One of the best actors of his generation, Jack Nicholson built a prolific career of rich, dynamic, emotionally complex and often terrifying performances. To narrow down his “best” performances is a daunting task and likely will garner varying answers from people when asked, “what’s your favorite from Jack?” To celebrate the man who turns 85 years old today, Variety is ranking his 15 best performances.
Born in New Jersey, the die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan has been an integral figure in the landscape of cinema for seven decades. His first credited film role was in the tiny B-movie “The Cry Baby Killer” (1958). After more than a dozen roles through the 1960s, his big break came in Dennis Hopper’s timeless classic “Easy Rider” (1969), leading him into the 1970s, in which he dominated with memorable turns in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “The Last Detail” (1973) and “Chinatown” (1974). He even stepped into the director’s chair during that period with his debut “Drive, He Said” (1971). What a run.
His first Oscar win came for Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), which is one of three movies to win the “Oscar Big Five” (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay). The others are “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). But the accolades didn’t stop there and were seemingly never-ending. He’s received 12 Oscar nominations in his career, the most nominated male performer in Oscar history. More specifically, with eight nominations for lead actor he’s tied for second alongside Paul Newman and Peter O’Toole, and behind Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy. He’s also the most nominated supporting actor with four nods alongside Walter Brennan, Jeff Bridges, Robert Duvall, Arthur Kennedy, Al Pacino and Claude Rains. He’s won three statuettes overall for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “As Good as It Gets” (1997), one of seven people who have won three or more — alongside Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Frances McDormand, Walter Brennan and Katharine Hepburn (the only to win four).
With 10 films nominated for best picture throughout his career, he’s currently tied in second place for the most credited appearances in the Academy’s top category alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s behind Robert DeNiro, who has 11.
People may not be aware that Nicholson is also a Grammy winner for best recording for children for “The Elephant Child,” alongside Bobby McFerrin and Mark Sottnick.
The actor has never expanded into the television realm aside from guest spots on shows like “Bronco” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” but sadly never hosted “Saturday Night Live,” which would have been perfect to see. He’s also presented best picture a few times, including the controversial “Crash” (2005) and his own movie, “The Departed.”
It’s been more than 12 years since his last credited film role in James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know” (2010) with Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, which failed to light up the box office (or come anywhere close to making this list). Aside from the rumors that he would star in an American remake of the international feature “Toni Erdmann,” there’s been no sign of a new Nicholson role on the horizon.
Let’s all get our prayer groups together and ask the almighty for one more from one of our greatest quintessential movie stars.
Read the list below and watch a clip of his best scene from each film.
Honorable mentions: “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “The Departed” (2006), “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003)