As he turns 80, ten Jack Nicholson films you should see

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The phone rang on my desk at The Hollywood Reporter and a deep, familiar voice said, “Ray? Hey, it’s Jack.” It was in the run-up to the Academy Awards in 1998 and I was expecting the call but I was impressed that he knew he didn’t need to say his full name.

When I’d met Jack Nicholson at the launch of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975, he was exactly as you might expect: cocky, sly and charming, loving his late-bloomed stardom. When I spoke to him again 20 years later, he showed another side entirely.

The three-time Academy Award-winner turns 80 today and he wears his iconic status lightly. He hasn’t had a leading role in a film since “The Bucket List” in 2007 although reportedly he will star in a Sony Pictures Classics remake of the German comedy “Toni Erdmann”.

At the “Cuckoo’s Nest” launch, Nicholson was 38 with the slow, sensual voice of the alcoholic lawyer in “Easy Rider” (1969), the jaded pianist in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), the cynical Navy man in “The Last Detail” (1973), and the wry private eye in “Chinatown” (1974).

In 1998, Nicholson had earned the 11th of what would become 12 Academy Award nominations and he would go on to win his third Oscar for James L. Brooks’s “As Good as It Gets”. The Reporter was doing a series on the nominees and we asked the actor if he would talk to us. He agreed, but on one condition. He would talk only about his leading lady, Helen Hunt, for whom he had rapturous praise. He spent the entire campaign talking about the co-star of Paul Reiser’s TV sitcom “Mad About You” and he was as persuasive as her performance. Hunt won as best actress.

In 1975, Nicholson had told me that it was a good thing that he had to wait for stardom: “As a result of not being well-known for much of my career, my instincts are aesthetic more than for the money. It’s the challenge of what I can do with a character that I look for. If you’re not growing as an actor, it’s not too much fun to do.”

The range of his films confirms that but he also made some very canny deals. While other top stars boasted about making $20 million per picture, Nicholson smiled, took half of that number but also a big chunk of the back-end. I’ve heard that he made upwards of $50 million for playing the Joker in “Batman” (1989).

There are some films, however, that made less of an impact and here are 10 titles that remain worth a look.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Directed by Mike Nichols with a script by cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer, it’s a comedy with a fierce undercurrent as it follows two men, played by Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, as they pursue their dreams and fantasies about women. Candice Bergen and Ann-Margret also are terrific as two of the females involved.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Nicholson at his most reflective and subtle as a talk-show host who is inveigled by his dodgy brother (Bruce Dern) to get involved with a scam involving mobsters in Atlantic City. Directed by Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces”), it’s a great look at the Boardwalk city with a fine contribution by Ellen Burstyn.

The Passenger (1975)

Framed as a thriller, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film is typically complex with Nicholson as a man seeking both fight and flight as he opts to change character and identity in Africa. David Locke (Nicholson) is an English reporter educated in America who stumbles upon a story about a hidden guerrilla force. When the chance presents itself for him to pretend he is dead and assume the life of somebody else, he takes it and follows leads to Munich, London and Barcelona.  Existential and absorbing.

The Fortune (1975)

Underrated screwball comedy set in Hollywood in the Twenties with Nicholson and Warren Beatty as conmen who set out to cheat a flamboyant woman (Stockard Channing) out of her inheritance. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film has a great look thanks to cinematographer John A. Alonzo and production designer Richard Sylbert with uncredited music by David Shire. It’s much more entertaining than its reviews suggest.

Goin’ South (1978)

Screwball Western that Nicholson directs as well as stars in. He plays a ne’er do well about to be hanged until a law crops up that allows any woman who owns land to claim a convict so long as he marries and works for her. Mary Steenburgen plays the woman and the pair of them have a rare old time. It’s her screen debut and John Belushi’s too. The cast includes Danny DeVito, Richard Bradford and Christopher Lloyd. The opening chase sequence is brilliant.

The Border (1982)

Penetrating drama about the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas with Californian transplant Charlie (Nicholson) and his high maintenance wife (Valerie Perrine) adjusting to the realities of life in El Paso. British director Tony Richardson takes an outsider’s view of the way corrupt cops deal with Hispanics who risk everything in search of what they think is a better life. Charlie’s life gets complicated when he tries to help a young Latina (Elphidia Carrillo) and her baby. Harvey Keitel, Shannon Wilcox and Warren Oates are in the cast and the music is by the always reliable Ry Cooder.

Prizzi’s Honor 1985

A very entertaining mafia movie with Nicholson as Charley Partanna, a made man who happens also to be a complete doofus. The star said he came to grips with the character only when director John Huston reminded him: “Remember, he’s stupid.” Anjelica Huston won the best supporting actress Oscar as Maerose, a far more resourceful mobster who steps in when Charley falls for a dangerous blonde specimen played by Kathleen Turner. Scripted by Richard Condon (and Janet Roach) based on his novel, it’s a riot with a score by Alex North.

The Two Jakes (1990)

Nicholson directed this contemplative sequel to “Chinatown” with a screenplay by the original film’s Robert Towne. Set following World War II in a Los Angeles much changed from the Thirties, it puts private eye Jake Gittes on the case of another Jake (Harvey Keitel), who says his wife (Meg Tilly) is bonking his partner. A set-up leads to a death and Gittes has to delve deeper as a beauty played by Madeleine Stowe complicates matters. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and music by Van Dyke Parks add to the film’s attractions.

Wolf (1994)

Vastly entertaining picture that became even better when I realised that it’s not a horror film. It’s a comedy, and very funny it is too. Nicholson plays a successful but meek publisher who is fired by his boss (Christopher Plummer) after he is betrayed by a young man he has mentored (James Spader). When his car hits a wolf that bites him, things change dramatically. Michelle Pfeiffer (pictured top with Nicholson) and Eileen Atkins are splendid in a terrific yarn directed by Mike Nichols with a score by Ennio Morricone.

About Schmidt (2002)

Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”) directs Nicholson as a cranky man in his mid-60s who, upon the death of his wife, decides to travel across the States in a trailer to see if he can prevent the wedding of his estranged daughter Jeanine (Hope Davis). A road picture with plenty of incident, it’s a showcase for the actor’s range matched by Kathy Bates, who also won an Oscar nomination.

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