Jack Nicholson closed out the 1970s with three of his most confounding performances in “The Missouri Breaks” (opposite Marlon Brando), “The Last Tycoon,” and “Goin’ South” (which he also directed, albeit with less elan than he brought to “Drive, He Said”). He bounced all the way back as deranged author Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” but this role is also the codification of Jack. It’s a great film, and Nicholson delves into the psychosis of a blocked-up author, but he’s grandstanding much of the time.
This is the Jack of “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Batman,” “A Few Good Men,” “Wolf,” “Mars Attacks!” and “The Departed,” but no one’s ever coasted more gracefully. If you were looking for a bankable star to play the devil, the Joker, or the President of the United States, your list began and ended with Jack Nicholson, and he delivered with interest. You couldn’t wait to get a load of his next splashy performance (and he made the studios pay handsomely for our pleasure).
This is where some actors check out and cash paychecks (see Robert De Niro in the 2000s), but Nicholson remained engaged. He’s splendid as Eugene O’Neill in “Reds,” and turns “Terms of Endearment” aglow as fun-loving astronaut Garrett Breedlove. He smolders with his real-life paramour Angelica Huston in “Prizzi’s Honor,” and is a proper philandering cad opposite Meryl Streep in “Heartburn.” Nicholson’s performance as a beatdown retiree in “About Schmidt” earned him raves and an Academy Award nomination, but he was far more impressive as a driven detective in “The Pledge.”
If Nicholson’s turn as a prison-bound executive in James L. Brooks’ underrated “How Do You Know” is his valedictory, it’s a fine one. But to understand the essence of Jack, only one movie will do.