From Batman (1989) to The Shining (1980), here are the 15 best Jack Nicholson movies, ranked.
One of the most prolific actors of our time, Jack Nicholson has starred in some of the greatest films ever made. In a career spanning five decades, he’s inspired and influenced generations of actors. He exudes charm and personifies cool like no other. Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, he was the only actor to win three acting Oscars. From playing angry young men, rebels to authority figures and gentle heroes, Jack Nicholson’s choice of roles has been surprisingly versatile. Besides, Nicholson has worked with a wide range of greatest filmmakers, from Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, Michelangelo Antonioni to Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne.
Jack Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937 in Neptune, New Jersey. His mother June Nicholson worked as a showgirl. Jack was raised by June’s parents because she was only 17 when she had him. After high school, Jack joined the California Air National Guard. But he long harbored the desire to become an actor. He became a stage actor in his early 20s and did small roles on stage and in soap operas. Jack Nicholson made his feature-film debut with the low-budget B-movie The Cry Baby Killer (1958). Later, he frequently collaborated with iconic indie producer/director Roger Corman.
His breakthrough role came in Easy Rider (1969). But before that he played a significant role in Monte Hellman’s existential Western genre films Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1966). Both the films in the ensuing decades went on to achieve cult status. In the 1970s, Nicholson rose to stardom with great, career-making roles in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Here’s a look at the 15 best Jack Nicholson performances from his five-decade career:
15. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
If there ever was a character who would have received the title of Devil in disguise, it would be Nicholson’s character of Daryl van Home in George Miller’s dark fantasy. He plays the role of a mysterious man who enters a town and completely changes the lives of three women. Now, these women are actually witches. They themselves do not know about it. The film seems to suggest that he is some evil entity. The role is endowed with some of the most powerful as well as charming performances by Nicholson. Critics pointed out that he was hardly acting in this film. And after watching it, you’ll know that this persona is just so much fun.
His diabolical personality with the devilish smile makes The Witches of Eastwick a memorable comedy. There have been many portrayals of the Devil in Hollywood. Yet Nicholson’s “horny little Devil” stands out from all. He becomes the very embodiment of sin itself.
14. The Border (1982)
Jack Nicholson plays the guilt-stricken border patrol officer in Tony Richardson’s potent tale on disparity and illegal immigration. Nicholson’s character Charlie Smith is stationed in El Paso, Texas. He is hardened by his profession, as we first see Charlie negotiating with the owner of a clothing factory to arrest a few illegal Mexicans in order to fulfill his quota. He knows that the detained and deported Mexicans will soon make their way back to Texas. Charlie is bothered when he learns about his superiors’ business of human trafficking.
The Border has a pretty conventional narrative structure, though it was rare in the Ronald Reagan-era to make American movies that are sympathetic to Mexicans’ plight. Jack Nicholson’s performance is the key element in the narrative. His powerful screen presence turns this into a low-key character study of a righteous man, sick of the greed and iniquity surrounding him. Nicholson brilliantly expresses the conflicts simmering inside Charlie as he tries to save the young Mexican single mother.
13. The Crossing Guard (1995)
Sean Penn’s second directorial venture after The Indian Runner (1991) revolves around Jack Nicholson’s Freddy Gale, an alcoholic and self-destructive jeweler. Freddy vows to kill the drunk driver who ran over his seven-year old daughter. The drunk driver, John Booth (David Morse) serves six years in prison and gets released. Booth suffers from guilt and finds it hard to move on. The Crossing Guard is a bit uneven in terms of pacing. But the two central performances are absolutely astounding to watch.
There isn’t a false beat in Nicholson’s performance. The standout among the many well-performed moments was when Freddy wakes up from a nightmare and calls his ex-wife (played by Anjelica Huston). When we first see Freddy Gale, he is a tragic figure who tries to drown his sorrow with booze and associating with strippers. But gradually, Nicholson infuses humanity to his character, and makes it much more three-dimensional.
12. A Few Good Men (1992)
A Few Good Men is a legal military drama that features one of Nicholson’s most conflicted and powerful performances. He plays a stern army man who stops at nothing to discipline his troops. His overzealous attitude towards the military and his egotistic notions regarding his role as a nation’s guardian lead to the death of one of his men. The movie is full of tense moments within the law court. The sequence of the court-martial is extraordinary. It is full of emotional drama and conflicting viewpoints.
The best thing about Jack Nicholson’s portrayal is that we can both understand as well as strongly disagree with the character’s mentality. He shows the indefatigable quality of an authority figure. Nicholson is able to steal the limelight during his brief moments on camera. He never once falters and perfectly expresses the frustrations over the constant accusations mounted on him. His outburst at the end is a marvel to behold.
11. Terms of Endearment (1983)
James L. Brooks was a veteran and popular TV director who made his feature-film debut with this mother-daughter relationship drama. Brooks later made critically acclaimed features like Broadcast News (1987) and As Good as it Gets (1997). Terms of Endearment unfolds over three decades and captures the turbulent relationship dynamics between the neurotic Aurora and her tenacious daughter Emma. Jack Nicholson plays the uniquely named Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut who is in a relationship with Aurora. The scenes between the reckless Garett and the eccentric Aurora offer the narrative’s most humorous moments.
Though the film largely revolves around Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger – who play the mother and daughter – Nicholson’s scene-stealing comic performance remains the most memorable. In fact, he earned an Oscar for the witty supporting role. In his long career, Nicholson has played a lot of cool, womanizing characters. In fact, two decades after Terms of Endearment he played a similar role in Something’s Gotta Give. Yet, he brings some redeeming and endearing qualities to such characters that make them real and honest.
10. The Pledge (2001)
Jack Nicholson once again collaborated with actor/director Sean Penn after The Crossing Guard for the twisted detective thriller The Pledge. The film is a remake of 1958 Swiss film It Happened in Broad Daylight. Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a police detective nearing his retirement age. Before his retirement, Jerry gets involved in the investigation of a gruesome murder and rape of an 8-year old girl. The detective becomes obsessed with the case and finds two other cases that seem similar to his case. Jerry’s obsession and quest for truth takes him to darker places.
Nicholson offers a very low-key performance as Jerry. The signature mannerisms of the actor are nowhere to be seen. The central character’s crisis of conscience brilliantly comes alive in his performance. Particularly, in the final stakeout scene, Nicholson’s haggard and haunted face offers a lot of subtle expressions. The film also has a splendid ensemble cast which includes Aaran Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright, and Mickey Rourke.
9. Batman (1989)
There is something about Batman‘s Joker that entices many of us. His scrambled psychology is a subject of intense study. We all remember the amazing performance given by Heath Ledger in his interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight (2008). And that truly has overshadowed yet another amazing portrayal of the maniacal, anti-social villain.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker has the comic-book quality as it gives a direct nod to the 1951 origin story of the character. Nicholson plays Joker with his charisma intact and takes us into the character’s world of craziness. Moreover, Nicholson’s interpretation of Joker was clearly reminiscent of old-school mob bosses and gangsters. His devilish smile alongside the unpredictable madness and chaos Joker creates was a sight to behold. Most importantly, Batman’s director Tim Burton acknowledges the symbiotic nature between Batman and Joker. This has particularly inspired later cinematic conflicts between the superhero and the foolhardy villain.
8. As Good as It Gets (1997)
As Good As It Gets is a well-written and well-performed romantic drama. Nicholson plays the role of a misanthropic author named Melvin, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Melvin doesn’t talk much but when he opens his mouth it is to express contempt for others.
The story revolves around his relationship with a waitress at the restaurant where he is a regular. In fact, only the waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt) can put up with Melvin’s insensitivity. Naturally, the rest of the narrative is about Melvin’s slow transformation. James L. Brooks’ drama is quite predictable and could have been sappy, yet it largely works due to in-depth characterizations and fantastic performances from the ensemble cast. Nicholson particularly shines when Melvin‘s hard exterior is pierced by emotions of love. The intense emotional strife, the indecisive denials and finally the brave proclamation of love, all come together to create a character that is rich in personality and has a very human capacity for both love and flaw.
7. Easy Rider (1969)
Dennis Hopper’s acclaimed counterculture classic offered a breakthrough role for the young Jack Nicholson. He earned his first Oscar nomination for playing ACLU lawyer George Hansen. Easy Rider was made on a budget of $400,000 and made a lot of money at the box-office. It also ushered in a wave of independent movies that was dubbed as ‘New Hollywood’. The film revolves around two eccentric bike riders (played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) making their way to Mardi Gras in New Orleans from Los Angeles. On their trip, the duo meets various people, including Nicholson’s George.
Nicholson is absolutely brilliant as the lawyer who gets intrigued by the two men’s quest for freedom. He turns up half-way through the narrative and almost steals all the scenes he is in. His iconic dialogue delivery and engaging screen presence here foretell his ability to offer outstanding performances. It was said that Nicholson was lucky to have received this role. It initially went to Bruce Dern.
6. About Schmidt (2002)
About Schmidt is a touching and beautiful tale about the purpose of human life. Almost all of Alexander Payne’s movies feature a literal and inward journey with characters seeking answers for their existential crisis. It’s the same in About Schmidt where an elderly and lonely man faces a late existential crisis. Played with great restraint, Jack Nicholson’s titular character has recently retired from an insurance firm after having worked at the job for decades.
Nicholson delivers a stunning performance. His portrayal of the aging, withering man with nothing to be proud of is incredible. The crushing pain of solitude and depression that stems from a sense of insignificance is mirrored through the multi-layered emotions that Nicholson ably recreates through his character. The continuous strife to reform one’s own life and the lives of those that are intertwined within familial bonds is both fulfilling and melancholic to watch. The actor received his thirteenth and final Oscar nomination for this role.
5. The Last Detail (1973)
The Last Detail is a beautifully tragic comedy-drama starring Jack Nicholson in the role of U.S. Navy grunt named Billy. Billy and Richard (Otis Young) are assigned a short patrol detail to escort a shy and court-martialed sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Naval Prison in Virginia. Robert Towne’s fantastic script is very anti-authoritarian in tone. Furthermore, Nicholson’s knack for playing rabble rousers is perfectly realized in this restrained road-movie.
The observational quality found in the storytelling methods enhances Nicholson’s subdued charm. In fact, his character’s capacity for empathy and understanding of the value of time in a human’s life far outweighs his outwardly crass behavior and lack of sophistication. We can feel Billy’s anguish as he desires to set the man free but also helplessly beats him up when he tries to escape.
4. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
It’s well-known that anti-hero roles truly suit Jack Nicholson. He has the ability to replicate every human emotion with equal earnestness and intensity, which makes his characters all the more multi-dimensional. A goody-two-shoes hero was never his style. And this movie hammers in that fact. Five Easy Pieces is an amazing drama film directed by Bob Rafelson. It tells the story of a broken and wounded man who works as a driver in the California oil fields. His personality is volatile and completely unpredictable. More often than not, audiences can guess what a character is going to do in the next scene. And it is the actor’s job to hide that intention and add new layers to his character. This makes the character, as well as the film as a whole, more complex and interesting.
In the movie, Nicholson plays the role of Bobby Dupea. He comes from a high-class family of musicians but has abandoned that life long ago. Soon, he gets in touch with his family again. Things complicate then on. As the two aspects of his life intermingle, Bobby becomes more and more volatile. The growing frustration that gradually drives him towards reclusiveness and solitude is clearly visible in Nicholson’s performance.
3. Chinatown (1974)
In this retro noir mystery directed by Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson appears as a 1930s private eye named Jake Gittes. He is a man of few words. The character’s personality is almost reflective of the period in which he resides, allowing Nicholson to showcase some of the underutilized shades of his brilliant acting. His stoic disposition coupled with a naturally smooth style and a wardrobe that is almost reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ creates a paradox in itself. It is subtly balanced and nuanced. Jack pulled himself outside his comfort zone (if he even has one), and allowed himself to be dominated by his character.
The movie in itself is laudable for its Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne and a romanticized yet grounded recreation of a bygone era. It’s been hailed as one of the best American noir mysteries of all time by both critics and audiences alike. And Nicholson’s contribution plays a large part in its success.
Watch Chinatown on Amazon Prime
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson cemented his status as a legendary actor with his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He starred as the psychiatric hospital rebel Randle McMurphy in Milos Forman’s hugely-acclaimed adaptation of Ken Kesey’s cult novel. The iconic role initially went to Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen, and Marlon Brando. It was the second movie to win all five major Academy Awards. This includes Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor in Lead Role, Best Actress in Lead Role, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Apart from being an amazing movie overall, Nicholson’s role in it was phenomenal. The movie itself had all the flair of a comedic drama and Nicholson is able to mold this comedy and drama together with a bit of tragedy as well. His performance grips the audiences as he befriends the psychiatric hospital inmates. He pulls off an incredible escape attempt along with his fellow inmates while being constantly pressured by the hospital authority. He’s a person with indomitable willpower. It feels as if he truly is trapped, both physically and mentally. All Randle seeks is freedom.
1. The Shining (1980)
Utter madness. Pure, unadulterated evil. These are the only words that come to mind when I think about the performance of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. That singular portrayal of terror has left a great impact on many. This behemoth of a psychological horror story was based on the novel written by acclaimed horror writer Stephen King. However, the movie totally belongs to the provocative auteur Kubrick and Nicholson’s frenetic performance. In fact, King didn’t like the casting of Jack Nicholson in the central role though Kubrick only had Nicholson in mind for the part.
However, Nicholson brilliantly rose to the challenge of playing a man slowly losing his mind. It’s also astounding how Nicholson put up with Kubrick’s exasperating filming style. The staircase scene with Shelley Duvall found its place in Guiness’ book of records for the most retakes of a single scene (127). The iconic door smashing scene with an ax took 3 days to film and led to a destruction of 60 doors before Kubrick approved it. Overall, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is the greatest cinematic incarnation of a haunted and deranged mind.
Though Jack Nicholson never officially announced his retirement, he hasn’t been in a movie since the 2010 rom-com How Do You Know. Sources close to the actor have repeatedly denied that Jack Nicholson didn’t stop acting because of failing health. He simply enjoys the freedom of not working in movies. He has been spotted in NBA games recently in October 2021, supporting his beloved team Los Angeles Lakers. Moreover, Jack Nicholson came close to acting in movies a couple of times in the last decade. One was in the 2014 courtroom drama The Judge and the other was a remake of critically acclaimed German movie Toni Erdmann. Nevertheless, even if he doesn’t act again, he’s left us a great legacy of roles that will stand the test of time.
(Additional writing by Arun Kumar)