Top 10 Jack Nicholson scenes
Before you get to the goodies let’s talk about why you’re here.
I’m betting you like Jack. I’m betting you saw the link and assumed this would be a fun article. I’m also betting you came with a bit of an attitude. You’re probably thinking, “Hey man, this scene better be in there. Because this scene is one of the best scenes in movie history.” You’re thinking, “This a-hole writer better not have effed this up.”
Well, let’s get something straight here, Chief.
This is my Top 10, alright? These are favorites. This is not an AFI list.
Those who came here for a reiteration of classic scenes are going to be disappointed. I didn’t include “I want you to hold it between your knees,” or “I am the motherf---ing shore patrol!,” or “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!,” or “You can’t handle the truth!” or “You make me wanna be a better man.” I chose scenes from some of those movies, certainly, just not those scenes. So don’t write me and tell me I “forgot” this or I “forgot” that. I didn’t forget anything.
Besides, you really can’t go wrong with Jack. He charged up dull films like “The Last Tycoon” and “Easy Rider” (that’s right, hippy; watch it again). His presence made mediocre films good and good films great. He was a ’50s psycho, a ’60s biker, a ’70s angry rebel bucking the system and an ’80s cartoonish villain with raised eyebrows and a leering smile. He was one of the first big stars to take small, supporting roles just for fun. He lost his hair, grew a gut, and yet became more of a sex symbol than ever. How did he do it?
He sat courtside at Lakers games and in the front row of Oscar ceremonies wearing sunglasses and we didn’t think of him as a pompous movie star; we thought of him as “Jack.” The most ordinary of first names and he made it his own. He got away with it all. That’s part of what that famous smile says: Can you believe I’m getting away with this, Chief?
A friend of mine, Shawn Patrick, is an actor in Hollywood, and one of his teachers likes to tell the class, “When inspiration knocks, answer it. Otherwise it goes over to Jack’s house.”
Jack Napier becomes the Joker in “Batman”
You can tell director Tim Burton is a B-movie fan from this scene. It’s all shot from behind and in the shadows. As Jack Napier tears off his bandages to reveal what back-alley plastic surgery and chemicals have done to him, we see the horror on the doctor’s face (“My God,” he mouths) but we never see Napier’s face. Not yet anyway. It’s Tournier’s “Cat People”: made more horrible by leaving it to our imaginations. Jack’s voice helps. Upon seeing his reflection, he bends forward moaning; and, as the doctor tries to console him, to talk about the severed nerves, an insane laugh suddenly emerges. It’s the sound of sanity snapping. It’s the sound of the Joker being born.
9. ‘Smells fishy.’
Charley Partana is offered something he’ll refuse in “Prizzi’s Honor”
The best lines go to Kathleen Turner, but Jack, as hitman Charley Partana, doesn’t do too poorly either (“Dominic hires my own wife to clip me?”). His reaction shots are choice as well, and in no scene better than when Don Corrado Prizzi tells him that he’s moving his own son out to Vegas and making him — Charley — boss. Charley’s stunned, there’s disbelief, followed by a small satisfied smile, but all the while there’s a seriousness about the honor that Don Prizzi is bestowing upon him. It’s rather endearing. Of course when the Don warns him against telling anyone about the upcoming shift in titles, not even Charley’s own father (the Don’s consiglieri), there’s a glimmer of suspicion in his eyes. That suspicion propels the rest of the film.
8. ‘Women. A mistake? Or did He DO IT TO US ON PURPOSE!?!’
Preaching a hilarious misogyny in “The Witches of Eastwick”
Near the end of this mediocre movie, a fierce wind — conjured by witchcraft — blows Daryl Van Horne, AKA The Devil, into a nearby church. Hair askew like a mad scientist’s (a Jack trademark), and covered in feathers, he stops to rail against women. “We all make mistakes,” he says. “Of course, when we make mistakes they call it evil. When God makes mistakes, they call it ... nature. So whaddaya think? Women: a mistake? Or DID HE DO IT TO US ON PURPOSE!?! BECAUSE I REALLY WANNA KNOW! BECAUSE IF IT’S A MISTAKE, MAYBE WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Find a cure. Invent a vaccine. Build up our immune systems...”
It’s funny as hell, but it also makes you wonder: Does the Devil need women for something besides sex and procreation? Does he need them ... to keep from being lonely? It’s a fascinating thought, but the film pretty much ignores it for special effects and an odd, light-comedic end in which Daryl’s three “girlfriends” are seen raising his children. But ... aren’t they still the Devil’s children? I mean, just because they’re keeping Daryl at bay doesn’t mean the kids aren’t ... Satanic. I tend to fall on the nurture side of nature vs. nurture, but that’s taking the argument too far.
7. ‘What difference has my life made to anyone?’
Making a connection in “About Schmidt”
The titular insurance actuary from Omaha is probably Jack’s most repressed character. During the course of the film he retires, his wife dies, and his daughter marries a man he considers beneath her (“that nincompoop,” is how he puts it). The one outlet in his repressed life is the correspondence he sends to Ndugu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy he’s “adopted” for $22 per month via an organization called Childreach. In his letters he reveals his true self, and never moreso than at the end: “Relatively soon I will die. Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I’m dead and everyone who knew me dies, too, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of.”
Then he gets a package with a picture from Ndugu: a child’s drawing of a connection being made. And a connection is made. The subsequent close-up of Schmidt’s wrecked face breaking down in gratitude is one of the more heartbreaking moments in recent movies.
6. ‘As little as possible.’
The corruption of the world revealed in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”
Jake Gittes is a man who thinks he’s smarter than the world, and most of the time he is. It’s fun watching him spar with Lt. Escobar and his flunkies, for example (“She crossed her legs a little too quick, you understand what I mean, pal?”). But he’s played for a sap early in the film and doesn’t know who to trust thereafter. He thinks he’s dealing with a femme fatale, but he’s not. He calls the cops at the wrong time, he confronts Noah Cross at the wrong time, and at the end, faced with a corruption he can hardly imagine, he’s left with nothing but loathing — for himself, for the stupidity of the cops, for the sexual and political corruption of the world. Once everything goes horribly wrong, he says only one line. It’s a reiteration of a line he said earlier to Evelyn Mulwray when she asked him what he did working for the district attorney in Chinatown: “As little as possible.” He was clever when he first said it. By the end he knows. There’s nothing clever about it at all.
5. ‘I love you, too, kid.’
A scoundrel sells his stock answer, and maybe means part of it, in “Terms of Endearment”
Every scene’s a winner. The intro, the lunch date, the drive on the beach. I remember howls from women in the audience when Garrett disrobed in Aurora’s bedroom and stood sideways, his belly sticking out. Movie stars just didn’t do this. We loved him for it.
I’ll go with the scene at the airport. Garrett has traveled to Nebraska to console Aurora and now he’s flying back to Texas; as they say good-bye they search for common ground. He begins with stock lines, “I’ll call ya” and then struggles to find the genuine: “I’m real glad I came.” She is overly worried and then lets it go: “Oh, I don’t care, who cares, I don’t care, I’m glad you came, I love you.” They grab ass; they part. But the old Aurora asserts herself and she calls him back to find out how he felt when she told him she loved him.
This is what you want in a scoundrel: Honesty. “I was just inches from a clean getaway,” he says, before saying that he doesn’t know what to say except his stock answer, which he gives: “I love you, too, kid.”
What’s great is how he says it. He says it like he means it. He sells it with that great Jack grin. “I love you, too, kid.” Somehow it’s comforting. Maybe by acknowledging that the line is false, or at least “stock,” there is now truth in it. And maybe that’s all we need. Not 100 percent truth, not 100 percent devotion. Just some.
4. ‘Here’s to five miserable months on the wagon.’
Lloyd sets ‘em up and Jack Torrance knocks ‘em back in “The Shining”
Apparently it all happened on a Wednesday. Jack’s nightmare, Danny getting choked, Wendy accusing Jack of choking Danny: It’s enough to make a man wanna drink. So there’s Jack wandering the hallways of that huge, snowbound hotel, fighting off his demons (literally, or in pantomime), when he comes across the Gold Room, or the Cold Room, you can’t really tell from the sign. He turns on the lights, walks to the bar and declares — his lips smacking in anticipation — that he’d sell his goddamned soul for a glass of beer. Bing! Lloyd appears. Best goddamned bartender from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
All of Jack’s choices in this scene are great. The lead-footed gait, his almost animalistic hulk. The dazed joy in his eyes after he downs that first drink of bourbon. The way he rattles the ice in the glass during the second. We learn that he’s been sober for five months, that he hurt Danny three years ago, and that he’s insane. We suspected things weren’t going well, but this scene let’s us know by how much the hotel is winning.
3. ‘You wanna go with me?’
Fighting to get out of another straightjacket in “Five Easy Pieces”
In the early 1970s people talked up the chicken salad sandwich scene as if it were an attack on the system; when I watched it again 20 years later I realized it was just an attack on an overworked waitress. Yeah, she’s a bit touchy. Yeah, Bobby has a point, and, yeah, he maneuvers around the diner’s idiotic “no toast” policy with aplomb (until he explodes), but in the end he’s an ass. Doesn’t make the scene bad, just misinterpreted. Why it’s not my favorite.
My favorite scene occurs shortly after he finds out his father —whose upper-crust roots and classically trained background he’s fleeing — is dying. He decides to return to him, but without Rayette, his pregnant girlfriend, who, let’s face it, just wouldn’t fit in there. As he packs, and as she speaks to him through country music code (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E”), their relationship seems to dissolve. First he tells her he’ll be back in a few weeks. Then he tells her he’ll “try” to call her. Then he tells her he didn’t promise her anything. Then he leaves. Throws the suitcase in the backseat, gets behind the wheel. Almost free. But not at all. Because suddenly he’s spewing curse words and punching the roof and the steering wheel and anything he can get his hands on. It’s as if fighting to get out of an imaginary straightjacket. A second later he’s back in the house, wearily inviting her along. A basic (but temporary) decency has won out, making Bobby another great American character, like Huck Finn, who gets angry at himself for doing the right thing.
2. ‘Gimme a little of THIS!’
Carpe Diem in “The Last Detail”
Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky is an MP who tries to inject a little life into the death sentence (or eight-year prison sentence) of Larry Meadows, a dumb kid caught stealing 40 bucks. He tries to teach him how to live before he’s incarcerated. Success will thus inevitably bring failure — the game is rigged from the start — but it doesn’t keep Billy from trying. At one point he provokes a bathroom fight with Marines, and after he and Larry and fellow MP Mule escape, they walk through Central Park, he tries to get the others to share in his enthusiasm:
“He fought like a champ, though, didn’t he, Mule? Jesus. Goddamn, that was great. It was great, wasn’t it? It was great. Admit it! C’mahn, give me a little of THIS! Give me just because they call me Shine in here, huh?”
Look at that dialogue. No way it was written like that. Screenwriters are clean bastards, and this thing is as messy as life. It’s beautiful. And when he says, “C’mahn, give me a little of THIS” his fingers flutter near his smile. Yeah, we could all use a little of that.
1. ‘Alright Chief, you’re our last chance.’
Watching the World Series in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
I knew this would be my number-one scene from the get-go. Maybe because in my younger days, women — teachers, mothers — kept me from watching baseball, too. Back then, in the early 1970s, baseball was usually played during the daytime and I remember getting into a lot of arguments with teachers over the playoffs and World Series. I remember losing. Somewhere important baseball games were being played and I wasn’t watching them.
But of course the scene is more. It’s about the way authority usually wins. It’s about the rigged game. McMurphy wants to change the schedule to watch the World Series but Big Nurse claims the schedule is for the patients’ benefit and to change it requires a majority vote in the group meeting. McMurphy only gets three votes. The next day — after he attempts to lift a sink, fails and says, “At least I tried” — he gets all nine votes. But Big Nurse claims there are 18 patients in the ward — meaning the guys so out of it that they don’t know where they are. That’s the “rigged game” that McMurphy speaks of later, but — being McMurphy — he still tries to win it, and he does, getting supposedly deaf-and-dumb Chief Bromden to raise a hand in favor of watching the Series. But Big Nurse keeps the game rigged. She claims the meeting was adjourned and the final vote was 9 to 9, not 10 to 8. Frustrated, McMurphy stares at the blank TV set mounted on the wall. Then he begins to describe the action. He talks about Koufax winding up. He talks about home runs being hit. The other patients gather and cheer. They go crazy, while Big Nurse’s mask finally slips. It’s a great, beautiful, temporary victory.
Sidenote. The Series he’s describing is the 1963 Series between the New York Yankees and the L.A. Dodgers. In his description the Yankees get three straight extra-base hits against Koufax, including back-to-back homeruns. Koufax did in fact give up three runs to the Yankees, including homeruns to the players McMurphy credits (Tom Tresh and Mickey Mantle); but those three runs were spread out over two games, both of which Koufax, and the Dodgers, won, as they did the Series, four games to none. As an avowed Yankee hater — and knowing the Yankees are Jack’s favorite team — I felt I had to set the record straight.
—Yes, Erik Lundegaard wants to watch baseball, the World Series, particularly if the Yankees aren’t in it. (Originally published 10/6/06 on MSNBC.com.)