Jack Nicholson has been in retirement for a while now. 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 Oscar kingpin, who still holds the record among men 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. His victories were for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets.”
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 featuring Nicholson’s 45 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
45. HOW DO YOU KNOW (2010)
Director and writer: James L. Brooks. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd.
The missing question mark is annoying. But not as insufferable as this supposed romantic comedy that offers little heat and fewer laughs, despite the presence of Witherspoon’s over-the-hill softball player, Wilson’s hotshot (and hot-to-trot) Major League batter and Rudd’s sad-sack businessman. Nicholson’s discomfort is obvious as he struggles to believably play Rudd’s dirty trickster tycoon dad. This fourth collaboration between Brooks and Nicolson is the very definition of a no-hitter.
44. ANGER MANAGEMENT (2003)
Director: Peter Segal. Writer: Dan Dorfman. Starring: Adam Sandler, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham.
Pitting a wily Nicholson as a rage-control therapist against Sandler as Dave, a timid business guy who suddenly needs to calm the heck down, sounds like fun. But the humor more often devolves to Sandler’s usual lamebrain level than rises to Nicholson brow-wiggling hilarity. The lone scene that actually works: When Nicholson’s Dr. Buddy insists that flustered Dave stop his car in rush-hour traffic to girlishly whine the Broadway show tune “I Feel Pretty,” while the therapist supplies the “La-la-la-la-la’s.”
43. THE BUCKET LIST (2007)
Director: Rob Reiner. Writer: Justin Zackham. Starring: Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes.
Critics cried, “Schmaltz!” But audiences could not resist the first-ever pairing of Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as a high-living billionaire and a humble mechanic enmeshed in a shameless senior-citizen bromance between terminally-ill cancer patients. Despite their weakened states, they decide to escape their hospital beds and pursue their dreams of sky-diving, flying over the North Pole, dining at a fancy French hotel, racing motorcycles along the Great Wall of China … well, you get the idea.
42. MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
Director: Tim Burton. Writer: Jonathan Gems. Starring: Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Annette Bening.
Kitsch isn’t always a stitch, and this homage to cheesy ‘50s sci-fi flicks proves it. Burton does better by his big-headed, bug-eyed space invaders, who bark gibberish and are deceptively vicious, than with his human cast. Nicholson does double-duty and suffers for each as a shallow President of the United States – with Close emulating a ditzy Nancy Reagan as his first lady — and a rich Las Vegas casino owner.
41. MAN TROUBLE (1992)
Director: Bob Rafelson. Writer: Carole Eastman. Starring: Ellen Barkin, Harry Dean Stanton, Beverly D’Angelo.
The actor and his frequent collaborator, Rafelson, are barking up the wrong romantic-comedy tree with a plot that revolves around Harry, a testy owner of a guard-dog service, and a classical singer (Barkin) who wants protection from a serial killer on the loose. Having a criminal element about is probably the least of her worries when it comes to men. ”Variety” slammed it as “an insultingly trivial star vehicle.”
40. THE FORTUNE (1975)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writers: Carole Eastman. Starring: Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing.
Let’s see. A pair of 1920s scam artists – one dumb but single (Nicholson), the other sleazy but married (Beatty) — plot to separate a sanitary-napkin heiress (Channing in her film debut) from her wealth by having her wed one but sleep with the other. When she gets wind of their scam and decides to give her money to charity, they plot her murder. Even in the ‘70s, this unsavory homage to ‘30s-style screwball comedies felt rather creepy while wasting the talents of all involved, including Nichols.
39. THE RAVEN (1963)
Director: Roger Corman. Writer: Richard Matheson. Starring: Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre.
Who needs film school? Nicholson learned his craft while doing B-movies for American Pictures International, working with Corman five times. In this one, Price, Karloff and Lorre walk into an alleged horror film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven” – and it turns out to be a comedy. Nicholson is along for the ride as Lorre’s contentious son. It was the elder actor who stood out with his glib adlibs. Price: “Will I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore again?” Lorre: “How the hell should I know?”
38. THE TERROR (1963)
Director: Roger Corman. Writers: Leo Gordon, Jack Hill. Starring: Boris Karloff, Sandra Knight.
In 18th-century France, a soldier (Nicholson) is separated from his regiment and becomes haunted by the mysterious vision of a ghostly woman (Sandra Knight, his then-wife) and later happens upon a castle where a baron (Karloff) resides who might know who she is. This third of five collaborations with Corman allowed Nicholson to direct a climactic scene where flood waters destroy the castle.
37. ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970)
Director: Vincent Minnelli. Writer: Alan Jay Lerner. Starring: Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand.
This curiosity based on a Broadway musical centers on a Manhattanite (Streisand) who, while being treated for her nicotine addiction, discovers she is not just a psychic but the re-incarnation of a 19th-century lady aristocrat. What was supposed to be a three-hour event film was severely cut, resulting in Nicholson as her flirty ex-stepbrother appearing in a single scene with a sitar on his lap. His lone musical number, “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?” with Babs humming along, has never been found.
36. THE EVENING STAR (1996)
Director and writer: Robert Harling. Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Miranda Richardson.
A needless sequel to “Terms of Endearment” sees Shirley MacLaine’s granny, Aurora, struggling to keep late daughter Emma’s three troubled grandkids in line. She bonds with her housekeeper (Marion Ross), fights with Emma’s best pal (Richardson) and has an affair with her therapist. Nicholson mostly comes off unscathed in his brief return as astronaut Garrett Breedlove. He gets the best line when Aurora says, “I’m still looking for my true love.” He replies, “There aren’t that many shopping days left till Christmas.”
35. THE TWO JAKES (1990)
Director: Nicholson. Writer: Robert Towne. Starring: Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly.
This flop of a sequel to the actor’s acclaimed turn as gumshoe Jake Gittes in 1974’s “Chinatown” is a matter of too little, too late. Nicholson’s third time as a director would be his last, as he adds a second Jake – Keitel’s real-estate developer — who ends up shooting a rival in this Dashiell Hammell-lite noir. Tilly has femme-fatale duty as the daughter of Faye Dunaway’s late Evelyn Mulwray from the original.
34. THE LAST TYCOON (1976)
Director: Elia Kazan. Writer: Harold Pinter. Starring: Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum.
This is an OK version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel about the ‘30s golden era of Hollywood, with a boy-wizard studio exec based on MGM’s Irving Thalberg. Here, a suave Robert De Niro takes the star role of Monroe Stahr, delving into love affairs, corporate maneuverings and dealing with the prickly egos of directors and actors. Nicholson made an impression as a hard-charging union-organizer lawyer.
33. THE BORDER (1982)
Director: Tony Richardson. Writers: Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman. Starring: Valerie Perrine, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates.
Nicholson delivers a tamped-down, nuanced performance as a California immigration enforcement agent who moves to El Paso, Texas, and finds himself in debt because of his spendthrift wife (Perrine). He is hired as a border patrol guard and takes a bribe while becoming entangled with human trafficking. His conscience is tested when a baby is taken from a Mexican mother and is sold to an American couple.
32. GOIN’ SOUTH (1978)
Director: Nicholson. Writers: John Herman Shaner, Al Ramrus, Charles Shyer, Alan Mandel. Starring: Mary Steenburgen, John Belushi, Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito.
Nicholson’s second turn in the director’s seat was a goofball Western about horse thief Harry Moon, who, as he is about to be hanged, is saved when a young woman (Steenbergen) steps up and agrees to marry the outlaw. Turns out, she needs him to mine her land for gold before a railroad is built. The film was ignored in its day, but it did give Steenburgen her first role, Belushi his second after “Animal House” and previewed the supporting cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Lloyd and DeVito.
31. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)
Director: Roger Corman. Writer: Charles B. Griffith. Starring: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Dick Miller.
The 1986 musical about a giant man-eating plant was based on this cheap yet endearing cult sci-fi comedy set in a New York City florist’s shop. Nicholson had a small but memorable role as a dental patient who is addicted to pain. He demands that the plant’s owner Seymour (Haze), posing as a doctor, pulls his teeth without Novocain since “it dulls the senses.” Bill Murray took on the role in the musical.
30. BLOOD AND WINE (1996)
Director: Bob Rafelson. Writer: Alison Cross, Nick Villiers. Starring: Stephen Dorff, Michael Caine, Jennifer Lopez.
This final collaboration with Rafelson is a so-so neo-noir that centers on Nicholson’s Alex, a married Miami wine merchant with money woes, who plots to steal a $1 million diamond necklace from the mansion where his mistress, Gabriela (Lopez), works. The would-be thief enlists his stepson (Dorff) and safe-cracking pal (Caine) to help pull off the heist. But, as usual, complications soon arise.
29. HOFFA (1992)
Director: Danny DeVito. Writer: David Mamet. Starring: DeVito, John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh.
Someone thought this brutish biopic about the mob-connected leader of the Teamsters union whose body has never been found was a Christmas-day release. How wrong they were. This is probably one of the least-seen of Nicholson’s major-studio releases. Behind a putty nose in a tale told in flashbacks, the actor captures Hoffa’s angry eruptions as he spews Mamet’s hot-lava dialogue but rarely enlightens.
28. TOMMY (1975)
Director and writer: Ken Russell. Starring: Ann-Margret, Roger Daltry, Oliver Reed.
The Who’s rock opera about a boy (Daltrey) who is “deaf, dumb and blind” comes to surreal life as envisioned by a British master in visual excess. While Elton John’s Pinball Wizard got to wear oversized Doc Martens and Ann-Margret as Tommy’s mum rolled in copious amounts of baked beans, Nicholson got off easy as Tommy’s Specialist. His diagnosis — that his patient’s problem is emotional — is delivered in song while the dapper doc openly flirts with his patient’s mother, who smolders right back at him.
27. THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976)
Director: Arthur Penn. Writer: Thomas McGuane. Starring: Marlon Brando, Randy Quaid, Kathleen Lloyd.
Cattle rustler Logan (Nicholson) seeks vengeance against a land baron by bedding his daughter and buying near-by property. His target retaliates by recruiting a psychopathic hired gun Clayton (Brando) to take care of him and his gang. This Western was under-appreciated in its day, but the chance to witness such giants as Nicholson’s scoundrel and Brando’s maniac go at each other is a rare treat these days.
26. WOLF (1994)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick. Starring: James Spader, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Plummer.
When this loopy lupine horror comedy is in metaphorical mode, it hits the spot as Nicholson’s middle-aged senior editor at a publishing company, Will Randall, gets pushed aside by his power-hungry yuppie protégé (Spader), whom he suspects is having an affair with his wife. After Randall gets bitten by a wolf and his personality turns alpha-male aggressive when he chomps his rival, the movie devolves from there. Still, the urinal scene where Nicholson pees on Spader’s shoes to “mark his territory” is golden.
25. THE PLEDGE (2001)
Director: Sean Penn. Writers: Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren.
This typically somber and grim directing effort by Penn features Nicholson as Jerry Black, a retired Nevada cop reliving his last case that involves a murdered child. A mentally-disabled suspect is found and ends up shooting himself. But Black suspects it was the wrong man and vows to find the real culprit. Penn allows his star’s usual bravado to go into hiding and instead exposes an old man’s haunted soul.
24. THE CROSSING GUARD (1995)
Director and writer: Sean Penn. Starring: Anjelica Huston, Robin Wright Penn, David Morse.
Another morose crime drama by Penn, with Nicholson’s alcoholic jeweler Freddy Gale going after the drunk driver (Morse) who killed someone’s child – namely, his own daughter. The twist is, as the convict serves out his time, Gale is just counting the minutes before he can kill the guy – and redeem himself. Huston as Gale’s ex-wife got some awards attention, but her scenes with her own ex-beau helped.
23. THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972)
Director: Bob Rafelson. Writer: Jacob Brackman. Starring: Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Scatman Crothers.
“Village Voice” critic Andrew Sarris perfectly pegged this typical low-concept ‘70s character study of polar-opposite siblings as “brotherly bathos.” Nicholson is moody David, a Philadelphia late-night FM radio host living with his grandfather. Dern’s Jason is a wheeler-dealer in a wintry Atlantic City, a con man with a plan that is bound to fail. No good can come from this, save for the performances onscreen.
22. BROADCAST NEWS (1987)
Director and writer: James L. Brooks. Starring: Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks.
A romantic-comedy about TV news biz where the love triangle is more obsessed with their jobs than each other. As a gift to Brooks, who helped him earn his second Oscar in “Terms of Endearment,” Nicholson took no pay to play a small but juicy role as a self-adoring god-like network anchor who deigns to pay a visit to the D.C. bureau – the purpose of which involves layoffs because of budget cutting.
21. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981)
Director: Bob Rafelson. Writer: David Mamet. Starring: Jessica Lange, John Colicos, Michael Lerner.
It all comes down to that explosive kitchen-table sex scene between Lange’s dissatisfied wife of a Greek diner owner and Nicholson’s grifter mechanic in a more explicit remake of the 1946 Hollywood original based on James M. Cain’s Depression-era noir novel. Lange produces most of the lustful emoting during the sex scenes, but her male partner in crime holds his own with his own animalistic desirability.
20. THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
Director: George Miller. Writer: Michael Cristofer. Starring: Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon.
Three husband-less friends become fascinated by the new wealthy man in town, the devilish Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson, of course). He seduces each one by one as he plays to their weaknesses. It turns out that the trio is all witches with special powers, which they will use against him. This typical ‘80s special-effects romp basically exists to exploit Nicholson’s own reputation as a notorious lady’s man.
19. HEARTBURN (1986)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Nora Ephron. Starring: Meryl Streep, Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels.
Based on Ephron’s break-up with her philandering husband, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, this sour portrait of a prickly couple of privilege never quite clicked with the public, despite the efforts of Streep and Nicholson, a last-minute replacement for Mandy Patinkin. The pair is at their best, however, when she tells him they are having a baby over pizza and launch into singing every baby song they know, as Nicholson brings down the house with a robust rendition of “Soliloquy” (“My Boy Bill”) from “Carousel.”
18. THE LAST DETAIL (1973)
Director: Hal Ashby. Writer: Robert Towne. Starring: Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Carol Kane.
With Nicholson as a Navy lifer called “Bad-ass Buddusky” and a then-record 65 mentions of the “F-word,” you know you are in for a rollicking, no-holds-barred good time as he and Young’s Mule escort a young sailor (Quaid) to a brig in Maine to serve eight years for a petty crime. They take pity on the naïve recruit and make stops in major cities along the way to get drunk, ice skate and visit a brothel. The film was nominated for three Oscars – lead for Nicholson, supporting for Quaid and adapted screenplay.
17. THE PASSENGER (1975)
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Writers: Antonioni, Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen. Starring: Maria Schneider.
The force behind “Blowup” allows Nicholson to give a rare internalized performance as a TV journalist working on a documentary in Africa. Fed up with his life, he trades identities with a dead Englishman – who turns out to be a gun-runner for rebels– and takes off for Europe, where he meets a young student (Schneider) who helps him with his deception. Notable for its final seven-minute-long tracking shot.
16. IRONWEED (1987)
Director: Hector Babenco. Writer: William Kennedy. Starring: Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Michael O’Keefe.
As Francis, an ex-ballplayer plagued by the past, and Helen, who is terminally ill and angry, Streep and Nicholson as homeless lovers and drinking companions bring out the humanity of their lost-soul characters and make us care. This time, it is Streep’s turn to sing as Helen imagines that she is performing “He’s My Pal” in a fancy night club instead of an everyday gin mill in Depression-era Albany.
15. BATMAN (1989)
Director: Tim Burton. Writer: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren. Starring: Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” With the best leer in the biz, who else could bring to life the Caped Crusader’s most fiendish foe? As the Joker, Nicholson took his outlandish cues from the campy villains from the ‘60s TV show while heightening the menace by killing for laughs. And who can resist seeing the actor nattily bopping along to Prince’s “Partyman” while gleefully defacing art masterpieces?
14. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writer: Payne and Jim Taylor. Starring: Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney.
Payne hooked his star with this description: “Jack, I want you to play a small man.” The source of Nicholson’s 12th Oscar nomination shrinks him down to human size as a bland Midwest retiree with a geezer comb-over who finds himself adrift after his wife suddenly dies. He takes to the road in a Winnebago to head to his distant daughter’s wedding in Denver. There, he meets her live-wire mother-in-law (Bates), who has no problem stripping down and soaking naked in the hot tub in his company.
13. REDS (1981)
Director: Warren Beatty. Writer: Beatty, Trevor Griffiths. Starring: Beatty, Diane Keaton, Maureen Stapleton.
Beatty’s epic salute to John Reed, a radical journalist and supporter of the Russia’s revolution, would snag supporting Oscar nod No. 2 for Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill. Keaton, Beatty’s girlfriend at the time, plays socialite Louise Bryant, Reed’s lady love. During his absence, she has a fling O’Neil, but they eventually wed. Beatty hired Nicholson because he was only person who “could take his girl” away.
12. SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (2003)
Director and writer: Nancy Meyers. Starring Diane Keaton, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Keanu Reeves.
The rapport between Keaton’s Erica, a divorced playwright, and Nicholson’s Harry, a dirty old music mogul who only dates woman under 30, builds beautifully upon their own personas. After he must recover from a heart attack in her Hamptons beach house – and one thing leads to another — their post-coital intimacy feels like the real deal. Oh, Jack also shows his butt while wearing a hospital smock.
11. THE DEPARTED (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writer: William Monahan. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg.
The film that finally won Scorsese both a best picture and directing Oscars has Nicholson large and in charge in the streets of South Boston as coarse Irish mob boss Frank Costello. There’s something about the scene where he strolls into a local bar and unnerves a patron by saying, “Who is this IRA mother****er?” He then laughs and says, “How’s your mother?” The guy answers, “Oh … I’m afraid she’s on her way out.” Costello replies, “We all are. Act accordingly,” then smiles and straightens his tie.
10. AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)
Director: James L. Brooks. Writer: Mark Andrus. Starring: Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr.
“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 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)
Director: Dennis Hopper; Writer: Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern. Starring: Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black.
This influential counterculture travelogue follows two drug-smuggling bikers, Hopper’s Wyatt and 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.
8. FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
Director: Bob Rafelson. Writer: Carole Eastman. Starring: Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Ralph Waite.
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 nod 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.”
7. CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Jules Feiffer. Starring: Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen.
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. Garfunkel’s idealist Sandy weds his sweetheart (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)
Director: Stanley Kubrick. Writer: Kubrick and Diane Johnson. Starring: Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers.
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.” Kubrick turned him into the worst kind of parental monster in the best way.
5. A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
Director: Rob Reiner. Writer: Aaron Sorkin. Starring: Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon.
This military courtroom drama is all about 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 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)
Director: John Huston. Writer: Richard Condon, Janet Roach. Starring: Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, William Hickey, Robert Loggia.
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 (Huston, who won supporting actress) after spying 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?”
3. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
Director and writer: James L. Brooks. Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels.
The bond between widowed Southern belle Aurora (MacLaine), who insists on propriety, and her grown-up daughter Emma (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)
Director: Roman Polanski. Writer: Robert Towne. Starring: Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Polanski.
A compelling throwback to such noir classics as “The Maltese Falcon” pits Nicholson’s private-eye Jake Gittes against 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 (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.
1. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
Director: Milos Forman. Writer: Laurence Hauben, Bo Goldman. Starring: Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito.
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 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 nods, 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.