Nicholson. He has the ability to replicate every human emotion with equal earnestness and intensity. And this leads to his characters becoming multi-dimensional. A goody-two-shoes hero was never his style. And this movie hammers in that fact. Five Easy Pieces is an amazing drama film directed by Bob Rafelson. It tells the story of a broken and wounded man who works as a driver in the California oil fields. His personality is volatile and completely unpredictable. And that unpredictability is one of the greatest qualities of an actor. More often than not, audiences can guess what a character is going to do in the next scene. And it is the actor’s job to hide that intention and add new layers to his character. This makes the character, as well as the film as a whole, more complex and interesting.
In the movie, Nicholson plays the role of Bobby Dupea. He comes from a high-class family of musicians but has abandoned that life long ago. But soon, he gets in touch with his family again. Things get complicated from then on. As the two aspects of his life intermingle, Bobby becomes more and more volatile. The growing frustration that gradually drives him towards reclusiveness and solitude is clearly visible in Nicholson’s performance.
2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson cemented his status as a legendary actor with his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He starred as the mental hospital rebel Randle McMurphy in Milos Forman’s hugely acclaimed adaptation of Ken Kesey’s cult novel. Nicholson actually beat another acclaimed actor, Marlon Brando, for this role. The film is considered to be one of the best movies in existence by many. And there is plenty of reason behind that. It was the second movie to win all five major Academy Awards. This includes Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor in Lead Role, Best Actress in Lead Role, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Apart from being an amazing movie overall, Nicholson’s role in it was phenomenal. The movie itself had all the flair of a comedic drama and Nicholson is able to mold this comedy and drama together with a bit of tragedy as well. His performance grips the audiences as he befriends the mental hospital patients. His pulls off an incredible escape attempt along with his fellow inmates while being pressurized by the hospital authority. He displays indomitable will through his role. It feels as if he truly is trapped, both physically and mentally. All he seeks is freedom.
1. Chinatown (1974)
In this retro noir mystery directed by Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson appears as a 1930s private eye named Jake Gittes. He is a man of few words. The personality of the character has almost been blended together with the period in which he resides. The retro jazz music that flows naturally defines his gait and persona. This allows Nicholson to showcase some of the underutilized shades of his brilliant acting. His stoic disposition coupled with a naturally smooth style and a wardrobe that is almost reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ creates a paradox in itself. It is subtly balanced and nuanced. The man has outdone himself with this movie. Jack pulled himself outside his comfort zone (if he even has one), and allowed himself to be dominated by his character.
The movie in itself is laudable for its Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne and a romanticized yet grounded recreation of a bygone era. It’s been hailed as one of the best American noir mysteries of all time by both critics and audiences alike. And Nicholson’s contribution plays a large part in its success.
This was our list of the best Jack Nicholson movies. Every film showcased him in a different light. Through his filmography, we’ve witnessed many different facets of his acting caliber. Which of these movies is your favorite? Did we miss any of them? Share your views in the comments below.