The best Jack Nicholson performances

The best Jack Nicholson performances
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As one of the defining performers of the New Hollywood movement, Jack Nicholson inhibited some of the most enduring characters of the past half-century. In each of his roles, he's brought nuance, dry humor, and an exhilarating unpredictability. Nicholson fills his leading characters with inner conflict and complex morality, and his iconic antagonists like Jack Torrance and the Joker loom large in our collective memory. Here's our breakdown of 20 of Jack Nicholson's best performances.

<i>The Terror</i> (1963)

Nicholson began his career making B-movies and exploitation films with Roger Corman and his associates, and this gothic horror film, which also stars Universal legend Boris Karloff, marks one of the actor's first lead performances.

Though he clearly improved his craft as time went on, Nicholson still demonstrates undeniable, unrefined star power as a lost French soldier who's seduced by a shapeshifting woman, making this Edgar Allan Poe-based movie a fascinating watch. There's a lively earnestness to his line deliveries here, and his commanding physical acting ensures that he looks right at home in the film's moody period setting.

If you liked The Terror, you might also enjoy: The Raven (1963)

The Terror
The Terror

<i>Easy Rider</i> (1969)

In this defining depiction of late-'60s counterculture, Nicholson plays one of his most traditionally likable characters. His high-pitched Southern accent and electrifying screen presence make him the best part of every scene that he's in, stealing the spotlight from his co-stars Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Peter Fonda.

As eccentric lawyer George Hanson, he represents American youth culture at a crossroads, as he's not as explicitly rebellious as his vagabond companions, but doesn't fit squarely into existing systems or institutions either. His actions are delightfully hard to predict — at one moment, he can rattle off bizarre conspiracy theories about UFOs, and at the next, he can deliver poignant speeches about freedom and philosophy — but Nicholson unifies all George's disparate qualities into a personality that feels consistent.

If you liked Easy Rider, you might also enjoy: Nomadland (2020)

American actors Jack Nickolson and Peter Fonda on the set of Easy Rider, written and directed by actor Dennis Hopper. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
American actors Jack Nickolson and Peter Fonda on the set of Easy Rider, written and directed by actor Dennis Hopper. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

<i>Five Easy Pieces</i> (1970)

Bob Rafelson's road drama follows a blue collar worker who returns home to visit his ailing father for the first time in three years. Nicholson's wild energy and over-the-top rural drawl feel a bit forced and unconvincing in the movie's opening scenes, but his stilted persona is eventually revealed to be a fitting choice for the character — he comes from a wealthy family and rebelled against his privilege, adopting a new rough-around-the-edges persona that never quite fits.

He's immature, selfish, and performatively chaotic: in one of the film's many standout sequences, Nicholson goes into a Robin Williams-esque comedic mania, rattling off silly voices and rapid gestures while impersonating a Las Vegas musical revue. His quiet, tearful breakdown at the climax displays rare vulnerability that feels rawer due to the scarcity of it in his filmography.

If you liked Five Easy Pieces, you might also enjoy: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Five Easy Pieces
Five Easy Pieces

<i>Carnal Knowledge</i> (1972)

Like many great Nicholson characters, the central figure in Mike Nichols' sex dramedy is at war with himself. His cleverness and slight charm allow him short-term success with women, but he's so intent on objectifying and condescending them that he can't maintain a relationship.

Nicholson ensures that Jonathan is disgusting and discomforting in his persistent perversion, but also just charismatic enough that you hope he can grow and atone for his sins. His impassioned yelling matches with Ann-Margret also mark some of the loudest moments in Nicholson's career.

If you liked Carnal Knowledge, you might also enjoy: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967)

Jack Nicholson In 'Carnal Knowledge'
Jack Nicholson In 'Carnal Knowledge'

<i>The King of Marvin Gardens</i> (1972)

Bob Rafelson's offbeat drama hinges on Nicholson's ability to deliver a compelling monologue, which he does several times, including in the opening scene. He plays a self-loathing and depressed Philadelphia radio host who reunites with his con artist brother (Bruce Dern) in Atlantic City.

Nicholson's character's intensity is comically over-the-top, especially when juxtaposed with the other characters' carelessness. But his self-seriousness is also undeniably tragic, as his relentless drive ensures that there's no outlet that can satisfy his creative vision or garner the audience he feels he deserves — he laments the death of reading and begrudges the radio as his available medium. It's a complex performance that's funny and disheartening in equal measure.

If you liked The King of Marvin Gardens, you might also enjoy: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens
Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens

<i>The Last Detail</i> (1973)

Like many of Nicholson's best films, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail uses the actor to portray a smartass with a heart of gold. He and Otis Young play Navy personnel who are assigned to escort a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to prison after he commits a petty crime.

As the three men bond over the course of their journey, Nicholson shifts from supposed disinterest in his surroundings to fraternal loyalty to eventual rage. Despite his above-average height, the film frames him in an unusual way that makes him look petite compared to his two main co-stars, adding a sense of vulnerability and helplessness to a character that grows more disillusioned as the movie progresses.

If you liked The Last Detail, you might also enjoy: 25th Hour (2002)

Jack Nicholson in a scene from the movie The Last Detail.
Jack Nicholson in a scene from the movie The Last Detail.

<i>Chinatown</i> (1974)

Nicholson is an ideal lead for a New Hollywood noir — as Jake Gittes, he's a smooth operator with calm, casual confidence that's perfect for a private investigator who needs to wiggle his way into spaces he doesn't belong. At first, he's detached and dry, and seems totally unfazed by every scandal that comes across his desk.

But once his reputation is implicated in a tricky case that earns public attention, he becomes personally invested in uncovering a citywide conspiracy that reveals dark secrets about Los Angeles and the powerful people who run it. He seems desperate and bitter in his quest to reveal their crimes, and by the time Roman Polanski's Chinatown reaches its bleak conclusion, Nicholson appears frozen with shock and shaken to his core — a far cry from his early disengagement.

If you liked Chinatown, you might also enjoy: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: The movie "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Seen here, Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes. Initial theatrical release June 20, 1974. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: The movie "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Seen here, Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes. Initial theatrical release June 20, 1974. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

<i>The Passenger</i> (1975)

Michelangelo Antonioni's drama demonstrates Nicholson's ability to carry a film visually instead of verbally. Many of The Passenger's key sequences play out in near-total silence, depicting Nicholson's character wandering through stunning scenery in North Africa and Europe. His expressions and body language convey a sense of weariness and frustration that helps illuminate why his character would want to escape his former life by switching identities with a dead man.

Additionally, in scenes where he assumes his false identity, Nicholson expertly finds the balance between confidence and ignorance: he's convincing enough that the other characters won't realize his deception, but still somewhat shaky so that there's humor and dramatic tension as the audience worries about his composure.

If you liked The Passenger, you might also enjoy: Blow-Up (1966)

Actor Jack Nicholson in a scene from the movie 'The Passenger', 1975. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Actor Jack Nicholson in a scene from the movie 'The Passenger', 1975. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

<i>One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest</i> (1975)

A rabble rouser who's endlessly entertained by his own shenanigans, Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy in Miloš Forman's Best Picture Oscar winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the instigator of chaos who controls the momentum of the entire movie.

It's a fascinating performance because McMurphy is simultaneously the class clown who takes nothing seriously and the moral leader of the patients at the hospital, slyly encouraging them to stand up for themselves and seek independence. Through small gestures and shifts in vocal tone, Nicholson clarifies that beneath his wise-cracking surface, McMurphy deeply cares for his companions.

If you liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you might also enjoy: The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

American actor Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', directed by Milos Forman, 1975. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
American actor Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', directed by Milos Forman, 1975. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

<i>The Shining</i> (1980)

In this classic adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, Stanley Kubrick casts Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a father and husband unraveling at the intersection of cabin fever and writer's block as he serves as caretaker of the haunted Overlook Hotel. He starts the film as a pretty ordinary guy, but as the hotel takes hold on his psyche, he devolves into fear, contempt, and eventually manic rage.

It's never entirely clear what specifically drives Jack to violence — Kubrick withholds an explicit breaking point for the character, which works in favor of the film's mysterious atmosphere. But Nicholson's performance makes Jack's climactic outbursts directed at his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) utterly convincing and terrifying  — he's a menacing force of chaotic evil, whose every movement and shout feels unpredictable. His devilish grin has never been more unsettling.

If you liked The Shining, you might also enjoy: Doctor Sleep (2019)

Jack Nicholson walking through snowy maze in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson walking through snowy maze in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

<i>Reds</i> (1981)

The actor plays a key supporting role in Warren Beatty's period epic Reds. While Beatty portrays revolutionary idealist John Reed, Nicholson plays playwright Eugene O'Neill, his friend and rival who competes with John for the attention of Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Eugene's dependable presence and steady romantic loyalty sharply contrasts the free-spirited, progressive, polyamorous John.

Eugene comfortably fits a more conventional model of American masculinity, representing an alluring, traditional alternative to Reed's unquenchable ambition. Eventually, Eugene's romanticism festers into bitter cynicism, and Nicholson makes the transition feel natural and inevitable despite being off-screen for a long stretch of the movie.

If you liked Reds, you might also enjoy: Malcolm X (1992)

REDS, Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, 1981. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
REDS, Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, 1981. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

<i>Terms of Endearment</i> (1983)

Writer-director James L. Brooks' sprawling slice-of-life dramedy Terms of Endearment contains one of Nicholson's funniest performances. His retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove has a lot in common with his earlier roles — charming despite overwhelming sleaze and promiscuity — but unlike his most despicable characters, he has Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) to keep him in line. When she calls him out for being a creep or ridicules his one-track mind, his persona becomes much more explicitly hilarious because someone's there acknowledging how absurd he is.

Endearment marks one of the best displays of Nicholson's physical comedy chops, as he gives bizarre drunken facial reactions and clumsily fumbles around his property. The actor isn't afraid to look like a fool here, and his on-screen deflation makes his eventual maturity all the more satisfying.

If you liked Terms of Endearment, you might also enjoy: Steel Magnolias (1989)

Terms Of Endearment - 1983
Terms Of Endearment - 1983

<i>Heartburn</i> (1986)

Early into Mike Nichols' adaptation of Nora Ephron's semi-autobiographical novel, Nicholson's character expresses skepticism at the concept of marriage — which isn't at all surprising, considering that the actor's presence seldom screams "romantic" or "loyal." He succeeds in the film as a scumbag trying and failing to reform, going through the motions of monogamy with a slight sense of despair that he can't quite conceal.

Nicholson also has immense chemistry with Meryl Streep that forces you to invest in their relationship even though it seems doomed to fail — their flirtatious chats, shared meals, and spontaneous singalongs all show potential for a love that could last.

If you liked Heartburn, you might also enjoy: This is My Life (1992)

HEARTBURN, from left: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, 1986. © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
HEARTBURN, from left: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, 1986. © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

<i>The Witches of Eastwick</i> (1987)

This charmingly odd fantasy-comedy from Mad Max mastermind George Miller casts Nicholson, in the character's own words, as "just your average horny little devil." He's disgusting, seductive, funny, tempestuous, and, fittingly, a supernatural force of evil who embodies the central characters' carnal desires.

As he courts and later antagonizes the witches (Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer), Nicholson's character is given ample opportunity to deliver long-winded, hammy monologues. He wryly lectures about desire and women, sometimes sporting a hilariously tiny ponytail and other times covered in mud and debris. It's one of the actor's wackiest performances, and also one of his most entertaining.

If you liked The Witches of Eastwick, you might also enjoy: Death Becomes Her (1992)

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, from left: Jack Nicholson, Cher, 1987, © Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett C
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, from left: Jack Nicholson, Cher, 1987, © Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett C

<i>Batman</i> (1989)

The actor received one of the biggest payoffs in movie history for his performance as the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 comic book extravaganza Batman. Though Michael Keaton plays the Caped Crusader, Nicholson is the real star of the show, with equal screen time as the central hero and a much more zany performance.

As the Clown Prince of Crime, Nicholson puts a pep in his step to reflect the character's maniacal glee as he attacks his enemies, vandalizes a museum, and dances to Prince. He seems overjoyed by his criminal enterprise, and adores the chaos that rebellion brings.

If you liked Batman, you might also enjoy: Batman Returns (1992)

American actor Jack Nicholson plays the Joker in the movie Batman, directed by Tim Burton. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
American actor Jack Nicholson plays the Joker in the movie Batman, directed by Tim Burton. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

<i>A Few Good Men</i> (1992)

Nicholson is perfectly cast as intimidating Colonel Nathan Jessup in Rob Reiner's courtroom drama A Few Good Men. At this point in his career, he had played so many terrifying characters and garnered so much respect in Hollywood that Jessup seems absolutely unapproachable — small glances and playful banter appear as threats.

His climactic confrontation with Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is a magnificent study in emotional escalation — he starts the scene calm and collected, but as Kaffee prods at and insults him, he gradually builds to a point of boiling rage, and it's no surprise when his inflated ego gets the best of him.

If you liked A Few Good Men, you might also enjoy: The Social Network (2010)

American actor Jack Nicholson playing the role of a colonel of the navy acting in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)
American actor Jack Nicholson playing the role of a colonel of the navy acting in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

<i>As Good as It Gets</i> (1997)

Marking a reunion between James L. Brooks and Nicholson, the dramedy As Good As It Gets may be the single best demonstration of the actor's power to transform his inimitable screen presence into lighthearted mainstream entertainment. Melvin Udall is like a washed-up, aged version of one of his '70s scumbag characters — rude, selfish, condescending, and virtually irredeemable on paper, yet oddly alluring and funny due to the actor's magnetism.

Melvin's life is further complicated by obsessive compulsive disorder and, after pushing people away for decades, profound loneliness. He begins the film as a despicable yet sympathetic character, but as he opens up to his co-stars including Helen Hunt (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance) and the audience, Nicholson naturally transforms Melvin into a protagonist that you love despite his flaws. Like fellow New Hollywood titans Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Nicholson's portrayal of a character with a disability who goes on a road trip earned him an Oscar for Best Actor as well.

If you liked As Good as It Gets, you might also enjoy: Scent of a Woman (1992)

AS GOOD AS IT GETS
AS GOOD AS IT GETS

<i>About Schmidt</i> (2002)

Alexander Payne's poignant dramedy elicits perhaps Nicholson's most understated performance to date. Though he begins the film with the type of persnickety persona we've come to expect from the actor, his edges quickly soften when he experiences an immense personal tragedy and must come to terms with aging and powerlessness. He's heartbreaking as a quiet, lonely old man haunted by missed opportunities. It's a tender, vulnerable performance that feels more intimate than most of Nicholson's other roles.

If you liked About Schmidt, you might also enjoy: A Man Called Ove (2015)

ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson, 2002 (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection.
ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson, 2002 (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection.

<i>Something's Gotta Give</i> (2003)

In Nancy Meyers' romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give, Nicholson's 60-something character Harry only dates women under 30 — until he meets his latest girlfriend's mother, played by Diane Keaton.

As someone who's been romantically linked with numerous much-younger women on- and off-screen, Nicholson helps make the film a fascinating exploration of generational differences and gender dynamics. He's not afraid to confront the discomfort of seeing a man his age pursue women young enough to be his children, which enhances the relief of his blossoming romance with Keaton's character.

If you liked Something's Gotta Give, you might also enjoy: The Holiday (2006)

SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, 2003, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, 2003, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

<i>The Departed</i> (2006)

It's a wonder that Nicholson hadn't worked with Martin Scorsese prior to this late-career collaboration considering how effortlessly he meshes with the director's style, storyline, and stellar ensemble cast in The Departed. Casting the Oscar winner as a Boston mob boss gives Nicholson ample opportunity to do what he does best.

As Frank Costello, he crafts a funny, charismatic character who's also a monster that intimidates every person he encounters. He's cruel and unpredictable, but his confidence and fearlessness inspires begrudging respect from even his enemies.

If you liked The Departed, you might also enjoy: Infernal Affairs (2002)

THE DEPARTED, Jack Nicholson, 2006, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
THE DEPARTED, Jack Nicholson, 2006, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

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