We've finally reached the middle of our Bloggers Roundtable! We've discussed four actors double wins so far (Day-Lewis, Hoffman, Cooper, Sean Penn) and we have four more after today (March, Brando, Hanks, Tracy). So, today, with Jack Nicholson, we are smack dab in the middle!
It's been a really fun time getting together with some awesome bloggers to rewatch (or watch for the first time) and review the Oscar wins of some very prolific names in the acting community. We don't always agree (you know, except for last week), but we always have a great time, and the varied opinions have only made this panel so much fun to work with!
So, let's talk about Jack Nicholson. Jack is one of the most famous faces in Hollywood, and for good reason. He's an incredible presence in film. Feel how you may about his brand of acting, but you'll never forget his face or his swagger (yes, he has swagger). He just consumes every film he's in. Sometimes this is a blessing, sometimes a curse.
But let's talk about the times that Oscar fell for him!
Again, our panel:
Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually
R.P. McMurphy is the Jack Nicholson we all know and love. Wild, unhinged, hilarious, unpredictable. Whenever I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I end the film amazed by Nicholson’s consistent heightened energy. The man never eases down. Always on, always alive, always causing mayhem. It’s Jack, baby. In all his glory.
This is not, in any way, an easy decision – but just hear me out. I would never argue against Nicholson winning this prize, however, Al Pacino’s work in Dog Day Afternoon is my favorite performance of Pacino’s career, and if I voted in 1975, my vote would go to him. But in my world, Jack would still have (at least) two Best Actor Oscars: one for Chinatown in 1974, and the other for, well, take your pick.
My Grade: A+
Jack Nicholson is an imp. Blame it on his eyebrows which seem to be always cocked at attention and hiding some mischievous goings-on. And he's never been so delightfully impish as he is in the role that brought him his first Oscar win, as Randle P. McMurphy, a criminal that gets transferred to a mental institution to avoid a prison sentence and hard labor. But what was supposed to have been an easy way to beat the system for McMurphy ends up turning into a battle of wills against the unbending head nurse, Ratched, and along the way McMurphy ends up changing the lives of the other men he's with, teaching them to seize the day by the example of his devil-may-care attitude. Even if the outcome isn't always as intended (poor Billy), as McMurphy says, at least they tried. Nicholson's natural charisma makes him a believable subject of adoration by the other inmates and his exuberant energy infuses the film with a jolt. But he avoids what could very easily delve into cheap sentiment (the free spirit is here to change us!) with the way his sweetness is always tempered with a saltiness. And his best scenes are when he goes head-to-head with Louise Fletcher's Ratched, rallying his troops against the "man" and questioning authority. Which makes the tragedy that befalls him even more heartbreaking. Finally winning on his 5th nomination, it seemed that Nicholson was overdue and the rightful winner that year. But it's hard not to feel for another multiple nominee that was also overdue for a win and gave an equally strong performance, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. But Nicholson's McMurphy, like the adoring inmates of the film, seemed to have swayed the Academy slightly more with his joie de vivre. It must've been the eyebrows.
My Grade: B+
There are some performances that are forever remembered, immortalized in the cannon of iconic roles/performances that everyone knows of, remembers and refers to, no matter what your age is.
If you are a cinephile, you have at least heard of these performances.
Jack Nicholson’s Oscar winning role as McMurphey is a firecracker of a role, one that is ripe for so much ACTING, and Nicholson certainly chews enough scenery to constitute it acting. The hard thing about these kinds of roles is that you will forever be remembered for this character, and no matter how hard you try and branch out and away from it, you will always be compared to what came before. This is one of those performances that has helped coin Nicholson’s persona of, well, just playing ‘Jack’.
I remember the first time I saw this. My mother is the one who made me watch it. She went on and on about how incredible of a film this was and how important it was that I see it, as a film lover. I was immediately taken in by the film, and by Nicholson’s performance. That was about six years ago. Since then, my opinion of the film has cooled and my perception of Nicholson’s performance became clouded by years of allowing popular debate and opinion filter in. I became convinced that Nicholson hammed his way to an Oscar win and that his performance was less than deserving.
Then I rewatched this for the sake of this roundtable and I have to say; damn.
Yes, Nicholson is very loud and charismatic and over the top and hammy, and shamelessly so. Yes, he ACTS his way through this film and ACTED his way to an Oscar, but MY GOD was he so effortless here. Yes, he fell into that trap of regurgitating his own success by capitalizing on a signature role too early, but let’s not penalize the role itself, just the carbon copies. This did come first, and it did set a standard, and the standard was a worthy one. He balanced out all of that ACTING with such heart and natural charisma. He owns every scene and makes this man feel genuine, real and incredibly understandable.
If you had asked me a month ago whether or not Nicholson should have won this particular Oscar, I would have said “no”. I would have said “didn’t you see Pacino this year” and then I would have given some kind of smug smirk. Pacino was outstanding, but so was Nicholson. They are polar opposite performances, true, but both carry so much internalized weight. Nicholson may have won because he was the flashier performance, but that doesn’t make it less worthy.
Today, this very moment, I vote Nicholson.
My Grade: A+
Nicholson won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing R.P. McMurphy, a criminal who is transferred to a mental institution. The film was lauded as one of the year's finest, and Nicholson was finally rewarded by the Academy, after being passed over for Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and Chinatown. He simply owns this performance, with his charming, energetic on-screen persona in full force. It's a magnetic portrayal, and arguably Nicholson's finest hour.
Did Nicholson deserve to win?
No question. Unfortunately, he beat Al Pacino, who gave one of the greatest losing performances of all time in Dog Day Afternoon. Both actors are outstanding, and either deserved the award. I'd lean slightly towards honoring Pacino's work, but Nicholson is a fantastic winner.
My Grade: A+
Who I was rooting for: The only other performance I’ve seen is Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, so I’m okay with Jack Nicholson getting the Oscar here.
The role: Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a hot-headed guy, not quite fit for jail. Potentially playing the system, he gets himself assigned to the psych ward for evaluation.
Watch for: His initial meeting with the director of the ward, Dr. Spivey. We may not be sure whether or not McMurphy is sane, but we damn well know that he’s smart. Or, at the very least, thinks he is.
Yay: McMurphy, in protest, gets to watch the Dodgers game – his own way.
Boo: The end. My God, I wasn’t ready for that.
Summary: While I feel that this is an excellent performance (not to mention an excellent role), it’s just a little too perfect for Nicholson, you know? A charming yet explosive misfit, playing by his own rules? Seems pretty much right in Jack’s wheelhouse, if you ask me. That said, it’s hard to penalize someone for doing exceptionally well in a role tailor-made for them, but with a score of less than excellent, apparently that’s exactly what I’m doing. Maybe I should be committed…
My Grade: B+
The best word I can used to describe Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is “effortless”. R.P. McMurphy is a deceptively tricky role but he just makes it look so easy. This brash character straddles a fine line between condescending and playful and Nicholson pulls it off marvelously. He makes it known that he’s not insane like the other mental patients but he doesn’t give off a superiority complex within the group. Even when he’s making fun of others (like making those Indian noises in front of Chief), Nicholson plays it so it doesn’t feel offensive. There’s a true sense of camaraderie that sells the film’s ideas of systematic injustice and oppression.
The collaborative nature of the performance also allows the audience to become immersed in the setting. He’s undoubtedly the central figure in the film and yet, it almost feels like’s observing the events with us. We share in his exasperated sighs, his amused laughter, his annoyance with the system and his moments of excitement (like when he learns the truth about Chief).
All of this contributes to the impact of the film’s heartbreaking ending. Nicholson’s dead expression at the end is utterly devastating. The performance is sometimes too laid-back to truly blow me away (is he acting or just enjoying himself?) but it nails all the important emotional beats.
In comparison to the rest of the Oscar nominees, Jack Nicholson holds up well. However, 1975 was all about Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon for me. I would give him the Oscar in a heartbeat.
My Grade: B+
Had things gone a different way for R.P. McMurphy, I think he would’ve ended up like Melvin Udall. Crass, intelligent, shifty – it’s old Jack doing what he’s always done, but with the benefit of age to give the performance some depth. I adore As Good as It Gets and think Nicholson is quite perfect in it. Like many of his characters, he could have so easily pushed too far. But thankfully, he held enough back, making Melvin a real man with real flaws.
Matt Damon is damn strong in Good Will Hunting; Robert Duvall has never been better than he is in The Apostle; and Dustin Hoffman is delightful in Wag the Dog. For me, it’d come down to Duvall and Nicholson, with Nicholson just nearly winning out.
My Grade: A
For the most honored actor in Oscar history (12 nominations and 3 wins), Nicholson has never been what you'd call a chameleon and his star persona looms so large that he's never exactly been an actor that disappears into a role. After decades on screen, there's gonna come a time when nothing that he does can surprise you - you pretty much know what you're getting from him. Which is exactly the case with the performance that won him his second Best Actor Oscar and third statue, as a misanthropic writer with OCD in James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets. Nicholson just does nothing that inspires and gives a performance that he could literally give in his sleep. Not that I don't think he's giving his all in the role, but he's never asked to be anything other than Jack Nicholson with the quirk dial turned up as far is it will go. It doesn't help that he's saddled with a part that tries to shock us with just how hateful he can be, making him say quippy lines that seem self-congratualtory in their execution and do things that seem more in line with a Looney Tunes cartoon (what person would ever put a puppy in a trash chute?). His OCD always seems to be more of a zany film eccentricity than an actual condition that people suffer from. And his character arc (spoiler alert - love makes he want to be a better man! he even says as much) is so predictable that the film's bloated run-time makes you wonder what took him so long to change. With two wins already, I'm not sure why the Academy saw fit to award his subpar work in this film as any of the other 4 nominees would have been better choices, especially Robert Duvall who gives an absolutely electrifying performance in The Apostle.
My Grade: D
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I want to make something clear before I get into this. Despite the fact that I admitted to allowing outside influence cloud by feelings on Nicholson’s first Oscar win, I have always considered him one of the finest actors of any generation. In fact, his performances in About Schmidt, Prizzi’s Honor, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces are some of my favorite performances by any actor, ever. I’ve always considered Jack ahead of the pack, and while I was unsure of the value of his first Oscar win for a spell, I’m back on board as you read above.
This win and performance in general, was a misstep.
This is case in point WHY so many today are cool on Jack as a whole. Let’s just play ourselves and be happy we still have work, right? No. Why not try and challenge ourselves, regardless of our cemented Hollywood status. De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson…you don’t have to stoop to this level of regurgitation. You still have talent. You can still spice things up and TRY!
There is no trying here.
I have to say, it is a character thing as well. Melvin is just a stale character for Jack to take on. Sure, he plays the part fine enough, but that is because he is very good at playing this particular part. The role feels written with Jack in mind, which is sad because it feels like it was written by someone who doesn’t understand that Jack has played more than one character in his career. And this isn’t coming from someone who just hates the movie. I don’t. I don’t love it, but I also don’t detest it, and I am one of the few people who stands by Helen Hunts Oscar win and actually defends it quite fervently (she was so layered, so invested, so convincing, so natural).
But this Oscar win, in the face of career defining work from Duvall and career making work from Damon was just wrong.
My Grade: C-
Nicholson won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive author who befriends a gay artist and falls in love with a waitress. This film was also a critical and box-office success, which paved the way for multiple Oscar nominations. While it could be written off as just another romantic comedy, Nicholson's tender performance is not to be missed. He hits the comedic and dramatic notes just right, and he makes it looks easy.
Did Nicholson deserve to win?
Though I love that Nicholson has three Oscars, I can't fully endorse this win, especially when he triumphed over Robert Duvall's towering performance in The Apostle. It's a good win, but there were better performances that year.
My Grade: A-
Who I was rooting for: Not gonna lie, I was eighteen at the time, and considered Good Will Hunting one of my favorite movies ever. While I’d never be mad at Jack winning anything, I was certainly pulling for Matt Damon.
The role: Jack plays Melvin Udall, a successful writer who abhors people and perhaps society in general. Only when he meets an overwhelmed waitress, does he even begin to consider changing his ways.
Watch for: The now clichéd You make me want to be a better man scene. Nicholson nails all the unappealing and borderline life-crippling insecurities of Melvin, while still appearing confident and charming.
Yay: The moment before the How do you write women so well? scene where he completely blows off his editor. It still makes me laugh a decade later.
Boo: He is so consistently awful to Simon (Greg Kinnear), it’s almost painful to watch. Good thing it’s kind of, well…funny.
Summary: Maybe another case of Jack being Jack, I still find the performance interesting and appealing. Melvin Udall is essentially a rotten prick, but through the insanely likable Nicholson, becomes something of a sympathetic character. While I don’t think this was much of a stretch, there are enough quirks (mixed in with a lot of wicked hate) and genuine character growth for the role to matter. Honestly, I think I’m biased as I’m just happy to see Jack kicking ass in a good movie. His iconic face clouds my judgment.
My Grade: B
When one considers Jack Nicholson’s 2nd Best Actor win, it becomes clear that this is an actor who is held in very high esteem by the Academy. In retrospect, it seems more like an acknowledgement of his perceived livewire persona rather than the quality of his performance. Yes, there’s a great Jack Nicholson performance lurking in ‘ As Good as it Gets’ but unfortunately it gets mired in a poorly-written character which never seems coherent.
For most of his screen time, Nicholson’s Melvin Udall is absolutely deplorable. At other times, the film tries to make us sympathize with him (his OCD, his romantic side etc). It’s a balance that doesn't fully work within the film and it often hurts the performance. Nicholson tries his best to humanize the character but unfortunately, the directing/editing style (most of the time it’s forcibly comedic) doesn't allow him to really “sit” into the role.
Still, this is a spirited performance that’s not too different from the crazy eccentrics he’s played elsewhere. Honestly, there were many instances (apart from the cringe-worthy moments) that garnered full belly laughs from me as I wondered “did he just say that?!”. Overall, the performance is hindered by the crazy movie that contains it, but it’s commendable.
In terms of its Oscar-worthiness, it’s hard for me to judge the field as Matt Damon’s is the only other performance I’ve seen (and I barely remember it).
My Grade: B
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actor).
Jack Nicholson received a total of 105 points for his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Jack Nicholson received a total of 71 points for his performance in As Good As It Gets.
This is a collective total of 176 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
An interesting point, or at least something I found pretty cool; out of all five actors (and ten performances) not one performance has received the same score. There are some close ones, but no one has tied. So far Day-Lewis has the highest ranking singular performance (with My Left Foot) and Cooper gets the lowest ranking performance (for Sergeant York).
So this closes our discussion of Jack Nicholson. Next week we’re going to tackle the lesser known Fredric March!
Again, as always, a special thanks to the five incredible bloggers who agreed to attack this project with me! It wouldn't be the same without any of you!