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jack nicholson tribute: SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (2003)

Harry Sanborn in Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
Sharing the screen with Diane Keaton is no easy feat, and, with the exception of maybe Woody Allen, no male co-star seems to have the ability to take any attention away from her. So in
Something’s Gotta Give, it’s no surprise that Jack is sent to pick up the remnants of the scenery that Keaton leaves behind. Keaton’s performance is one of her career best (and should’ve gotten her a second Oscar), but I digress. This is about Jack’s showing, and truth be told, I liked it better than most critics did.

Keaton’s Erica certainly outshone Nicholson’s Harry in terms of emotional depth, but at least Jack’s aging was truly addressed in the comedic way that only a director such as Nancy Meyers could muster up. We’re meant to find Harry despicable — he’s a man in his 60s who works in hip hop recording, he goes after women much younger than he, and the idea of dating a woman his own age is preposterous to him. But from the moment the two budding lovebirds inadvertently trade glasses, it’s clear that this sub-geriatric love story has more youth and freshness than most rom-com relations of late.

So say what you will about Jack’s seemingly laid-back, phoned-in performance. Though you get the sense he’s playing himself at many points, he at least understands that his role is to give Keaton some space to do what she does best — the neurotic but intelligent pants-wearer. Though I much prefer other less conventional rom-com performances from the actor (see: As Good As It Gets), he’s an admirable co-star for this lead actress showcase.

Jack’s Performance: B
The Film: A-

jack nicholson tribute: BATMAN (1989)

Jack Napier, The Joker in Batman (1989)
Let’s face it, the most obvious representation of Jack Nicholson‘s signature look (arched eyebrows, giant villainous grin, etc.) is as The Joker in 1989’s Batman. Playing the man who would become Batman’s arch nemesis, Jack channels his seriously crazy side to deliver a performance that, by all intents and purposes, is either the hammiest and most over-the-top one yet, or so crazy it just works. Based on his winning combination of hilariously cheesy zingers and iconic cackle, I’m tempted to go with the latter.

Sure, he’s joined in the film by a gang of mediocre performances (Michael Keaton is the snooziest Batman yet and Kim Basinger is just phoning it in as his love interest), but there’s no denying this theatrical work of art. As Gotham’s one true bad boy, Jack helped kick-start what would later become a train-wreck of a series (and then later yet, a brilliant resuscitation). Tim Burton‘s entirely original vision for this flick gives Nicholson’s performance a huge boost as well.

The movie itself has incredible visuals (as per usual for Burton). The costuming, makeup, and art direction (for which it won the Oscar) are stunning, even now, and Danny Elfman‘s score is rousing and is still commonly attached to most new incarnations of the Batman character. What’s more is that Batman introduced us to mainstay beloved regulars Pat Hingle and Michael Gough as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, respectively, who would stick with the series through its less than stellar years in the late 1990s.

Jack’s Performance: B+
The Film: B

jack nicholson tribute: THE CROSSING GUARD (1995)

Freddy Gale in The Crossing Guard (1995)

All right, so in theory, this movie had everything going for it: it stars my favorite actor, it’s written and directed by one of my other favorite actors (Sean Penn), and it featured one of the most underused actresses in Hollywood in a Golden Globe-nominated performance (Anjelica Huston). Unfortunately, the biggest thing plaguing The Crossing Guard — other than the strange slo-mo pans and the awkwardly saxophone-heavy score — was its total genre confusion. At some points sleazy comedy, some points action thriller, and some points torn-apart family drama, I wasn’t quite sure what I was to be thinking as this movie unfolded.
And the ultimate in disappointment, the performances were not that impressive. Huston had a few scenes bordering on excellence, but she simply was not in enough of the movie. The film fell on the shoulders of its leads, Jack — playing the vengeful father of a daughter killed by a drunk driver — and David Morse — the recently released inmate who caused the accident. Though Jack’s performance is particularly sensitive and emotional in some scenes, the film bogs down during Morse’s scenes. He’s ultimately one-note in his portrayal of the ex-con, and his semi-romance with Robin Wright is weirdly forced.
So though Penn’s directorial efforts were much more suited to Into the Wild, where the performances were much more obviously great (Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook), one feat he did achieve from Mr. Nicholson was very clear in at least two scenes: he made the man cry. Yes, seeing pain and anguish in Freddy’s face was the most surprising and satisfying thing about the movie. Jack ditched the snide smirking for raw emotion.

Jack’s Performance: B-
The Film: C-

jack nicholson tribute: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)

Jonathan Fuerst in Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Continuing the current spree of Nicholson flicks in which he plays a womanizing low-life, I give you Carnal Knowledge. Fuerst is after nothing more than, as he so eloquently puts it, tits. And in an effort to combat the character’s giant fear of commitment, the screenwriter saw fit to parallel Fuerst’s character with love-seeking college roommate Sandy (played with a surprising nuance by a young — and Golden Globe-nominated — Art Garfunkel). And while it’s difficult to watch the characters’ downward spirals (Ann-Margret‘s saddening performance as Nicholson’s over-looked lover Bobbie garnered one of her two Oscar nominations), Nicholson gives us another intriguing character to watch.
Sure, Jonathan’s a hateful excuse for a human being, but what results from his maintaining of his “sex now, questions later” philosophy on life is a sometimes repulsive life lesson. Though Ann-Margret’s chest may keep you interested for a few months, true satisfaction will be ever out of reach. Now, this one wasn’t one of Jack’s many Academy Award-nominated efforts, but he managed a nod at the Globes, and I think I understand why.

As seen by his performances in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson’s role in the ’70s was to take less-than-perfect characters and portray them in a way that makes him difficult to despise, no matter how hard he tries. In Carnal Knowledge, though he’s clearly usurping on his friend’s territory, a part of you thinks he has a right to see his roommate’s girlfriend (Candice Bergen) on the sly. And judging by their more electric connection, she didn’t seem to mind at all. But like other Mike Nichols efforts (see Closer), no one ends up truly happy, and Jack seems the most unfulfilled of them all. Life lesson — don’t make Ann-Margret unhappy.

Jack’s Performance: B
The Film: B-

jack nicholson tribute: TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)

Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment (1983)

It’s quite clear that Jack has perfected the role of the sleazy womanizer. This film, in which he plays a boozehound former astronaut on the prowl for younger women, is no different. Or so it seems on the surface. In his second Oscar-winning performance, Jack meets his match in the form of Aurora Greenway (played with chutzpah by Shirley MacLaine). And the point where Terms of Endearment sets itself apart from other flicks in which Jack plays the grinning advantage-seeker is when he admits his undying fascination with a woman his own age, no matter whether she’s a “grandmother.” (Love little Tommy dutifully saying, “Goodbye Mrs. Greenway.”)

So here was my fear going into this viewing of Terms of Endearment, which I hadn’t seen in many years: though the film obviously received accolades at the time of its release, a little thing called Lifetime has emerged since then, and they’ve made an empire out of churning out sob stories modeled after this ground-breaker. Fortunately, the film has legs, and, to me, has stood the test of aging as a still-potent character-driven piece. Let’s be honest here, I spent the last half hour of the movie bawling like a baby. That Debra Winger still can break hearts.

One thing is fairly evident when re-viewing this movie, though. This flick’s owned by the ladies. The leads MacLaine and Winger steal the show with their often damaged but enduring relationship. Though Nicholson provides some much-needed loosening up for the otherwise shrewish Aurora, Garrett Breedlove is nothing more than a lovable schmuck. Something tells me the real feat at play here with his performance is the sudden change of heart and sentimentality that almost never truly occurs for the bulk of his sleazified characters.

Jack’s Performance: B
The Film: B+

jack nicholson tribute: THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)

Daryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
What better way to showcase Jack‘s signature devilish eyebrow arch than by making him the debonair sex-machine personification of evil itself. In The Witches of Eastwick, Jack is joined by three iconic ladies (two of which are fellow Oscar winners — Susan Sarandon and Cher — and the other, who has shamefully been snubbed). So, with a trio of beautiful vixens, how does Jack even stand a chance? Well, though he is hammy as all get out, Jack is believable as the tempter to the town’s three dowdy loners.

Though he probably gets what he deserves, poor Jack is subjected to the coven of ladies as they use their combined powers to bring him down (and all the while remaining helplessly in love with them). And then all notion of seeing Jack as a sex symbol of any kind is done away with as he takes on some… er… less-than-attractive visages (see right). While Jack’s performance is perfectly acceptable as silly summer fare, the film itself is, at times, an over-the-top mess.

Though there are admirable performances all around (character actress Veronica Cartwright is a hoot!), the movie, based on the novel by John Updike, rests on its stars and its fun score (at the 5:00 mark) from John Williams. Despite its flaws, the movie has fairly good rewatchability, and the effects and makeup are still dazzling twenty years later.

Jack’s Performance: B+
The Film: B

jack nicholson tribute: AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)

As a tribute to my personal favorite actor, as sparked by the previous post of my favorite leading men of all time, I’ll be taking it upon myself to see as many of the films of Jack Nicholson as I can in the coming weeks. This first tribute post to Mr. Nicholson will be in regards to my personal favorite performance of his.

Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets (1997)
In my humble opinion, Jack has never been quite as on point as in As Good As It Gets. Not only does he get to play a complete obsessive-compulsive neurotic nut-case, but he also does it with such natural ease, it kind of makes you wonder how much like Melvin he is in his real life. With the assistance of the so strange-looking he’s adorable Verdell, Jack and his eventual pooch pal make for several scenes where Jack not only gets to use his signature eyebrow emphasis, but he also gets to form the most believable love bond in the entire movie: a man and his dog. Though the Academy saw fit to reward his semi-romantic interest in the film, Helen Hunt gives such a one-note performance, I can’t think of anything to say but “thank you,” because it left audiences with a pristine showcase of Mr. Nicholson’s talents.
I mean, I didn’t necessarily have a problem with Hunt’s scenes, as long as they also included Nicholson. She made admiral attempts at making their romance more believable, but the film would’ve been equally, if not more, effective had they kept their relationship at an awkward love-hate friendship. Their interactions in the cafe were priceless (“People who talk in metaphors oughta shampoo my crotch.”), but the bottom line is that when it was time to get serious (i.e. “And to prove it, I have not gotten personal, and you have.”), Jack commanded every scene.

So, what better way to start off an extended series on my ultimate of ultimates in actordom, Jack, than to begin with my personal favorite performance? Melvin Udall is quite clearly a cartoon of himself, but when has Jack not had a little bit of cartoon in his blood? He fully embodied this otherwise hateful persona and made Melvin a dignified, if bigoted, man of a certain age. Just never mind the three to four bars of soap per wash or the incessant sidewalk crack avoidance. Melvin is the hard-to-love uncle that everyone has, and Nicholson is just the man for the job.

Jack’s Performance: A
The Film: A