When Billy Crystal announced the final presenter at the 1993 Academy Awards, he said one word: “Jack.” Out strode Jack Nicholson, saying, “It’s been a long night, so let’s just cut past the chase and get to the outcome.” He turns 85 on April 22, a retired icon and iconoclast, cinema’s lion in winter. “There’s something about Jack Nicholson that makes you want to grin,” Roger Ebert once wrote. “Maybe it’s the anticipation that you’ll see him get away with something. He’s the guy who knows the angles.”
Nicholson was nominated for a dozen Oscars and won three. Below, we offer 10 of his essential performances, ranked from — let’s face it — great to greatest. Think we missed something? Make your case in the comments.
We can handle the truth.
10. Easy Rider (1969)
The role: George Hanson
Easy Rider tapped an underserved youth audience and helped to usher in the so-called New Hollywood era of personal films that upended the studio status quo. Nicholson’s D.H. Lawrence–toasting small-town southern lawyer, who befriends New Orleans–bound bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), put him on the map after years of low-budget indies (Little Shop of Horrors) and TV (The Andy Griffith Show). He rides away with this counterculture classic … easily.
Classic Jack moment: The campfire scene, in which he expounds on the film’s theme (“Don’t tell anybody that they’re not free, because they’ll get busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are”), no doubt earned Nicholson his first Oscar nomination. But his lascivious reading of the line, “These ain’t no pork chops. These are U.S. prime,” surely put impressionists on notice that they should add this rising actor to their repertoires.
9. Batman (1989)
The role: Jack Napier
Nicholson swings for the fences and puts his inimitable stamp on mob henchman-turned-super villain, the Joker. He reset the Cesar Romero template from the 1960s Batman TV series to create a grotesque and truly terrifying yang to Batman’s yin.
Classic Jack moment: When told, “You look fine,” he responds, “I didn’t ask.”
8. As Good as It Gets (1997)
The role: Melvin Udall
Nicholson earned his third Academy Award for his high-wire performance as the prickly best-selling author Melvin, a self-sabotaging misanthrope who alienates one and all and is constantly getting called out on his s--t. But it’s a joy to watch his empathy emerge courtesy of a Brussels Griffon and a single mother (Oscar winner Helen Hunt).
Classic Jack moment: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability” is a Jack-ian soundbite. But a more affecting scene is the one in which he is challenged to give the dinner date he thoughtlessly offended a compliment lest she leave the table. He delivers.
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7. Terms of Endearment (1983)
The role: Garrett Breedlove
When it comes to helicopter moms, Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway is a CH-53K King Stallion. Nicholson earned his second Oscar as her neighbor, a libertine former astronaut, who loosens her up but who grows up in the process.
Classic Jack moment: “You need a lot of drinks,” Garrett tells Aurora on their initial lunch date. “To break the ice?” she asks. “To kill the bug that you have up your ass,” he responds.
6. The Shining (1980)
The role: Jack Torrance
A creatively blocked author is installed as caretaker of a remote and deserted hotel in the dead of winter. What could possibly go wrong? It’s not a question of whether Jack Torrance will go insane and attack his wife and spooky son, but how soon? After all, all work and no play ...
Classic Jack moment: “Here’s Johnny” instantly comes to mind; it is one of two of Nicholson’s most quoted lines (and one that he reportedly improvised). But an earlier scene in which he stalks his frightened-out-of-her wits wife (Shelley Duvall), who fends him off with a bat, is unnerving: “Wendy? Darling? Light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
5. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
The role: Robert Dupea
Perhaps the most disaffected of Nicholson’s spectacular 1970s run of iconic rebellious characters, Robert, the society dropout who turned his back on his family’s wealth and values, was made for his tumultuous times.
Classic Jack moment: The classic diner scene, you say? Ragging on some poor waitress is punching down, and Nicholson was at his best questioning and challenging the system. Check out the dinner scene late in the film when he gets his fill listening to a pretentious windbag who condescends to his waitress girlfriend (an Oscar-nominated Karen Black). He lets her have it: “Where the hell do you get the ass to tell her or anybody anything about class?” And then he gets rude.
4. The Last Detail (1973)
The role: Billy Buddusky
Nicholson received his third Oscar nomination as the Navy lifer determined to show Meadows (Randy Quaid), a prison-bound seaman, a good time before he’s incarcerated.
Classic Jack moment: A redneck bartender refuses to serve Billy and company. Things escalate quickly. When the bartender threatens to report Billy to the shore patrol, Billy brandishes his pistol and slams it down on the bar: “I am the m-----------g shore patrol!” The group exits without the underage Meadows getting his beer, but Billy establishes his bona fides as a badass.
3. A Few Good Men (1992)
The role: Col. Nathan Jessup
Kevin Pollak has great stories about the making of Rob Reiner’s all-star adaptation of Aaron Sorkin’s play. One of the most telling concerns was Reiner having to ask Nicholson to put in some “off-the-clock” time to film some pickup shots. Nicholson was receiving a reported $500,000 a day for his 10 days of work, but the 10 days were up. Nicholson honored Reiner’s request, no problem. He explained to the director, “I love to act.”
Classic Jack moment: “You can’t handle the truth” has entered the pop culture lexicon, and it may be Nicholson’s most quoted line. But check out an earlier scene in which Jessup holds court during a get-acquainted lunch with the team investigating the murder of a “substandard Marine.” He silkily undermines a female lieutenant commander’s (Demi Moore) authority and takes the piss out of the cocksure lead attorney (Tom Cruise), who requests a routine file for his records. That’s fine, Jessup says. “But you got to ask me nicely.”
2. Chinatown (1974)
The role: J.J. Gittes
Roman Polanski’s pitch-perfect neo-noir mystery boasts Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script and one of Nicholson’s most iconic and invested performances as the 1930s L.A. private detective who may think he knows what he’s dealing with in the Hollis Mulwray murder case, but believe me, he doesn’t.
Classic Jack moment: It might be Gittes’ enthusiastic retelling of a very politically incorrect joke that today would get him canceled. Or it could be the moment when he confronts Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) with his suspicions that her husband was murdered and he thinks she’s hiding something. He has no idea.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The role: Randall P. McMurphy
One of three films to win the top five Oscars (best picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay). Nicholson’s Randle P. McMurphy is one of those alchemic pairings of actor and character. It’s everything we love about Nicholson. McMurphy may or may not be faking mental illness to get out of his work detail, but he must be crazy to be unwittingly committed to a mental institution and engage in a battle of wills with the indomitable Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
Classic Jack moment: Denied permission to watch the World Series, McMurphy plops himself in front of the dormant TV set and does a rousing play-by-play of the nonexistent action that rallies the other inmates, much to Nurse Ratched’s seething fury.
Donald Liebenson has written on film and entertainment for AARP, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly.