The accepted wisdom about Jack Nicholson has him comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of great actors whose careers came of age in the 1970s, and who have given us, between them (Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino, Streep, Hoffman et al) a ludicrously high proportion of cinema’s most inarguable, evergreen classics. Nicholson alone scorched a trail through that decade, boasting 17 titles between “Easy Rider” (1969) and “The Shining” (1980), including further all-out masterpieces “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Detail,” and “Carnal Knowledge.” The baseline we judge off when it comes to Nicholson is high indeed. And so it’s hardly surprising that the accepted wisdom also has Nicholson on a graceful, but perceptible downward curve since then, with the high watermarks of his later career coming further apart, peppering the eighties, but popping up more sparsely in the nineties and noughties.
Then again, over the course of the last two decades, Nicholson simply hasn’t been working at the rate he used to, like the other members of the aforementioned pantheon (excepting Streep who has never seemed busier, with her impressive recent streak of high-profile successes). There are of course late-period films of his that have landed — “As Good As It Gets,” “About Schmidt” and “The Departed” spring to mind — but more often these days Nicholson is judged to be resting on his laurels, turning up in lightweight fare like “How Do You Know” or “The Bucket List” for a nice little earner that’s not going to overtax his acting muscle.
Never ones to accept the accepted wisdom, however, we’ve taken the occasion of the actor’s 76th birthday today as an opportunity to re-examine the last two decades of his career, to find the neglected high points that the consensus glosses over. Not quite a “Best Performances of the Last 20 Years” list (we hardly need to trumpet his involvement with Alexander Payne‘s and Martin Scorsese‘s pictures, to say nothing of his Oscar-winning turn in James L Brooks‘ “As Good as it Gets”) here are five other strong performances that it’s by no means guaranteed you’ve seen. No, it’s not a period comparable to his heyday, but if a career has seasons, then his is a more impressive Autumn than you might at first glance think.
“The Crossing Guard” (1995)
There are a couple of instances here of Nicholson being better than the film he’s in (“Mars Attacks” being one egregious example of that, as you’ll see) — note this is a list of unfairly overlooked performances not necessarily overlooked films. And that’s something of the case for Sean Penn‘s sophomore directorial outing, and his first collaboration with Nicholson “The Crossing Guard,” though perhaps it’s not that he’s better than the material, just bigger? Paradoxically, Nicholson is terrific — it’s a complex portrayal of a broken, emptied man who’s been marking time for years suddenly coming upon new, malevolent purpose, but it’s so strong a performance in a not-brilliantly-written role that it makes the film feel lopsided and rather highlights the more contrived plotting. So Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, a grieving father driven to a life of dull tacky distraction after his young daughter is killed by a drunk driver (David Morse), and his marriage (to real-life ex Anjelica Huston) ends. When the driver is due for release from prison, Freddy finds a new goal in life and swears to kill him in revenge. But a misfiring gun introduces the first of the plot’s difficult sells: Freddy agrees to let the man, whose own guilt is so crippling that he puts up no resistance, live for three more days, which in the world of the film is enough time for him to embark on a tentative, potentially redemptive relationship. The stellar support cast are brilliant in their own ways (Morse a particular standout as the remorseful, self-hating ex-alcoholic, the quiet foil to Nicholson’s raging, uncomprehending Gale), but it’s Nicholson who exerts a gravitational pull at its center. Which is possibly to the film’s detriment, but it makes Gale a more interesting character than he might otherwise have been — it’s not that Nicholson can’t play a loser (he often does), it’s more that it takes a defter hand than Penn’s to guide him to playing a nobody, and so Gale is given currents and layers that we just can’t see anyone else bringing to the hollowed-out everyman role. In Nicholson’s hands, the film becomes about this character, a man who has spent years trying to erase himself who suddenly finds a way out of his self-imposed invisibility, much more than it is about the universal themes of redemption, guilt and loss it’s shooting for. Still it’s an absorbing, if bleak, film and if Penn is a little on-the-nose and a little unsure how to hone Nicholson’s role, these are lessons he mostly learns by the time of their next collaboration, on “The Pledge” (see below).
“Blood and Wine” (1996)
15 years after their last collaboration on the sexed-up but kinda unnecessary remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Nicholson was again back under Bob Rafelson‘s direction, which of course had taken him to impressive heights with “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “Five Easy Pieces.” “Blood and Wine” doesn’t get to those heights, but it’s still a decent character-driven crime drama that boasts a great central performance from Nicholson, reminding us again just how utterly fearless he can be when it comes to portraying human ugliness. In this he’s given a run for his money here by Michael Caine as Vic, a wholly abhorrent creation, both physically with his dyed greasy hair, spivey tache and constant wheezing cough, and morally with a vicious streak a mile wide. In contrast, Nicholson’s Alex is a more nuanced character, no less venal and corrupt, but we see moments of charm, especially when he’s with his mistress played by Jennifer Lopez, and even occasional flashes of actual remorse. Mostly, though he’s at his reptilian best, forming a detestable but compelling double act with Caine. When he falls on hard times financially, Alex teams up with Vic to steal a valuable diamond necklace that ends up in his wife (Judy Davis) and stepson’s (Stephen Dorff) hands after she leaves him following a violent altercation. The stepson discovers the necklace’s true worth and meantime is falling for Gabrielle (Lopez) unaware that she’s Alex’s girlfriend. “Blood and Wine” feels like a film that was made specifically for two or three bravura scenes — all of them featuring Nicholson at his scuzzy best: suffocating Vic with a cushion then downing a glass of wine; hobbled on a jetty clutching the diamonds as sirens approach; sobbing in a car wreck over his wife’s body but still begging her to use her dying breath to tell him where the necklace is, while frisking her down to her underwear in a downright rapey facsimile of marital intimacy. It’s a film perhaps hampered by the hatefulness of most of its characters — even the “good” guys are hard to root for entirely — but as so often Nicholson completely commits to his character’s dreadfulness, meaning that his Alex Gates is more than worthy of a place in his career’s rogue’s gallery of antiheroes and lowlifes.
“Mars Attacks!” (1996)
When Jack Nicholson starred as the villainous Joker in Tim Burton‘s groundbreaking comic book movie “Batman” in 1989, he negotiated for a percentage of the movie’s grosses, which at the time included all the additional money made from the sale of Batman-related cereals, toys and pajama bottoms. His payday ended up setting a Hollywood record: he pocketed a cool $60 million. For his second collaboration with Burton, 1996’s glitzy sci-fi spoof “Mars Attacks!” (based on a series of gory Topps trading cards, and with a plot worthy of that uninspiring provenance), Nicholson held out for a similar deal – and got it. Unfortunately for him, “Mars Attacks!” was a colossal flop, earning less than $40 million against its nearly $100 million budget. (Keep in mind this was the same year as “Independence Day“; clearly audiences preferred their apocalypse with a straight face.) Nicholson should at least take solace in the fact that “Mars Attacks!” contains not one but two of his most daring performances in recent memory. In one of the numerous nods to “Dr. Strangelove” nestled within the film, Nicholson plays both President James Dale (a role inhabited first by Warren Beatty and then Paul Newman, who left the film over what he felt was the film’s excessive violence) and Las Vegas bottom-feeder Art Land (complete with rumpled cowboy hat and scuzzy, so-fake-it’s-brilliant hippie wig with complementary porn star mustache). The characters couldn’t be more different – the ineffectual President Dale tries for “Abraham Lincoln meets ‘Leave It To Beaver,'” and earnestly attempts to negotiate for peace with the bloodthirsty Martian invaders. Land, on the other hand, drinks in a casino bar as “research,” and in order to avoid his New Age-y wife (played by Annette Bening, Burton’s original choice for Catwoman in “Batman Returns“), hands her some chips and growls, “Play our anniversary… stay off black.” Nicholson’s performances are perfectly modulated between arch awareness and genuine sincerity (also: Burton gets to kill him off – twice! – with gleeful abandon). Anyone who accuses Nicholson of resting on his laurels for the past few decades need only point to his dual performances in “Mars Attacks!” – in amongst the hotchpotch that is the film overall, they aren’t just amazing, they’re downright fearless, and rank with the actor’s very best roles.
“The Pledge” (2001)
Of this particular list perhaps the standout, Nicholson’s performance in “The Pledge” is so good that we had it ranked as one of the 5 most underrated of his whole career (that list here). Six years after their first collaboration on “The Crossing Guard,” Nicholson reunited with director Sean Penn for “The Pledge,” another grim tale of child death and revenge, in which the star plays Jerry Black, a detective who, just as he’s retiring, promises the mother (Patricia Clarkson) of a murdered girl that he’ll bring the killer to justice. His former colleagues think they have their criminal, a mentally-disabled Native American man (Benicio Del Toro) who kills himself in custody, but Jerry’s not convinced and becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the murderer. While Penn’s direction is occasionally a little heavy-handed and look-at-how-serious-I-am, he assembles an astonishing cast who never showboat (small cameos from Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave are among the highlights), but Nicholson is first among them, carrying the entire film on his shoulders. It’s easily his subtlest, least mannered performance for years, the actor almost unrecognizable as a haunted man trying to do the right thing, but often in the wrong way, and unraveling as a result. Where he’s left at the end of the film is heartbreaking — an impossible quandary of warring loyalties and instincts, coupled with vital pieces of knowledge that the audience have but of which Jerry is ignorant. It’s practically Greek, this study of a good man undone by nothing worse than his impulses for empathy and justice, and it remains one of Nicholson’s most resonant turns.
“Something’s Gotta Give” (2003)
Often overlooked in favor of “As Good As It Gets” or “About Schmidt“, the role of Harry Sanborn is seemingly tailor-made for Jack Nicholson – an older man with a cigar smoking, womanizing (20-somethings in particular) joie de vivre, and that’s because it was. Nancy Meyers wrote the screenplay for “Something’s Gotta Give” with Nicholson in mind (and this was a whole decade before he hit on Jennifer Lawrence — yeah, that happened) along with Diane Keaton for the role of his age-appropriate love interest (their second pairing since “Reds” – one of his other underrated performances). While in the middle of a fling with one of his younger women (Amanda Peet), Sanborn suffers a heart attack, forcing him to re-examine his life choices and make a few changes – e.g. no red meat and no sex until he can get up a flight of stairs. In a modern day fairytale that set the trend for a decade of middle-aged (and a wee bit older) rom-coms, Sanborn falls for his conquest’s playwright mother (Keaton), a forthright divorcee. Yes, the film was number one at the box office, garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Nicholson and has a decent rep in general, but it spawned such schlock as “It’s Complicated” (which is enjoyable for all of the wrong reasons), “Because I Said So,” and “Hope Springs” — all of them lacking Nicholson’s necessary, almost-hammy charisma. Frankly, we think that cinematic sacrifice was worth seeing Nicholson put his heart on the line in a way only a Meyers romantic comedy could get him to (“Turns out the heart attack was easy to get over. You… were something else. I finally get it. I’m 63 years old… and I’m in love for the first time in my life.”) So it might not be the coolest choice on the list, but in our opinion it’s still a bona fide inclusion, and it marks an interesting moment for Jack. With this role he embarked on the self-referential stage of his career, poking fun at his larger-than-life persona, and doing it with the rueful charm of the unrepentant cad — but in a film built to accommodate him, so it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. We have our fingers crossed for a return to dramatic Jack in a rumored Warren Beatty-helmed Howard Hughes film, but in the meantime, this film ranks as one of his better late-period comedies and currently rides high in that small, underserved niche of “Movies To Watch With Your Mom.”
He’s Jack Nicholson, so he’s pretty much always worthwhile, even on autopilot. However we didn’t include “The Evening Star” which, aside from only boasting a 4-minute role for the star, it did for its original, “Terms of Endearment,” what “The Two Jakes” did for “Chinatown” i.e. nothing at all. So that’s 0/2 on sequels, Jack. “Wolf” was temporarily considered, and is perhaps due a re-watch, but we just remember not being at all convinced by its tonal oddness. One other appearance that is worth an honorable mention, though, is Nicholson’s interview in the wonderful “Corman’s World” documentary, about legendary shoestring budget B-Movie maven Roger Corman. Nicholson provides some of the movie’s best lines and most insightful glimpses into what it was like being part of the Corman factory in its creatively bristling heyday (and yes, we’ve a glint in our eye for a feature delving into those pre-fame Nicholson/Corman movies too). He’s also responsible for the most unforgettable moment in the doc – when, talking about Corman, he starts to break down and cry, unsure if the camp filmmaker knows how much he’s meant to him over the years. Nicholson the celebrity has become a bit of a caricature over the years with his sunglasses indoors, wolfish grin and baby-seal-slickness; this documentary reminds you that he’s a real-life human being, too.
—Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm.