The Kennedy Center

Jack Nicholson


In 1986, the New York Times said that "a case could be made that Jack Nicholson has inscribed an idiosyncratic character on the face of our age, one that has reflected and shaped the contemporary personality in a way that only a very few film actors have done. In support, the paper quoted the acclaimed film and stage director Mike Nichols, who directed Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge and Heartburn: "There is James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and Henry Fonda. After that, who is there but Jack Nicholson.

From his film debut as a juvenile delinquent in The Cry Baby Killer to his brilliant and honored performances in films throughout the last three decades, Nicholson has emerged as not only one of the most popular and celebrated actors of his generation, but also as one of American cinema's most charismatic movie stars. Stanley Kubrick, who directed Nicholson in The Shining, once said that Nicholson brings to a role the one unactable quality-great intelligence. "He's a serious artist," said Meryl Streep, his Heartburn co-star. "I think he's a master."

The master exploded onto the American landscape in 1969 with his Oscar-nominated role in Easy Rider, instantly becoming the classic anti-hero, and uniquely defining the zeitgeist of the 1970s. More than three decades later, he remains at once an enduring counterculture icon and the very symbol of contemporary Hollywood. An actor, director, screenwriter, and producer, Nicholson won his third Academy Award in 1997 for As Good As It Gets (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Terms of Endearment were his other winning performances)-only two other actors, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan have been so honored. He has also been nominated 11 times (seven for Best Actor and four for Best Supporting Actor), a record bested only by Katharine Hepburn. He has been named "Best Actor" by the Cannes Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and he has won five Golden Globe Awards. In 1994, he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

Born on the East Coast, Nicholson traveled to California at age 17 and landed a job as an office boy in MGM's animation department. Soon he began studying acting and eventually appeared on television and the stage. While appearing in a now-forgotten play, he was spotted by "B"-movie producer Roger Corman, who cast him in his first film in 1958, and a decade-long career of toiling in cheap monster and biker epics began. With films such as The Wild Ride, Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, Hell's Angels on Wheels, and The Terror behind him, Nicholson tried his hand at writing scripts and the results were the cult classics The Trip, which co-starred Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda; Head, a psychedelic nightmare starring The Monkees; and Psych-Out, directed by Bob Rafelson. They seemed inconsequential at the time, but Hopper and Fonda soon asked him to appear in their 1969 film Easy Rider and a year later Rafelson directed him in Five Easy Pieces. The former earned him his first Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) and the film revolutionized Hollywood. The latter earned him his second Oscar nomination (this time for Best Actor) and firmly established him as one of the very best actors in the world.

For the next three decades, Nicholson would appear in many of the landmark films of our age, guided by some of the world's most notable directors: Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, Ken Russell's Tommy, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick, Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Warren Beatty's Reds, James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment, John Huston's Prizzi's Honor, Hector Babenco's Ironweed, Tim Burton's Batman, Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, and Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard.

The roles have spanned most genres, but Nicholson invests each of his characters with humanity and intelligence, and his presence in every film is riveting. He is a star, with irresistible charm and personality, but also an artist, with a seemingly effortless technique, a willingness to place the demands of the dramatic truth over concern for his own vanity, and a limitless devotion to the job at hand. "I just love the work," he has said. "I love to act."

And that love translates to quality. Jack Nicholson's achievement consists of some of the finest work in cinema.

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