Jack Nicholson movies: 45 greatest films, ranked worst to best, include ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘Chinatown,’ ‘The Shining’

While an English-language version of Germany’s 2016 foreign-language contender “Toni Erdmann” doesn’t feel all that necessary, it would have been interesting to see how Jack Nicholson would have handled the prankish pop who stalks his workaholic daughter. But now it seems that Jack-o, who came up with the idea for the re-do, is no longer involved in the project. Rumors about memory loss and retirement are out there.

But, taking a cue from the title of the last movie he appeared in, 2010’s “How Do You Know,” how do we know? When I talked to Nicholson for this reunion with director James L. Brooks – an unfortunate flop – I asked him why he waited three years to do another movie after his hit, “The Bucket List.” His response:  “I’ve been reading scripts. Yes, they are all very similar. You just keep getting these stories about retirement, or the wife dying on you or going to Vegas. I’m definitely at the stage where I just don’t want to make another movie.” 

Let’s then applaud this 81-year-old Oscar kingpin, who still holds the record for the most nominations (eight for lead, four for supporting) and shares most wins (three) for a male actor with Daniel Day-Lewis and Walter Brennan. Despite an inauspicious debut in 1958 as a juvenile delinquent in a Roger Corman-produced  B-movie, ”Cry Baby Killer,” this is a half-century film career is worth looking back upon. Tour our photo gallery above featuring Nicholson’s 45 greatest films, ranked from worst to best. And here’s a taste of that full overview with descriptions of our top 10 movies in the gallery.

10. AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)
“You make me want to be a better man.” That just might be the line that pushed Nicholson’s Oscar chances to grab a second lead actor trophy across the finish line when his mean-spirited, obsessive-compulsive and bigoted romance novel writer delivers this compliment to Helen Hunt’s single-mom waitress, who he has learned to love. Surely, it wasn’t when he shoves his gay artist neighbor’s cute Brussels Griffon down their apartment building’s garbage chute. Nicholson has to practically do the limbo to get over his character arc but, with a push from his co-stars, he clears his hurdle.

9. EASY RIDER (1969)
This influential counterculture travelogue follows two drug-smuggling bikers, Dennis Hopper’s Wyatt and Peter Fonda’s Billy, who travel across the American South and Southwest. They get tossed in a small-town jail, where a suit-wearing Nicholson’s alcoholic ACLU lawyer George has spent the night. He gets them released and joins them on the road where he is introduced to the joys of marijuana. Not only does Nicholson add offbeat comic zest to the proceedings, he also is the source of the film’s saddest moment.  He earned his first Oscar nomination for his supporting part and was fully embraced by Hollywood.

Ill-tempered oil rig worker Bobby Dupea, a onetime piano prodigy, goes home to see his dying father. The road film earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture along with Nicholson’s first nom for Best Actor. But it’s best remembered for its iconic diner scene when an incensed Bobby is refused toast as a side by a waitress. He then orders a chicken salad sandwich that comes on toast, but without the fixings. When she balks at his request to “hold the chicken,” he tells her to hold it “between her knees.”

This Nicholson role as Jonathan is among his most brave and cruelest in this expose of the damage done by the free-love era as two college buddies represent opposite ends of the male sexual dysfunction spectrum. Art Garfunkel’s idealist Sandy weds his sweetheart (Candice Bergen), not knowing she slept with his friend. Meanwhile, predator Jonathan’s shallow assessment of all women as “ballbusters” hurts his voluptuous partner (Ann-Margret), who he only marries after she tries to commit suicide.

6. THE SHINING (1980)
While this unusual horror film based on Stephen King’s novel is about a man of words who gets one of the worst cases of writer’s block ever as the caretaker of a haunted hotel, what is most memorable are the images. The elevator full of blood. The creepy twin girls. And Nicholson as he threatens his family with an ax while announcing, “Here’s Johnny!” or as he types over and over again, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Stanley Kubrick turned him into the worst kind of parental monster in the best way.

5. A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
This military courtroom drama is all about Tom Cruise’s callow Navy lawyer rising to the occasion to defend two young Marines charged in the hazing death of another by eventually accusing Nicholson’s crusty commander of wrong-doing with Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue as ammunition. It builds to the point that Nicholson, pocketing a $5 million paycheck and earning his 11th Oscar nomination, scowls on the stand as Cruise loudly demands, “TELL ME THE TRUTH!” and his Col. Jessup shouts, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” And that immortal exchange basically sums up classic ‘90s filmmaking right there.

4. PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985)
Imagine if “The Sopranos” were a dark comedy with a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” premise, and you might get something as delicious as this organized crime farce that was up for seven Oscars, including lead for Nicholson. His mob hitman Charley foolishly drops Mafia-tied Maerose (Anjelica Huston, who won supporting actress) after spying Kathleen Turner and they wed in Mexico. Turns out she’s a mob assassin, too, and Charley is her target. At least he gets the movie’s best line: “Do I marry her? Do I ice her? Which one of these?”

The bond between widowed Southern belle Aurora (Shirley MacLaine), who insists on propriety, and her grown-up daughter Emma (Debra Winger) is the beating heart of the movie. But Aurora’s love-hate relationship with her bad-boy former astronaut neighbor (Nicholson, basically playing himself), gives this dramedy its spice. On their first date at a restaurant, he suggests she needs a lot of drinks, she asks, “To break the ice?” He replies, ”To kill the bug that you have up your ass!” The film won Oscars for best picture, director and adapted screenplay plus acting trophies for MacLaine and Nicholson.

2. CHINATOWN (1974)
A compelling throwback to such noir classics as “The Maltese Falcon” pits Nicholson’s private-eye Jake Gittes against John Huston’s scheming water baron Noah Cross, whose son-in-law has turned up dead. The detective’s investigation involves a nose-slicing gangster, a suspicious senior home, angry farmers and high-level corruption as well as Cross’ black-widow daughter, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Like many of Nicholson’s best big-screen outings, this has a lingering catchphrase: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The movie was up for 11 Oscars, including Nicholson as lead actor, but only won for its screenplay.

If any of Nicholson’s films serves as a culmination of all his popular screen personas, this is the one. His Randle McMurphy is an anti-hero and natural leader who feigns mental illness to avoid hard labor on a prison farm. He is a joker and a rascal with a healthy sexual appetite and a deep-seated aversion to authority figures — especially Louise Fletcher’s tyrannical Nurse Ratched, who often mistreats his fellow patients. In the end, he unselfishly sacrifices himself for the sake of his ward mates. “Cuckoo’s Nest,” with nine Oscar noms, would become the second of three movies, after “It Happened One Night” and before “The Silence of the Lambs,” to claim best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay.

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