Jack Nicholson received his ninth Oscar nomination for portraying Francis Phelan in Ironweed.
Jack Nicholson's performance in the film, is one of his quietest performances really. He never uses any of his Nicholson trademarks in this film, instead portrays Francis as a truly downtrodden character, who Nicholson always shows to really have the good life taken out him completely from his hardships he has faced in his life as a homeless man.
Francis though was not always a homeless man, and only became one due to his incredible guilt he faced after accidentally dropping his infant son, causing his son to die. This is all learned in a single scene where Francis visits his sons grave, and Nicholson makes this scene one of the best scenes in his entire career. As Francis talks to his son, he shows all his guilt, he has had over his son, and his complete sense of loss, Nicholson in this one scene is heartbreaking, with his entirely honest portrayal of Francis' grief.
Francis spends much of the film simply drifting from place to place, doing small jobs to get money, and get another drink. Nicholson is extremely good in showing just how long Francis has been in this state, of going from meal to meal, drink to drink, from shabby place to sleep to shabby place to sleep. Nicholson shows the complete truthful history of the man, in just the way he walks, and acts that clearly shows the weight on Francis' shoulders brought on by the past.
Nicholson portrays Francis' alcoholism brilliantly, in that he does not show it that he merely has to drink, but rather he has to drink to hide the real emotions, and reality of his life. Nicholson is very good because he never tries for a moment to show off with this aspect of Francis, instead he shows it as a distinct facet of what Francis who he is currently, but not the only aspect of Francis. Nicholson who portrays the alcoholism any manner of its effect on Francis, is so incredibly subtle, it simply is outstanding the way Nicholson presents it.
Francis is forced to face his past even more completely when ghosts from his past are walking and talking on the streets to him just like the normal people. The ghosts work surprisingly well in the film, and feel completely natural to the entire tone of the film, and I think part of the reason why they work so well, is because of Nicholson's performance. Nicholson makes them believable because he shows that they are deeply part of his mind. Nicholson presents them as a deep pain within Francis, that he cannot forget.
His relationship with Meryl Streep's character Helen is rather interesting, because it is not much of a love relationship, although there is perhaps a little of that, but more of a mutual partnership due to their mutual desperation. It most certianly is not a loving relationship, but the little tenderness infused by both actors makes that all the special. It is fascinating though because Nicholson shows the right anger in Francis toward her for trying to cling to her high class background, but still shows compassion of sorts with her, as it is his duty. Nicholson finds the perfect tone in the relationship to make true to life.
His real love relationship though is shown when he goes and sees his wife Annie (Carroll Baker), and family after so many years. Their relationship is one that is just incredible to watch, because Annie does not blame Francis, nor is she better towards him, instead she is incredibly warm to him. Nicholson contrasts her forgiving nature by showing that Francis just is unable to get over his own past, to even be able to except her forgiveness, although he still clearly loves her, as she loves him, but Nicholson shows that Francis is much to haunted to be able to stay with her for a happy life.
The manner in which he reaches his final moments though, where perhaps Francis finally is able to truly face his past, is flawlessly portrayed by Nicholson. This is simply one of Jack Nicholson's best performance his journey as Francis is an incredible one to follow because of Nicholson pitch perfect manner. Nicholson never visibly seeks to gain empathy, yet he gains a enormous amount in his portrayal. It is an incredible heartbreaking performance, a true honest portrait of a broken down man that is very hard to forget.