Five Easy Pieces (1970)

“I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.”

Synopsis:
A restless former concert pianist (Jack Nicholson) working on an oil rig takes his pregnant girlfriend (Karen Black) on a road trip to visit his ailing father (William Challee), his neurotic sister (Lois Smith), and his neck-sprained brother (Ralph Waite). Once there, he keeps Black waiting at a nearby motel while romancing Waite’s pianist-girlfriend (Susan Anspach).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “superb study of a cultural misfit” — directed by Bob Rafelson — shows Nicholson “just great as he repeatedly loses his temper [with Black] and apologizes; tries to do the right thing but sooner or later gives in to his baser instincts; becomes aggravated by everything from Black’s awful bowling and constant, foolish chatter to an obnoxious waitress’s obstinate refusal… to serve him a side order of wheat toast with his omelet”. He notes that the “film is full of funny moments and characters — including Helena Kallianiotes’s weird, complaining hitchhiker and two floozies, Sally Struthers’s Shirley (‘but you can call me Betty’) and her friend, Twinky.” However, he argues “there is a sadness that always cuts deeply into the humor”, which is “why the picture was so appealing to the college-age audiences in 1970, who simultaneously laughed incredulously and were extremely upset by the political state of the world and felt just as alienated from family and various segments of society as Nicholson”. He calls out the “excellent script by Adrien Joyce” and impressive photography by Laszlo Kovacs, “who conveys how particular physical environments make Nicholson feel either trapped or free”, and points out that there is “strong use of Tammy Wynette songs, adding to the overwhelming sense of melancholia” (and perhaps reminding modern film fanatics of the soundtrack from Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, which also features “Stand By Your Man”).

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names this Best Picture of the Year over Patton (1970), explaining that while “Patton contains a great performance by [George C.] Scott and holds up fairly well as a biography and as a war movie”, he much prefers this “different character study” featuring “a star-making, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Nicholson” (who he names Best Actor of the Year). Peary writes that while Nicholson’s “Bobby Dupea was not like anyone with whom we associated, we responded to his strong sense of alienation” and “to his rebelliousness and frustration, which result in some classic Nicholson outbursts of temper”. He writes that the “picture is full of odd, funny moments… and unusual movie characters” — and while “we don’t admire Bobby for escaping his trap, life with the likable but annoying Rayette” (Black), we “understand that he would suffocate if he committed himself to her” so “we accept his running away because it is for her benefit more than his own” (!). While this last point is certainly debatable, there’s no arguing that their future together was tenuous at best — so perhaps it is all we can expect of Bobby to leave her his wallet (ouch).

Peary writes that Nicholson “made a startling impression” as this “virile leading man”, someone “overloaded with pent-up energy, ready with the snide remark, soft spoken until he can no longer suppress his temper”. He compares him to W.C. Fields, noting that “his world is [just] as full of aggravation”, and “at times just as funny”, given that “nothing goes as he wants” and “no one will leave him alone”. He ends his review of Nicholson’s performance by noting that “as disaffected a character as Bobby Dupea is, he was sort of an Everyman in 1970. Young viewers in the counterculture” could “identify with Bobby’s outsider status; restlessness; fury and irritation when pressured; sexual energy; inability to fit comfortably into marriage, parenthood, or other niches; need to keep the exit door within sight; disappointment in himself; and desperation to mend and give meaning to his life.” While I find Nicholson’s character much harder to tolerate as I get older (and more aware of how poorly women in general are treated throughout this movie), he remains a compelling presence: his interactions with the “waitress superior” (“I want you to hold [the chicken] between your knees!”) remain eminently watchable. My favorite scene, however, is when he hops up onto a flatbed truck during a traffic jam and begins playing the piano he’s found under a moving cloth. Speaking of piano, it’s an important presence in this film, and Smith is “pitch-perfect” as Nicholson’s sister, a Glenn Gould-like pianist who can’t help singing along with her own playing while recording.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson as Bobby
  • Karen Black as Rayette
  • Lois Smith as Partita
  • Helena Kallianiotes as Palm Apodaca
  • Numerous memorable scenes

  • Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography
  • Adrien Joyce and Bob Rafelson’s script

Must See?
Yes, as a counterculture classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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3 Responses to “Five Easy Pieces (1970)”

  1. An historically significant and critically lauded film but I find it hard to get involved in the drama because Nicholson is such a tool in this and treats Black so badly it really makes me mad.

    I can’t fault the writing, acting, production and direction but just can’t find the people remotely interesting or sympathetic.

  2. Still a must see despite not being a favourite.

  3. A once-must (at least; though a repeat viewing would be likely at some point for those who take to it)… as a representative of ’70s filmmaking at it best, for the refreshingly natural quality of the script, as well as Rafelson’s direction and the performances.

    As per my post in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “Will you stay awhile?”

    ‘Five Easy Pieces’: Just rewatched this – in an effectively sharp blu-ray upgrade. ‘FEP’ is now close to being a 50-year-old film. When it was first released… although the film itself was received well-enough, it was mostly Jack Nicholson’s performance that seemed to blow people away. Looking at it again now… what Nicholson is doing seems to be but one part of a sort of hypnotic mosaic (flawlessly directed by Bob Rafelson). What we seem to be looking at here is a combination of cultures – all white but all at hierarchical odds with each other. There’s uncertainty to varying degrees in each human element but the only element that fights the uncertainty is Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea. Bobby is the kind of guy who was born saying ‘No’ and will die saying ‘No’. (~which is what makes the Nicholson persona so frustratingly abrasive here.) It is, of course, a completely episodic film (with a wonderful collection of scenes by Carole Eastman, credited as Adrien Joyce) – all of the peripheral characters drift in and out. Thematically, it reveals itself as a film about ‘the search’ in life: that it doesn’t serve you well to remain static in yourself and your beliefs as your search continues along in front of you… because what the search will bring your way doesn’t count as much as what you bring to it. A particular favorite performance is given by Lois Smith as Nicholson’s pianist sister (who has a Glenn Gould quality when she’s recording), And, of course, Helena Kallianiotis and Toni Basil are as bizarrely hilarious as always – as the fiery lesbian couple who Nicholson gives a ride to: they remind me of the battling hetero couple picked up – and also eventually ditched – in Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’ (only funnier).

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