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Jack Nicholson – An Icon Turns 85

Jack Nicholson

Born in Neptune, New Jersey, on April 22, 1937, Jack Nicholson has had a career that has spanned six decades. He has played heroes and villains, outlaws and blue-collar workers, mafiosi and mental patients and everything in between, and made his last film, How Do You Know, 12 years ago. He is a six-time Golden Globe- and three-time Oscar-winner as well as the recipient of the Cecil B. deMille Award. Even though he is officially retired, he has left us with 79 films, and it is not easy to pick our favorite ten. We decided on the ones that show the wide spectrum of his talent across all genres.



Born to be wild. Directed by his friend Dennis Hopper who also co-starred along with Peter Fonda, this is the film that marked his breakthrough as a young Hollywood star. He played George Hanson in this biker road movie in which two Harley-riding young guys, after completing a drug deal and deciding on a spiritual journey, make their way from L.A. to New Orleans and meet an outlaw (Nicholson). The film was a statement of 1960s counterculture and resonated strongly with audiences. It also earned Nicholson his first Golden Globe nomination.

Jack Nicholson in “Easy Rider” (1969)Jack Nicholson in “Easy Rider” (1969)



Robert Eroica “Bobby” Dupea pretends to be a blue-collar oil rig worker while he is really a dropout from a life of privilege, having grown up with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth as a piano-playing prodigy in upper-class Washington. Again, the actor became part of a film that served as a reflection of its era and is an example of 1970s alienation in America. Bob Rafelson directed this iconic film that cemented Nicholson’s status as an actor as well as a star.

Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)



His J.J. Gittes, a private detective who goes after cheating husbands and gets entangled in a much bigger crime of corporate greed, corruption and murder, grew into a legendary movie character as the film later became a cult piece for environmentally aware films, something writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski had not originally intended. Nicholson is in every scene of the neo-noir thriller, that also co-stars Faye Dunaway and includes a rare onscreen appearance by legendary director John Huston, a good friend of the star. Nicholson won his first Golden Globe for Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown” (1974)



When Michael Douglas bought the rights to the film and served as a first-time producer, the powers that be wanted him to play the lead, a man who pretends to have mental health issues in order to be admitted to an insane asylum, where he rallies the patients against doctors and nurses. Douglas refused and hired Nicholson to play R.P. McMurphy. At one point in the film, McMurphy states the obvious: “You guys complain how much you hate it here, and then don’t even have the guts to leave! You’re all crazy!” Under the guidance of Czech director Milos Forman, the film won him his second Golden Globe and first Oscar.

Jack Nicholson, Sydney Lassick, and William Redfield in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo



“Heeere’s Johnny!” became a catchphrase after Nicholson’s Jack Torrance terrified audiences in this Stanley Kubrick-directed horror film based on the blockbuster book by Stephen King. The particularly scary effect during the famous scene with Shelley Duvall on the other side of the door was achieved when Kubrick lay down on the floor, pointing the camera up at the actor’s face that was lit from above. Nicholson later said that as collaborative as the director was with him, it was another story for Duvall, whom Kubrick tormented to get the horrified performance out of her.

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” (1980)



Nowhere is Jack more Jack than in this adaptation of the John Updike novel. He got to display his comedic talents as Daryl Van Horne, essentially an incarnation of the Devil, who is rendered helpless by the bewitching trio of Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. He puts his frustration into humorously frustrated words in the scene where his character interrupts a Sunday Mass: ““Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman? No shit. I really wanna know. Or do you think it was just another one of His minor mistakes like tidal waves, earthquakes, floods? You think women are like that? You don’t think God makes mistakes? Of course, He does. We all make mistakes. Of course, when WE make mistakes, they call it evil. When God makes mistakes, they call it… nature!”

Jack Nicholson in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)Jack Nicholson in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)

BATMAN, 1989


He played the original Joker in the first film by Tim Burton and called the part “the psychologically hardest part I have ever played, it almost killed me.” That’s not to say that he didn’t add deadly humor to it: “Batman… Batman… Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!” is one of his famous lines that he later used in real life to describe Hollywood. He famously warned Heath Ledger of the perils of taking the role, sadly to no avail.

Jack Nicholson in “Batman” (1989)



“You can’t handle the truth!” he yelled at Tom Cruise in this Rob Reiner-directed film written by a young Aaron Sorkin who adapted it from his own play. His Colonel Nathan R. Jessep is the ultimate military sadist: “You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets, and the bombs, and the blood. I don’t want money, and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggoty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy,” he famously dresses down Cruise’s lawyer.

Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” (1992)



His portrayal of the misanthropic author Melvin Udall who reluctantly forms a relationship with his neighbor, a single mother and waitress played by Helen Hunt, earned him his fifth Golden Globe and third Oscar. He once called the film the most appreciative of women, and this part of his lines in which he speaks to Hunt proves it: “I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you’re the greatest woman on earth. I might be the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing that you do, and how you are with Spencer, ‘Spence,’ and in every single thought that you have, and how you say what you mean, and how you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good.”

Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson in “As Good as It Gets” (1997)