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Op-Ed: Why ‘Five Easy Pieces’ still matters, 50 years after its release

Released half a century ago this week, Five Easy Pieces was the film that cemented Jack Nicholson’s status as a Hollywood leading man, following his star-making supporting turn in Easy Rider. And in Bobby Dupea – a complex, lost young man who can’t make up his mind what kind of lifestyle he wants – Nicholson introduced a new kind of anti-hero to moviegoers: restless, confused, unstable, but always oozing with devilish charm. You can see shades of Marlon Brando’s and James Dean’s 1950s rebels in him (and Holden Caulfield), but coloured with a sly intelligence, irony and self-awareness that made him ready for the complications of the ’70s and beyond. He feels relevant and real even today.

“Robert Eroica Dupea is one of the most unforgettable characters in American movies,” Roger Ebert wrote upon the film’s initial release. And Nicholson’s powerful performance is a big reason why Bobby is unforgettable. These days, I think, most people know Nicholson best for his manic, over-the-top turns as Jack Torrance in The Shining or the Joker in Batman. It’s as if we’ve collectively forgotten what a subtle and nuanced actor he used to be, pre-Cuckoo’s Nest, before he turned into a wacky cartoon version of himself, acting with his eyebrows and that cheeky grin. (Not that he doesn’t have a few wild moments in Pieces, but these are just the sauce on a delicious cinematic steak.)

We first meet Bobby when he’s working on an oil field in California. He doesn’t seem much different from the ordinary working-class folks around him, all playing cards, bowling, partying and swearing. His apparent best friend, Elton (Billy Bush), is a hick who makes crude jokes and shamelessly wipes food off his face with his shirt. Bobby’s live-in girlfriend, Rayette (the late Karen Black), is a pretty but unrefined waitress and aspiring country singer who gives him more love and loyalty than he deserves. It’s obvious from the start that she embarrasses him and he doesn’t respect her much – putting her down sarcastically, chastising her in front of others for her sloppy bowling game, evading saying he loves her. “Selfish,” she calls him when he demands a beer – and shortly afterwards, she nails his real problem: “You are never satisfied!” (He agrees.)

It’s with a shock that we get our first hint of who Bobby really is, less than twenty minutes into the movie. Stuck in a highway traffic jam while carpooling with Elton, Bobby exits the car, clowns around a bit, climbs onto the back of a truck and finds a piano. He suddenly launches into a loud, ferocious rendition of Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor. Bobby is, we eventually learn, a talented pianist who abandoned his upper-class roots. (I wonder if Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman were inspired in part by François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, another great film about a classical pianist on the run from his old life.) And the pathetically oblivious Elton thinks Bobby is still just clowning at this point.

The trouble is, Bobby doesn’t fit into this hard-drinking, dead-end working community any more than he does in high society. He’s far too smart, far too worldly. “It’s ridiculous. I’m sitting here listening to some cracker a—hole [who] lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine,” he snaps at Elton, seemingly out of nowhere, when he tries to give Bobby advice. Then a chain of revelations – Rayette’s pregnancy, Elton’s arrest for robbery, his own estranged father’s terminal illness – drives Bobby to set back for his wealthy family’s island home in Washington State, although he reluctantly drags Rayette along. (Witness the private temper tantrum he throws in his car just before inviting her to come with him – as if he knows no other way to deal with moral conscience.)

Bobby is even less comfortable at his family’s estate, a quiet refuge where musical practice, formal meals, intellectual discussions on critical theory and ping-pong are the norm. It’s too sterile and tasteful for his restless, rebellious nature; like Huck Finn, he can’t be “sivilized”. “Living out here in this rest-home asylum – that’s what you want?” he asks Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother Carl’s beautiful and brainy fiancée, in disbelief. A devotee of the mind and soul, she can’t comprehend his boredom: “I don’t think I’ve ever been bored,” she tells him. He satisfies his boredom by seducing her – but also by denigrating her lifestyle, which he sees as phony and artificial.

Through most of this, Rafelson’s strategy is to depict Bobby’s behaviour without judgement. We’re invited not to criticize him, but to recognize ourselves in him. That’s the key to the movie’s success: Bobby may be a selfish prat, but he’s a relatable selfish prat (and a charismatic one). What makes you so sure you wouldn’t behave as he does in his situation – caught between two diametrically opposed worlds and fed up with both? Many of us would drift too.

This empathetic approach was powerful to the Woodstock generation, the movie’s first audience, and it’s still potent today. In its own way, Pieces gels well with our current obsessions with social class and constructs, with personal identity, with compete rejection of society norms that we’ve been taught to accept without question. It even foretells the environmental crisis – in the amusing sequences featuring the lesbian hitchhiker couple (Helena Kallianiotes and a young Toni Basil) whom Bobby picks up. They’re heading to Alaska, where it’s supposed to be cleaner. “People are filthy. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s wrong with people,” Kallianiotes rants endlessly, lamenting the mass-produced “crap” that the human race foists upon the planet. “Filth is bad. That’s what starts maggots and riots.”

Curiously, the one scene that hasn’t aged well is the most famous and widely quoted one: the “chicken-salad sandwich” moment, when Bobby haggles a diner waitress to get a side order of toast that isn’t on the menu, then insults her and knocks glasses onto the floor. We’re meant to laugh along with his game, and it’s funny in a superficial way, but the problem is that Bobby (and Rafelson) is punching down – the server is not an authoritarian establishment figure, but an ordinary person doing a thankless job. Yes, she’s stern and humourless, but she likely got that way from dealing with smug jerks like Bobby all the time.

More successful is a later bit in which Bobby confronts a snobbish family friend (Irene Dailey) for talking down to Rayette. This scene accomplishes what Rafelson thinks the diner one does, as the target actually deserves Bobby’s wrath. Dailey’s pretentious blowhard is so insufferable that even Catherine can’t stand her, and you feel for Rayette when she tries to butt into the conversation, only to get a patronizing smirk in reply. “Where do you get the a— to tell anybody anything about class, or who the hell’s got it?” Bobby barks at the older woman, and we’re on his side. “You pompous celibate!” Even the contrived thunderstorm sound effects don’t detract from how well this scene works.

But Bobby can’t escape his shortcomings even when he’s in the right. Catherine really lays it on him, explaining with failed tact why she could never leave Carl for him: “You’re a strange person, Robert… If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something – how can he ask for love in return?” As usual, Rafelson leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Bobby deserves this verdict or Catherine is too harsh. We do get a sense that Bobby is out of touch with his emotions (or represses them) from the cringe-worthy scene in which he plays Chopin’s Prelude in E minor for Catherine and then undercuts her (and our) moved reaction: “I picked the easiest piece that I could think of… I faked a little Chopin, you faked a little response.” You feel Catherine’s embarrassment sharply – yet it’s also possible to sympathize with Bobby’s world-weary suspicion of anything that appears false to him.

We finally see Bobby reveal his vulnerable side in an aching scene with his dying father (William Challee). Bobby is taking the old man – wheelchair-bound, unable to speak, likely not even aware who his son is – for a walk in an empty field. You get the impression that this is the only way Bobby can express himself honestly, alone with a listener who cannot talk or judge back; watching the movie again recently, I imagined a sinner confessing to a priest.

“I move around a lot, not because I’m looking for anything really, but ’cause I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay,” Bobby explains to his father, expressing true humility for the only time in the movie, before breaking into tears and apologizing for his past behaviour. It’s the emotional highlight of the film, with Nicholson’s acting at its career peak: naked and open, it’s light years above anything he’s done since. (Ironically, Nicholson disagreed with Rafelson that Bobby should cry in the scene; he ended up rewriting some of it himself on set.)

It’s a shame that Pieces never received any recognition on the American Film Institute’s all-time lists – but it did receive acclaim in 1970, with four Oscar nominations, including nods for Nicholson’s and Black’s performances. Lois Smith is also delightful as Bobby’s homely, neurotic sister, who pushes him to reconcile with their father. And – fitting for a movie about musicians – Pieces also benefits from its use of familiar music on the soundtrack. As a co-creator of The Monkees, Rafelson knew something about adapting music to film and TV, and he cleverly symbolizes Bobby’s two separate worlds through song: Bach and Mozart for the island, and Tammy Wynette tunes for the country. (Note how “Stand by Your Man” introduces Bobby’s poor treatment of Rayette, and later, she plays “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” on the stereo when threatening to leave him.)

Five Easy Pieces remains a defining landmark of the American New Wave – a period when Hollywood movies were undergoing profound changes in style and subject matter, exploring new realism while breaking taboos and conventions. You can feel echoes of it in today’s smaller, low-budget indie flicks, and also in the better TV serial dramas. This is a movie that respects the audience’s intelligence, that trusts the viewer to empathize with a protagonist who isn’t always likable. It’s the kind of movie that a smart viewer deserves.

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