To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.
4) Jack Nicholson
Anger Management, which I watched for the first time in order to supplement my early aughts Nicholson education (About Schmidt, Something’s Gotta Give, The Departed), sucks. It made almost $200 million when it was released, which comes out to almost $300 million with inflation. But there are two reasons why I’m sort of glad it exists. The first is that this movie, as far as I can tell, got Nicholson a $20 million paycheck, which, good for him, make that bread. The second is that it gave us that gif. It’s a wonderful gif, one that is, in my opinion, too often misused. (On the other hand, Jack Nicholson struggling to stay conscious while under the influence of expired pain pills during his daughter’s rehearsal dinner in About Schmidt ought to be a gif and I can’t find that moment anywhere on the Internet.) It’s not just stating agreement, nor is it just forcefully saying “Yes!” It expresses a sentiment which I think lingers in many of our hearts, that devil-may-care instinct to tell others to go for it when we need not suffer those consequences ourselves. Just as much, I love that in three and a half seconds we see what’s made Jack Nicholson an essential star for American movies. In him you find the seeds of a powerful madness, one only adulterated by his ability to fit in among the normal people for long stretches at a time. Buddy Rydell is a provocateur and clearly a bit of a psycho himself, but he passes for normal. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; Jack Nicholson paves a way forward in which desperation can be loud, unruly, and spectacular. He has a famously toothy smile, but as this gif shows, the smile is not in itself what makes him a great madman. It only changes once he mouths the word “Yes.” It’s all about the way that his strange, mephistophelian eyebrows arch above his basically unremarkable eyes, how his perfectly normal eye catches that little glint of light which blocks out his iris and makes him even more manic and persuasive. (I’m on record as saying that Walter Huston plays my favorite movie Satan, but Nicholson’s eyebrows almost singlehairedly usurp that title from him in The Witches of Eastwick.) Jack Nicholson has worked with so many great directors in so many great pictures, and yet it seems appropriate that it takes a journeyman like Peter Segal, the guy who brought us Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, to find that crack in Nicholson’s facade which has given the Internet so much joy.
Better directors making better movies have gotten the best out of this proclivity for quotidian instability we find in Nicholson. Bob Rafelson exposed it in Five Easy Pieces, and although the obvious place to find Nicholson losing his mind is in the chicken salad scene, it’s that early sequence in traffic which better discovers the wildness in Bobby Dupea. Sure, he gets out of his car in a traffic jam and starts snarling at a dog who’s snarling at him. But the way he gets up onto a truck bed upon seeing a piano, takes the blanket off the top of it, and sits down, ready to play, is wonder infused with the mechanical. Bobby, already wild, channels that wildness entirely into Chopin. His friend shouts at him to get back in the car; the truck is getting off at a totally different exit. The horns of the other cars explode against a cloudless sky. All that Bobby can hear is this pool hall piano; whether or not he even hears the janky untuned sounds he’s making instead of Steinway fantasy is doubtful. We’ll watch Nicholson lose his cool in more quotable ways later in the picture, but this is just as much a mark of the man’s brokenness as any other that we get. He is incensed here, just as he spends so much of the movie incensed, but there’s something more literal about it. He’s not merely on fire, but he’s redolent of something holy, something which marks him as fundamentally different from the other people on the road. Maybe other people in that jam could bang out Chopin from memory without a lick of practice in years, but none of them leave their seats to do it.
If Rafelson gets 1A out of Nicholson, then Hal Ashby got 1B. The Last Detail is Jack Nicholson, for lack of a better phrase, losing his shit. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!” he insists very loudly to a bartender, putting his gun on the bar and demanding a beer for Randy Quaid. Quaid demurs. “You’re gonna have a fucking beer!” he retorts. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, et al.,” is the Nicholson that we’ve come to know and love, the nut with the rubber face and the filthy mouth who is equal parts seductive and frightening. What makes Nicholson great is the way he brings the same intensity to his command of Randy Quaid’s scared kid as he did to his threat to the guy behind the bar. He’s not just after a line that will make him sound cool. He’s playing this role through and through. At that point, Buddusky is insensible to actually solving any problem other than venting his spleen, and as Meadows finds out, any attempt to defuse that anger will only rush the timer. There are many great scenes where Nicholson grumbles or scrapes or shouts in The Last Detail, but Ashby also finds the coiled physicality in Nicholson which makes the unhinged little man with a mustache a little incomprehensible. Buddusky shows Meadows some of the basics of signals in a motel one night, and throughout Nicholson’s body is rigid, in perfect form. He cannot stop himself from taking his government pistol off his hip to threaten some guy in a dive bar, but for words and letters at a time he can keep himself as straight and correct as the barrel of a rifle.
Calling The Shining 1C or, gasp, second may seem a little much for some of you out there. (For me, it goes below his coldfish exterior in Reds, a performance where his voice and eyes are dead as he tells Diane Keaton, “If you were mine, I wouldn’t share you with anybody or anything…and it’d feel a lot more like love than being left alone with your work.” He is riveting in a fairly small part in a fairy long movie, as essential a character foil as Maureen Stapleton was in her Oscar-winning role.) It’s certainly one of his best performances no matter what, memorable in absolutely every aspect. This is a relentlessly physical work even before Nicholson gets to stumbling around the hedge maze yelling DANNY BOY, a masterpiece of facial expressions before “Here’s Johnny!” or that cut to his frozen mug. The smug, oleaginous voice is wheeled out immediately in that early meeting between Jack and Ullmann. The high-pitched wheedle, something he’d had in his bag since Little Shop of Horrors twenty years earlier, cracks into some of those sarcastic back-and-forths with Shelley Duvall. I love the way he puts his whole body into flinging a tennis ball against the walls of the Overlook with the same gusto he provides to flinging the head of an axe into doors and Scatman Carothers. For me, the scariest moment of the entire movie has to be the dead-eyed look on his face while he wears that chunky sweater and cannot keep writing his novel. It comes well before the actual blood and guts start to kick in, before screaming and raspy chants of REDRUM reverberate about the walls, but it’s when you can see Jack’s soul escape his body for good.