Nicholson at the Oscars: 1997 ("As Good As It Gets")

In 1994, nearly a decade following the critical and commercial failure of Heartburn, Jack Nicholson and Mike Nichols collaborated for a fourth (and ultimately final) time on the horror film Wolf. Nicholson's second picture opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, the film was a modest box office success but garnered a lukewarm critical reception. The merely fair response to Wolf, however, would still dwarf the success (or lack thereof) of Nicholson's 1995 and 1996 releases.

Sean Penn, having recently garnered raves and awards season buzz for Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, ventured behind the camera in 1995 with The Crossing Guard,  a dramatic leading vehicle for Nicholson. The film reunited the star with, five years out from their high-profile split, Anjelica Huston. Both stars won warm reviews for their turns but the Penn picture failed to resonate with audiences and was ultimately labeled a box office flop.

Then, even worse, there was 1996.

Blood and Wine marked Nicholson's sixth picture under the direction of longtime pal Bob Rafelson. Despite their prior success and a starry cast including heavyweights Michael Caine and Judy Davis, the picture was even greater a box office failure than Man Trouble, the 1992 Nicholson/Rafelson collaboration.

Seven years after the smashing success of Batman, Nicholson and director Tim Burton reunited on Mars Attacks!, the filmmaker's tribute to 1950s sci-fi B-movies. While the film maintains a passionate cult following to this day, Mars Attacks! was largely met with shrugs from critics upon its December release and audiences, who flocked to see aliens invade Earth in that summer's Independence Day, did not swarm theaters for the Burton flick. Domestically, the picture scored a mere half of its beefy $70 million budget.

Also hitting theaters that winter was The Evening Star, the long-awaited sequel to 1983's Terms of Endearment, which of course won Nicholson his second Oscar. With Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling taking on directorial duties (as opposed to James L. Brooks) and without the presence of Debra Winger, expectations for the film were modest at best but few anticipated the critical pans ultimately bestowed upon the picture. Nicholson's return as Garrett Breedlove was praised but, alas, it was a mere cameo. The rest of the proceedings, Shirley MacLaine's labored leading turn included, did not impress.

Ultimately, it would take none other than Brooks, who himself recently endured a high-profile flop (1994's I'll Do Anything), to send a jolt through Nicholson's career and secure the actor his third Oscar.

The 1997 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Jack 4.jpg

Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting

Damon portrays Will Hunting, a troubled young man who, despite his immense intelligence, works as a janitor at MIT. His brilliance is discovered by Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who commits to helping Will reach his sky-high potential. After Will is arrested for assaulting a cop, Lambeau strikes a deferred prosecution agreement for his mentee that mandates treatment with a kind therapist (Oscar winner Robin Williams). This performance marked Damon's first Oscar nomination (he, alongside Ben Affleck, would win that evening's Best Original Screenplay prize).

Robert Duvall, The Apostle

Duvall portrays Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher whose idyllic life is shattered by the revelation of his wife (Farrah Fawcett, in the best performance of her career)'s affair. Sonny opts to flee Texas and settles down in a small Louisiana town, where he takes on a new name, works a series of odd jobs and preaches everywhere he can. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Duvall's fifth Oscar nomination.

Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold

Fonda portrays Ulee Jackson, a Vietnam veteran and widowed beekeeper desperately trying to hold his family together. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison and drug addict daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) is missing, leaving Ulee to raise his two granddaughters on his own. When Helen resurfaces, Ulee must assist her through withdrawal and deal with the drug dealers she got mixed up with. This performance, which won him honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe, marked Fonda's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog

Hoffman portrays Stanley Motss, a legendary Hollywood producer recruited by a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) to help fabricate a war in Albania, with the intent of distracting the public, two weeks prior to Election Day, from a sex scandal involving the U.S. president. This performance marked Hoffman's seventh (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets

Nicholson portrays Melvin Udall, an irritable, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist whose daily routine is rocked when neighbor Simon (Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear) is assaulted and hospitalized, leaving Simon's beloved dog Verdell in Melvin's care. While Melvin begrudgingly gets to know Simon and Verdell, he also grows close to Carol (Oscar winner Helen Hunt), the only waitress who will put up with Melvin's crankiness at the local diner. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, plus a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Nicholson's 11th Oscar nomination and third win.

Overlooked: Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry; Jim Carrey, Liar Liar; Daniel Day-Lewis, The Boxer; Ian Holm, The Sweet Hereafter; Kevin Kline, The Ice Storm; Kevin Kline, In & Out; Sylvester Stallone, Cop Land; Howard Stern, Private Parts

Won: Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets

Should've won: Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold

At last, a year without an underwhelming nominee!

Sure, it would've been sweet seeing Holm (in a career-best performance) and/or Kline (preferably for The Ice Storm but also fabulous in the side-splitting In & Out) surface on nominations morning but this is a pretty damn great line-up, packed with four New Hollywood legends and, well, Matt Damon.

The least riveting of the five, though still quite a delight, is Hoffman, doing his best Robert Evans caricature in Wag the Dog. The film is middle-of-the-road Barry Levinson/David Mamet fare, entertaining on a purely sitcom level. De Niro's workmanlike performance is made up for by the comic energy from both Hoffman and Anne Heche, who chow down on Mamet's intermittently appetizing dialogue.

The performance is hardly among Hoffman's best - in fact, second only to Rain Man, I would argue this is the weakest of his Oscar nominations. The role isn't a terribly challenging one and only toward the end does it much showcase the actor's extraordinary range. Still, even if there were better comic turns to recognize this year, Hoffman is heaps of fun to watch, in one of his stronger efforts from the past 20 years.

Good Will Hunting has never been the object of my affection. I consider it an efficient, on occasion affecting drama but it never resonates on the level of say, an Ordinary People or Manchester by the Sea. It lacks the astuteness and nuance of those two pictures and Ben Affleck's acting is downright awful.

With that said, I do appreciate Damon's performance here. It's a sensitive, lived-in portrayal that very much rings of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, even if he doesn't quite reach those sky-high heights. Damon's scenes opposite Williams are by far the film's most moving and well-written. The actors have such a marvelous repartee, I'm left wondering how this material may have instead played on stage, focused exclusively on Will and Sean. I suspect that would have been a more satisfying and powerful experience than the more uneven proceedings that grace the screen here.

A film I am quite fond of, even if it runs out of steam with half an hour to go, is As Good As It Gets, the third picture in Brooks' trilogy (alongside Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News) of great heartfelt comedies.

Nicholson may not have much chemistry with his leading lady (Judi Dench for sure should've defeated Hunt for the Lead Actress trophy) but he's otherwise a ball to watch as an endearing asshole. He has a field day with Brooks' biting dialogue, which may also be no more sophisticated than sitcom-level but that's hardly a knock when Brooks' sitcom history includes the legendary likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.

This is hardly the most challenging of Nicholson's roles, in fact it's perhaps the most Nicholson-like Nicholson performance recognized by the Academy. He cruises on charisma here, even with Melvin being as despicable a figure as he often is. His scenes opposite Verdell make my heart melt and with a simple smile or rise of an eyebrow, Nicholson can be awfully irresistible here. It's an very entertaining turn, albeit not quite among his best.

The two finest performances here come from Duvall and Fonda. In most other years, I would almost certainly be giving the former the win.

Duvall, who directed, wrote, produced and headlined the picture (after more than a decade of working to get it off the ground), puts every ounce of his heart and soul into The Apostle. It's a fiery, absorbing performance that legit feels possessed by some otherworldly spirit.

The Grammy-winning country soundtrack is marvelous and the supporting cast quite strong too (Fawcett especially) but this is Duvall's show through and through. The turn doesn't quite rattle me in the same way his career-best work in The Great Santini does but this is still a performance that packs an immense punch and is for sure more transfixing than his Oscar-winning effort in Tender Mercies.

Alas, enamored as I am with Duvall here, I'm even fonder of Nicholson's old Easy Rider pal, Fonda.

After far too many years slumming it in direct-to-video garbage, Fonda at last found his comeback vehicle with this low-budget, completely unassuming film. Ulee's Gold was not, I'm afraid, a substantial box office success when it hit theaters over the summer of 1997. In fact, it was the final Orion Pictures release to ever garner an Oscar nomination, six years after the floundering distributor's much-publicized filing for bankruptcy.

What the film did have, however, were sterling critical reviews and none other than Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who assisted with the picture's financing. Ultimately, Fonda's notices were strong enough to survive into the Oscar season, where he emerged an early co-front-runner (with Nicholson) for the Lead Actor prize.

Ulee's Gold is undoubtedly the finest performance of Fonda's career. It's a warm, reserved portrayal that captures a man's desperation and vexation without resorting to the standard "time to chew some scenery" Oscar scene. He's nicely matched by Patricia Richardson (of TV's Home Improvement), also wonderful as Ulee's neighbor who assists Helen through detox.

What a shame Fonda never secured more pictures on the level of Ulee - he for sure sports the skill and range to tackle a challenging role and also seems far better-suited for a sober and serious part like this than the bombastic B-movies he so often did between this and Easy Rider.

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