Lists · Movies

You Don’t Know Him: 5 Underrated Jack Nicholson Performances

Beyond the blockbusters and Oscar-nominated roles are some under-appreciated gems.
Jack Nicholson Mars Attacks
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on September 11th, 2013

Last week, conversations flared around the alleged retirement of Jack Nicholson. The jury is still out as to whether or not he has officially called it quits in his acting career, but even if the accomplished performer (nominated for Academy Awards 12 times – more than any other male actor) and notorious personality hung up his guns for good, he’d leave behind a rich 5-decade-long career.

Magnetic but not conventionally handsome, brash but able to convey remarkable subtlety, Nicholson is as much a consummate actor’s actor as he is a movie star. Like other aging stars of the ’60s and ’70s, some of his later roles have found him exercising a form of self-parody, a send-up of the patented “Jack” persona. But when you look past the long list of Nicholson’s greatest hits, a rather complex performer emerges, one that any late-career parody can’t contain.

Beyond the groundbreaking performances of The Last Detail and Cuckoo’s Nest or the canonical star turns of Batman and As Good as It Gets, here are some of Nicholson’s under-appreciated deep cuts.

The Wild Ride (1960)

Nicholson’s first leading role was in this Roger Corman-produced low-budget flick about a hepcat social misfit trying to make it day by day. Seeds of the later Jack persona are definitely on display, and while his character is charismatic, there is a particular Jack-specific creepiness to his performance.

Neither the romantic rebel that was James Dean nor the social outcasts that were the cast of Cassavetes’s Shadows, Nicholson’s portrayal of an ever-loyal scofflaw dirt track driver is a different type of Beat-era loner, and perhaps some version of the exact figure that parents feared – someone whose lack of concern for social convention is deeply rooted in a vague, undiagnosable antisociality that could break from its smug veneer into something far more sinister any minute.

That’s some remarkably layered restraint for a B-movie. Nicholson has almost always played the rebel, but not one that fit into any existing 1950s archetypes.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

By 1970, with only a few leading roles under his belt, Nicholson had already established his electric personality as a New Hollywood leading man to be reckoned with. Bob Rafelson cast him in his breakthrough lead role in Five Easy Pieces and worked with him as a writer or actor six times, making for more collaborations than with any other director. Here he allows Nicholson to play against a type that was already creeping in.

Bruce Dern plays Jason, Nicholson’s David’s older brother. Jason is a self-delusional walking salesman type, a man with charisma to spare and little to back it up. David is a nebbish, insecure struggling artist. One can easily see these roles reversed, but letting Nicholson play a fly on the wall so early in his career is fascinating in retrospect – not only a solid actor, the performance shows how good of a reactor Nicholson was in the 70s, allowing Dern to command the room while his skeptical gaze puts every empty proclamation Dern makes in harsh, depressing relief.

Part of Criterion’s BBS set released in 2010, The King of Marvin Gardens was part of an institutional experiment that provided a vast artistic playground for Nicholson in which he played the roles of actor, director, and writer. The majority of BBS’s output has to be seen in order to fully understand Nicholson’s career. I also recommend as a runner-up in this under-appreciated ’70s output his small supporting role in the nearly-forgotten A Safe Place.

Reds (1981)

Yes, Nicholson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Warren Beatty’s Reds, so it’s hard to really make a case that this performance or this film was “under-appreciated.” But Reds (a rarely-mentioned film in the canon of New Hollywood’s desperate final epics alongside Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now) has a special place in the career of a star who pretty much owned the previous decade.

To cast a leading man with such a resonant name as another famous figure of renown is an intelligent move. Nicholson’s approach to famed playwright Eugene O’Neill is that of a man in a privileged position, articulate and learned enough to comment on the behavior of other people and realize politics through art, but a man who rarely sees those beliefs and perceptions take any direct action outside the imaginative space between a pen and paper. Check out Diane Keaton’s deflation of Nicholson’s pomp and circumstance above to see what I mean.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Is Mars Attacks! a great movie? Of course not. But it is a delightfully weird one. Tim Burton’s bloated adaptation of the trading card and comics series of the same name, which came out on the heels of the ’90s invasion craze beginning with Independence Day, is as delightfully cynical a parody as there’s ever been in presenting a mankind that really isn’t worth saving. I struggle to think of another studio movie that had a large cast of characters so openly despicable. Nicholson himself plays two of them – the president and a casino owner (an agreement that came about after Nicholson claimed he wanted to play all of the characters). Both characters are Jack Nicholson. This makes sense considering this is his second collaboration with Tim Burton who, in Batman, didn’t have Nicholson play The Joker so much as an accelerated, evil version of Jack.

Nicholson knows exactly the type of movie he’s in, and he seems to be having a grand old time doing it, simply allowing the residue of his stardom to lead the way. Watch the utterly unconvincing way in which Nicholson avoids a CGI threat after delivering a completely vacant Oscar-clip speech.

The Pledge (2001)

By the late-era in his career, Nicholson’s roles seemed to be relegated into two poles: 100% Jack persona (The Departed) or winking diversion from Jack Persona (About Schmidt).

It must take another skilled actor, then, for Nicholson to finally play a character again, and that’s exactly what Sean Penn accomplishes in this underrated slow-burn murder mystery. What’s remarkable about this performance is how unassuming he is. Nicholson portrays a retired, aging detective so convincingly that you really do believe a man this recognizable can have an everyman status.

Penn takes us on an enveloping, subdued, restless journey reminiscent of Nicholson’s work with Michelangelo Antonioni in The Passenger. Dumped into the initial weeks of January 2001 for some reason (this is clearly a Fall release), the stoicism and humble wisdom Nicholson conveys throughout The Pledge is a necessary reminder that yes, this celebrated actor and notorious Lakers fan can still immerse himself in a fully formed character without all the baggage notoriety brings.

Related Topics: