For those of a certain baby boomer age, we’ve grown up with Jack Nicholson, from his early days in Roger Corman hippie exploitation flicks like “The Trip” and “Psych-Out,” his roles in the biker movies “Hell’s Angels on Wheels” and his breakthrough, the Dennis-Hopper-directed “Easy Rider” to his Oscar-winning turns in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “As Good As It Gets” and “Terms of Endearment.”
This week, the entertainment world buzzed with an unconfirmed Radar.com report the 76-year-old actor and Hollywood icon would be calling it quits because of memory issues. Hell, they should just let the dude make up his own dialogue, which he seemed to be doing during his famous UFO stoner campfire scene in “Easy Rider,” featured this month on Streampix, where he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar after his turn as a booze-guzzling southern lawyer, a part originally intended for Rip Torn, who stormed out after an argument with Hopper.
There have been no official confirmations as to Nicholson’s deciding to call it quits, but he hasn’t made a movie since James L. Brooks’ little-seen “How Do You Know” in 2010 and only four others (2007’s “The Bucket List,” 2006’s “The Departed,” 2003’s “Anger Management” and “Something’s Gotta Give” since his 2002 Best Actor nomination for “About Schmidt”). Heck, he’s even been missing in action from his beloved Lakers’ courtside seats during last year’s disappointing season.
It would truly be a sad day if Nicholson ankled movies, but we still have his work preserved on celluloid (now digital) to admire. Here’s a critical list of Nicholson’s Top 10 performances.
1. Robert Dupois in “Five Easy Pieces”: Perhaps the role that hit closest to home, Nicholson plays a disaffected intellectual who turns his back on his privileged family to seek an identity among the honest working class, only to fall in love with a rich woman. Features the classic “chicken salad” restaurant scene. This was Nicholson’s first Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category, though he lost to George Scott for “Patton.”
2. J.J. Jake Gittes in “Chinatown”: As the world-weary, Raymond Chandler-esque detective who gets drawn in over his head in Roman Polanski’s epic noir about Los Angeles, Nicholson earned his third Best Oscar nomination, losing to Art Carney in “Harry and Tonto.”
3. Jack Torrance in “The Shining”: Playing a tormented novelist going completely unhinged, Nicholson walks a tightrope between comedy and horror with some of his most memorable bits, including his axe-wielding, blood-curdling, “Here’s Johnny.” And he didn’t even receive an Oscar nod for his role in this Stanley Kubrick movie which has endured through time, the subject of last year’s critically acclaimed documentary, “Room 237.”
4. Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: His first of two Best Actor Oscars, this is perhaps Nicholson’s most enduring role, even if it isn’t as subtle as some of his other, less celebrated, performances.
Click the image below to watch “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:”
5. David Staebler in “The King of Marvin Gardens”: In director Bob Rafelson’s follow-up to “Five Easy Pieces,” Nicholson plays, of all things, the straight guy, a mild-mannered radio talk show host in the style of Jean Shepherd, to loony brother Bruce Dern, who leads him on a wild goose chase around Atlantic City in this most underrated 1972 flick.
6. Signalman 1st Class Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky in “The Last Detail”: Nominated for his second Oscar (losing to “Save the Tiger” star Jack Lemmon), Nicholson is a foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking Naval Petty Officer accompanying a young sailor (Randy Quaid) accused of stealing $40 from a collection box and proceeds to show him the time of his life.
7. Charley Partanna in “Prizzi’s Honor”: Nicholson received yet another Best Actor nod for his role as a hapless hit man who falls in love with a hit woman (Kathleen Turner) in John Huston’s neatly dark 1985 noir spoof.
8. Eugene O’Neill in “Reds”: Playing the playwright in his pal Warren Beatty’s epic about the rise of Communism earned him another Best Supporting Actor nod.
9. Warren R. Schmidt in “About Schmidt”: He finally one-ups Art Carney in Alexander Payne’s gentle road story about a retired Midwesterner who takes a road trip after the death of his wife, and ends up in a hot tub with Kathy Bates and yet another Oscar nom for Best Actor.
10. Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in “A Few Good Man”: As hard as it is to overlook his Oscar-winning turns in “As Good As It Gets” and “Terms of Endearment,” his role as the Joker in “Batman” or as the imperious anchor in “Broadcast News,” Nicholson’s role opposite Tom Cruise in Rob Reiner’s 1992 military courtroom drama, which includes his iconic “You can’t handle the truth” speech, has to be included here.
What are your favorite all-time Nicholson performances?