The retired actor will always go down as one of the best performers to step in front of a camera. A career spanning over 50 years, Jack Nicholson has played a variety of roles that showcased his tremendous range as an actor, and more notably, challenged himself that didn’t allow for anyone to typecast the legendary actor as a one-note performer. Out of all the characters that Jack Nicholson has played, which are the best of the best? This list will examine Nicholson’s filmography and dive into the best characters that the iconic actor has portrayed on screen.
Randle Patrick Murphy
Jack Nicholson was on an incredible roll following his turn as Jake Gittes in Chinatown. The veteran transitioned into arguably one of the most complex characters that he’s likely ever played in his career, Randle Patrick Murphy, who was an Irish American brawler found guilty of battery, gambling, and statutory rape. Out of the gate, it’s made clear that Randle isn’t exactly a good person. A Korean War veteran who was dishonorably discharged, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest presents us with a protagonist who has a host of issues that’s holding him back in life. Murphy thinks that going to a mental institution would be better than serving a prison term but doesn’t realize the injustice that’s taking place because of Nurse Ratched. While it’s never made clear or not whether Murphy is a psychopath, the Korean War veteran is certainly beaten down during his time at the mental institution. However, despite Randle’s flaws, he’s still a likable and selfless protagonist whose continuously challenged throughout the 1975 feature.
“Here’s Johnny!” Stephen King and The Razzies may hate Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, but the film created one of the most nuanced and layered characters in horror movie history. The Shining is essentially about a husband and father’s slow descent to madness. Jack is a writer and a recovering alcoholic who let the demons of the Overlook Hotel get the better of him. While you eventually realize where the slow burn with Jack Torrance is going, there’s enough intrigue in seeing the writer’s dynamic with his family, to the situations that push him over the edge that keeps you glued to the character of Jack. There’s plenty of things that Kubrick puts into the feature without explanation, but perhaps the most fascinating is one of the few he does explain, which is the final image of Jack and the other guests in the hotel’s ballroom from 1921. Kubrick himself stated that the photo suggests that Jack was a reincarnated version of an earlier official at the hotel, but the ending has opened so many interesting theories and possibilities about who Jack Torrance really is.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That final line in Chinatown is such an unforgettable quote in movie history. While Jake’s second adventure in the sequel is far less impressive than the original Roman Polanski vehicle, it still doesn’t take away from it being one of the best characters to come across a movie screen. Obviously, what makes Gittes such an interesting character is the shady and cynical world that he parades himself in. He’s a hard-nosed private eye detective he who keeps being pulled into the dangerous web of lies, deceit, and at the tail end of it, murder. Chinatown is one of the last few movies that actually spotlights the villain ultimately winning in the end. Evelyn Mulwray doesn’t get the happy ending she deserves, and Jake is forced to deal with the corruption that takes place in such a seedy world.
Dr. Buddy Rydell
Jack Nicholson has a career packed with notable characters in his filmography. Whether it’s his version of The Joker in Batman or Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment. However, the reason that one of Jack’s lesser characters, Dr. Buddy Rydell, has taken this list is due to the fact that it was a bit of a departure from his usual hard-boiled dramas that’s defined Nicholson’s career. Nicholson is no stranger to comedy, but it’s few and far in-between. To see him share a screen with Adam Sandler feels weird, but there’s no denying the fun chemistry that both men have. Dr. Buddy Rydell isn’t as complex as any of the other characters on the list, he’s simply a fun presence that helps elevate an otherwise mediocre movie.
Despite the obvious name similarities, Frank Costello is not based on the Italian American crime boss of the Luciano crime family. Still, that doesn’t make his character any less interesting in Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong classic, Internal Affairs. It’s insane that Nicholson hasn’t dabbled into the gangster genre all that much because the veteran has all the charisma and swagger to carry such a demanding role. It’s not just the fact that Costello is a murdering psychopath that makes him interesting. It’s his dynamic with both Costigan and Sullivan, and the reveal that he’s actually an occasional FBI mole. Costello is the perfect example of a charming thief: A man who has no issues with being cruel and violent yet can easily blend into a family gathering or party because of his charm and charisma.