Nicholson at the Oscars: 2002 ("About Schmidt")

And I thought 20 Years of Streep flew by!

As I bring this project to a close - my final 2017 "Oscar Flashback" before I focus exclusively on this year's awards season insanity - I of course want to thank my followers, both here and on Twitter, for joining me on this ride through Jack Nicholson's run at the Oscars.

Looking back on his dozen nominations and career as a whole serves as a testament to his richly deserved status as one of the finest feature film actors of the past half-century. And, I happen to think the Academy got it right - three wins, even though I'd switch out As Good As It Gets for Ironweed.

Who knows what or who I'll take on next year for an Oscar Flashback...

With that said, there is of course a 12th and final chapter to go in this project.

The 2000s, much like the 1990s and 1970s, marked a scattershot decade for Nicholson on the silver screen. Remarkably, 1997's As Good As It Gets would be Nicholson's final picture of that decade, the actor not returning to cinema until 2001's The Pledge, his second collaboration with director Sean Penn.

Like the first Nicholson-Penn picture (1995's The Crossing Guard), The Pledge was warmly received by critics but, despite one hell of an ensemble (including Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Robin Wright), the film didn't take off in theaters, never even cracking the box office top 10.

Then (whew) came 2002 and Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination. The film was About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne's much-awaited follow-up to his 1999 cult hit Election. With rave reviews and healthy box office receipts, the picture was a major player that awards season, also picking up an Oscar nod for co-star Kathy Bates. More, of course, on About Schmidt in a bit.

Nicholson's filmography post-About Schmidt has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.

In 2003, he scored two box office hits, one praised (Something's Gotta Give) and one panned (Anger Management). Three years later, Nicholson came roaring back into the awards season with a plump part in Martin Scorsese's Best Picture Oscar-winning The Departed. Co-star Mark Wahlberg, however, would ultimately emerge the film's sole Oscar acting nominee.

Since The Departed, Nicholson has graced the screen in two motion pictures, both maligned by critics. At least Rob Reiner's The Bucket List was a box office hit, unlike James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which hardly resonated on the level of Terms of Endearment or As Good As It Gets or even Brooks' 1994 flop I'll Do Anything.

That said, let's not dwell on Nicholson's last couple of pictures. It's time for the hilarity and heartbreak that is 2002's About Schmidt.

The 2002 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Brody portrays Wladyslaw Szpilman, an acclaimed Polish Jewish pianist who fights for survival in World War II. Once a mainstay of concert halls, Szpilman now finds himself forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, separated from his beloved family. He manages to escape and spends the remainder of the war hiding out as a refugee. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics, marked Brody's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and win.

Nicolas Cage, Adaptation

Cage portrays Charlie Kaufman, a Los Angeles screenwriter plagued by feelings of inadequacy as he struggles to pen the screenplay for a film adaptation of Susan Orlean (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep)'s book The Orchid Thief. Hardly helping matters is overbearing twin brother Donald (also Cage), who has moved into Charlie's house with his own screenwriting aspirations. This performance marked Cage's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Caine portrays Thomas Fowler, a London Times reporter who in 1952 is covering the early stages of the war in Indo-China. Fowler befriends Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an American supposedly visiting Saigon as part of a medical mission, and even introduces the young man to his mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The men's friendship is shaken by Pyle's growing infatuation with Phuong and Fowler's discovery of Pyle's actual intentions in Saigon. This performance marked Caine's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York

Day-Lewis portrays William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a vicious New York gang leader who, toward the middle of the 19th century, vigorously fights against the waves of immigrants, namely those from Ireland, flooding into the Five Points neighborhood. His inner-circle is penetrated by Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of a priest (Liam Neeson) murdered by Bill. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Nicholson) and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Day-Lewis' third Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Nicholson portrays Warren Schmidt, a lethargic insurance salesman who finds himself at a crossroads upon his retirement and the sudden death of wife Helen (June Squibb). Schmidt, unhappy with his daughter (Hope Davis)'s engagement to a dopey waterbed salesman (Dermut Mulroney), embarks on an RV road trip, determined to prevent the nuptials. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Day-Lewis) and a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Kieran Culkin, Igby Goes Down; Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me if You Can; Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition; Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus; Edward Norton, 25th Hour; Aaron Stanford, Tadpole; Robin Williams, One Hour Photo

Won: Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Should've won: Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Woah. Could it be, for once, that the Academy completely nailed a category?

Almost. Only one contender strikes me as egregiously overlooked - Williams, chilling as "Sy the Photo Guy" in One Hour Photo. The thing is, I hesitate to boot any of the nominees here. All five are in strong form (in at least one case, career-best form) and I struggle to sort out a ranking for three of them (my #3-5). There is, however, a clear winner for me, and runner-up.

I can't fault the Academy for siding with Brody here. He was, after all, the only non-Oscar winner going into this race. He also graces, by far, the strongest film of the five - I happen to think The Pianist should've won Best Picture by a country mile.

That said, I don't find Brody a terribly compelling actor. He's spectacularly well-directed here and makes for a convincing and harrowing Szpilman but I've never once been enamored with Brody in another project. In fact, more often than not, I find him downright vapid. I see the success of this performance and picture as far more a result of Roman Polanski's exquisite grasp on the material than anything Brody on his own brought to the table. It's a commendable, clearly career-best turn by a middling actor who once, to his supreme luck, caught the eye of one of cinema's all-time great filmmakers.

Adaptation does not quite operate on the same sublime level as The Pianist. Still, it's one very sharp picture and essential to its vitality, beyond the distinct look and feel Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman give the proceedings, are the performances of Cage, Streep and Chris Cooper.

Cage, I think, actually gives the least engrossing turn of the three, which is to say he's still quite splendid (arguably, this is his last great performance before he emerged King of the Razzies) but doesn't wow in the awe-inspiring way Streep or especially Cooper do. Cage's effort, while a lot of fun, also feels a little labored vis a vis Cooper, who disappears with ease into the role of John Laroche. This isn't a Leaving Las Vegas-level performance but still a plenty memorable one.

Then, you have Day-Lewis, the best (only good?) part of a stunningly shambolic picture. He sinks his teeth into the role of Bill the Butcher like a starved barbarian, chowing down on scenery, steamrolling over all of his co-stars and somehow making something out of the dreadful Jay Cocks-Steven Zaillian-Kenneth Lonergan (if only they could've pulled an Alan Smithee) screenplay.

To lift Gangs of New York, one of the very worst Martin Scorsese films, into something worthwhile is one hell of a tall order and while I wouldn't say Day-Lewis turns the picture into a must-see, he does sport enough fortitude to hold interest over the film's near-three hour length. I do think his Bill the Butcher plays more like caricature than a convincing human being but hey, at least Day-Lewis is in there trying, injecting life into the proceedings, unlike DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, hopelessly lost at sea and miscast in their respective roles.

I would rank About Schmidt just behind Sideways and Nebraska and right alongside Election in the Payne filmography. It's a fabulous late-career vehicle for Nicholson, his best comic turn since Ironweed. As was the case in Ironweed, Nicholson sheds his trademark charisma, here convincing as a lost and spiritless man, for too long sleepwalking his way through life. He has great, laugh-out-loud scenes opposite Bates but plenty of sad and affecting moments too. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about the ending as I write this!

On more than just the rare occasion over his career, Nicholson has collaborated with a brilliant, challenging filmmaker and, for one reason or another, the project simply failed to gel. See, for instance, the late Nicholson-Rafelson pictures. About Schmidt is a testament to the movie magic that can come about when the pieces properly fall into place for the actor and the director/screenwriter. The combination of one of the greatest actors of his generation and finest filmmakers of recent years proves irresistible here.

Now, given my salivating over Nicholson, you might presume I'd be giving him the win here. Alas, there is one more performance, and it's a superior one.

Philip Noyce's The Quiet American should have been stirring enough to emerge a Best Picture contender in 2002. His direction of the film is steady and absorbing and the Christopher Hampton adaptation of Graham Greene's novel is for sure more compelling than Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script for his misguided 1958 picture. The film is handsomely designed and, as I'll soon mention, Caine has rarely been better. There is one problem, though, and it's a near-fatal one - Fraser, much as I've adored him in lighter fare, is woefully miscast as Pyle, so much so he winds up somewhat serving as an anchor to an otherwise sensational effort.

Thankfully, Fraser is not vapid enough to detract from Caine's mesmerizing work here. This is my second-favorite of his Oscar-nominated turns, just behind Hannah and Her Sisters (one of my all-time favorite performances period). Caine exquisitely captures a man replete with heartache, a sad and detached figure who does not realize how in love he is until he's on the verge of losing his partner. He says so much with a simple, nuanced glance. It's a beautifully unaffected, soulful performance, one of the actor's last (alongside Youth) truly great leading turns on the silver screen.

All 60 Oscar-nominated performances ranked!

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