5 most memorable Jack Nicholson performances

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The thoroughly underwhelming romantic comedy “How Do You Know” in no way makes the best use of its starry cast — not Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd or Owen Wilson, and most certainly not Jack Nicholson.

But we’re going to be glass-half-full around here and use this as an opportunity to look back at the best of Nicholson’s work. Now, given that the man is prolific and we only get to choose five films, this isn’t going to be comprehensive. We’ll try our best, though, and you’re welcome to respond with your choices. We CAN handle the truth:

— “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975): The quintessential Nicholson role: He’s charmingly subversive, a little volatile, perhaps a little dangerous, but usually smarter than everyone else in the room and always fascinating to watch. Nicholson won his first Academy Award for best actor — he’d win another for “As Good As It Gets” and a supporting-actor award for “Terms of Endearment” — for his role as the mental institution rebel R.P. McMurphy. Of course he’s not really crazy, but the relationships he forges with his fellow patients reveal another side of Nicholson’s persona: the loyal man’s-man.

— “Chinatown” (1974): Nicholson is in every scene of Roman Polanski’s L.A. noir, playing a type, yes — the hard-boiled private eye — but infusing the character with a sensitivity that lurks beneath the tough-guy exterior. Jake Gittes is the kind of role Humphrey Bogart would have played in his prime, but Nicholson never does an impression; he makes this classic, flawed figure his own. He’s confident but also capable of vulnerability, as evidenced by the way he finds himself falling for the obviously troubled Evelyn Mulwray, played elegantly by Faye Dunaway. If you’re looking for a perfect Nicholson performance ... forget it. It’s “Chinatown.”

— “The Shining” (1980): Nicholson is deeply unnerving in one of the most frightening films — if not THE most frightening — ever made. As Jack Torrance, he creates fear not just through the imposing nature of his physical presence, the threat of violence against his wife and child that’s hinted at early and builds to a crescendo. It’s the idea of the percolating madness inside — the sense that this person is unreliable, both to himself and to others. Stanley Kubrick makes the Overlook Hotel seem frightening through all his trademark stylistic tricks, but nothing compares to the look on Nicholson’s face at his most crazed.

— “Easy Rider” (1969): The performance that made him a star. In an iconic film in its own right, Nicholson burst out with his portrayal of the seemingly straight-laced but truly alcoholic lawyer George Hanson. The scene in which he smokes pot for the first time around a bonfire with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda — “You mean marijuana? Lord have mercy, is that what that is?” — then shares his theories about UFOs is, of course, hilarious. But the image of him riding on the back of Fonda’s motorcycle in a suit and a football helmet sums up the film’s delightful contradictions and sense of adventure.

— “About Schmidt” (2002): More than 30 years after “Easy Rider,” Nicholson is back on the road to self-discovery. This time, the terrain provides the path not for psychedelic revelations, but for sobering reality. As Warren Schmidt, a recently retired actuary from Omaha, Neb., Nicholson delivers one of the more understated performances of his career, but also one of the most powerful. Gone are the trademark wild hair, raised eyebrows and impish grin. He goes small in Alexander Payne’s affectionate satire of middle America, and it produces big results, earning him his 12th Oscar nomination.

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