While most actors become popular after hitting stardom, I have this feeling Jack was cool long before. I have visions of him coming out of the womb with those trademark sunglasses on. Oh, and he’s a Laker’s fan… GOD, I love this guy! To top it all off, he’s a pretty damn fine actor too. So, I thought we’d take a look at his best performances to date.

REMINDER: This is a list ranking greatest performances. Not my favorite Nicholson films. Here we go (in order):


This film gets a lot of crap and I understand why a lot of people don’t like it [*cough**Helen Hunt** cough*]. Still, it’s a very smart little comedy. I won’t even get into the whole did Jack deserve the Oscar for his performance argument but the fact that he won it does help my argument for this list a bit. The fact is that watching Jack in this movie is quite fun and it’s a rare instance where Jack steps out of his “Coolest Guy in Hollywood” shoes and plays a character trying to overcome some serious issues… issues… issues. Three times… PHEW! That feels better.


I had to rewatch this film the other day to make sure this performance was everything I remember it being. I mean You can’t handle the truth! has been quoted so many times it has almost lost it’s poignancy… that is, until you hear Jack say it again.

Now, I’m one of those people that rolls his eyes everytime an actor is praised for a part in a film that is a cameo at best. You listening, Ruby Dee? However, in this case it is totally earned. Jack is basically in the film for 2 scenes and is so good that he puts everyone around him to shame. The final scene in the courtroom, which is basically a monologue told through a close-up on Jack’s face, is so powerful that everything else in the world stops as you are sucked into this film completely. In fact, this scene takes a watchable courtroom procedural and makes it a classic film. All the while, you can’t help but be glad that Nicholson didn’t call a Code Red on you!


Have I ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? Yes… twice… and while he may be the devil, he moves like an angel on the dance floor. But I digress…

People forget what a huge move casting Nicholson as the Joker was at the time. And he was worth every penny. A few years back, we thought anyone who stepped into that role after him was just setting themselves up for disaster. Well, Heath Ledger brought something amazing to the screen and we’re all the better for it. While I believe Ledger is the better Joker, it’s not as though he one upped Nicholson. Nicholson’s performance remains iconic and should be displayed just as proudly as Ledger’s. Maybe just on a different shelf, side by side, for mutual admiration of different takes on a very rich character. 


I don’t hold The Shining in the same regard as many film fans. When people call it one of the greatest Horror movies of all time, I always take umbrage. I have no problem with Horror fans embracing the image of Jacky Boy busting through a door with a shiny new axe. Though, it always seemed more of a psychological thriller to me.

The key to it’s popularity, I have no doubt, is watching Nicholson as he takes his character on a slow dissent into madness. The slow and delicate pace with which this unfolds can no doubt be credited in part to a wonderful director like Kubrick but without Nicholson’s talent, this film would fall flat. Could easily be considered Jack’s best if it wasn’t for a film like…


As many of you know, I’m not a big fan of film pre-1980. The only reason I even watch films from back then is for gems like this. This film knocked me on my ass the first time I saw it and it was all because of Jack. The charm he brings to his character is what entertains throughout this entire film and makes the ending so much harder to swallow. This film has been done in many different forms over the years but never comes close to being matched. Mainly because no one can come close to matching Nicholson’s McMurphy… one of my favorite cinematic anti-heroes of all time.


  1. Brilliant choices. One Flew Over would be topping my list of performances also. In fact, can’t argue with the top 3 at all. Nice to see As Good As It Gets, I’m a fan of the film, and I even like Helen Hunt. I might swap Good Men with The Last Detail though.

  2. Great list, though I would put The Departed on there, but that’s just me. Otherwise, great picks. Love A Few Good Men!

    • I like him in Departed but he looks like he just showed up hungover and filmed. I think I would’ve liked it better if he was a bigger gangster instead of a Sopranos “Crew” style gangster.

  3. Nice top 5 Kai, Jack gets some criticism for playing the same character (himself) all the time but let’s face it, no matter what, it’s really entertaining and often a highlight in whatever movie he makes.

  4. Great choices, a couple I would have included: David Locke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and Robert Eroica Dupea in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970).

  5. Yeah, hard to beat RP McMurphy. Awesome picks, man. Check out The Last Detail, too. He’s a real badass in that one.

  6. No matter what I will always hold that Jack’s best role is The Joker in Batman. Sure he’s had better (as your list finely points out) but it is by far my favorite…great picture too!

    Oh by the way (don’t hate me yet) but I’ve tagged you in this neat Meme called 15 DIRECTORS…I bet you’ll have some fun with it:)
    Here’s my Meme:

    • That’s fine… I actually need a post for later this week so I will do it! 🙂
      As far as the post, Joker is probably my favorite too because it’s Batman but he is just insanely good in Cuckoo!

  7. I can’t even argue with the order here. Jack is the one guy who can bring himself to every role he plays and not get bashed for it, because we want a little of Jack in everything. He’s one of my favorite actors of all time and continues to make movies that I want to see and a gal like myself can’t ask for anything more than that.

    And I’m going to throw out there that I loved him in Terms Of Endearment too, a supporting role, but an epic performance.

  8. I think Cuckoo’s Nest is a perfect #1. Lots of brilliant 70’s roles surprisingly left out (Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge) — Terms of Endearment as well!

  9. man thats a scary Joker picture.
    tough one to call. for quotability it has to be Batman.

  10. Cuckoo’s Nest almost has to be #1, which is really saying something considering how much love Jack gets from the Academy.

  11. What!!?? No WITCHES OF EASTWICK? (Just kidding, I actually hate that film). You are missing out big time on the pre-80’s fare! Cuckoo and The Shining would definitely make my list, but I’d have to include Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail. Good call from Fandangogroovers, completely forgot about The Passenger! It’s been years since I’ve seen that one! I might just have to do give that a rewatch and a review myself.

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