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Jack Nicholson: 5 Of His Most Underrated Performances

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 23, 2012 10:56 AM
13 Comments
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Jack Nicholson

There can be little doubt that Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest movie stars in the history of the medium. He's had more Oscar nominations (twelve) and wins (three) than any other actor and has been an A-list star for over forty years now, remaining a legitimate box office draw in films like "Something's Gotta Give" and "The Departed" even in his seventh decade. He's worked with everyone from Antonioni to Scorsese, and given some of the most iconic screen performances ever, from "Easy Rider" to "The Shining."

Indeed, ask a cinephile for their favorite Nicholson performance, and the same few films are likely to come up: "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Detail," "Chinatown," "The Passenger" (an amazing, nearly back-to-back six-year-run), "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "The Shining." But this means that some of the actor's equally strong performances never quite made it into the canon, overshadowed by his better-known works. Jack turned 75 yesterday, on April 22nd, and to celebrate the occasion, we've picked out five underseen, undersung and underrated Nicholson performances that deserve to be talked about in the same breath as his most acclaimed fare. Check them out below, and weigh in with your own favorite Nicholson performance.

King Of Marvin Gardens

"The King Of Marvin Gardens" (1972)
By 1972, Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson were old collaborators. Rafelson had directed Nicholson's script for "Head" in 1968, before producing "Easy Rider," the film that made Nicholson a star, through his Raybert banner (soon to change its name to BBS), the following year. And in 1970, Rafelson took his place as one of the most promising young filmmakers around with "Five Easy Pieces," which won a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Their follow-up, two years later, was far less well-received. Indeed, "The King of Marvin Gardens" was virtually savaged by critics at the time. But with a few decades of distance, it's gained far more critical respect, and if nothing else, stands as a early demonstration of Nicholson's range. Riffing on the same dysfunctional family dynamics as "Five Easy Pieces," the actor plays David, a late-night talk radio host sunk in a deep dark depression, whose brother Jason (Bruce Dern), a wild-spirited con-man, brings him into a real estate scam in run-down Atlantic City, along with his unpredictable girlfriend Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her step-daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), with inevitably tragic consequences. The film (co-written by journalist & Carly Simon lyricist Jacob Brackman) is a decided oddity, a difficult, episodic watch with jarring, surreal scene after jarring, surreal scene. But even to those who don't respond to it, the relationship between the two brothers is complex and affecting, with Nicholson's introverted turn made all the more impressive when put up against Dern's, the friendship between the two giving the fraternal bond real heft. Despite the critical brickbats, the film was an impressive success -- the thirteenth biggest-grosser of 1972 -- and Nicholson and Rafelson would continue to work together many, many times, up to 1996's "Blood and Wine."

Reds

"Reds" (1981)
As staggering as he can be in the spotlight, Nicholson's always shown an admirable willingness to take the back seat to other stars for the right people or project, and one of the best examples of that is his performance in his friend Warren Beatty's "Reds." An unlikely epic about the affair between radical journalist John Reed (Beatty) and socialite-turned-activist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), the film is an enormously ambitious, unruly affair, with moments of both transient brilliance and eye-rolling artifice. But one of the undoubted highlights is Nicholson, who plays playwright Eugene O'Neill (writer of "Long Day's Jounrey Into Night," among others), who had a long, tumultuous affair with Bryant. Nicholson's drunken turn is a neat contrast with Beatty's more earnest lead, but this isn't Jack off the chain: lost in an alcoholic melancholy, he's entirely aware of how destructive his relationship with Bryant is, but unable to do anything to stop it. The film is full of great performances (it was the last movie to pick up Oscar nominations in all four acting categories, with Beatty, Keaton and Nicholson joining the winning Maureen Stapleton), but Nicholson's is the one that lingers.

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13 Comments

  • N.G. | April 22, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    Bang on the money with PRIZZI'S HONOR & THE PLEDGE.

  • Sarah | April 24, 2012 6:11 PMReply

    Agree on all fronts; I have a soft spot for him in Goin South too though ;)

  • Walice | April 24, 2012 9:14 AMReply

    Luv this list. The Border gives me a nice Nicholson, even though the story is a little thin/careful - I want him to leave his wife for the cross border character. Films seem to be reviewed from a central pool of like or dislike, heaven forbit we should disagree!!

    Critics should note that the moment they don't like something - I RUN out and buy it. Anyone want to discuss Hoffa ?? Happy Birthday Mr. Nicholson

  • cinejordan | April 23, 2012 8:33 PMReply

    He is exceptional in all of these, but particularly in The Border and The Pledge (but About Schmidt needed to be here, too). Nice list all around, though I think accusing Nicholson of falling into self-parody is unfair. I think he has veered away from innocuous, embarrassing, and lightweight fare better than Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, or any of his other contemporaries. He has continually taken more risks and his passion for acting and good stories still shines through.

  • gunz1 | April 23, 2012 8:09 PMReply

    I guess I need to see The King of Marvin Gardens, but The Pledge and Prizzis Honor are for sure under rated great performances. I wasn't sure anyone else had seen The Border but Jack was outstanding in it, and, without his performance, (Keaton too) Reds was a very over rated film and I wasn't a big fan of it. I agree with the the other person for pointing out About Schmidt--Jack was subtle and outstanding, the movie was underrated. Despite all of his early performances which were well done and mentioned, I believe one of his very best performances ever was in The Departed and I am a huge fan of Chinatown, Cuckoos Nest, Carnal Knowledge and 5 Easy Pieces....OK Jack in general. Happy Birthday to an entertainer who has entertained well through many centuries. I absolutely disagree with the comment that he pretty much stuck to his "star persona" most of the time.

  • Yod | April 24, 2012 12:40 AM

    Many centuries? Didn't realise he was that old.

  • PT | April 23, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    Yes, happy to see Reds and especially The Pledge on here. Both are probably his best performances post-Cuckoo's Nest, when he pretty much stuck to his star persona most of the time.

  • Huffy | April 23, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    Like everyone else I'm happy to see The Pledge on here (I think it's also Penn's best movie, definitely superior to Into the Wild) but I'm really pleasantly surprised that The Border also showed up.
    And I think that even with his recent flirtations with self-parody that Nicholson's career has aged much better than his contemporaries. There really aren't too many blatant paycheck movies on his recent resume. Even Anger Management was decent by Adam Sandler standards, something that can't be said about the one that Pacino embarrassed himself in.

  • cirkusfolk | April 23, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    I clicked on the article just hoping to see The Pledge made the list and it looks like I'm not the only one. But what is truely underrated is Nicholson with a mustache. In three outta the five films he has one.

  • Nik Grape | April 23, 2012 11:30 AMReply

    The Pledge is definitely underrated, both as a film and with Nicholson's performance. He's my favorite actor so picking his best is a bit of a torment. Something between Carnal Knowledge, One Flew Over and The Shining. As for underrated: I'd say his About Schmidt (same as Prizzi's Honor, he was nominated but now the film is hardly ever talked about) and The Missouri Breaks, a complete failure in its time but still had excellent performances from Brando and Nicholson. Thanks for reminding me about The Border! I haven't seen that in ages, it deserves a re-watch.

  • MAL | April 23, 2012 11:23 AMReply

    So glad you have The Pledge on the list. It has been seen by too few people and is an astonishing film with a powerful and surprisingly emotionally engaging performance by Nicholson -- my favourite of his. About Schmidt is another of his performances I found surprising -- mostly from his sadness and self-deprication.

  • [A] | April 23, 2012 11:05 AMReply

    Good call on THE PLEDGE

    I haven't seen the other movies -- shame on me?

  • Tyrannosaurus Max | April 23, 2012 11:20 AM

    Good call on THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS I haven't seen the other movies -- maybe between the two of us and three other readers we will have seen them all?

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