Jack Nicholson is one of cinema’s all-time greatest actors. Now retired, he has throughout his five-decade career, appeared in 80 films, for which he has received numerous accolades, including 3 Academy Awards (including 12 nominations) 3 BAFTA Awards (including 7 nominations) and six Golden Globe Awards (including 17 nominations). He has also received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1994. In many of his films, he played rebels against the social structure. He is one of the few remaining legends of cinema that is still alive today.
Born on April 22nd, 1937 he was actually raised by his grandparents as his mother was unmarried, a situation which he did not know until 1974 when he was informed that his sister was actually his mother and his other sister was his aunt. On finding out he said it was “a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn’t what I’d call traumatising. I was pretty well psychologically formed”.
After military service in the California Air National Guard he trained to be an actor with a group called the Players Ring Theater, after which he found small parts performing on the stage and in TV soap operas.
He made his film debut in a low-budget teen drama The Cry Baby Killer (1958), playing the title role. For the next decade, Nicholson frequently collaborated with the film’s producer, Roger Corman, most notably in The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960) as undertaker, and masochistic dental patient, Wilbur Force.
In the mid-1960s his acting career was stagnating, and Nicholson seemed resigned to a career behind the camera mainly as a writer where he wrote the 1967 counterculture film The Trip and co-wrote the 1968 movie Head which starred The Monkees.
Nicholson’s first big acting break came when a role opened up in Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s 1969 mega-hit Easy Rider where he played alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. Now I’ve never really cared for the film but when Nicholson is on screen he just dominates the movie.
In 1970, Nicholson starred in Five Easy Pieces in what became his persona-defining role, and his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The film was another huge hit and established Nicholson as a serious Hollywood leading man to be reckoned with.
During the 1970s Nicholson put together an amazing list of leading performances in Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Passenger (1975), The Fortune (1975) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) where he won his first Oscar.
After directing the western comedy Goin’ South in 1978 he then starred in arguably his signature role as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s supernatural psychological horror masterpiece The Shining (1980).
He was again outstanding in the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Ring Twice and, in a supporting roles, as Eugene O’Neill in Reds (1981) and another Oscar winning role (supporting Actor) in Terms Of Endearment (1983).
He was excellent as the dim-witted mafia hitman in Prizzi’s Honor, deliciously evil as The Devil in The Witches Of Eastwick (1987), and he was a lot of fun as The Joker in Batman (1989).
Returning to directing in 1990 he made The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown. Although not in the same league as Roman Polanski’s masterpiece it was still an excellent film although it failed at the box office.
He accepted another memorable supporting role as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992), and although he only had 3 scenes they were totally unforgettable.
His output started to slow down in the 1990s although he won another Oscar in the romantic comedy-drama As Good As It Gets (1997) playing a misanthropic, bigoted and obsessive-compulsive novelist.
He started the 21st century with one of his best performances as a retired actuary in About Schmidt (2002) where he gave a marvellously subdued performance.
Nicholson could still play the romantic lead to both ladies of his own age and much younger in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and in 2006 he gave probably his last great performance as mobster Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006).
His output over 50 years has been simply amazing and if there’s one thing you could always say about Jack Nicholson is that he is never dull. Every time he’s on camera he has that magical spark that always lights up the screen whether he’s playing drama, comedy, romance or horror.
For me, Jack Nicholson, is not only one of Hollywood’s greatest ever actors, he’s also one it’s greatest ever stars, the type of which I’ll doubt we’ll ever see again.
and the tease for next week’s post . . . Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece.