Masterpieces of American Cinema: Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson’s Zeitgeist Movie

A key American film of an era that’s considered now to be the last Golden Age (roughly 1967-1975), Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson’s superlative character study, won the Best Picture Award from the New York Film Critics Circle, and established Jack Nicholson, fresh off from his success in “Easy Rider” the previous year, as the foremost actor of his generation.

 

Grade: A- (****1/2* out of *****)

Five Easy Pieces
Five easy pieces.jpg

Theatrical release poster

For its 40th anniversary, Five Easy Pieces has been restored and is now in limited theatrical release before getting wider exposure on DVD. It’s a must-see picture for students of the New American Cinema as well as fans of Jack Nicholson and Karen Black.

Adrien Joyce, who co-wrote the script with director Rafelson, said she had based the chief character partly on her impressions of Jack Nicholson himself and partly on her own dead brother.

An extraordinarily honest American film about issues social class, downward mobility, family, and alienation, “Five Easy Pieces” is more of a character and mood piece than a straightforward, plot-driven narrative. Considering that the film was about alienation, marked by a pessimistic mood, and influenced by European filmmaking in approach and style, the movie was remarkably popular at the box-office, benefiting from the success of the a cycle of youth movies at the time.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea (his full name is Robert Eroica), an upper-middle class dropout, who now works as an oil rigger in the California fields. In South California, Bobby lives with his girlfriend-waitress Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black) in a dreary apartment in a drab working-class milieu. He spends his leisure time in bowling alleys and beer pubs with his before taking a trip up North to visit his family.

We learn that Bobby had escaped from his suffocating bourgeois family, headed by Carl (Carl Fidelio), his patronizing concert-artist father, who lives with daughter Tita (full name is Partita, played by Lois Smith), a dowdy, scatter-brained, concert artist.

Back at his folks’ house, Bobby jilts his pregnant mistress for his brother’s fiancee, Katherine (Susan Anspach), a cool, high-cultured, suave lady who turns out to be phony and pretentious (exactly the opposite of the simple but sensual and down-to-earth Rayette).

The first and last parts of “Five Easy Pieces” unfold as a road movie. Along the journey, some colorful and eccentric characters are introduced. Among them is Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes), a bitter lesbian hitchhiker obsessed with filth and headed with her lover to Alaska, where it’s cleaner, and, as she says, “there are no men there.”

While the film dissects the protagonists’ biological and chosen families, it still locates the crises and resolutions within the individual himself.  Thematically, “Five Easy Pieces” merges two prevalent and uniquely American concerns: the unease and unrest of the late 1960s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the more traditional American’s desire for personal autonomy and self-fulfillment.

Like other films of the times, Five Easy Pieces is a tale of young man suffering from an acute identity crisis, a marginal man (in sociological terms) who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Hailing from a bourgeois clan of means and intellectual background, Bobby had fled his culture-worshipping family, first for Las Vegas’ honky-tonks, then to the manual labor of oil fields, and finally heading to an unknown (and presumably temporary) life in Alaska.

As a protagonist, Bobby is an outsider, but he is not a hippie who seeks solidarity and pleasure in the Haight-Ashbury sex-drugs-music subculture. That may have been a reflection of Nicholson’s age, which was 33 when the film was made. However, like other anti-heroes of its era, Bobby is full of anger and frustration, which are manifest in a showdown in a diner with a truck-stop waitress, who refuses to make any substitution in the menu.

A dropout, Bobby has adopted proletarian lifestyle, which is visually conveyed through the hot, dusty oil fields of California. In contrast, his family is all restraint and emotional sterility, psychological attributes reinforced by the physical landscape and climate of rain and cold.

It’s hard not to notice the various disabilities that impair Bobby’s family members. His kind sister Tita is fat and neurotic, his brother Carl bears a neck brace (sign of impotence?), and his father is mute and immobilized by a stroke. In other words, Bobby is surrounded by and ultimately rebels against phonies and obtuse snobs, who have betrayed the essence of the American Dream.

In his blend of exterior toughness and inner sensitivity-vulnerability, Bobby is a reincarnation of American outlaw (anti) heroes of yesteryear, such as William Holden in “Golden Boy,” or John Garfield in “Humoresque,” both playing artists who have settled for a more compromised and less deserving career as boxers for materialistic reasons.

The narrative of Five Easy Pieces proceeds by delineating a series of contrasts and oppositions, between the blue-collar universe of the Southern California oil fields and the culture of beer, bowling, between country music (Tammy Wynette) and classic Chopin music (giving the film its title). There’s great divide between intellectual and musical upper class family and the more physical and grounded lower class

In the original version of the story, Bobby and Rayette’s go over a cliff in their car, which only Rayette survives. However, Rafelson and his scenarist have opted for a more open and ambiguous ending, in which Bobby deserts Rayette at a gas station and heads up North, though clearly there is no “home” for him.

Intertextuality:

Five Easy Pieces bears thematic echoes of other counter-cultural and anti-authoritarian films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as The Graduate, “Easy Rider,” “Charlie Bubbles,” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” which Jack Nicholson directed in 1972.

Please see our reviews of The Graduate:

In Easy Rider, Karen Black played one the prostitutes Nicholson encounters in New Orleans. Based on her turn, Nicholson recommended director Rafelson to cast her in “Five Easy Pieces.” It was a smart move. As Rayette Dipesto, the not-too-bright but warmhearted waitress in love with a man fleeing from his past, Black gives an utterly credible, Oscar-nominated performance.

Stylistically, Five Easy Pieces pays homage to the French New Wave, specifically to Godard’s masterpieces, “Breathless” and Weekend,” in the latter of which the camera pans 360 degrees, accompanied to the music of Mozart. In Rafelson’s picture, the camera’s movements are accompanied to Chopin.

Legendary Scene: Hold the Chicken Between Your Legs

In 1983, when Shirley MacLaine won the Best Actress Oscar for Terms of Endearment, she thanked her co-star, Jack Nicholson, who also won (Best Supporting Actor), and claimed that ever since she saw Five Easy Pieces, she has wanted to work with him.

The scene that she referred to has become legendary among film buffs.  It is set in a roadside restaurant where Bobby tries to get a side order of toast with his breakfast. The waitress refuses, stating that toast is not offered as a side item, and that the menu includes a chicken salad sandwich on toast.  Bobby appeals to common sense, but the waitress refuses to deviate from the restaurant’s policy. Ultimately, Bobby orders both his breakfast and the chicken salad sandwich on toast, telling the waitress to bring the sandwich to him without mayonnaise, butter, lettuce, or chicken. “I want you hold the chicken between your knees!” he says.  The waitress then orders him to leave, prompting the angry Bobby to knock the water glasses off the table.”

Commercial Hit:

Made on a budget of $1.6 million, the movie was a huge critical and commercial hit, earning $18 million at the box-office.

Critical Status:

In 2000, was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and recommended for preservation.

Cast

Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson)

Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black)

Elton (Billy “Green” Bush) Stoney (Fannie Flagg)

Betty (Sally Struthers)

Twinky (Marlena MacGuire)

Recording Engineer (Richard Stahl)

Nicholas (William Challee)

Palm Apodacha (Helena Kallianiotes)

Terry Grouse (Toni Basil)

Credits

Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs

Editing: Gerlad Shepard, Christopher Holmes

Costumes: Bucky Rous

Music: Bach, Mozart, Chopin

Running Time: 96 Minutes

 

Oscar Records:

If you want to know more about the Oscars, please read my book:

Oscar Nominations: 4Picture, produced by Bob Rafelson and Richard Wechsler.

Story and Screenplay (Adapted): Bob Rafelson and Adrien Joyce.

Actor: Jack Nicholson.

Supporting Actress: Karen Black

 

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1970, the Oscar winner “Patton” competed for the Best Picture with the schlocky disaster flick “Airport,” which inexplicably received 10 nominations but won only one (Supporting Actress to Helen Hayes); “Five Easy Pieces,” which was nominated for 4 but didn’t win any Oscars; the blockbuster “Love Story,” which won one out of its 6 nominations; and Robert Altman’s military satire “M-A-S-H,” that later became a popular TV series.