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Oscars flashback: 5 reasons why Jack Nicholson claimed gold for ‘Terms of Endearment’

Earlier this year, I looked back at Shirley MacLaine’s Best Actress Oscar win for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.” Just to quickly recap, she had everything working in her favor. She was a beloved and overdue veteran with a showy role in the year’s Best Picture. She had a couple of killer scenes. And there was just no one in the lineup who could challenge her. Shirley surely had it in the bag.

But the Best Supporting Actor win by MacLaine’s co-star Jack Nicholson is slightly more intriguing. He was already in possession of a Best Actor Oscar for 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” (At that time, no Best Actor champion had gone on to receive a supporting bookend.) He risked splitting votes with a fellow cast mate (John Lithgow). And he was the only previous winner in the category. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the academy to try and spread the wealth?

To mark the 40th anniversary of his triumph, allow me to present five reasons why Nicholson won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Terms of Endearment.”

1. He swept the critics’ awards.
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The New York Film Critics Circle. The National Society of Film Critics. And the National Board of Review. All four reviewed his supporting performance and judged it to be the best of 1983. Once he picked up all four prizes, he become the bonafide frontrunner. There was just no way for anyone to catch up with him.

SEE Watch our lively chats with dozens of 2024 Emmy contenders

2. He won the Golden Globe.
This was well before the Screen Actors Guild Awards were even created,  so the Globe was even more significant then than it is now. (And if the SAG Awards had been in existence, it’s safe to say that it would have gone to Nicholson.) With the Golden Globe added to his already large collection of critics’ kudos, his momentum practically multiplied.

3. He delivered a fine supporting performance.
Nicholson played Garrett Breedlove, a retired astronaut who strikes up a fling with his widowed next door neighbor, Aurora Greenway (MacLaine). He was flirtatious. He was funny. And he was fantastic. It wasn’t quite on the same level of some of the decade’s other Supporting Actor Oscar selections — like Timothy Hutton in 1980’s “Ordinary People,” Louis Gossett Jr. in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” and Dr. Haing S. Ngor in 1984’s “The Killing Fields.” (Had Nicholson been up against one of those gentlemen, he would have been killed.) But as usual, he was as good as it gets in “Terms of Endearment.” (Even before he would get his third statuette for 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.”)

SEE Oscar Best Picture gallery: History of every Academy Award-winning movie

4. He was riding a “Terms of Endearment” Best Picture wave.
The tearjerker scored an impressive 11 nominations, which is rare for a contemporary film without splashy production values. It won a total five awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for James L. Brooks, Best Actress for MacLaine and Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson. Academy members were clearly eager to vote for “Terms” in as many places as possible. Given that it was an actor-driven movie, that meant honoring its principle actors. Since MacLaine and Nicholson were paired up onscreen, it was only fitting that they were paired with Oscars, as well.

5. There was nobody strong enough to beat him.
His co-star and co-nominee Lithgow was wonderful in a small but pivotal role. His inclusion (especially given that Jeff Daniels was notably excluded) was his reward. Charles Durning in “To Be or Not to Be” hammed it up rather forgettably in a rather forgettable movie — and one that produced no other noms. Durning was not to be the winner. Sam Shepard in “The Right Stuff” and Rip Torn in “Cross Creek” were both solid in their respective pictures. But their parts just didn’t have the right stuff to warrant a victory. That left Jack to hit his second Oscar jackpot, as 1983’s Best Supporting Actor for “Terms of Endearment.”

PREDICT the 2024 Emmy nominees through July 17

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