Critic's Picks: Jack Nicholson's 10 Best Performances

11:57 AM 4/21/2017

by Stephen Dalton

In honor of Nicholson’s 80th birthday, THR film critic Stephen Dalton ranks the actor's most indelible screen turns.

The Shining (1980) - Photofest-H 2016
Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest
  1. 10

    About Schmidt

    Dialing down his usual high-voltage charisma to sport a pitiful comb-over haircut and general air of damp despondency, Nicholson played movingly against type in Alexander Payne's quietly tragic black comedy about a Nebraska insurance executive whose life starts to unravel soon after retirement. This gloriously cranky, saggy, vanity-free performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

  2. 9

    The Pledge

    Having directed Nicholson in The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn cast him again as Jerry Black, a retired Nevada detective who becomes pathologically consumed with his vow to catch the brutal killer of a young girl. Penn's relentlessly bleak study in obsession and revenge is very much a strong autumnal vehicle for Nicholson the actor, not the larger-than-life superstar.

  3. 8


    Nicholson secured top billing and a record-breaking paycheck after he edged out Robin Williams to play The Joker in director Tim Burton's debut Gotham City adventure. Effortlessly outshining Michael Keaton's brooding Batman, Nicholson relished the chance to crank up his rock-star supervillain persona to towering heights of malevolent lunacy, setting a new bar for all future comic-book baddies.

  4. 7

    Terms of Endearment

    Slipping suavely into a role written for Burt Reynolds, Nicholson carved himself a new rom-com sideline when he played retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove in this tear-jerking box-office smash from writer-director James A. Brooks. Nicholson's unusually sweet, charming performance earned him an Oscar, and he would win another when he reunited with Brooks for As Good as It Gets in 1997.

  5. 6

    The Shining

    Against the wishes of author Stephen King, director Stanley Kubrick cast Nicholson in his masterful psycho-horror yarn as Jack Torrance, a struggling writer who turns homicidal during his off-season stay at the spooky, snowbound Overlook Hotel. The notoriously exacting director pushed Nicholson to create one of his most memorably unhinged performances, improvising many of his most quoted lines.

  6. 5

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

    Beating out heavyweight competition including Marlon Brando for the role, Nicholson cemented his emerging superstar status with his combustible, career-making performance as mental hospital rebel Randle McMurphy in Milos Forman's hugely acclaimed adaptation of Ken Kesey's cult novel. Nicholson's fierce backstage battles with Forman paid off with five Academy Awards, including one each for director and star.

  7. 4


    Showcasing the silkier, jazzier, more understated shadings of his acting range, Nicholson appears in every scene of Roman Polanski's luscious retro-noir mystery as laconic 1930s private eye Jake Gittes. Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay was inspired by the scandals that ruined water and power tycoon William Mulholland, who gave his name to L.A.'s iconic Mullholland Drive, where Nicholson still resides to this day.

  8. 3

    The Last Detail

    Nicholson turned down a co-starring role in The Sting to make Hal Ashby's scathing, foul-mouthed military drama about a trio of downtrodden U.S. Navy grunts. His raw-knuckled performance, steeped in F-bomb profanity and rooster-strutting sexual swagger, led a nervous Columbia to delay release. But studio bosses relented after Nicholson won an Oscar nomination and a best actor prize in Cannes.

  9. 2

    Carnal Knowledge

    Nicholson put his electrifying screen charisma to good use with another boldly unsympathetic performance in Mike Nichols' controversial snapshot of America's changing sexual landscape. The young star radiates withering scorn as Jonathan Fuerst, a womanizing cynic increasingly estranged and embittered by the rising tide of feminism and gender equality.

  10. 1

    Five Easy Pieces

    Working with his longtime friend and frequent directing foil Bob Rafelson, Nicholson laid the groundwork for his meteoric 1970s rise in the anti-heroic role of Bobby Dupea, an emotionally volatile drifter from an upper-class family working in the California oil fields. His fractious, wounded performance earned him the first of many Oscar nominations for best actor.