The Best Jack Nicholson Movie Is Him At His Worst

By Nathan Kamal | 2 months ago

jack nicholson

Jack Nicholson is unquestionably one of the great living movie stars. And that is not simply to say that he is a great actor, although that is absolutely true. Nicholson has turned in world-class performances for the entirety of his career, which stretches from his 1950s work with Roger Corman, putting in time in cheap B-movies, to his current semi-retirement. He is one of only three male actors to have won three Academy Awards, and one of two to have been nominated for one in every decade since the 1960s. Nicholson is not just a great actor, he is a great movie star, which is not always the same thing. An actor disappears into a character, which Nicholson can certainly do. A movie star turns that character into an aspect of themselves, which Nicholson has demonstrated countless times. And in the best Jack Nicholson movie, does both by weaponizing the caddish, sardonic persona he had cultivated for years while simultaneously subverting it. That movie is the 1997 James L. Brooks hit movie As Good as It Gets

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Making the claim that any movie is the best Jack Nicholson movie is a bold one and sure to face immediate argument. After all, As Good as It Gets has to contend with the likes of The Shining, About Schmidt, Terms of Endearment, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and of course, The Two Jakes (the young people’s favorite). What sets As Good as It Gets apart from all of those is that it manages to combine all the elements that make Nicholson so distinct, and twists them to make him as repellent as possible. Then in a double-twist, it finds a way to make him lovable again. It shouldn’t be possible to endear an audience to a character that is introduced with an extended demonstration of how he is the worst human being alive, or possible to have ever existed. But Jack Nicholson finds a way to make it possible, and that’s the strangely warm, deeply acidic place where As Good as It Gets lives.

Of course, the best Jack Nicholson movie cannot survive on Nicholson alone. Screenwriter ​​Mark Andrus wrote a screenplay called Old Friends that was apparently about “the vilest man in New York” and his gay neighbor. The movie fell into development hell for a number of years, until mega-producer James L. Brooks discovered it and grew interested. Brooks and Andrus expanded the script to include a third main character, a tough waitress with a sickly son. In the re-titled As Good as It Gets, the neighbor Simon would be played by Greg Kinnear (in a role that would free him of the snide, glib persona he had developed on Talk Soup) and the waitress Carol would be played by Helen Hunt (who was still starring on the hit sitcom Mad About You at the time). As Good as It Gets is essentially about the deep friendship and love that develops between an unlikely trio. It is a premise about as schmaltzy as it gets, and that is where Jack Nicholson comes in. 

The best Jack Nicholson movie is one that in lesser hands could be 139 minutes of sentimental pap. As such, director James L. Brooks throws down the proverbial gauntlet in the opening moments of the film, practically daring moviegoers to hate their main character, beloved Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson. As Good as It Gets opens with a sweet old woman opening a door and telling someone off-screen that she’s ever so happy and going to buy flowers. Then she freezes and her cheerful expression hardens into disgust. She’s seen Nicholson’s character, OCD-suffering romance novelist Melvin Udall who is trying to trick an adorable little dog into getting into an elevator so he can kick it out of the building. In the first ten minutes of the film, Nicholson is seen to be a homophobic, misogynist, anti-semitic, xenophobic, racist workaholic misanthrope, and oh yeah, he tosses the dog down a garbage chute. 

What is key to the performance (and to the best Jack Nicholson movie as a whole), is that we already know Nicholson is a jerk. We’ve seen him be a snide, sarcastic jerk in countless films before, and his Hollywood playboy image in real life only compounds that. If the famous scene in Five Easy Pieces where he symbolically rejects the dumb rules of life by breaking down a waitress by telling her how he can get some chicken salad was a statement of rebellion, Melvin here berates a waitress for daring to touch his plastic cutlery. As Good as It Gets takes that persona and ramps it up to 11 in every way, then dares you to see a human being underneath it all. And by the end of the movie, Melvin and Simon are roommates (and co-parenting the adorable little dog), and Melvin and Carol have improbably begun to fall in love. You can even see that Melvin is making some small changes in his once rigid life structure. And it is not because there has been some enormous event that has made him a better person. It’s that he has begun to have the desire to want to be. 

As Good as It Gets was an enormous hit, drawing in $314 million dollars at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, that is over half a billion dollars in 2022. That’s for a movie about an unpleasant 60-year-old man falling in love with a waitress, not for an MCU movie (or Titanic, which came out the same year). It was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture (which it lost to, again, Titanic). However, all three principal actors were nominated for Oscars, which Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson won (sorry, Kinnear). Nicholson may be retired now, and gave several more decades of fantastic performances after As Good as It Gets, but nothing else in his career had the lightning charm under all the odiousness. Only Nicholson could do that, and only in this movie.