What’s Jack Nicholson’s secret? Maybe it’s the eyebrows, hovering like ironic quotation marks over every line reading. Maybe it’s the hooded eyes, which hold the threat of danger or the promise of joviality — you’re never sure which. Same with that sharklike grin. Or maybe it’s the voice, which has evolved over the years from a thin sneer to a deep rumble, but is always precisely calibrated to provoke a reaction. Put them all together, and they say: “I am a man to be reckoned with. Ignore me at your peril.”
Nicholson, who turns 75 on April 22, is often criticized for relying on his bag of tricks, for just showing up and doing Jack Nicholson (though indeed, he often seems to have been hired precisely for that purpose). But he’s also capable of burrowing deep into a character, finding his wounded heart, and revealing the ugly truth without fear or vanity. Moviegoers don’t always love the subtler Nicholson as much as the broader-played rabble rouser, but both have made him an institution, one of the most Oscar-lauded actors alive (he has three trophies, the same as sometime co-star Meryl Streep, and 12 nominations, more than anyone but Streep).
It’s easy to forget that Jack wasn’t always Jack, that he was nearly 20 films into a career marked by low-budget genre pictures before he finally clicked with 1969’s “Easy Rider,” or that he spent a decade doing some of his best work playing seething anti-heroes before his string of unforgettable, more cartoonish performances (beginning with 1980’s “The Shining”) that have bedazzled younger Nicholson fans. Or that alongside his classic turns have been a fair number of experimental performances or parts done as favors to old friends that were often fascinating failures or outright stinkers.
For the last 15 years, Nicholson has worked only when he felt like it, which has been about once every couple of years. Still, he’s amassed a catalogue of 62 films going back more than half a century, a roster that’s full of landmarks, trifles, noble failures, and underrated gems. He’s almost always provocative and never dull. Here, then, are Nicholson’s movie roles, rated from best to worst.