Friday, February 28, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970) 
Directed by: Bob Rafelson.
Written by: Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) and Bob Rafelson.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), Billy Green Bush (Elton), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Sally Struthers (Betty), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), John P. Ryan (Spicer), Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia). 
Bobby Dupea spends the entirety of Five Easy Pieces in various stages of discomfort. When we meet him, he is working the oil fields in California – but he doesn’t quite seem to fit in there, although he is trying very hard to act like his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) – including the type of woman he is dating – Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who talks a lot and loves Tammy Wynette, and loves Bobby even though he is mostly terrible to her. But Bobby is prone to outbursts – he tries to keep things under control, but he’s not quite able to do so, and his contempt for those around him comes out around the edges – until one time he just comes right out and calls Elton a hick, and finds it ridiculous that he would compare his life to Bobby’s.
Bobby is played by Jack Nicholson in one of his great early performances. Nicholson had been around for years, working low-budget Roger Corman movies, and some of those early films he’s quite good in (the pair of Monte Hellman Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both 1966 for example) – but he didn’t really become known until Easy Rider in 1969 – which garnered him his first Oscar nomination. Five Easy Pieces was his first starring role coming off Easy Rider – and got him his second Oscar nomination (first in the lead category) and it remains one of Nicholson’s defining performances. There are moments when “Jack” comes out in Five Easy Pieces of course – the film’s best known moment is his speech to a waitress about his breakfast which ends with the classic line “I want you to hold it between your knees” – but much of what makes this performance so good is in between those “Jack” moments – and the subtlety with which he plays them.
We find out of course that Bobby isn’t a regular oil rig worker – he comes from an upper crust family of classically trained musicians in Washington state that he walked out a few years earlier because he wasn’t any more comfortable there then he it turned out he is with the oil field workers. He finds out his demanding father has suffered a stroke when he sees his sister, Partita (Lois Smith), who like Rayette, loves Bobby unconditionally, when really she probably shouldn’t. So he decides to head back to the hold house and see the old man – and against his better judgment, is convinced to bring Rayette, who is now pregnant, along with him.
The two halves of the film – separated by the long, often comedic car ride to get there, where they pick up a pair of hitchhikers, one of whom says “I don’t even want to talk about it” repeatedly, and then, of course, proceeding to talk about it, have very different looks and feels to them. Director Bob Rafelson and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs do this deliberately of course – contrasting the dusty, sweaty, sunburnt world of the oil fields with the greener, chillier world of Washington state – even taking a little detour through the streets with Bobby, the type of which his upper crust family would never walk down.
Bobby isn’t any more comfortable at home then he was in California. His family is mostly welcoming – his father who has had a few strokes, glowers at him, but doesn’t say away. Of course Partita is welcoming and accommodating. His brother, Carl (Ralph Waite) couldn’t possibly be politer to Bobby – of course in that sort of passive-aggressive way. Bobby, who has left Rayette behind at a motel, sets his sights of Carl’s young protégé/girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach) – although I’m not even sure he could explain why. But Catherine has his number from the get-go – she may sleep with him, but she knows damn well which brother is the safer bet.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the key films of what was then a new movement – a turning away from the big and bloated Hollywood films, into something more personal, something that spoke to younger filmgoers. In his great movie essay, Roger Ebert called it the first “Sundance” film – and sure enough, in broad outlines, it certainly does sound like many a Sundance film about going home. A Sundance film though would be full of quirky characters, which other than Partita, this doesn’t really have (and she’s quirky in such a fascinating way, I wish there were a movie just about her), and would end on a happier note, after much soul baring conversations were had. Five Easy Pieces really only has one of those – late in the film when Bobby speaks one-on-one with his father, and says the types of things he could never say to him if his father could speak back. It may be the one time in the film when Bobby lets his guard down completely.
The rest of the movie Bobby is bundle of pent up anger, that he sometimes let out. It’s a youthful, immature anger – he wants to reject his family, but doesn’t really know what to do after that. Certainly, there has to be something between the pretentious family he came from, and oil fields full of hicks as he describes them he escaped to. He doesn’t fit in either place, because of course he doesn’t – he only fled to one because he couldn’t stand the other. Bobby is an asshole – an off-putting one for much of the film, and Nicholson doesn’t do anything to soften it, except to make him capable of being funny and charming when he wants to be. It’s how he sleeps with multiple women during the course of the movie. She’s also smart and well-spoken – capable of belittling that waitress, in a way that impresses that hitchhiker, but that Bobby knows is just petty, impotent protest. He doesn’t accomplish anything.
Karen Black also deserves credit for her great performances as Rayette. She is a character who is more than a little pathetic for who she clings to Bobby, how she keeps asking if he loves her when she knows he’ll never say it, and how she keeps hanging around no matter what he does. She can also be annoying in a way that makes you understand just why Bobby may be trying to get away from her. And yet, she’s not stupid. In many ways, Rayette is the smartest character in the movie – look how right up until the last scene in the film, she gets what she wants, one way or another. How she manipulates Bobby into taking her along, how when faced with a room full of stuffy intellectuals, she is able to feign innocence, and bait one of them into taking a shot at her – so that Bobby will explode and come to her defense.
The final scene in the film is justly famous. It cements Bobby as an asshole to be sure – a man who is running away once again, although you can argue just what he’s doing – just trying to get away from Rayette, or in my opinion the more likely scenario, running off to start again somewhere, anonymously. It’s a downer of an ending to be sure – but an honest one for Bobby.
Watching the film now, 50 years later, is an odd experience. It’s impossible to see it through the eyes of an audience back then - when Nicholson was a new, rising star, the rest of the cast was mainly unknown, and Rafelson was also largely unknown – but was a key figure in the time, even if his career didn’t quite turn out the way you may have expected from this movie. The film certainly tapped into the youthful rebellion of the time – but remarkably, it does so with clearer eyes than say Easy Rider did. They may well have related to Bobby – but he isn’t a hero, romantic or otherwise. He’s a self-pitying, self-destructive asshole, who wants to reject everything he was taught, but has no idea what to replace it with. You cannot help but wonder what he became throughout the ‘70s – and beyond.

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