best film:   Chinatown, The Passenger, and The Shining, are the blue-chip films for Jack Nicholson – but the depth here is beyond belief.  There are nine (9) films here with a must-see or masterpiece grade. Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece is Jack’s best film. Kubrick’s audacious visuals and dedication to the Steadicam tracking shot aesthetic ever so slightly trumps Chinatown’s retro polish and genius screenplay  (it is truly one of the all-time finest) with The Passenger and that jaw-dropping, penultimate long-take shot right there as well.


writer’s block, cabin fever, and alcoholism from Jack in The Shining. “I’d give my God damn soul for a glass of beer”


best performance:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Jack’s finest sustained brilliance on screen. He is darker in Five Easy Pieces and the “hold the chicken” scene in it may be his greatest single moment (and that is saying something from the guy who gave us “You can’t handle the truth” and “Heeere’s Johnny”) but Cuckoo’s Nest makes better use of his bad boy charm. He is utterly captivating just sitting around the group meetings, in the opening interview, his battles with Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, and the torture sequences with the electroshock therapy. Nicholson is an enormous screen presence – he cannot really disappear (The King of Marvin’s Gardens is a solid attempt) or hide his smile and charismatic personality so Forman’s film is his finest vehicle (and a damn film with an all-timer of an ending). It is just slightly more suited to his talents than the rest of his best work.


Jack as the antihero R.P. McMurphy in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


stylistic innovations/traits:   Jack Nicholson is both The New Hollywood’s golden boy and bad boy at the same time. He is more talented than Warren Beatty, and more leading man handsome than Dustin Hoffman. He is often playful (1950s Mifune comes to mind), anti-authority, and full of sex and rebellion. Jack has twenty-seven (27) total archiveable films – and his resume is overwhelming. His twelve (12) Oscar nominations is the most for any male actor (and he won three times). His top ten (10) performances below is so loaded that six (6) of the Oscar nominations (and two wins) do not make the cut. That is a legendary career’s worth of leftovers. Michael Caine, for example, has six (6) nominations and two (2) wins. Just to give one example, Jack is stealing scenes in Reds (1981) as Eugene O’Neill, which is a must-see grade film, and that performance does not make the list below. Jack began in the 1960s working his way up in low budget films before breaking through with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (dusting the two off the screen in a supporting role) in Easy Rider – a massive hit and landmark film for The New Hollywood. Nicholson would be scorching hot from 1969 to 1975 with ten (10) archiveable films in seven (7) years giving one of the best performances of the year five (5) times. To add to that run, he is lead in one of the best films of the entire 1980s (The Shining) and is pure fire in Batman and A Few Good Men. At that point, films like As Good as it Gets, The Pledge, and About Schmidt just add to the legend.


Jack in Chinatown – the smirk from Jack is so good – overall, he underplays the role – mostly, like F. Scott Fitzgerald says he is a man defined by his actions, but there are moments for Jack that are undeniably Jack –  him calling the hall of records kid a “weasel” under his breathe. Jack’s “your wife crossed her legs a little too quick” line. “Too tell you the truth, I lied a little”.


directors worked with: Mike Nichols (3), James L. Brooks (3), Bob Rafelson (2) – and this is in contrast to the other actors so far on the list where they each have multiple archiveable films with a giant like Scorsese (De Niro), Hitchcock (Stewart), Coppola (both Brando and Pacino), or Kurosawa (Mifune). Jack has a strong and long list of one-time archiveable collaborators though including Hal Ashby (1), Roman Polanski (1), Milos Forman (1), Michelangelo Antonioni (1), Elia Kazan (1), Arthur Penn (1), Stanley Kubrick (1), Warren Beatty (1), John Huston (1), Tim Burton (1), Rob Reiner (1), Alexander Payne (1), Martin Scorsese (1).


Jack’s famous “hold the chicken” diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. The scene speaks for a generation – and Jack’s confidence is chilling. He annihilates the waitress.


top ten performances:

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  2. Five Easy Pieces
  3. Chinatown
  4. The Passenger
  5. The Shining
  6. Carnal Knowledge
  7. Easy Rider
  8. The Last Detail
  9. A Few Good Men
  10. Batman


The Passenger is a great off-speed pitch for Jack. It not only helps make up one one of the great years (1975) and stretch runs (1969-1976) for any actor, but it is a quieter Jack.



archiveable films

1966- The Shooting
1969- Easy Rider
1970- Five Easy Pieces
1971- Carnal Knowledge
1972- The King of Marvin’s Gardens
1973- The Last Detail
1974- Chinatown
1975- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1975- The Fortune
1975- The Passenger
1975- Tommy
1976- The Last Tycoon
1976- The Missouri Breaks
1980- The Shining
1981- Reds
1983- Terms of Endearment
1985- Prizzi’s Honor
1987- Broadcast News
1987- Ironweed
1989- Batman
1992- A Few Good Men
1992- Hoffa
1994- Wolf
1997- As Good as It Gets
2001- The Pledge
2002- About Schmidt
2006- The Departed