Nicholson at the Oscars: 1992 ("A Few Good Men")

The five years following Jack Nicholson's Oscar nomination for Ironweed marked a mix of epic highs and lows. For while the actor scored the biggest commercial success of his career in 1989, he would three years later garner his first (and to date, only) Worst Actor nomination at the Razzie Awards.

That 1989 film was of course none other than Tim Burton's Batman, a blockbuster summer release that fully delivered on all of its hype, and then some. Nicholson garnered warm critical notices for his extravagant portrayal of The Joker but it was the film's box office receipts, and the star's eye-popping paycheck for taking on the role, that really captured attention. At the end of the day, it was estimated that Nicholson reaped up to $90 million of the film's grosses.

From there, however, the star stumbled a bit.

The grand success of Batman at last gave Nicholson the license to embark on a pet project he'd for years yearned to deliver - a sequel to 1974's Chinatown. Production on The Two Jakes, directed by Nicholson himself, was troubled from the get-go, however, and the finished product, dumped in theaters in August 1990, failed to resonate with critics or audiences. Batman had spent 13 weeks in the box office top 10. The Two Jakes survived for one.

Nicholson was absent from the screen in 1991 but returned, to mixed success, with a trio of pictures the following year.

On paper, all of Man Trouble (reuniting with Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman, the team from Five Easy Pieces), A Few Good Men (the latest from Rob Reiner, then on a hot streak) and Hoffa (an epic biopic of Jimmy Hoffa from Danny DeVito and David Mamet) had heaps of promise, perhaps even Oscar potential. Only one of the films, however, proved successful.

Man Trouble, a romcom casting the star opposite Ellen Barkin, garnered Nicholson some of the worst reviews and box office receipts of his career. Hoffa polarized critics but was met with a collective shrug by audiences upon its Christmas release.

Ultimately, it was only A Few Good Men, in which Nicholson has a supporting role (opposite leads Tom Cruise and Demi Moore), that left a positive impression. Reiner again struck box office gold and, despite all of the negative buzz around his other two 1992 releases, Nicholson would go on to garner his 10th Oscar nomination.

The 1992 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game

Davidson portrays Dil, girlfriend of Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier kidnapped and killed during an IRA hostage situation gone awry. Jody's friend Fergus (Oscar nominee Stephen Rea), a disaffected IRA member, visits London to look after the mysterious Dil, who is full of surprises. This performance marked Davidson's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Hackman portrays "Little Bill" Daggett, the hard-nosed sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. After a local prostitute is left disfigured by a pair of cowboys, her colleagues take justice into their own hands, posting a reward for their murder. This doesn't sit well with Little Bill, who's all the most incensed when two groups of gunfighters (one led by Richard Harris, the other by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood) come charging into town to collect on the money. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, marked Hackman's fifth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and second win.

Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

Nicholson portrays Nathan Jessup, a conniving colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps. Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a military lawyer tasked with proving a pair of marines innocent of murdering a colleague, finds himself with no option but to call Jessup, who wants the tragic affair kept quiet, to the stand. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, marked Nicholson's 10th Oscar nomination.

Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross

Pacino portrays Ricky Roma, a deceptive, long-winded New York salesman who, alongside his three colleagues (Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin), is fighting to survive in the real estate game. Complications arise with an overnight burglary of their office and the disappearance of critical sales leads. This performance marked Pacino's 7th/8th (he was also nominated and prevailed for Scent of a Woman this year) Oscar nomination.

David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night

Paymer portrays Stan Young, long-suffering brother and manager of Buddy (Billy Crystal, in an inauspicious directorial debut), a comedy legend of the early days of television. As Buddy's stardom escalates, so does his ego, as the comedian alienates just about everyone around him, including his brother. This performance marked Paymer's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross; Danny DeVito, Batman Returns; Tom Hanks, A League of Their Own; Sydney Pollack, Husbands and Wives; Christopher Walken, Batman Returns; Robin Williams, Aladdin; Bruce Willis, Death Becomes Her

Won and should've won: Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Come on, Academy. You gave his sleepy Out of Africa seven (!) Oscar victories but could not even bother to nominate Pollack for his incredible performance in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives?

The brilliant actor/filmmaker/producer should have been the winner here, and he should have been surrounded by the likes of Baldwin (stealing his single scene with thrilling gusto), Hanks (in the funniest turn of his career) and either Williams or Willis, both in spirited comic form. The winner, the always sublime Hackman, can stay.

Hackman aside, this category is a tad on the uninspired side. You have a marvelous character actor juicing what little he can out of a catastrophe of a picture; an intriguing but shaky debut performance in a fabulous film; and two New Hollywood legends ranting and raving to negligible effect in a pair of star-studded duds.

Let's start with Nicholson, in by far the worst Oscar-nominated turn of his career (see below the gap between this and Reds). I'll give him this much - he's pretty much the only watchable part of A Few Good Men. After killing it with a streak of hits that included This Is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally..., Reiner for once opted to play it safe and the result was this tedious courtroom drama.

While leading man Cruise and leading lady Demi Moore completely phone it in, Nicholson is at least in there trying to get some fireworks going. That's much easier said than done, however, when you're working with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay this dull and a director seemingly A-OK with keeping the proceedings as stagebound as possible. Worse, Nicholson's screen time is minimal - vis a vis his supporting work in Reds, for instance, this feels like a glorified cameo.

At least gracing his film for a fair amount of time is Pacino, playing to the last row of the balcony in James Foley's claustrophobic film adaptation of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

In all fairness to Foley, I'm not sure Glengarry could ever completely flourish as a feature film. Mamet's drama is perfectly tailored to the stage, where actors can feast on his succulent dialogue as loudly as they please, but plays as bombastic on film. Credit both Baldwin and Lemmon for expertly finding ways to tailor their roles to the screen - both deserved Oscar nominations (the latter was campaigned in Lead).

Pacino, I'm afraid, does not bring that same nuance to his part. This is Pacino the Ham, the Pacino that all too often surfaced with Scarface and on. His performance, while not without gusto, is like a dozen other Pacino turns you've seen - brash but kind of boring.

Beyond Nicholson and Pacino, the offerings here are much more satisfying.

I seesaw between Davidson and Paymer, both memorable and still totally inferior to Hackman.

I'm not convinced Davidson is necessarily the most talented or skillful of actors. For all I know, he's never given another great performance (I don't believe I've seen him in anything else). There are scenes in The Crying Game where he's clearly straining to sell this tricky role. That said, he's very well-directed here and has a shimmering screen presence that captivates from the moment he hits the screen. Davidson is essential to the film's success. It's a peculiar and refreshingly unaffected performance.

On the other hand, you have Paymer, a veteran character actor who has proven himself time and time again on both the big and small screens. Mr. Saturday Night marks both his best and most substantial performance and also possibly his worst film.

Mr. Saturday Night crash-landed with a resounding thud when it hit theaters that fall. The picture, Billy Crystal's directorial debut, was hyped as a surefire Oscar contender and, given the sky-high success of When Harry Met Sally... and City Slickers, a guaranteed box office hit to boot. The few moviegoers who ignored critics' pans of the picture were treated in theaters to an mawkish, haphazardly paced dramedy with Crystal as a character impossible to love.

The only thing anyone seemed to enjoy about Mr. Saturday Night was co-star Paymer, who steals scene after scene after scene from the leading man/director/writer/producer. It's a sweet, heartbreaking performance that somehow transcends the insipid schmaltz that plagues most of the proceedings. While Crystal blusters his way through the picture, Paymer's always there lurking in the shadows, and has our heart all along. It's a lovely turn from a wonderful actor in a flat-out trainwreck of a film. Oh, and one other qualm - the old age makeup on both Crystal and Paymer in this is horrendous. Like, Bette Midler and James Caan in For the Boys-bad.

Great as Paymer is, I ain't giving Mr. Saturday Night an Oscar. This is a slam dunk for Hackman.

Looking back on Hackman's exemplary career and Oscar run, I say he should have prevailed twice - first, for I Never Sang for My Father, and then for this. (I'm cool with his victory for The French Connection but prefer Peter Finch in 1971.) While I understand why Hackman took an exit from the screen (just look at how the likes of De Niro and Pacino have fared in recent years), his presence sure is sorely missed.

Unforgiven is one of the very best Hackman performances. It's a riveting and frightening portrayal of a figure who, in some of the more by-the-numbers westerns, probably would've been cast in a more one-dimensional light. Hackman is in commanding, barrel-chested form here and the sight of him going toe-to-toe with Eastwood leaves me positively giddy, even if I'm not generally enamored with western cinema. There's genuine, old-school movie magic to be found in Unforgiven and Hackman's barbarous villain is vital to that prosperity.

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. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  20. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  21. John Gielgud, Arthur
  22. Harrison Ford, Witness
  23. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  24. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  25. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  26. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  27. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  28. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  29. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
  30. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  31. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  32. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  33. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  34. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  35. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  36. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  37. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  38. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  39. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  40. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  41. Robert Redford, The Sting
  42. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  43. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  44. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  45. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  46. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  47. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  48. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  49. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  50. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth