Best Movies by Farr: Jack Nicholson – Best Actor Losses

February 8, 2012 | John Farr

by John Farr

Jack Nicholson was nominated thrice for Best Actor before finally winning for this week’s Reel 13 Classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What were they? John Farr has the answers.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

What It’s About:
Disaffected, hard-drinking oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is not what he appears at first sight: Born into a patrician clan from Puget Sound, Bobby has turned his back on bourgeois comforts and a promising career as a classical pianist for life on the road with dim-witted girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Bobby’s drawn back into the family fold, however, when he learns his father Nicholas (William Challee) is dying.

Why I Love It:
One of the definitive, highly acclaimed films of the early-70’s New American Cinema, Bob Rafelson’s edgy, deep character study features complex and courageous performances from both Nicholson and Black. As an existentially pained outcast of upper-middle-class breeding, Jack’s pent-up Bobby is especially absorbing to watch, as he denigrates Rayette’s crass singing efforts or spars with a waitress over the vagaries of a chicken-salad sandwich. A moody portrait of alienation and unresolved pain, Rafelson’s Oscar-nominated “Pieces” will stick with you.

The Last Detail (1973)

What It’s About:
Hal Ashby’s seminal 70’s film has career sailors Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) escorting a younger convicted enlistee named Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to New Hampshire for an eight year sentence in the stockade. Taking pity on the painfully na├»ve, benumbed young man, the two older men resolve to show Meadows a wild time en-route, to make his upcoming incarceration more bearable. But are they really doing it for Meadows, or is to ward off their own feelings of imprisonment?

Why I Love It:
Gritty, wildly profane movie is equal parts funny and tragic, a tricky balance director Ashby sustains throughout. The Academy Award – nominated Quaid is wonderfully dim and pathetic as perennial loser Meadows, but Nicholson’s performance as Buddusky is a revelation, easily up to his better-known work in “Carnal Knowledge” and “Chinatown” (it earned him his third Oscar nod in four years). This “Detail” is definitely worth enlisting for.

Chinatown (1974)

What It’s About:
Hired by glamorous Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to snap incriminating photos of her husband, private dick J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he’s on a routine investigation of spousal infidelity. It turns out Evelyn is actually the daughter of powerful baron Noah Cross (John Huston), and the seamy revelations only mount from there, drawing Jake deeper into a hornet’s nest of incest, betrayal, and corruption in seedy 1930’s Los Angeles.

Why I Love It:
Cynical, brooding, and knotted with mystery, Polanski’s “Chinatown” is an inspired update of the private eye picture that equals most anything Bogart did in the forties. The cast, of course, can’t be beat: Nicholson puts his own stamp on the familiar character of a private eye in over his head; Dunaway excels playing a dangerous woman that most men would walk off cliffs for, and Huston delivers a titanic performance as the arrogant Cross. Watch for Polanski himself as a knife-wielding thug with a grudge against nosy people. “Chinatown” earned eleven Oscar nods, but snagged only one win, for Robert Towne’s dense, twisty script. Viewed today, it’s all too clear: it should have won more.

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