Jack Nicholson received first Oscar nomination for portraying George Hanson in Easy Rider.
Jack Nicholson had a continually outstanding record in the seventies when it came to giving his Oscar nominated performance. Every time he was nominated he gave a great performance uniquely Nicholson. Nicholson though was first nominated for his supporting role in this film. I must say watching Easy Rider for the first time I was quite surprised to see just how supporting Nicholson really was in the role, since he is only in a few scenes, and his role is only one of the people the two bikers meet along their route.
Although he is not the dominating character in the film, Nicholson does easily make an impression since he is in top form. Nicholson like his later work though instantly is absolutely magnetic from his first scene when the bikers meet him in a lock up. George Hanson is a lawyer who has alcohol problem that caused him to be in the lockup, but he is a man who understands the two bikers. Nicholson's performance creates an effective portrait of this man. Nicholson shows just the right degree of being a proper person of society, but showing just the below the surface is a wild man.
All that he really needs to break out of his small little shell is a little bit of alcohol or just joining up with two bikers on their journey himself. Nicholson of course brings a great energy to the role with classic Nicholson moments to the sheer joy he shows when riding the motorcycle, to just his classic Nicholson reaction to drinking his alcohol letting on to the wilder side of his character. Nicholson gives an entertaining and effectively exciting portrayal of this man who clearly makes into a man truly breaking all the way out for the first time in his life.
Nicholson's two monologues about society in two very different ways one about aliens as well as one about the fears some in society have over people like the bikers. Nicholson makes both fascinating in their own ways through his performance even though his first one is complete nonsense. Nicholson presence simply brings a life to these moments, and a real emotional power particularly to the second speech that really brings to life the ideas within the film.
Nicholson is of course great but I would be lying if I did not think his performance is most certainly cut short, I frankly just wanted to see more of his character, and in the end I did wish he was the actual lead of the film even though his dynamic with Fonda and Hopper is quite good. This is strong work from Nicholson no doubt about that and I certainly think it shows of his great presence and style early on. In many ways though it never quite achieves the greatness of his later work particularly his nominated work the very next year, and it mostly serves as a terrific precursor to his later work, but not quite on that level although close.