The accepted wisdom about Jack Nicholson has him comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of great actors whose careers came of age in the 1970s, and who have given us, between them (Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino, Streep, Hoffman et al) a ludicrously high proportion of cinema's most inarguable, evergreen classics. Nicholson alone scorched a trail through that decade, boasting 17 titles between "Easy Rider" (1969) and "The Shining" (1980), including further all-out masterpieces "Chinatown," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Detail," and "Carnal Knowledge." The baseline we judge off when it comes to Nicholson is high indeed. And so it's hardly surprising that the accepted wisdom also has Nicholson on a graceful, but perceptible downward curve since then, with the high watermarks of his later career coming further apart, peppering the eighties, but popping up more sparsely in the nineties and noughties.
Then again, over the course of the last two decades, Nicholson simply hasn't been working at the rate he used to, like the other members of the aforementioned pantheon (excepting Streep who has never seemed busier, with her impressive recent streak of high-profile successes). There are of course late-period films of his that have landed -- "As Good As It Gets," "About Schmidt" and "The Departed" spring to mind -- but more often these days Nicholson is judged to be resting on his laurels, turning up in lightweight fare like "How Do You Know" or "The Bucket List" for a nice little earner that's not going to overtax his acting muscle.
Never ones to accept the accepted wisdom, however, we've taken the occasion of the actor's 76th birthday today as an opportunity to re-examine the last two decades of his career, to find the neglected high points that the consensus glosses over. Not quite a "Best Performances of the Last 20 Years" list (we hardly need to trumpet his involvement with Alexander Payne's and Martin Scorsese's pictures, to say nothing of his Oscar-winning turn in James L Brooks' "As Good as it Gets") here are five other strong performances that it's by no means guaranteed you've seen. No, it's not a period comparable to his heyday, but if a career has seasons, then his is a more impressive Autumn than you might at first glance think.
"The Crossing Guard" (1995)
There are a couple of instances here of Nicholson being better than the film he's in ("Mars Attacks" being one egregious example of that, as you'll see) -- note this is a list of unfairly overlooked performances not necessarily overlooked films. And that's something of the case for Sean Penn's sophomore directorial outing, and his first collaboration with Nicholson "The Crossing Guard," though perhaps it's not that he's better than the material, just bigger? Paradoxically, Nicholson is terrific -- it's a complex portrayal of a broken, emptied man who's been marking time for years suddenly coming upon new, malevolent purpose, but it's so strong a performance in a not-brilliantly-written role that it makes the film feel lopsided and rather highlights the more contrived plotting. So Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, a grieving father driven to a life of dull tacky distraction after his young daughter is killed by a drunk driver (David Morse), and his marriage (to real-life ex Anjelica Huston) ends. When the driver is due for release from prison, Freddy finds a new goal in life and swears to kill him in revenge. But a misfiring gun introduces the first of the plot's difficult sells: Freddy agrees to let the man, whose own guilt is so crippling that he puts up no resistance, live for three more days, which in the world of the film is enough time for him to embark on a tentative, potentially redemptive relationship. The stellar support cast are brilliant in their own ways (Morse a particular standout as the remorseful, self-hating ex-alcoholic, the quiet foil to Nicholson's raging, uncomprehending Gale), but it's Nicholson who exerts a gravitational pull at its center. Which is possibly to the film's detriment, but it makes Gale a more interesting character than he might otherwise have been -- it's not that Nicholson can't play a loser (he often does), it's more that it takes a defter hand than Penn's to guide him to playing a nobody, and so Gale is given currents and layers that we just can't see anyone else bringing to the hollowed-out everyman role. In Nicholson's hands, the film becomes about this character, a man who has spent years trying to erase himself who suddenly finds a way out of his self-imposed invisibility, much more than it is about the universal themes of redemption, guilt and loss it's shooting for. Still it's an absorbing, if bleak, film and if Penn is a little on-the-nose and a little unsure how to hone Nicholson's role, these are lessons he mostly learns by the time of their next collaboration, on "The Pledge" (see below).
"Blood and Wine" (1996)
15 years after their last collaboration on the sexed-up but kinda unnecessary remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Nicholson was again back under Bob Rafelson's direction, which of course had taken him to impressive heights with "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Five Easy Pieces." "Blood and Wine" doesn't get to those heights, but it's still a decent character-driven crime drama that boasts a great central performance from Nicholson, reminding us again just how utterly fearless he can be when it comes to portraying human ugliness. In this he's given a run for his money here by Michael Caine as Vic, a wholly abhorrent creation, both physically with his dyed greasy hair, spivey tache and constant wheezing cough, and morally with a vicious streak a mile wide. In contrast, Nicholson's Alex is a more nuanced character, no less venal and corrupt, but we see moments of charm, especially when he's with his mistress played by Jennifer Lopez, and even occasional flashes of actual remorse. Mostly, though he's at his reptilian best, forming a detestable but compelling double act with Caine. When he falls on hard times financially, Alex teams up with Vic to steal a valuable diamond necklace that ends up in his wife (Judy Davis) and stepson's (Stephen Dorff) hands after she leaves him following a violent altercation. The stepson discovers the necklace's true worth and meantime is falling for Gabrielle (Lopez) unaware that she's Alex's girlfriend. "Blood and Wine" feels like a film that was made specifically for two or three bravura scenes -- all of them featuring Nicholson at his scuzzy best: suffocating Vic with a cushion then downing a glass of wine; hobbled on a jetty clutching the diamonds as sirens approach; sobbing in a car wreck over his wife's body but still begging her to use her dying breath to tell him where the necklace is, while frisking her down to her underwear in a downright rapey facsimile of marital intimacy. It's a film perhaps hampered by the hatefulness of most of its characters -- even the "good" guys are hard to root for entirely -- but as so often Nicholson completely commits to his character's dreadfulness, meaning that his Alex Gates is more than worthy of a place in his career's rogue's gallery of antiheroes and lowlifes.