Top ten underrated Jack Nicholson roles

Here's Johnny! Counting down the unrecognised gems in the retired Oscar winner's run

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Jack Nicholson
Nicholson at home in 1969 Arthur Schatz

Hollywood blinked a Botox-ed eyelid and shed a tear today at reports that Jack Nicholson, one of celluloid's most decorate hellraisers, will be retiring. According to Radar Online and Star Magazine, Nicholson's move is prompted by memory loss: at 76, the actor no longer finds it easy to memorise the pages of scripts demanded of him. Nicholson has been nominated for an Oscar 12 times, more than any other leading man in history. As it turns out, though, Nicholson's been dealt a cruel hand – some of his greatest roles were never acknowledged by the Academy. Set the record straight here. 

The Shining (1980)

If you can believe it, Nicholson's most iconic role wasn't even recognised by the Academy. In fact, "The Shining" was one of Kubrick's worst-received films – it was the only one of Kubrick's to never be nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globes and was eventually nominated for a pair of Razzie Awards. A reviewer from Variety sniffed, "With everything to work with... Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King's bestseller." 

The Wild Ride (1960)

This was only Nicholson's third movie, but already he was starting to display the kind of charisma that would power five decades of filmmaking. He plays Johnny, a beatnik rebel without a cause who lives for partying, careening around in a souped-up hot rod and taunting the authorities. Johnny is, in his own words, "a real far-out stud". Considered by some to be a cult classic of the Beat generation, it's now a film in the public domain and has been re-edited as a longer film, "Velocity", which confusingly features a Jack Nicholson impersonator as the older Nicholson, re-contextualising the original sequences as a long flashback. Unnecessary.

Psych Out (1968)

God bless the 60s, which ushered in an era of free love, hallucinogenic drugs and a brief flowering of cinema known as 'hippie exploitation'. Capitalising off the moral panic accompanying the flower power revolution, Hollywood produced many of these cautionary tales – while obviously revelling in its lurid capabilities for showing sex, drugs and psychedelic rock. But it's worth it if only to see Nicholson fully embrace juicy B-grade pulp while playing the appropriately-named Stoney, the frontman of San Francisco hippie band Mumbling Jim.

The Departed (2006)

Despite being nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, Nicholson missed out on an Oscar nod for his role as deranged mob boss Frank Costello. A remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's film "Infernal Affairs", Nicholson's role was originally played by legendary Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang, but a quick comparison of the two shows that Nicholson far outstrips Tsang's capacity for nail-biting, nerve-shredding crazy. 

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Nicholson pops up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in the archetypal campy horror musical. It was only the then-23 year old's fourth ever celluloid role, although that didn't stop the film studio from liberally dropping his name all over their home video releases once Nicholson became a bigger star. Just watch, though – there's something that just screams Jack Torrance about the way he opens the door, arches his eyebrow and issues a classic Jack "unhinged" Nicholson giggles. 

The Passenger (1975)

Jack was Don Draper before Don Draper even existed. In this Michelangelo Antonioni film, Nicholson plays a burnt-out journalist who decides to drop out of his old life and assume the identity of his dead colleague. Maria Schneider, fresh from "Last Tango In Paris", plays an architecture student who becomes romantically involved with Nicholson and gets implicated in his network of lies. Originally criticised for being pretentious and slow-moving (hey, it's an Antonioni film), it's now seen as a remarkable cinematic conceit, particularly for its beautiful, then-unprecedented tracking shots filmed by Luciano Tovoli.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Making full use of his knowing smirk and those malevolent eyebrows, Nicholson plays Daryl Van Horne, a self-proclaimed "horny little devil" who seduces and subverts American housewives living in happy suburbia, all in the name of unlocking their supernatural powers for his own evil intentions. Based on a John Updike novel of the same name, it's not just a showpiece for Nicholson's devilish charm: it's also Cher's best movie. Aside from Mermaids, obviously. 

Wolf (1994)

90s schlock-horror for economic boom times: Nicholson goes for full Hammer Horror with his portrayal of a well-to-do publishing executive who gets turned into a werewolf just as his job is threatened. Bad news for James Spader, who plays his upstart rival – Nicholson wrestles back his status in the office before dramatically surprising Spader with the news and firing him. By means of pissing on Spader's suede loafers. 

Batman (1989)

It might look cartoonishly over-played compared to Heath Ledger's sinister anarcho-grunge turn, but there's a reason Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker was considered the seminal interpretation of the Batman villain, especially considering Cesar Romero's interpretation as a trilling campfest in Ronald McDonald pancake make-up. Nicholson plays it for comedic effect, with enough of a subtle threat of violence to set your teeth on edge. 

Mars Attacks! (1996)

In the later part of his career, Nicholson started going for lighter, more comedic roles, but that doesn't mean he wasn't fully capable of lampooning his own gravitas and status as a Hollywood icon. Lesser actors might have been tempted to phone it in for this deliberate parody of a low-budget sci-fi B-movie, but Nicholson isn't having it. He played two roles for his old friend and "Batman" director Tim Burton: donning a prosthetic nose to portray cowboy hustler Art Land as well as the beleagured US president, who comes to a very sticky end. 

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