By John H. Foote
23. FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
This superb film launched Jack Nicholson as the anti-hero of the counterculture in the seventies, a rebel against authority, all authority that threatened to hold back personal freedoms. Directed by Bob Rafelson who cast Nicholson after seeing the actor in his Oscar nominated supporting role in Easy Rider (1970) acknowledged he had found the perfect actor to portray the lead character in this excellent film. The director captured the listlessness of many men in the seventies, appalled with what America had become, blessed with gifts that they do not want, blessed with the possibility of being living an elevated life, his thinking says “why me?” rejecting all he was given for the life of a blue collar worker.
Bobby (Nicholson) came from a wealthy family of musical prodigies, of which he was one, a highly gifted piano player who was sick and tired of the pretension within his family. Though he loved his father very much, he could not remain within the family and broke away, taking up a blue-collar life. Highly over educated to be working in the oil fields, he was happy, though sometimes bored with the lack of intellect among his companions. He drinks a great deal, parties hard, bowls, and womanizes even though he seems to be with a loud, talkative waitress looking for a ring, Rayette (Karen Black).
Restless, looking for something that even he cannot comprehend, when he gets a call from home telling him his father has suffered a massive stroke, he packs his car, Rayette (after she threatens suicide if not taken along) and heads home. Along the way he picks up two hitch hikers, one very angry, raging about consumerism and the crap taking over America, the other more passive. They enter a diner with Bobby and Rayette where the film’s most infamous scene happens. Unable to get a simple order adjusted, Bobby clears the table with his arm in a rage, getting the four of them ejected.
Though there is more than enough room in his childhood home, he refuses to stay there, checking into a hotel, and visiting the family, without Rayette, who he leaves at the hotel. He knows she would embarrass him and be the target of ridicule among his pompous pretentious family, but she finds her way there anyway. Finding nothing to his liking in his home, he picks a fight with his father’s nurse, who has seduced his younger sister, and Bobby seduces his brother’s fiancé. Bobby asks her to come away with him, to gather her things and leave, but she declines, believing Bobby will never be happy until he finds himself (true).
He breaks down into tears trying to talk to his unresponsive father in a heartbreaking scene that sends him fleeing the house and once again down the road. Stopping for gas, he leaves his money and wallet in his car, hops into a transport truck heading down the highway and leaves Rayette to fend for herself.
Bobby was typical of so many American men in the seventies – drifting, restless, unhappy and seeking something more, but not quite what they want. He is different in that he knows what he does not want, but no clue despite his intellect how to get what he desires. Bobby, as portrayed beautifully by Nicholson, is lost within himself, but he has the advantage of at least knowing it. Sullen, tortured, drifting through life without living it, he is seeking for a beginning he might never find. In seeking something he cannot find, he keeps moving further and further away from the life he knew, and in reality, America. So much of the youth was disenfranchised in the seventies, lost in a world that was evolving, leaving them behind. Bobby is not an easy character to admire, even like for that matter, yet as portrayed by Nicholson he is indeed riveting. You just cannot take your eyes off him because even in his stillness, he is astonishing. As so many men have done, the road became the answer for Bobby, moving further down it, leaving his pain behind him with no thought as to those he in turns hurt.
Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay, Five Easy Pieces was among the greats of the new American cinema films. Nicholson was forever established as a major film actor, perhaps the finest since Brando, and would further his reputation all through the decade, finally winning an Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). There was always a mystery to Nicholson’s performance, he seduced audiences, both male and female, but always had an edge to his work that suggested a bad guy just under the skin, a man who could explode in a heartbeat. Of all the seventies actors, he was the most exciting.
Karen Black gave one of her best performance in the film, creating character most men would run away from. Irritating, obnoxious, abrasive, and well, stupid, it was a very brave performance in which she gave her all. Obviously with her because she is deeply sexual, but not entirely balanced as he learns.
Nicholson made other films with Rafelson through his career – The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) with Bruce Dern, right through to the dreadful Man Trouble (1995) –each time but the last complimenting one another’s work.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.