Today is the seventy-eighth birthday of Jack Nicholson, one of the most iconic movie star personalities to ever live. Born in Neptune, New Jersey, Nicholson’s maternal grandparents raised him to believe that they were his birth parents, pretending that his unwed, teenaged mother was his older sister. Nicholson has cultivated the versatile screen persona of an unconventional outsider.
As luck would have it, I have seen exactly ten of Nicholson’s performances, and, so, out of the ten I’ve seen, here are Jack Nicholson’s films, ranked from weakest to strongest.
- Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List (2007)
It’s a tragicomedy riddled with unimaginative clichés. Notwithstanding, Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as the lead roles deliver enough star power to rescue the production. To date, it is one of Nicholson’s last movies – he hasn’t acted since 2010.
- Bob Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Mediocre by Nicholson’s standards, it is still nevertheless a pleasure to watch him light up the screen with co-star Jessica Lange, the two of them among the most talented performers in their generation. I haven’t seen the 1946 original with Lana Turner, or read the James M. Cain novel, but, according to critics, the remake changes the ending so significantly that it pales in comparison to its source materials. Either way, it is a star-crossed tale of two violent people who fall in love.
- Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
Diane Keaton is the one who was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but Nicholson’s presence brings out the best in her. Nancy Meyers is a gifted filmmaker, but, as far as her romantic comedies go, this one is one of her more forgettable. Since I’ve last seen it, I can’t remember much about it, except for the hilarious scene when Nicholson accidentally sees Keaton… exposed.
- Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006)
Who else thinks The Departed is overrated? It’s not bad, but this organized crime flick is such an obvious example of the Oscars raining token gold down on Scorsese to make up for their GoodFellas snub in 1990 – even Casino (1995) is better than The Departed, and it’s nothing more or less than Scorsese copying his own GoodFellas; but anything’s better than The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). In any case, Nicholson’s turn as the volatile villain is a highlight.
- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)
Nicholson is usually the best part about any film he’s in, and The Shining is no exception. Kubrick’s stab at horror is overlong and overly pretentious, and it suffers from awkward (and unintentional) tonal shifts from the horrific to the comedic. Regardless, Nicholson singlehandedly makes all the difference between an adaptation which fails to live up to the Stephen King novel, and a horror classic.
- Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)
Heath Ledger is the superior Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Sorry, not sorry. However, I will concede that Nicholson’s interpretation is more faithful to the canonical comic book supervillain, and that he really brings a character to life as imagined and beloved by the millions who grew up with Batman.
- Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992)
Who knew that Tom Cruise and Demi Moore would turn out to be crazier than Jack Nicholson? Nicholson immortalizes a definitive line – “You can’t handle the truth!” – in this quietly entertaining courtroom drama. He’s most likely what you remember most about the film, even though his screen time is minimal.
- Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)
Personally, my favorite part of this neo-noir is the pre-Mommie Dearest Faye Dunaway (whom, ironically enough, Joan Crawford said in an interview was the only young actress of that generation who had what it takes to become a star, then killed her career with the Crawford biopic). Still, Jack Nicholson is the one who holds together this twisty yarn of corruption and deception. Like us, his character must live with the events of the film after they’ve come to pass.
- Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The first of Nicholson’s three Oscars, tying him with Daniel Day-Lewis for the record of most won by a male actor, is also only one of three films in Hollywood history to win the “Big Five” categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. His unhinged rebellion is as perfect a counterpoint to Louise Fletcher’s cool monstrousness as two musicians harmonizing in a symphony. He may ultimately lose the war with Nurse Ratched, but he sure does win our hearts along the way.
- James L. Brooks’s Terms of Endearment (1983)
For such a watchable comedy, this has got to be one of the saddest pictures ever made. Nicholson’s second Oscar was earned through his making us laugh when we don’t feel like we’re ever going to laugh again. Sometimes, that can be just as moving as the ability to make us cry.