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A Jack Nicholson video retrospective

A Jack Nicholson video retrospective — We review the actor’s past work including ”The Little Shop of Horrors,” ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” ”The Shining,” and more

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A Jack Nicholson video retrospective

Jack Nicholson has appeared in 46 movies since debuting in 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer. Some are dreadful, some as engaging as his killer grin — and more touch greatness than any actor has a right to expect. His persona is so appealing — he’s the sexy trickster we’re sure lies hidden within our own breasts — that he can’t be faulted for trading on it at times; besides, Nicholson’s coasting is another actor’s career high. But his talents have always been subtler than his huge popularity acknowledges. When he gets a role worthy of those talents — as in the bulk of his ’70s films — he can illuminate the crevices of a rascal’s soul. When he doesn’t, he’s just fiendishly watchable. Not all of his films are available on video (grievous omissions include his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, and the ineffably sad The King of Marvin Gardens), but the essential Jack is easy to find.

THE CORMAN YEARS:

Nicholson was all over Roger Corman’s ’60s B movies, as actor, screenwriter, coproducer, probably key grip when they needed the extra hand. Most of these films are just enjoyably campy cheese, but four stand out:

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
An influential sick joke that Corman filmed in two days — and it looks it. Nicholson’s cameo as masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force hints at demented delights to come. B

The Shooting (1967)
Monte Hellman’s stark, weird tale of revenge plays like Sam Beckett in the Old West. Coproducer Nicholson has a high time as a trigger-happy jerk. A-

Psych-Out (1968)
Absolutely marvelous Summer of Love trash, this casts ponytailed Jack as a groovy Haight-Ashbury dude helping deaf runaway Susan Strasberg look for a missing acidhead Jesus-freak brother (Bruce Dern — who else?). B+

Easy Rider (1969)
Rider’s success may have stood Hollywood on its head, but we’ll take Psych-Out‘s giddy highs over the muddy, oh-wow heaviosities of Dennis Hopper’s dated parable. No wonder Nicholson came away a star: He’s the clearest thing in the movie as a genial, boozy, doomed lawyer. B-

PEAK OF HIS POWERS:

In the 1970s, Nicholson rarely made a misstep (okay, The Fortune), and the following movies contain his most incisive, compelling, and lasting performances to date.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
The Rogue Jack of modern movie legend was born in the infamous diner scene — actually, in the single word ”kneees” — but the rest of Bob Rafelson’s film is a sober-eyed account of a man helplessly spiraling away from human connection. A

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
This one has aged well, especially since the uncomprehending gulf between the sexes seems wider than ever. As a campus smoothy who grows into a vicious woman-hater, Nicholson is genuinely unsettling. A far scarier performance than, say, The Shining. B+

The Last Detail (1973)
A low-key, raffish road movie about two Navy cops (Nicholson and Otis Young) transporting baby-faced loser Randy Quaid up the Eastern seaboard to the brig. Nicholson gets so far into his role as ”Badass” Buddusky that it nearly becomes a character part; his unassuming dignity saves it. B

Chinatown (1974)
Roman Polanski’s great, left-handed film noir is many things — not least a movie that cracks open the private-eye genre to peer into the abyss beneath — but a star vehicle it ain’t. In other words, Nicholson is aces as gumshoe J.J. Gittes, but for once his wild streak seems reined in by a director’s vision. And, here, that’s as it should be. A+

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Who else but Nicholson could make Randall Patrick McMurphy a metaphor for mankind’s rebel spirit while keeping him so grungily specific. By perfectly matching an actor’s persona with the right part, Nest boosted Nicholson to the superstar level: A Best Actor Oscar wasn’t so much awarded as proffered in awe. A+

The Passenger (1975)
A luminescent puzzle from Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, this casts Nicholson as a globe-trotting reporter who switches identities with a corpse and finds the other man’s fate catching up with him. The star looks a tad out of his depth, but maybe that’s the point. B+

Goin’ South (1978)
Nicholson’s second turn behind the camera is a funky tall tale about an outlaw’s forced marriage to a spinster (Mary Steenburgen, in her debut). Nicholson’s sex appeal is put to the test here — Variety correctly likened him to Gabby Hayes — but the movie has a memorably lazy sweetness of tone. B

LAUGHING TO THE BANK:

It’s not that Nicholson stopped trying in the ’80s, but that he was so well rewarded for relying on his old tricks. Some of his showiest and shallowest roles have resulted.

The Shining (1980)
In this overrated, antiseptic horror film from Stanley Kubrick, Nicholson is the ultimate dysfunctional dad, delivering glib psycho-quips with audience-pleasing panache. He’s undeniably something to see — especially when conversing with Lloyd the ghostly bartender — but it’s Shelley Duvall’s quirky vulnerability that sticks. C

Terms of Endearment (1983)
Well-played suds about mother-daughter love, Terms turns cruelly manipulative when Debra Winger’s character gets cancer. Nicholson picked up a second Oscar as the slothful ex-astronaut who woos Shirley MacLaine, but the award may have been more for his daring to look his age. It’s a nice, graceful bit — potbelly, bald spot, and all — but it’s not a patch on Cuckoo‘s McMurphy. B-

Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
A tart, fast, mean gangster farce, directed by John Huston with a plum role for daughter Anjelica as a Mafia princess. Perhaps out of respect, then boyfriend Nicholson made his lead role over into a hilarious character bit: a dim hit man trying to dodge both bullets and feminine wiles. A-

Ironweed (1987)
You don’t want to see a grim 2.5-hour downer about Depression bums? Fine, but as you pass it by in the video store, know that this is Nicholson’s most complex and heartbreaking performance in years. His Francis Phelan can be seen as any one of the old rascals — Five Easy Pieces‘ Bobby Dupea, say — 20 years down the road and staring at a dead end. B

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
If you want a devil who’ll scare the pants off people, hire De Niro. If you want to keep it light, Jack’s your man: His horny leer has always had its comic aspect. This tale of sorcery and satyriasis in the suburbs, based on the John Updike novel, is droll fun until the puke-effects take over. B-

Batman (1989)
Hired to be the life of the party, Nicholson dutifully whoops it up through a painful mask of facial prosthetics, out-hamming everyone who dares share screen space with him. It’s a fine and funny cartoon performance, in keeping with its source, but casting Jack as the Joker is a little like asking Picasso to paint a fence. B+

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