Jack Nicholson's Essential Film Roles



Jack got his debut under the legendary Exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman with the film Cry Baby Killer. However, The Little Shop of Horrorsis an early role of Jack’s whose influence stretches the most and coincidentally, many don’t realize that Jack Nicholson was featured in the film! Jack makes a notable appearance as a sadistic dentist who becomes a victim of the man-eating plant in the shop!



One of my favorite westerns of all time, The Shooting showed Jack in another Corman produced film, but with loads more grit and intensity than the former film did. We talked about The Shooting during our Warren Oates retrospective, but Jack’s role must also be noted. This is the first time we really see Jack with a true sense of intimidation as his childish, somewhat naïve, look on life is smothered as this western bounty hunter.


PSYCH OUT (1968)

Just a year after the pivotal Corman film The Trip, which Jack actually wrote, Nicholson starred in his own counter-cultural flick Psych Out. Taking place in the late 60s, in the pre-Easy Rider era, this is one of the last few small roles Jack took before being rocket launched into stardom with Easy Rider!



I swear, if you guys aren’t tired of us talking about this film here at Mandalay, then you just haven’t been reading our stuff enough! One of the most groundbreaking films in American history, Easy Rider took audiences by storm as they helped reign in a new era of filmmaking with their European influenced style and freeform mode of storytelling. Nicholson is billed under the iconic duo of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, but it’s Jack’s role as George Hanson that is among the most memorable from this film. From his comedic moments to his introspective monologues over a joint, Jack made this film and it’s no wonder his career shot up because of it.



The 70s really was the peak of Nicholson’s career. This was the decade where most of his most iconic roles were done and it all started thanks to Five Easy Pieces. While Easy Rider got Jack’s name to blow up, his lead performance as an ex-pianist who opts for a blue-collar existence in Five Easy Pieces is what proved that Jack had the chops to do anything and everything. Under the direction of New Hollywood legend Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is not only a New Hollywood staple, but a staple of Nicholson’s career!



One of the great neo-noirs of the New Hollywood, Chinatown not only exemplifies near perfect direction under Roman Polanski, but perfect acting with Jack’s role as Jake Gittes, the Private Investigator who spends his days handling petty divorce cases. This twisted mystery is pretty convoluted so it’s necessary to have a lead man who can carry the weight of the film on his back and Jack was without a doubt the perfect man for the job. We sympathize and root for Jake as we slowly see the whirlwind of a ride he’s being taken for in Chinatown!



While Chinatown and The Shining are definitely candidates for Jack’s best work, it’s usually the general consensus that his role as Randle McMurphy, the institutionalized prisoner who’s left questioning his own sanity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest! This is by far one of the most heartwarming characters Jack has ever played and his attitude towards life in this film is so infectious that it’s no wonder that these cooped up mental patients glow up so much thanks to Jack’s forward leadership. Another iconic and revolutionary film of the New Hollywood, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a must-see for all fans of cinema and Jack Nicholson!



One of the most iconic roles of Jack’s career came as Jack Torrance, the alcoholic writer father who checks his family into the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s masterful interpretation of Stephen King’s novel. It’s no coincidence that most of an actor’s best roles come under great directors. The Shining is a masterpiece of a film and so, in order to match that, Jack had to give the performance of a lifetime under one of cinema’s greatest artists. This is the film where Jack really got characterized as this crazy, over the top and unpredictable character.


BATMAN (1989)

Before Heath Ledger there was Jack. While Jack’s roles as the Joker is nowhere near the perfection of Heath’s, this Batman is a great example of how Jack was perceived in Hollywood: a dynamic and idiosyncratic character that stemmed from his insane role in The Shining. Jack took a lot of notes from Cesar Romero, the original Joker, but added his quirky personality to it that fits perfectly into the 80s Tim Burton aura that’s inescapable from this film.



While only boasting about three scenes in this entire film, Jack still remains such an ever-present figure in this film. One of the most memorable quotes of his career, “You can’t handle the truth!” comes from his role in this movie as an Army colonel with a shady way of handling things. His lack of screen time in this film just makes the time he is on screen that much more powerful as his rigid demeanor coupled with his low-toned raspy voice make for one of the most intimidating Army generals in cinema!



Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson are both two iconic alumni from the Roger Corman school as well as two iconic figures in the New Hollywood era. It’s honestly amazing to think that in the 30+ years prior to The Departed, these two never worked together before. Jack’s role as the Irish crime boss in The Departed presents him with the no-bullshit persona that’s become the staple pf Jack’s character today. In fact, without seeing all of Jack’s early work and only checking out films like The Departed, it makes total sense to only see Jack in this super serious light.