Jack Nicholson: 5 Of His Most Underrated Performances

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by Oliver Lyttelton
April 23, 2012 10:56 AM
13 Comments
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"The Border" (1982)
Perhaps the most underseen and underrated film, and performance, of Nicholson's career, "The Border" was ignored on release, and has pretty much passed into obscurity, falling between his two Oscar-nominated supporting turns in "Reds" and "Terms of Endearment." But the film, penned by Walon Green ("Sorceror"), Deric Washburn ("Silent Running," "The Deer Hunter") and David Freeman, and directed, atypically, by the great British helmer Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), is an overlooked gem, with some of Nicholson's very best screen acting. The star plays Charlie, a border patrol agent who moves to Texas at the behest of his materialist, social-climbing wife (Valerie Perrine, fun, if a little broad). He soon discovers that his colleagues, Cat (Harvey Keitel) and Warren Oates (in his penultimate role) are deep into corruption, and gives into temptation, but decides to atone for his sins by tracking down the baby of immigrant Maria (Elpidia Carrilo), which has been taken to be sold to a wealthy American couple. The actor is in subdued form here, a man being eaten up by financial pressures and the self-loathing at what he's doing to live up to them, who finds salvation through his desire to "feel good about something sometime," as he tells Maria (there's a beautiful dignity to how he plays the scene, in which the girl undresses, thinking that's the payment Charlie wants for his help). The film unravels towards the end, devolving into a too-neat shoot-em-up finale that stinks of studio interference, but Nicholson's performance is a marvel throughout. It's time it got its due.

"Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
It's hard to argue that "Prizzi's Honor" was undervalued at the time as the film was nominated for a brace of Oscars, and Nicholson himself got a Best Actor nod, although he was beaten out by Wliliam Hurt for "Kiss of the Spider Woman." But its critical reputation has shrunk a little since, and probably correctly so. One suspects that the Academy wanted to honor director John Huston one last time, and had they known he had another bona-fide masterpiece in him with "The Dead," they might not have fallen for an enjoyable, if slight, black comedy. But none of that changes how good Nicholson is in the film. The actor plays Charley Partanna, a mob enforcer for the Prizzi family, who falls for Irene, a rival hitwoman (Kathleen Turner, never better). They're soon married, but find that work and love don't mix, and thanks to the interference of Charley's one-time fiancee Maerose (Nicholson's then-girlfriend Angelica Huston, who won an Oscar for the part), soon find themselves tasked with taking each other out. Huston gives the film an enjoyably nasty, dark tone, but the treat here is Nicholson, who with padding in his lip that subtly shifts his look and voice, giving him the feel of Humphrey Bogart. And despite the broad comic tone, there's a grounded, deeply sad feel to Charley, even as he wrings laughs out of his less than towering intellect.

"The Pledge" (2001)
In the last couple of decades, Nicholson's given good performances, but has too often, like Pacino and De Niro, ended up giving mannered turns that verge on self-parody. But smack in the middle is not just one of his most undervalued performances, but one of his very best. Six years after their first collaboration on "The Crossing Guard," Nicholson reunited with director Sean Penn for "The Pledge," another grim tale of child death and revenge, in which the star plays Jerry Black, a detective who, just as he's retiring, promises the mother of a murdered girl that he'll bring her killer to justice. His former colleagues think that they got their suspect, a mentally-disabled Native American man (Benicio Del Toro) who kills himself in custody, but Jerry's not convinced, and becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the murderer. While Penn's direction is occasionally a little heavy-handed and look-at-how-serious-I-am, he assembled an astonishing cast who never showboat (small cameos from Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave are among the highlights), but Nicholson is first and foremost among them, carrying the entire film on his shoulders. It's easily his subtlest, least mannered performance, the actor almost unrecognizable as a haunted man trying to do the right thing, but often in the wrong way, and unravelling as a result. Where he's left at the end of the film is heartbreaking, and it remains his most resonant turn, although we're ever helpful it'll be topped before too long.

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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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