8 great unsung Jack Nicholson performances

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Following yesterday’s rumours that Jack Nicholson is to retire from acting, it’s been hard not to look back on the great actor’s career with sheer awe at the impact and potency of his numerous unforgettable roles.

But for every terrific turn that remains hailed, hallowed and popular, there’s another that – for whatever reason – has slipped into relative obscurity. In order to cast a light on the more under-appreciated highlights of his career, WOW247 takes a look at eight of his greatest unsung performances.

Jack Nicholson greatest unsung performances
[Looking For Answers - Nicholson plays an obsessed cop in The Pledge]

Easy Rider (1969)

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-smuggling bikers may be this counter-culture classic’s iconic pin-ups, but Nicholson’s tremendous supporting turn is perhaps the movie’s finest asset.

As the tragic, alcoholic small-town lawyer they befriend, he perfectly delivers some of the drama’s most poignant and powerful lines, making an astonishing impression in a very concise amount of screen time. It deservedly became his breakout appearance, but is surprisingly overlooked these days.

The Last Detail (1973)

In this raucous comedy, Nicholson demonstrates a proficiency for profanity that would make Gordon Ramsay blush. Playing the part of US Navy petty officer Billy “Badass” Buddusky, he is given the task, along with Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), of escorting Randy Quaid’s young sailor Larry Meadows to Naval Prison, after he is handed a harsh eight-year sentence for a petty offence.

But Badass and Mule are not just going to hand over this poor guy to the authorities. Determined to pack as much of the good life into the journey through the wintry northwest states as possible, they brawl, booze and even chant with Buddhists in Hal Ashby’s bitterly funny follow-up to Harold and Maude.

Screenwriter Robert Towne would go on to work again with Nicholson the following year on the era-defining Chinatown, but this bravura performance of bawdy machismo is well worth revisiting.

The Passenger (1975)

Nicholson was at the peak of his powers in Hollywood in the mid-70s when he jumped at the chance to work on a project with Michelangelo Antonioni that would take him out of his comfort zone – to London, Barcelona and even the Sahara Desert.

He plays David Locke, a world-weary journalist covering Chad’s civil war, who stumbles across the dead body of a gun runner and decides to assume his identity. It may be a slow, meditative ride, but Nicholson brilliantly conveys Locke’s alienation with uncharacteristic restraint. It certainly wasn’t the kind of character he could have explored back in an American film industry that was still playing catch-up with the European auteurs.

The Witches Of Eastwick (1987)

Perfectly utilising his trademark blend of exuberant charisma and threatening menace, Nicholson completely steals the show in this offbeat fantasy drama as the seductive, devilish stranger who arrives in the lives of three unfulfilled women.

Veering from infectious charm to fire and brimstone rage, it’s hard to imagine another A-list actor capable of successfully walking that line between OTT scenery-chewing and flair-filled brilliance.

Ironweed (1987)

Winning significant plaudits upon release but now all-but forgotten, the star struck up a dream screen partnership with fellow great Meryl Streep in this highly impressive Depression era-drama.

Nicholson plays a self-hating, perennially-boozed bum careering around New York with such aplomb that you really do forget you’re watching an actor on screen at times. He even manages to out-drunk Tom Waits in the acting stakes – and that’s saying something.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

This thought-provoking revenge drama written and directed by Sean Penn features one of Nicholson’s finest – but most under-appreciated – performances.

As a grief-stricken father determined to murder the drink-driver who killed his daughter, his portrait of a life torn apart by rage, bitterness and loss is truly remarkable to behold. Nicholson’s character experiences the whole spectrum of human emotion as the story unravels – and the actor carries the audience along for the whole hard-hitting ride.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Tim Burton’s underrated, hyperactive B-Movie pastiche really lets Nicholson show off his comic, funnyman chops – in a fun dual-role that casts him as both the hapless President and a garish Las Vegas real-estate tycoon.

Playing both bumbling straight-man and larger-than-life parody with real panache, the star proves once again that not taking yourself too seriously and completely understanding what kind of film you’re in can be the difference between an awkward fail and a sublime triumph.

The Pledge (2001)

Nicholson’s second collaboration with Penn is a masterful exercise in suspense, tension and tragedy – touching on similar obsessive territory to The Crossing Guard and hinging once again on the actor’s supreme performance.

He plays a retired police detective who vows to catch a child’s killer when he realises his force arrested the wrong man. The determined, haunted nature of his protagonist is brilliantly conveyed, and in Nicholson’s hands the gut-wrenching ending packs an even bigger punch.

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Mark is the content manager for WOW247 in Leeds. When he isn't waxing lyrical about Ben Wheatley and Caravan Palace, he's landing news, assembling guides and penning features.

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