Following a slew of support roles in exploitation fare, it was the role of booze-sodden lawyer George Hanson in Easy Rider (1969) that pushed Jack Nicholson into the public eye. After a decade of treading water, he suddenly had his pick of the juiciest roles that Hollywood could offer.
From the start of the 1970s until its middle, Jack starred in 12 films, as well as making his directorial debut with now obscure college campus drama Drive, He Said (1971). Half of these pictures offer a mixed bag. Forgettable motorbike romp Rebel Rousers (1970) is cheek by jowl with solid sex comedy Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Barbra Streisand vehicle On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). But the other six are essential, a mighty half-dozen films that set the tone and level of quality one could expect from a Jack Nicholson performance.
It’s these six films that led the way to the superstar Nicholson the world has known for the last 40 years, with ever more amplified roles, such as crazed cabin-fever-suffering writer Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), scenery-chewing Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men (1992) and, of course, his role as the Joker in Batman (1989).
Nicholson is currently slated to take one last bite of the acting cherry for the Hollywood remake of Maren Ade’s peerless Toni Erdmann (2016). One must hope that if he does come out of retirement for this final role, he channels the energy of his vital early 70s performances again.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Director Bob Rafelson
Having co-produced and co-written the acid-fried pop ramblings of Head (1968) with Bob Rafelson, Nicholson’s next collaboration saw Rafelson direct him in his first best actor Oscar-nominated performance. Nicholson’s charm, energy and cunning is at full beam throughout. He plays Bobby Dupea, a former classical pianist now slumming it as a California oil worker. When he hears that his father has had two strokes, Dupea returns home to his rich family with pregnant girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) tagging along. Along the way, we see an early hint of the short-fused vitality we can expect from Nicholson’s career. In the film’s edgiest, most discomfiting scene, Dupea violently clears the table at a diner after a waitress refuses to let him order off menu. The outbreak was allegedly based on the actor’s real-life behaviour at a restaurant on Sunset Strip.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Director Bob Rafelson
Nicholson reteamed with his Five Easy Pieces director for a mostly melancholic, introverted performance in this downbeat, occasionally surreal tale of two estranged brothers cooped up with a former beauty queen and her stepdaughter in a wintry Atlantic City. Forty years later, playing a depressed, dour character in About Schmidt (2002) would yield Nicholson’s 12th Oscar nomination, but his work as a talk radio DJ in The King of Marvin Gardens is more restrained still. He leaves the eccentric behaviour to Bruce Dern as his lively, deluded brother, yet, even when the pyrotechnics are not forthcoming, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Nicholson’s brooding presence.
The Last Detail (1973)
Director Hal Ashby
Hal Ashby’s road movie comedy sees a signalman (Nicholson) and gunner’s mate (Otis Young) escort naive young sailor Randy Quaid from Virginia to a Maine military prison for stealing $40 from a charity collection. In a career defined by pugnacity and rebellion, the film sees late-hippie-era icon Nicholson at his most punk. As Billy Buddusky he snarls and jokes, verbally sparring his way across the country, a man under the cosh but never crushed. Screenwriter Robert Towne, Nicholson’s friend and key 1970s collaborator, adapted Darryl Ponicsan’s novel with the actor in mind. One can only wonder where the fierce but gregarious Buddusky ends and Jack begins.
Director Roman Polanski
In this 1970s neo-noir, Jack Nicholson’s J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes is probably the screen’s definitive private eye since Humphrey Bogart hung up his fedora. Gittes is in every scene of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, doggedly trying to make sense of murder, infidelity and corruption in drought-stricken 1930s Los Angeles. Nicholson sweats in the California sunshine, gets his nose cut up by Polanski in a sleazy cameo and spits out Robert Towne’s immortal, Oscar-winning dialogue like he was born to it. He received his fourth Oscar nomination for best actor, this time losing to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Director Milos Forman
Nicholson finally won the Oscar – his first of three – for his unforgettable portrayal of Randle McMurphy, a convicted criminal who pleads insanity and is moved to a mental institute, where he intends to see out his prison term in comparative ease. That’s until he comes up against the uncompromising Nurse Ratched (the Oscar-winning Louise Fletcher), who rules her ward with an iron fist and a glare of steel. The core of Milos Forman’s film sees wily McMurphy attempting to outsmart and undermine Ratched, with results that lurch from abject failure to sky-punching success – and consequences that veer from hilarious to tragic. A scene where McMurphy pretends to watch a televised baseball game with passionate faked reactions encapsulates the whole performance: rebellious, incorrigible and marvellously unhinged.
The Passenger (1975)
Director Michelangelo Antonioni
The third of the English language films that Michelangelo Antonioni made with producer Carlo Ponti and MGM, following Blowup (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970), The Passenger sees Nicholson stepping into arthouse terrain. Nicholson plays David Locke, a jaded journalist making a documentary in Chad who befriends businessman David Robertson. When Robertson dies, Locke steals his identity without telling his friends, colleagues or family. When it emerges that Robertson was actually an arms dealer, Locke’s life becomes increasingly perilous, though Nicholson’s performance remains remarkably controlled throughout – a man of patience and poise in fascinating and fraught circumstances. In a sense Nicholson’s portrayal is a perfect mirror of the film itself: all space, time and minimalism. Think of it as the dub reggae cut in Jack’s often blaring, symphonic canon.