Jack Nicholson was—and, for many, still is—the coolest man in the world. He's one of the most gifted actors of his generation and has honored the world with brilliant performance after brilliant performance.
Indeed, he's contributed so much to cinema and pop culture. We simply can't count the number of times we've heard somebody shout "Heeeeere's Johnny!" or "You can't handle the truth!"
Here are our picks for Jack Nicholson's best movie performances of all time that remain memorable, impressive, and heart-wrenching to this day.
6. The Pledge (2001)
How far would you go to keep a promise? That's what's at stake in The Pledge, a lesser-known Nicholson performance.
Jack Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a homicide detective who's about to retire. However, when a young girl is murdered and the wrong man is caught—or so he thinks—he promises her parents that he will not rest until the truly guilty party is found.
Nicholson's performance in The Pledge is obsession personified. At times, you can't help but question whether Jerry's grip on reality is being skewed by the weight of his mission. He's relentless, even downright dogmatic, that the real killer is still out there.
In this role, Nicholson's trademark intensity truly shines against anyone who questions him. But there's also slyness and deception here, as Jerry turns to underhanded means to solve the case. He's believable at every moment, so much so that everything he does feels wholly understandable.
The ending will leave you breathless and that's mostly down to Nicholson's masterful portrayal of a man who's so gripped by the belief that a killer is on the loose that no one can stop him but himself.
5. About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson proved once again that he isn't a one-note actor, this time by taking on the role of a scared and pathetic old man in About Schmidt.
Most of Nicholson's career-high roles involved him being a cool, sauve, and even sexy character despite his years. But in About Schmidt, that image is completely turned on its head as he plays Warren Schmidt.
When Schmidt's wife dies, he discovers that she'd been having a years-long affair with his best friend. Abandoned and confused, Schmidt tries to find reason and purpose despite feeling alone in the world.
He does that by halting his daughter's wedding, gazing up at meteor showers, having his sexual advances unpleasantly rebuffed, and more. Nicholson's touching performance and complex portrayal forces you to ask yourself where you'll be when you reach his age.
4. The Departed (2006)
"I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
With an introduction as straightforward as this, we've already learned a lot about Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello: he has a particular outlook on life, and anyone who gets in his way had better watch out.
What's so electrifying about Nicholson's performance as Frank Costello is that he isn't overtly antagonistic for most of the film. We know he's a cold-blooded murderer, but he comes off as charismatic.
Nicholson has the ability to turn on the charm, and it's enough to win over audiences. He smiles kindly in one scene, then he's taking a severed hand out of a box in the next. Frank Costello is the kind of character who almost feels like a cult leader, and Nicholson makes it work.
We learn of Costello's true nature toward the end of The Departed, of course, and that means all of his talk about taking what you deserve was simply that: talk. But Nicholson is so smooth that you never would've questioned him, not even for a second.
3. A Few Good Men (1992)
Despite being one of his most iconic roles, Jack Nicholson's part in A Few Good Men was actually pretty minor. Of course, with Nicholson, it's always been about quality over quantity, and it's to his credit as an actor that this "minor" performance makes it this high on this list.
In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Jessup, a conservative military leader who holds himself in high regard. He's the kind of man who hates having his authority questioned, his honor muddied, and most of all, his ego bruised.
Nicholson manages to convey the nuances of all of that using his inflection, his eyes, and even the way he twists his mouth. The subtlety in this performance is spectacular, able to communicate everything that's on Jessup's mind with a venomous smile.
As soon as Colonel Jessup enters the courtroom for his deposition, his presence overshadows everyone else. In just a handful of scenes, Nicholson stole the show and eclipsed other Hollywood giants like Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.
That may be a bitter pill to swallow for those colleagues of his, but as Colonel Jessup would say: "You can’t handle the truth!"
2. The Shining (1980)
In The Shining, Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance—and you get the feeling he was born to play this role.
Jack Torrance is unhinged, unkempt, and mentally unsound. In other words, he's right within Nicholson's wheelhouse, and Nicholson gives us a perfect performance of a man who slowly descends into madness in one of the greatest depictions of insanity in cinema history.
It's not just the insanity that makes this one stand the test of time, but the layers of complexity that Nicholson brings to the role. Yeah, he's crazy, but he's also deranged, abusive, hysterical, violent, explosive, and manic-depressive in equal measure, and you can see the nuances between.
Nicholson's performance in The Shining represents how everyone felt during the COVID-19 lockdown. We can only hope that nobody out there has started to think that they have always been the caretaker...!
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
There are few performances like the one Jack Nicholson delivered in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's a must-watch.
In trying to avoid jail time, a criminal named Randle McMurphy feigns insanity so he'll be thrown in a hospital ward for the mentally ill instead of prison. However, he soon realizes his mistake when he comes head-to-head against the autocratic Nurse Ratched.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson make you laugh, cry, and nervously hold your breath. He's absolutely electric as McMurphy, a man who won't allow the system to hold down his unbending character. He inspires the men around him, giving them back their humanity.
And we get the best moment of Nicholson's career when McMurphy is unfairly denied access to watch a baseball game, so he bursts into life as an ecstatic sports commentator, and the men in the room with him are totally bewitched by his charm.