Who is the greatest actor of all time? A question often brought up amongst moviegoers, the answer is not an easy one to come by. In this writer’s opinion, however, there is an answer and all you have to do to find it is to go back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when three actors rocketed to stardom, each laying hold to a possible title as not only the greatest actor of their generation, but also perhaps the finest to ever be put in front of a camera.
The three were brilliant all in different ways. One was a natural star able to make any scene more dynamic by his presence alone. Another was a chameleon, always unique, but filled with a ceaseless intensity in everything he did. And the third was an onscreen explosion, filled with earnest passion and a blistering presence all his own.
Following a comedic turn for the ages in Easy Rider, which would garner him a best supporting actor nomination from the Academy Awards of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, otherwise known as the Oscars), Jack Nicholson was the first to stake his claim. Although Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were good, Nicholson was phenomenal in his short screen time, oozing star power from his very pores and a charisma that would prove unrivaled by any of his contemporaries.
Throughout the 1970’s, Nicholson would begin to put together a filmography more impressive than any that had come before him, earning massive acclaim for Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, and finally his first Oscar in 1975 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In any regular era a performance of this caliber and complexity would be unmatched for at least five years, but the golden age of the 70’s was no ordinary time, producing two rival performances in a one year span: Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in 1976’s Taxi Driver.
With these three performances the three-man race for the greatest actor of the generation was on featuring the natural (Jack Nicholson), the chameleon (Robert De Niro), and the explosion (Al Pacino). Portraying dangerous characters that were representative of the tumultuous times that they lived like the aforementioned Bickle, Sonny Wortzik, The Deer Hunter’s Michael, and R.P. McMurphy, these actors were not pursuing money and stardom, but something more noble: acting as art. With each passing year came another sparkling turn from at least one of the trio, the order of the three always reshuffling and impossible to pin down.
Then came the 1980’s. Aside from one iconic turn in Scarface, Pacino seemingly withdrew from the race, doing almost nothing of note the entire decade. De Niro continued the path he had begun in the prior decade, delivering perhaps the greatest performance of all time as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and excellent work inThe King of Comedy and Once Upon a Time in America.
Nicholson would begin on a different trail, moving away from some of the more restrained characters that had earlier defined him and taking on a new villainous persona in films like The Shining and Batman. Showing an almost entirely new side to himself, as well as taking the time to deliver one of the more romantic performances of the era in Terms of Endearment, the natural was no longer relying solely on his reputation as a rebel, but was continually breaking new ground for himself as a performer, becoming one of the biggest box office draws on the planet in the process.
As 1989 rolled into the 1990’s, Nicholson and De Niro were arguably deadlocked, but then Pacino roared back, returning to the role that had first given him life: Michael Coreleone. The Godfather Part III allowed Pacino to create his most fully fleshed out character to date, revealing talents that while previously existent had been all but forgotten in the prior decade. In the same year of perhaps his greatest onscreen triumph, Pacino was also able for the first time to show his comedic chops as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, revealing yet another layer of himself.
As the 90’s rolled on, suddenly the issue of “the greatest” was not as decided as before, with Robert De Niroseemingly running out of steam in the middle part of the decade. Like Pacino he tried to show some comedic muscle, but unlike his rival was not able to do so successfully. Unfortunately his foray into comedy was not a minor career diversion, but seemingly swallowed up all of his future ambitions.
As the years went by De Niro began to settle more and more, signing up for a disastrous adaption of Rocky and Bullwinkle here and a Meet the Fockers there. Whenever he did try to come back to the dramatic territory that had made him before seem indestructible, the spark that he once had was gone, bringing lifeless characters to the screen in films as uninteresting as they come.
Through all the ups and downs of his competitors only Nicholson stayed steady delivering performances in the 90’s and 2000’s that were just as great as his work in the 70’s. Showing a capacity for both comedy and drama in equal measure Nicholson was able to quickly adapt to the change in the roles offered to him and found more and more ways to keep reinventing himself as an actor, perhaps hitting his personal opus with As Good as It Gets.
While his personality was as popular as ever, he found ways to submerge the crazy Jack that everyone associated with him in turns as breathtakingly subtle as those found in The Pledge and About Schmidt. Always immensely watchable, Nicholson found a way to return to the character actor of his origins.
Although impossible to tell at the time, forty some years on, perhaps now the question can be answered: just who out of these three was the best actor? While De Niro may have the most talent, he is the only one of three that has become content with mediocrity. Although a few of his recent supporting turns have been fine, for the most part his intense drive, which was always what separated him from the rest, has vanished.
Some might argue that it’s just the roles that are available to him, but this is not a valid excuse. And even if this was the best work that he could find, surely he could find someway to make the characters he plays more interesting instead of the same old same old that has come to define his performances. It has been fifteen years since De Niro was great and that is far too large a gap for someone who once strived to be the best actor the world had seen.
With De Niro eliminated, it comes down then to Pacino versus Nicholson. Both can proudly claim to have continually looked to stretch themselves throughout their careers and unlike DeNiro, both can claim to have given a performance in the last decade worthy of their immense reputations. Naturalism vs. theatrical is what it comes down to really. Both have always been immensely entertaining, no matter what character it is that they are portraying, but whereas Pacino has sometimes overcooked his performances, this has never happened to Nicholson.
Each and every moment of his onscreen is authentic and worthy of an artist. Although its hard to say that the man behind Michael Corleone is not the greatest actor of his generation, when compared to Nicholson’s consistency that is exactly what has to be concluded. All three are tremendous talents who hopefully will deliver even more great performances in the years to come, but it is Jack, crazy old Jack that is the greatest of all time.
How about you readers? Who do you think is the greatest actor of all time and who out of the three described in this article do you like the best?