When you think of the pantheon of great actors that have ever graced our screen, Jack Nicholson is probably a name that most people would discuss as one of the best to ever do it. Hell, if you’re making a Mount Rushmore of the best actors, stick Nicholson’s face on there! And if you’re looking for evidence as to why he belongs there, I present to you exhibit A: Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is the best performance of all time.
Now, if we’re talking about bodies of work, Nicholson’s 94 acting credits aren’t exactly all winners. Like anyone, he’s picked a few stinkers in his time, but he’s also got some of the best movies of all time in his vast filmography.
I’m not concerned with the big picture here though. I want to hone in on one particular picture, and that is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, widely considered one of the best horror movies ever made. It is this movie in which Jack Nicholson completely loses himself in the madness of the Overlook Hotel, that you can find the best acting performance anyone has ever given in the history of film.
So, what makes this performance so special? I’m sure I’m not alone in the opinion that a great performance is all down to the journey the actor takes us on with their character. And in Jack Torrance, Nicholson takes the audience for a terrifying, transformative thrill ride like never before.
At the start of The Shining, Jack Torrance is a mild-mannered, calm, family man. During his interview regarding the prospective post at the Overlook Hotel, Torrance appears to be perfect for the job, and is totally unfazed by the revelation that the previous caretaker went insane and killed his family.
“Five months of peace is just what I want,” Torrance tells the interviewers, with a charming smile. But as time ticks by in the hotel, and the tension of isolation creeps in, Nicholson mutates completely. The air of cool composure slowly slips away, replaced by sinister and sadistic urges.
The real beauty of the duality of this performance though, is in the pacing. The movie’s director, Stanley Kubrick, is a master of storytelling, and the way this twisted tale unfolds so patiently, plays perfectly into the dichotomy of Jack Torrance.
Nicholson introduces incredible nuances and subtle ticks to his character, gradually teasing the audience with the horror to come. His vacant stares last a little too long; his patience wears a little too thin; his curiosity for the secrets of the hotel becomes uncomfortably obsessive.
By the end of The Shining, of course, Nicholson has completely immersed himself into the role of the monster. He is utterly lost to the forces of the Overlook Hotel, and becomes one of the most fearsome horror villains of all time.
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But, it’s worth remembering that at its core, this is the behaviour of a man possessed, quite literally. While Jack Torrance’s mental state and deep-rooted vulnerabilities allow the hotel to hook its claws into him and make him the antagonist of his own story, he is technically the victim, too.
It’s no mean feat to make an audience despise your character, while also instilling an uncomfortable sense of sympathy too, but Jack Nicholson manages it here. His treatment of Wendy and his son, Danny, is loathsome, but there are moments within the madness that you can see Torrance desperately wanting it to end, to be free of the torture. But, the hotel won’t allow that, of course.
Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir here. We can all agree that Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is phenomenal. But the best of all time? That’s a big statement. So, let’s consider the kind of performances most closely matched to this in terms of what Nicholson achieves.
If we look at the duality of Nicholson’s performance, there are many similarities in his character journey to that of Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless classic, Psycho. As Norman Bates, Perkins oozes awkward, endearing charm. But as the film descends into its twisted finale, his odd mannerisms are soon explained by a more chilling reality as it’s revealed that Norman masquerades as his dead mother.
Is it a good performance? Absolutely. But, does it match up to Nicholson’s depiction of Jack Torrance? Not a chance. While Perkins is suitably creepy and convincing as his façade begins to slip, his start and end points on the spectrum of madness are too close. Norman Bates was already crazy and was simply trying to hide it. Jack Nicholson takes Torrance through a complete metamorphosis, from your everyday American to an unhinged psychopath.
Thinking about more contemporary references, one performance and movie, which strikes an uncanny resemblance, is that of Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island. He, too, gives life to a family man on a path of self-destruction in his role as Teddy Daniels. Not only is Daniels battling the external forces at play in the establishment he finds himself confined to, but he has his own internal demons to contend with too.
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When Leo asks “Is it better to live as a monster, or die as a good man?” at the end of Shutter Island, the mystery of his character is ripped open once again. It’s a stunning line delivery, which encapsulates an enthralling performance from one of the best modern actors around. But, it’s no Jack Torrance.
So, when it comes to psychotic characters, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance has everyone beat, right? Well, there is one competitor who could rival that crown. Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in the Batman movie The Dark Knight, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest acting performances ever.
Ledger, whether it was the right thing to do or not, entirely threw himself into the psyche of the legendary Batman villain until the role consumed him. The result was extraordinary, with Ledger giving such an iconic character a modern spin, completely stealing the show from the Caped Crusader.
His menacing facial expressions, blood-curdling line delivery, and incredible screen presence all combine to make Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker the closest contender in my mind to the title I am bestowing upon Jack Nicholson. Again though, the issue here is in the range of the performance.
The Joker is what he is, and Ledger is jaw-droppingly good at bringing ferocious persona to life. But with Nicholson, we see Jack Torrance’s throughline from humble caretaker to crazed killer, we feel every thread of his mental state as it unravels, and we can only watch in horror as he falls deeper and deeper into madness.
So, what about more reserved, dramatic performances? I immediately think of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. While his character, Don Vito Corleone, is a man who strikes fear into the hearts of his allies and enemies, Brando brings a level of calm disquiet to the role, when it would have been easy to go over the top. It’s an incredibly subtle and powerful performance, and one which certainly deserves all the plaudits.
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When you compare it to Jack Nicholson in The Shining though, Brando’s performance doesn’t quite match the intensity the former imbues into his role. Sure, we all love seeing Torrance swinging the the axe at the door, and the tension-filled chase through the snow-covered hedge maze, but his performance comes down to far more than simply turning it up to 11 and letting his crazy side out.
Nicholson delivers on the slower, more meditative moments, too. When he dances with his demons in the bathroom of room 237, Torrance appears to be a pathetic shell of a man. As he drinks with the devil in the hotel bar, he seemingly bears his soul and shows the frailties of his mind that the spirits of the Overlook have latched on to.
Nicholson constantly reminds us that his more fierce, dangerous side is just waiting to spill over though. More than once, he feigns innocence and sincerity to try to lure Wendy into a false sense of security, only to explode once again, the moment his tricks don’t work.
It’s an unbelievable talent to portray such a monster, but to be able to turn it off and on again at the drop of a hat in the way that Nicholson does, is truly remarkable. It’s hard to comprehend that this performance didn’t even earn Nicholson an Oscar nomination at the time, though that could have something to do with the fact he was recognised just five years earlier, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Deciding on the best acting performance of all time is never going to be easy, and of course, it’s entirely subjective. The discussion between myself and my colleagues at The Digital Fix brought up many names, and there’s an argument to be made for so many talented performers over the years.
But, for me, when I think of perfection, I think of Jack Torrance, and all the little wonderful imperfections Jack Nicholson gives to his most iconic role.