Jack Nicholson's best movie roles

·Contributor
·5 min read
Jack Nicholson's best movie roles include Batman, The Shining, and About Schmidt. (Warner Bros.)
Jack Nicholson's best movie roles include Batman, The Shining, and About Schmidt. (Warner Bros.)

Jack Nicholson turned 85 on 22 April, so celebrations are in order.

One of the best actors of his generation hasn’t been in a film for 12 years and that absence leaves a gap nobody can fill. His unpredictability, his sense of danger, a face which could turn from sexy to satanic in a blink of an eye, and a talent for scene-stealing... the reasons are endless.

But, ultimately, he was simply a great actor who commanded cinema screens for over 50 years.

Read more: The actors with the most Oscars

Everybody has a favourite Jack role – maybe more than one. Here’s a reminder of just ten of his very best.

The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)

Nicholson damn near stole the show in a three minute cameo as the laughing masochist in search of a sadistic dentist. No matter that the film’s hero is a total novice, he gives Wilbur Force (yes, you read that correctly) exactly the excruciating pain he craves. And we get the unforgettable shriek of “Oh, my God! Don’t stop now!”

Easy Rider (1969)

Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Everybody took notice of Nicholson in his breakthrough role as the alcoholic, drug addled lawyer joining Fonda and Hopper’s hippies on the road. A long way from first choice for the part, the sight of him in a football helmet coupled with his explanation of why they scared the establishment made it clear he was a force to be reckoned with. It earned him his first Oscar nomination.

Chinatown (1974)

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: The movie
Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray in Chinatown. (CBS via Getty Images)

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” We were hardly likely to forget either the film or his performance as the haunted cop-turned-private eye who digs into his latest case – and gets in too deep.

Read more: David Fincher working on Chinatown prequel

The 30s-set noir saw him in a mode that would become a trademark — elegant, sarcastic and sexy — only this time he looked like a hero. Until that last line.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

American actors Danny De Vito and Jack Nicholson on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest directed by Czech-American Milos Forman. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Danny De Vito and Jack Nicholson on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The free spirit taking on the establishment. If ever a part was made for Nicholson’s combination of danger and charisma, this was it. Yet he was well down the list of actors approached to play Randle P McMurphy – Marlon Brando, James Caan, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds had all said 'no'. Now it’s impossible to think of anybody else playing the anarchic anti-hero. It won him the first of three Oscars.

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson stars in 'The Shining'. (Credit: Warner Bros)
Jack Nicholson stars in 'The Shining'. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Frustrated writer Jack Torrance came complete with one of the most quoted lines in cinema history — more were to come — and, as he went mad in the isolated hotel, Nicholson could indulge his tendency towards the larger than life.

Read more: Shelley Duvall recalls tough The Shining shoot

But, despite its most famous scene and the way the film made use of his features, there’s chilling subtlety in this nightmare.

Batman (1989)

American actor Jack Nicholson plays the Joker in the movie Batman, directed by Tim Burton. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson plays the Joker in the movie Batman, directed by Tim Burton. (Sygma via Getty Images)

He was the obvious — nay, only — choice to play the Caped Crusader’s nemesis in Tim Burton's live action Batman movie. There’s nothing subtle about his outlandish supervillain — that grotesque grin, that maniacal laugh — but it was a shot of life in the gloomy superhero movie.

Read more: How actors prepare to play Joker

Other Jokers have followed, but Jack’s stands alone.

A Few Good Men (1992)

American actor Jack Nicholson playing the role of a colonel of the navy acting in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson playing the role of a colonel of the navy acting in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Mondadori via Getty Images)

Who can forget that line – or Nicholson’s face? In a grand total of four scenes, his slow burn performance as the ruthless Marine Colonel culminated in something close to spontaneous combustion. By all accounts, he had a hand in his own dialogue (who else would tweak a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin?) and did more than 40 takes of his speech, all at full throttle. We rest our case.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

Jack Nicholson's in Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard. (Getty)
Jack Nicholson's in Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard. (Getty)

Sean Penn’s revenge drama didn’t always hit the mark, but Nicholson’s performance as the father obsessed by his daughter’s death is one of his most complex and perhaps most underrated. His all-consuming anger alienates everybody and challenges our instinctive empathy. But there’s something uncomfortably believable about his reaction to the child’s killer. After all, what would we do?

About Schmidt (2002)

Oscar winner Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt. (Warner Bros.)
Oscar winner Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt. (Warner Bros.)

One of Alexander Payne’s men in crisis, Warren Schmidt was apparently described by the director as “a small man”. It doesn’t sound like a Nicholson role but, in playing totally against type, he portrays somebody beaten down and taking what could be a last shot at understanding himself. In an interview with Playboy, he talked about how he worked to “un-Jack the part.” We couldn’t have put it better.

The Departed (2006)

Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2006's The Departed (Warner Bros)
Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2006's The Departed (Warner Bros)

It’s not vintage Jack — the scenery isn’t just chewed but munched and spat out — but mobster Frank Costello is the nastiest bad guy he ever played. From pulling a vermin-like face when talking about a “rat” in his organisation to pulling a real gun on the prime suspect, he ramps the performance up to eleven.

Read more: Jack Nicholson makes rare public appearance

Only three more films followed and it feels like a swan song, leaving us wanting more.

Watch: Adrien Brody shares Jack Nicholson story

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