Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is one of those early 70’s films that illustrates how that great period in Hollywood cinema isn’t just worthy of the praise us film afficionados heap upon it just because of the enormous gobs of on-screen sex and violence it started openly slinging about (I mean, there’s only a few casual boob shots at most in the film), but also because of the more challenging, auteur-minded and oft-Euro flavor the new generation of filmmakers brought into the Hollywood sphere.
While I wouldn’t call “Pieces” a great film, it’s certainly a good one, and filled with a kind of who’s who of influences on the incoming New Hollywood brats for the next decade. There’s the intimate Ingmar Bergman-style chamber piece approach (especially once Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Duprea, having run away from his feelings of shame over his early privilege, growing up in an upper-class bourgeoise household, dropped out and escaped into a working class facade, working on oil rigs in the desert to make ends meet, reluctantly returns to the wealthy autumnal-leafed island enclave of that rich family – with all of them, in that grand Bergman tradition, renowned pianists and artists – to pay final respects to his dying father).
There’s the looser narrative feel of the 60’s hipster French Nouvelle Vague. And then, most importantly, the Italian neo-realist setting (at least for the first half, with Dupree surrounded by the wonderfully loopy likes of great character actors Billy ‘Green’ Bush, soon-to-be-television-star Sally Struthers and the slightly off-kilter, cross-eyed, yet always glowing Karen Black, as well as a bunch of non-professionals milling about adding life to the environment) within the milieu of the poor and working class; perhaps the most admirable attribute of the films of this decade (many of them anyway) was their unvarnished, socially conscious gaze at the problems plaguing the lower classes (for the last time, mind you, as the decades that would follow would begin the consistent neglect and abandonment, both politically and by any Hollywood representation, of the growing majority of Americans known as the working poor — with the 80’s bringing Reagan and his ‘New Day in America’, followed by the great Clintonian master plan – the one that continues whole hog today — of selling out the Democratic Party to massive corporate interests — until, of course, just as Tobe Hooper cautioned us with his unrelenting masterpiece Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in the mid-70’s – the abandoned finally boiled up and returned in monstrous form, as MAGA-hat wearing Trumpers looking to – understandably, mind you — chainsaw the privileged classes who’ve rejected and dismissed them into little tiny bloody bits).
On top of all these influences came that additional sense of realism the new actors brought to the screen, with their full embracing of that acting style we all kinda know (or mostly think we know) as the ‘Method’, with guys like Nicholson (though him and Beatty, as big of 70’s stars as they were, were half a decade or so ahead of that main pack of 70’s stars that owned the decade and pretty much mostly all made their collective entrance with “The Godfather” films), all doing their best to replicate the style of their early mumbling ‘realist’ trendsetting heroes – namely, Brando, Dean and Clift.
Five Easy Pieces is Jack’s first real follow-up to his star-making turn the year before as the drunken hick lawyer of crazy man Dennis Hopper’s counterculture biker road movie, Easy Rider (though the Rafelson film’s title does makes sense, as it relates to piano pieces, I do wonder if they didn’t choose the “Easy” connection in hopes that some of the wild financial and critical success of Hopper’s film might rub off a bit), and, as often happens upon going back and seeing some of those great 70’s actors in their early ground-breaking character performances after not having done it in awhile (only reason I’m doing it now is I randomly decided to join in with an online 12-week lecture series on 70’s films), I’m admittedly taken by the simple power of their youth (especially in the case of Nicholson… I mean, he might already be losing his hair and all, but when considered against the turtle-headed tubby old man with ever-present out-to-lunch smile and orange-tinted sunglasses I’ve gotten used to seeing over the last few decades, talk about startling).
In danger of stating the obvious, Nicholson is one wildly charismatic dude, filled with a sense of indulgence and a wolfishly dangerous sex appeal that stands alone amongst his peers (certainly in comparison to, say, dead fish De Niro, a great actor for sure, but never much when it comes to generating sexual heat). He may already be guilty of mugging a bit in these early performances (such as occasionally overdoing the naughty boy mannerisms), but back then, a little went a long ways, and this was the kind of thing that worked for him (all you have to do is look at that other Rafelson film soon to come, King of Marvin Gardens, in one of those rare early performances in which Nicholson underwhelms, due to him given little room to display that engaging energy that comes when he’s given the allowance to overplay a bit, for pretty direct evidence of a brilliant actor robbed of his particular tools to shine).
For a Hollywood era dominated by (and now fairly roundly shamed from today’s dangerously myopic perspective for being) a pretty overwhelmingly male-centric viewpoint, both behind and in front of the camera, “Pieces” does stand apart as being one of the few with a script actually written by a woman, Adrien Joyce (i.e., Carol Eastman)… and it is interesting to ponder her effect, especially when you consider the more subtle subversive digs at a film that on the outside was looking a lot like what was swiftly becoming a fairly outwardly traditional ‘male dominant’ narrative view of the pop culture at the time. While Nicholson’s Dupree is certainly the emotional center of the film (as well as gets the most show-stopping moments, such as that celebrated ‘chicken salad’ scene in the diner that ends with him clearing off every item on the table, which alas today plays less like ‘standing up against the man’ and more like taking out wrath against the poor lower waged dupe stuck pushing the rules for the unreachable ‘man’, in this case the poor waitress assuredly left with cleaning up the mess), it’s the women character who reveal themselves as the stronger ones. In fact, if Dupree was played by someone other than the magnetic Nicholson, I wonder if this self-centered, insensitive character wouldn’t have almost become unbearable for the same audience and critics who applauded the film at the time.
Famous chicken salad diner scene
On the other side of the gender gap, there’s the beautiful Susan Anspach’s Catherine van Oost (whose very name should tell you where she fits in the narrative – she’s with the rich folk), dating Dupree’s stiff, yet earnest upper crust brother (Ralph Waites), but immediately attracted to the dangerous Dupree upon his arrival. While she engages in an affair with Dupree, she’s far more grounded than the wildly emotional and conflicted Dupree, able to recognize the right thing to do, while Dupree is willing to destroy everything out of his impulsive (and destructive) desire to find himself and his place.
Meanwhile, Karen Black’s put-upon waitress and wanna-be country singer (the actress will certainly get her chance to show off those skills just a few years later in Robert Altman’s Nashville) Rayette may be uneducated and even pathetic in how she clings to the obviously ambivalent Dupree (likely just one in a revolving door of men treating her badly) – with the underlying notion, revealing of Dupree’s own struggles, that he’s more than a bit embarrassed by her lack of culture — but yet, she’s also the only one who sees things as they are and speaks in a straightforward manner, not beholden to any pretention (which the Dupree household and their guests are nearly drowning in), so much so, that by the very end of the film (with a really beautifully composed and intricately staged final shot that’s right up there with those single long-takes mastered by Antonioni, in which all the actions play out before us at a distinct and evocative distance), in which Dupree sneaks off yet again, this time likely for good, on the now pregnant Rayette (with the film nicely, and subversively, critiquing the romanticized myth of the ‘Rambling Man’ so prevalent at that time, certainly in the popular rock music of the day, as less one of freedom and bravery and more of cowardice), the sense has been established that Rayette will likely be just fine. She’ll pick up the pieces and keep going on. She knows how to survive. The conflicted man-child Dupree however? He’s likely going nowhere fast.