Nicholson at the Oscars: 1987 ("Ironweed")

In 1986, nearly a decade after their collaboration on the epic misfire The Fortune sent the director fleeing from Hollywood, Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson reunited for what looked to be, on paper at least, a surefire smash.

Heartburn, based on Nora Ephron's eponymous best-seller (and adapted to the screen by Ephron herself), would not only bring Nichols and Nicholson back together but also the team from 1983's much-praised Silkwood - Nichols, Ephron and leading lady Meryl Streep. The film was stacked with star wattage, an ensemble including the likes of Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara. The effort simply had to be a grand success.

Alas, Heartburn was greeted that summer to a stunningly lukewarm, at times even scathing critical response. While the film opened to decent box office receipts, it quickly stumbled as poor word-of-mouth spread among moviegoers. There would, no surprise, be no love for Heartburn on Oscar nominations morning.

For 1987, Nicholson lined up a trio of pictures with heaps of potential.

First up was a big-budget summer blockbuster, The Witches of Eastwick, directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and featuring three of the decade's hottest actresses - Cher (who would go on to score that year's Best Lead Actress prize for Moonstruck), Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon. Audiences and critics alike ate up Nicholson's gleeful scenery-chewing as the mysterious Daryl Van Horne as Witches emerged one of the season's biggest moneymakers.

Garnering even greater acclaim, at least among critics, were Nicholson's two Oscar season releases.

Broadcast News, in which Nicholson graces the screen in a modest supporting role, and Ironweed, a leading man vehicle for the star, were released over the same weekend that December. The former, an enchanting romantic comedy, proved a commercial success, while the latter, a bleak Great Depression-era drama, did not.

Nicholson's reviews for Ironweed were, however, among some of the strongest of his career. So, despite the film being a box office bomb, Nicholson was about to land his ninth Oscar nomination...

The 1987 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Michael Douglas, Wall Street

Douglas portrays Gordon Gekko, the ruthless, extravagantly successful corporate raider who takes ambitious stockbroker Bud (Charlie Sheen) under his wing after the up-and-comer provides him with insider trading tips. Gekko's "greed is good" philosophy, and the burying of ethics that such entails, weigh heavily on his young mentee. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe, marked Douglas' second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and second win.

William Hurt, Broadcast News

Hurt portrays Tom Grunick, a local sports newscaster who, on charisma alone, is promoted as anchorman for a national television network's evening news program. Tom becomes the apple of producer Jane (Oscar nominee Holly Hunter)'s eye, even though he represents all that she despises about the trend in news toward entertainment. This development doesn't sit terribly well with their colleague Aaron (Oscar nominee Albert Brooks), who has long been enamored with Jane. This performance marked Hurt's third Oscar nomination.

Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes

Mastroianni portrays Romano Patroni, a sad, middle-aged man who, while aboard an ocean liner in Russia, tells his life story to a curious stranger. Romano reflects on his loveless, if comfortable marriage to wife Elisa (Silvana Mangano) and how, while away for a spa vacation on his own, he fell head over heels for another woman (Elena Safonova). Complications arouse, however, when Romano returned home, determined to divorce his wife. This performance, which won him Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival, marked Mastroianni's third and final Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Ironweed

Nicholson portrays Francis Phelan, once a baseball star and now an alcoholic vagabond, for years guilt-ridden over accidentally killing his infant son. During the Great Depression, Phelan returns to his hometown of Albany, New York, where he bonds with his lover and drinking pal Helen (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep) and has a chance to make peace with the family he abandoned. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Nicholson's ninth Oscar nomination.

Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam

Williams portrays Adrian Cronauer, an irreverent disc jockey tasked with taking over the Armed Forces' Saigon radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War. While Cronauer's humor and enthusiasm resonate with the troops, his hard-nosed superiors aren't entirely sold on his schtick. Cronauer encounters greater hostility when, after facing the horrors of war firsthand, he takes to the airwaves to express some hard truths about Vietnam. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Williams' first Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Nicolas Cage, Moonstruck; Michael Douglas, Fatal Attraction; Steve Martin, Roxanne; Terry O'Quinn, The Stepfather; Gary Oldman, Prick Up Your Ears; Dennis Quaid, The Big Easy; Mickey Rourke, Barfly

Won: Michael Douglas, Wall Street

Should've won: Jack Nicholson, Ironweed

Ah, the year Michael Douglas portrayed the 45th president of the United States!

Even if I don't agree with all of the winners, I really love the 1987 Oscars. You have two of the finest comedies of the 1980s (Broadcast News and Moonstruck) contending for Best Picture, one of the all-time great line-ups in Best Lead Actress (Sally Kirkland!), Albert Brooks mustering a surprise Oscar nod, Morgan Freeman up for his most riveting and underrated performance (in Street Smart) and the likes of RoboCop and The Witches of Eastwick scoring multiple nominations.

Best Lead Actor ain't too shabby either, even though the best leading male performance by far (Rourke, superb opposite a comparably awesome Faye Dunaway in Barfly) wasn't even nominated.

The only nominee here I can't get terribly excited about is Hurt, nicely cast as the dashing dunce of an anchorman in Broadcast News but entirely overshadowed by his two superior co-stars.

As I noted in my review of the 1985 line-up, I so often find Hurt's turns (including his final three Oscar nominations) curiously sleepy, devoid of much in the way of vitality. In this film, where's he's portraying a dud, that kinda-sorta works and he has some nice banter with Hunter but that comic energy that drives the picture and is present among the rest of the performances is sorely lacking in Hurt's. Even Joan Cusack, with less than 10 minutes screen time, leaves more of an impression than Hurt does over the entirety of the proceedings.

Growing up, Williams was perhaps my favorite actor of all. I wore out my VHS copies of Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji in no time and loved the likes of Aladdin and Awakenings, among others, too. Looking back, though, much as I still adore Williams and terribly miss his comic genius, I'm not sure he was Oscar-nominated for the right performances.

I'm down with his nod for The Fisher King but the saccharin Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting have never much resonated with me. Williams' work in those two pictures is certainly credible but I don't think compelling enough to make the films quite worthwhile. Instead, I would've loved to see him recognized for Awakenings (surely over his hammy nominated co-star Robert De Niro), Mrs. Doubtfire (even though 1993 was such a busy and rich year for leading men) and also One Hour Photo.

While I don't think his turn in Good Morning, Vietnam is quite as inventive or poignant as his best work, it's still a very fine performance, one for sure strong enough to make the film worth a look. Like so many Barry Levinson films (including the other Levinson-Williams collaboration, Toys), it's an imperfect picture. Without Williams' exuberance, it probably wouldn't work at all but there he is, having a blast in a role perfectly suited to his talents. Moreover, he manages to sell the film's more dramatic (and less confident) material.

Likewise, Oliver Stone's Wall Street packs its punch on the shoulders of a performance, or, in this case, two turns. The film itself isn't as sharp as Stone's best (the likes of Nixon and Salvador) and in fact, some scenes, like those shared between Charlie Sheen and Daryl Hannah, are just plain awful. That said, the picture does get quite a bit of mileage out of Douglas and the other, better Sheen (Martin), both in prime form.

Douglas vividly captures the glossy barbarism of 1980s Wall Street. It's a performance equal parts alluring and intimidating and it sure doesn't hurt having a co-star who's so easy to steamroll over in acting prowess. I happen to much prefer his other performance from 1987 - Fatal Attraction - but this is still an iconic and absorbing turn from a performer who certainly deserved more than one acting Oscar nomination over his career.

Hats off to the Academy for recognizing the marvelous Mastroianni here as, while he did prove the toast of that year's Cannes Film Festival, he hadn't shown up anywhere else precursors-wise that awards season.

Dark Eyes is a terrific late-career showcase for Mastroianni who, while active well into the 1980s and 1990s, rarely came across projects as strong as this and his legendary earlier work (8 1/2, Divorce, Italian Style and La Dolce Vita, to name a few). The picture is lavishly designed, like a Merchant-Ivory production, with one hell of a Francis Lai original score, but, of course, its leading man is the heart and soul of the proceedings.

The film is a fabulous showcase of Mastroianni's range, as he paints a sad and weary Romano in his older age and a man far more ebullient and impassioned back in the day. It's a lovely turn from an actor with a career full of them.

Alas, much as I love Mastroianni (and would love to have seen him with an Oscar somewhere down the road) and am OK with the Douglas victory, I actually think Nicholson should have picked up trophy #3 this year.

Ironweed is perhaps the least Nicholson-like of Nicholson performances. It's a turn entirely devoid of his trademark charm and persona, instead a portrayal of a bleak and tortured man, as washed out as the Great Depression-era scenery around him. This is the most sorrowful Nicholson to ever grace the screen and it's an awfully jarring sight to contrast this performance with his other two 1987 turns, both of which find the actor largely coasting on charisma.

The best scenes in Ironweed, and some of the most haunting of any Nicholson film, are those shared between the actor and Carroll Baker, who evocatively portrays Phelan's abandoned wife. Both performances have a lived-in and tormented feel that is absolutely devastating. How was Baker not Oscar-nominated for this?

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  19. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  20. John Gielgud, Arthur
  21. Harrison Ford, Witness
  22. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  23. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  24. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  25. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  26. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  27. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  28. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  29. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  30. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  31. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  32. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  33. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  34. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  35. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  36. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  37. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  38. Robert Redford, The Sting
  39. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  40. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  41. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  42. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  43. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  44. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  45. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth