What's Jack Nicholson's secret? Maybe it's the eyebrows, hovering like ironic quotation marks over every line reading. Maybe it's the hooded eyes, which hold the threat of danger or the promise of joviality -- you're never sure which. Same with that sharklike grin. Or maybe it's the voice, which has evolved over the years from a thin sneer to a deep rumble, but is always precisely calibrated to provoke a reaction. Put them all together, and they say: "I am a man to be reckoned with. Ignore me at your peril."
Nicholson, who turns 75 on April 22, is often criticized for relying on his bag of tricks, for just showing up and doing Jack Nicholson (though indeed, he often seems to have been hired precisely for that purpose). But he's also capable of burrowing deep into a character, finding his wounded heart, and revealing the ugly truth without fear or vanity. Moviegoers don't always love the subtler Nicholson as much as the broader-played rabble rouser, but both have made him an institution, one of the most Oscar-lauded actors alive (he has three trophies, the same as sometime co-star Meryl Streep, and 12 nominations, more than anyone but Streep).
It's easy to forget that Jack wasn't always Jack, that he was nearly 20 films into a career marked by low-budget genre pictures before he finally clicked with 1969's "Easy Rider," or that he spent a decade doing some of his best work playing seething anti-heroes before his string of unforgettable, more cartoonish performances (beginning with 1980's "The Shining") that have bedazzled younger Nicholson fans. Or that alongside his classic turns have been a fair number of experimental performances or parts done as favors to old friends that were often fascinating failures or outright stinkers.
For the last 15 years, Nicholson has worked only when he felt like it, which has been about once every couple of years. Still, he's amassed a catalogue of 62 films going back more than half a century, a roster that's full of landmarks, trifles, noble failures, and underrated gems. He's almost always provocative and never dull. Here, then, are Nicholson's movie roles, rated from best to worst.
1. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) R.P. McMurphy
The culmination of years spent playing countercultural antiheroes, McMurphy is the archetypal Nicholson performance, full of lewd humor, volcanic rage, life force, and more than a little bit of crazy. Nicholson not only won his first Oscar for playing the greatest mental patient in the history of cinema, but he also gave a performance that made everyone else step up their game.
2. "Chinatown" (1974) J.J. Gittes
In Roman Polanski's neo-noir, Nicholson's GIttes is a sleazy sleuth forced to become a romantic hero, a role for which the gumshoe proves ill-suited. One of Nicholson's most iconic, multi-faceted performances.
3, "About Schmidt" (2002) Warren Schmidt
In the best of his twilight roles, NIcholson is both hilarious and heartbreaking as a relentlessly ordinary retiree confronting his mortality and trying to make an impact on the world in the time he has left.
4. "A Few Good Men" (1992) Col. Nathan R. Jessup
Nicholson has only about three scenes in this courtroom drama; he could have phoned it in, but instead, he fully inhabits a fearsome villain who dominates the movie (even when he's off-screen) and who barks out a monologue (and a catchphrase) for the ages.
5. "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) Bobby Dupea
One of the greatest of Nicholson's rebel roles, Bobby Dupea rebels against everything -- his family, his social status, his own musical gifts, and all manner of authority, right down to the rule-bound diner waitress who won't deviate from the menu to take his order for plain wheat toast.
6. "Batman" (1989) The Joker/Jack Napier
Given the source material, Nicholson could have really made the supercriminal a cartoon, but for all his antics, he really gets across the characters mix of anarchy, avarice, jealousy, cruelty, and sick humor -- all while his face is stuck in perma-grin. No wonder he got top billing over hero Michael Keaton.
7. "Easy Rider" (1969) George Hanson
Nicholson finally became a star in this era-defining flick, even though his screen time is brief as a lawyer-turned-rebel whose paranoia turns out to be horribly justified.
8. "The Last Detail" (1973) Buddusky
Playing another memorable rebel, Nicholson is at his weaselly best in this road movie, playing a sailor determined to show convicted naif Randy Quaid a good time before escorting him to the brig. Directed gracefully by Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude").
9. "Terms of Endearment" (1983) Garrett Breedlove
As a playboy retired astronaut who falls for his similarly middle-aged neighbor, Nicholson showed he wasn't afraid to play old and flabby, to play pathetic and unlikable, or to play second banana (to Shirley MacLaine). He was rewarded with his second Oscar.
10. "The Shining" (1980) Jack Torrance
As Nicholson plays the family-man-turned-homicidal-maniac, the drive to crazytown isn't a long one; even at the beginning, he's full of none-too-latent hostility and violence. Still, there's not a whole lot in modern cinema that's more thoroughly terrifying than the full-blown psychotic Nicholson on his final rampage.
11. "Prizzi's Honor" (1985) Charley Partanna
It can be hard for someone smart to play stupid, but Nicholson is convincing (and very funny) as a lovestruck hitman in John Huston's sly Mafia satire.
12. "Carnal Knowledge" (1971) Jonathan
In this brutally frank tour of the sexual revolution from the point of view of two male pals (romantic Art Garfunkel and more blatantly misogynistic Nicholson), director Mike Nichols tells you more about men's secret hearts than you ever wanted to know. Nicholson's first of four films to date for Nichols, it's a hard one to watch, thanks to Nicholson's candid cruelty.
13. "The Crossing Guard" (1995) Freddy Gale
In his first film with director Sean Penn, Nicholson goes deep into the soul of a grief-stricken father bent on violent vengeance against the drunk driver who killed his daughter. Bonus points to all for the blunt, awkward civility of the moments where Nicholson and real-life ex Anjelica Huston play bitter exes.
14. "The Pledge" (2001) Jerry Black
Reteaming with director Sean Penn, Nicholson plays an anguished, obsessed sleuth. An underrated turn that's less about solving a mystery than plumbing the depths of despair.
15. "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972) David Staebler
In a departure of sorts, it's Nicholson buddy Bruce Dern who plays the rebel/dreamer and Nicholson who plays the responsible brother who must bail him out of trouble. Both stars are outstanding. This gem from Bob Rafelson ("Five Easy Pieces") is all but forgotten now and ripe for rediscovery.
16. "The Border" (1982) Charlie Smith
In this underrated drama, Nicholson excels as a patrol guard on the Mexican border who, like J.J. Gittes, must develop a conscience and a penchant for chivalry amid a sea of corruption.
17. "The Passenger" (1975) David Locke
Another underrated movie you should seek out if you only know latter-day Jack. In Michelangelo Antonioni's mindbender, Nicholson is darkly poignant as a reporter who assumes the identity of an arms dealer.
18. "Ironweed" (1987) Francis Phelan
Nicholson and Streep play a skid row couple in this adaptation of William Kennedy's celebrated novel. Grim but moving, and unjustly overlooked.
19. "Reds" (1981) Eugene O'Neill
The epic romance belongs to Warren Beatty's John Reed and Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant, but Nicholson shines as the literary lion who also loves Bryant and is bitter over being a third wheel.
20. "Broadcast News" (1987) Bill Rorich
Nicholson's cameo as a scowling network anchorman is pretty much a phoned-in favor to director James L. Brooks. Still, he earns his pay with his withering, silent, dagger-glare response to a colleague who suggests that the news staff could avoid painful layoffs if he'd take a pay cut.
21. "As Good As It Gets" (1997) Melvin Udall
Nicholson won his third Oscar in this James L. Brooks comedy for playing a long-in-the-tooth, obsessive-compulsive bigot who nonetheless manages to woo sensible, youngish waitress Helen Hunt. Guess nobody else could have played this part and made him likable or even sweet -- but then, who'd want to?
22."Something's Gotta Give" (2003) Harry Sanborn
Some 22 years after "Reds," Nicholson woos Keaton again; this time, he's an aging rake coasting on his considerable charm. (Sound familiar?) In fact, it's only due to that considerable charm and his willingness to be the butt of the jokes that he makes this reprobate into a credible romantic comedy lead.
23. "The Departed" (2006) Frank Costello
In Martin Scorsese's Best Picture winner, Nicholson has the sheer depravity of his Boston crime boss down pat, but his over-the-top improvisations run roughshod over both the story and Scorsese's direction.
24. "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) Wilbur Force
Nicholson's brief turn as a masochistic dental patient isn't as funny as Bill Murray's take on the character in the 1986 musical, but it's still a highlight of this horror cheapie, one that shows early on how easy it was for Nicholson to go for the perverse.
25. "The Raven" (1963) Rexford Bedlo
Nicholson doesn't have much to do in Roger Corman's imaginative adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's poem, but it's fun to see him share the screen with such veteran creeps as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff.
26. "Goin' South" (1978) Henry Lloyd Moon
As a director, Nicholson is credited in this western with giving Mary Steenburgen and John Belushi their first film roles. As a star, Nicholson does his director no favors. The character, an outlaw saved from the gallows via a marriage of convenience, is just another in the actor's gallery of rogues and eccentrics.
27. "The Last Tycoon" (1976) Brimmer
Director Elia Kazan's last movie, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel, featuring a cast of movie royals playing dress-up for a tale set in golden-age Hollywood, should have been a bigger deal, but it turned out to be little more than a footnote for everyone involved. That includes Nicholson, who acquits himself as an ambitious union boss -- sort of a precursor to his role in "Hoffa" 16 years later.
28. "How Do You Know" (2010) Charles
In his most recent movie, Nicholson takes a supporting turn in another James L. Brooks comedy, this time as a blowhard, Trump-like mogul. It's not much of a part and not much of a movie, but Nicholson is the liveliest thing in it.
29. "The Bucket List" (2007) Edward
It's sort of fun, if nothing to write home about, to see a 70-year-old Nicholson still tapping his rebellious life force as a wealthy senior determined not to go gently into that good night.
30. "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981) Frank Chambers
As the violent drifter and his lover, who conspire together to murder her husband, Nicholson and Jessica Lange are free to be even more brutal and sexually daring in 1981 than John Garfield and Lana Turner were in the 1945 version. Still, more graphic isn't necessarily an improvement, and the original still holds up better than this remake.
31. "The Wild Ride" (1960) Johnny Varron
In just his second film, Nicholson is a hoot as a hotrodder and gang leader whose need for speed and control-freak ways prove his undoing. Not a great film, by any stretch, but it sure is fun to watch the 23-year-old Nicholson play a rebel for the first time.
32. "Anger Management" (2003) Dr. Buddy Rydell
Weird to see Adam Sandler as a straight man, opposite Nicholson doing Jack shtick. Betting this will work better as a Charlie Sheen sitcom.
33. "Mars Attacks!" (1996) President James Dale/Art Land
Nicholson reteams with Tim Burton for this dual novelty role. Amid Burton's mean-spirited silliness, he's surprisingly at sea, though his delivery of the news that we still have two of the three branches of government left, "and that ain't bad," is pretty priceless.
34. "The Two Jakes" (1990) J.J. Gittes
Sixteen years after "Chinatown," Nicholson directs himself in this sequel that no one asked for. It doesn't detract from the original but doesn't add anything either.
35. "The Witches of Eastwick" (1987) Daryl Van Horne
The role of a Devil who wreaks supernatural havoc on a Salem-like town while seducing its three most eligible women into a menage a quatre has become one of Nicholson's signature characters, but it's just his usual shtick. He seems to have sent his eyebrows to the set of this comedy to do all the work while the rest of him stayed behind in his trailer to count his money.
36. "Wolf" (1994) Will Randall
You'd expect Nicholson to do fine as a werewolf baying at the moon, but the wolf scenes are actually the silliest part of the movie. The actor and his frequent director Mike Nichols are actually more incisive in the scenes where they're sending up New York's publishing industry.
37. "Studs Lonigan" (1960) Weary Reilly
This ambitious retelling of James T. Farrell's epic of Chicago street life is set in the 1920s but cast with young actors with then-contemporary, "Rebel Without a Cause" attitude. So Nicholson, in a small role as a pool hall punk, fits in surprisingly well.
38. "Head" (1968), Movie director
Nicholson has just a walk-on in the Monkees' weirdly delightful stoner movie, a satirical look at the prefab quartet's own fame, which Nicholson co-wrote.
39. "Flight to Fury" (1964) Jay Wickham
One of two movies Nicholson shot in the Philippines at the same time with Monte Hellman (later famous as the director of "Two-Lane Blacktop"). Nicholson and Hellman collaborated on the script, which centers on survivors of a plane crash in the jungle and a stolen cache of diamonds. Not a bad little adventure, with an early meaty villain role for Nicholson.
40. "Ragtime" (1981) Pirate on beach
In a favor to "Cuckoo's Nest" director Milos Forman, Nicholson does a blink-and-you'll-miss-it walk-on in this all-star historical epic.
41. "The Shooting" (1966) Billy Spear
Nicholson and Hellman made two existential Westerns that went unreleased in North American theaters but instead went straight to TV. In this one, scripted by Carole Eastman (who'd go on to write "Five Easy Pieces"), Nicholson is a sadistic gunslinger, part of a posse paid by a mysterious woman to hunt an unknown quarry. The movie is pretty strange and hard to follow, but Nicholson is clearly becoming more adept at the kind of violent-loner role that's typical of his 1960s work.
42. "Ride in the Whirlwind" (1965) Wes
Hellman and Nicholson shot this Western days after "The Shooting" but saw it released (overseas) first. In "Whirlwind," which Nicholson also wrote, he's one of three cowboys mistaken for outlaws and pursued relentlessly by a posse. Notable less for Nicholson's performance than for his screenplay, full of bitter irony and moral ambiguity that would characterize his '70s output.
43. "The Evening Star" (1996) Garrett Breedlove
After two hours of feisty weepiness from Shirley MacLaine, Nicholson swoops in for about five minutes, giving what is essentially a highlight reel of his Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment" performance. Why bother?
44. "Too Soon to Love" (1960) Buddy
In this cautionary tale about teen sex, Nicholson has a quick but memorable role as a thug who nearly rapes the heroine and beats the tar out of the hero, prompting them to sleep together. It's the first of Nicholson's three collaborations with director Richard Rush, who'd make a name for himself years later with such mind-twisters as "The Stunt Man" and "The Color of Night."
45. "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) Tom Logan
Nicholson is a tragic outlaw up against the system in Arthur Penn's revisionist western. He's also up against bounty hunter Marlon Brando, probably the only actor who could out-crazy him.
46. "Hells Angels on Wheels" (1967) Poet
"I don't need you, and I don't need your rules or your uniform, man." Rebel-for-all-seasons Nicholson is talking not to some square authority figure but to the biker gang leader who's taken Nicholson under his wing. Richard Rush's exploitation drama is no "Easy Rider," but its still one of Nicholson's better biker movies.
47. "Tommy" (1975) The Specialist
As the doctor who pokes and prods the autistic hero while singing the Who's "Go to the Mirror," Nicholson brings an amusing air of mild perversity that doesn't really make up for his wispy singing voice on what should have been one of the rock opera's showstoppers.
48. "The Fortune" (1975) Oscar
This Mike Nichols period farce, with Nicholson and Warren Beatty as swindlers willing to sink to any depth to bilk heiress Stockard Channing, has a cult of defenders who insist that dimwit Nicholson, sharpie Beatty, and smarter-than-both-of-them Channing are all hilarious in this movie. Those cultists are wrong.
49. "The Cry-Baby Killer" (1958) Jimmy Wallace
At 21, Nicholson made his film debut with a lead role in this crime drama, which hints at the hair-trigger violence that would become one of the actor's hallmarks. At this early stage, however, he's still too green to carry it off.
50. "Back Door to Hell" (1964) Burnett
In this routine World War II combat drama, which Monte Hellman shot on location in the Philippines concurrently with "Flight to Fury,", Nicholson has a thankless part as a radio operator on a mission, one in which his fate is telegraphed early on.
51. "Heartburn" (1986) Mark Forman
In this Nora Ephron dramedy, Nicholson is the adulterous husband who breaks Meryl Streep's heart (based on Ephron's own real-life ex), but he's such a cad from the first moment that it's never clear what she saw in him in the first place.
52. "Hoffa" (1992) Jimmy Hoffa
In pal Danny DeVito's take on the controversial labor leader's life story, the character literally comes out of nowhere, as does Nicholson's performance. His turn is a thunderstorm that begins and ends suddenly and leaves no lasting impact.
53. "Psych-Out" (1967) Stoney
Nicholson plays the leader of an acid-rock band in flower-power San Francisco in this lurid thriller, which he co-wrote. A dated Day-Glo relic with a sour odor of patchouli, but not without interest, thanks largely to Richard Rush's crafty direction.
54. "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" (1967) Gino
Nicholson has a small, uncredited role as a Mob hitman in Roger Corman's pulpy but essentially serious retelling of the 1929 Chicago gangland slaying.
55. "The Terror" (1963) Lt. Andre Duvalier
Not as much fun as "The Raven," which director Roger Corman had shot on the same sets. Nicholson is stiff and miscast in his starring role as a Napoleonic officer who stumbles upon the creepy castle lorded over by "Raven" costar Boris Karloff.
56. "A Safe Place" (1971). Mitch
When Nicholson pal Henry Jaglom made his directorial debut with this trippy movie about a woman (Tuesday Weld) with a vivid fantasy life, he cast Nicholson as the edgier of her two lovers. Nicholson's fine, but the movie is a painfully dated relic.
57. "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970) Tad Pringle
In this musical about a woman whose past lives emerge through hypnosis, Barbra Streisand and Nicholson (as her sympathetic stepbrother) go together like buttah and vinegar. Most of his part seems to have ended up on the cutting-room floor, including (thankfully) his duet with Streisand.
58. "The Broken Land" (1962) Will Brocious
In a supporting role in this western quickie, Nicholson breaks out of jail in a town run by a tyrannical sheriff. Unmemorable except for Nicholson's presence.
59. "Ensign Pulver" (1964) Dolan
In this utterly superfluous comedy sequel to "Mister Roberts" (made nine years earlier, with a far superior cast in the same roles), Robert Walker Jr. is at sea as the title character, the wily World War II sailor character that won an Oscar for Jack Lemmon in the initial film. As in "Back Door to Hell" (made that same year), Nicholson has a thankless part as a radio operator.
60. "Blood and Wine" (1996) Alex Gates
Despite having Michael Caine and Jennifer Lopez to play off of, Nicholson seems uninspired in this snooze of a crime thriller that's about as appetizing as its title.
61. "The Rebel Rousers" (1970) Bunny
In his last biker flick, Nicholson plays a sadistic gang leader. A curio at best.
62. "Man Trouble" (1992) Eugene Earl Axline/Harry Bliss
On paper this could have worked: a comic crime caper that reteamed Nicholson with the screenwriter and director of "Five Easy Pieces" and paired him with romantic foil Ellen Barkin. Sadly, the result, in which Nicholson gives a hammy performance and still manages to be upstaged by dogs, is painfully unwatchable.