A Forgotten Film to Remember: Five Easy Pieces
By Susan Doll
I miss Jack Nicholson, whose work I appreciate more and more as he slips further from the spotlight. In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson played Bobby Dupea , an oil-rigger in Bakersfield, California, who lives a working-class life in a trailer park with his girlfriend, Rayette. Bobby works hard during the day, bowls in the evenings, or hangs out with his friend Elton and his wife, Stoney. Yet, he seems detached from it all. He is patronizing to his blue-collar crowd, indifferent and even cruel to Rayette, and generally too smart for the room. Stuck in a traffic jam on the highway, a restless Bobby jumps from the car and climbs onto the back of a truck carrying a piano. He pulls back the tarp and begins playing a classical piece, oblivious to the din of traffic. Bobby is no working-class stiff but an escapee from the rarefied world of an artistic family. Years earlier, Bobby had disappointed his father by leaving his comfortable if stilted upper-middle-class home. His tragedy is that he remains discontent in his new life and the substitute family he has gathered around him.
The film not only secured Jack Nicholson’s stardom but also established his persona as an alienated outsider or unconventional misfit. Nicholson’s characters seemed to embody the issues and concerns of the 1960s-70s. Pacino and DeNiro tend to overshadow Nicholson in discussions of the great actors of the period, but their signature roles, onscreen personas, and New York accents are urban-based, lacking the more generalized American quality of Nicholson’s George Hanson (Easy Rider), Buddusky (The Last Detail), J.J. Gittes (Chinatown), R.P. McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Bobby Dupea.
Five Easy Pieces also launched Bob Rafelson as a major director of the Film School Generation, an era of complex filmmaking when young directors hoped to spur social change with their innovative dramas. Rafelson and Nicholson proved a formidable team, which had begun when Rafelson’s production company (with Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner) produced Easy Rider in 1969. Rip Torn had dropped out of the film, and Nicholson stepped in to take the role of George Hanson, offering a breakthrough performance that earned an Academy Award nomination. Following Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson embarked on the most critically successful period of his career with a succession of roles that captured the themes and preoccupations of a disaffected generation. Rafelson and Nicholson would eventually collaborate on several films, including The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Man Trouble (1992), and Blood and Wine (1996).
Five Easy Pieces garnered four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Nicholson as Best Actor, Karen Black as Best Actress, and Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) for Original Screenplay. The nominations reflect the strengths of the film — a screenplay with invigorating dialogue spoken by unlikable or unsympathetic characters played by actors at the top of their game.
Nicholson dominates the film in one of his finest performances. Bobby Dupea — as alienated from his substitute family as he is from his real one — snipes at Rayette, insults his so-called friends, dismisses his responsibilities, and occasionally explodes with pent-up rage. In the film’s most famous scene, Bobby attempts to order a simple side of wheat toast at a diner. But, the diner’s meaningless rules and restrictions, which are symptomatic of the absurdity of the conventions and restrictions of modern society, won’t permit it. The waitress keeps telling him that no substitutions are allowed, which underscores Bobby’s failed attempt to “substitute” his working class friends for his real family, and his job as an oil rigger for a career as a concert pianist. With his pointed barbs aimed at the prickly waitress, Bobby mocks the rules that keep us chained to the system. Viewers of a certain age tend to remember his razor-sharp exchange with the waitress as a statement against the system. But, this is not the end of the sequence, because he and his party are thrown out of the restaurant. Bobby doesn’t win the altercation; he doesn’t get to be an exception to the diner’s ludicrous rules; he doesn’t even get his wheat toast. Rafelson confirmed for many of that era what we already knew: Going against the system has its consequences and its price.
Five Easy Pieces is filled with details that strengthen the fabric of the film, a testament to the rich screenplay by Rafelson and Carole Eastman. Though not used as a plot device, the idea of absentee fathers/husbands is a running thread throughout the film. Bobby has long been estranged from his father because of failed expectations about family on both their parts, but he does return home after his father has had a stroke. Though the old man cannot speak to his son because of his condition, Bobby’s monologue to him reveals that the two never really communicated at any point in their lives. Elton and Stoney seem to have a loving relationship, but he turns out to be a fugitive from the law and is hauled off to jail, leaving his wife to fend for herself emotionally and financially. Though Bobby is himself the product of an emotionally absent father, he repeats history when he leaves behind a pregnant Rayette, forcing his child to grow up without a father.
The reputation of Five Easy Pieces is secured in the history books, but I wonder how young audiences today would perceive the film. So many young viewers are unfamiliar with classic films from the past and are not accustomed to unheroic protagonists, character-driven narratives, or movies designed to provoke thought rather than to excite with sensation. Bob Rafelson , who was not a prolific filmmaker, remains an unsung director who is now largely forgotten, while young viewers know Nicholson only as a grinning prankster who used to show up at Lakers games in sunglasses. Nicholson’s last films before retiring, including About Schmidt and The Bucket List, drip in the sentiment that his signature work eschewed. Even his violent, dark character in The Departed lacked the social significance of his roles from the Film School era. Alienation from mainstream ideals is not part of the zeitgeist as it was in 1970, and young generations embrace the very ideology the counterculture opposed — consumerism, corporate culture, the American Dream, and an addiction to technology that dulls instead of stimulates. After 40 years, Five Easy Pieces still offers a smart, critical portrait of a society in distress; I don’t think that American audiences have kept pace with it.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).