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Five Easy Pieces (1970) will forever be remembered as the iconic counterculture movie. Its diner scene did the trick. When Jack Nicholson orders a side of whole wheat toast with his omelet, is told the system doesn't allow sides of toast, then orders a chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat toast -- hold the butter, hold the lettuce, hold the mayonnaise, hold the chicken the absurdity of rules seemed irrevocably mocked. Less well remembered than this quintessential thumbing-his-nose-at-the-system moment is the fact that he and his uneasy riders are thrown out of the diner after he angrily sweeps the place settings from the table. One of his road companions, a lesbian hitchhiker, congratulates him on his cleverness. But, as Nicholson's refugee from a well-to-do artistic family, submerging himself in redneck working-class life, says, referring to the toast, "I didn't get it, did I?"
Nicholson's roustabout dropout, uneasily returning from California to his dysfunctional family's home on an island in Puget Sound after learning his famous musician father has suffered two strokes, doesn't get much. His conflicts and angers and fears keep him from a committed life. "I move around a lot," he says to the wheelchair-bound father he's not sure he's reaching in a last attempt at bonding. "Not because I'm looking for anything, really, but because I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay." He ends the film by hitching a ride on a logging truck to Alaska, abandoning his pregnant girlfriend, Karen Black's Tammy Wynette wannabe, Rayette, at a filling station. He ends as he began, betwixt and between, fleeing the pressures of measuring up to his family's rarefied artistic expectations, then fleeing the demands of the working-class life in which he briefly alights. As photographed by the great Laszlo Kovacs -- the eye behind Easy Rider (1969) -- landscape, geography, and the road are major characters in Five Easy Pieces, too.
Underpinning Nicholson's cocked brows, manic eyes and antsy bad-boy persona is the theme of flight through constant motion -- the moving target principle. It's a recurring motif in Nicholson's oeuvre, starting with Easy Rider and most notably and even more opaquely rendered in The Passenger (1975). Producer Bert Schneider, director Bob Rafelson and Nicholson wanted perhaps a bit too self-consciously to make a character-driven film more closely modeled on European priorities than Hollywood's, subverting middle-class values. They did and they didn't. Very much of its time, thinking itself existential, ignoring that it was only playing a more self-deludingly pretentious version of the American success game by becoming rich Hollywood personages, it was symptomatic of a generation pretending to live outside the system while merely reshaping it to suit its own appetites.
If bourgeois values got the finger in Five Easy Pieces, so did working-class life. The film begins with a shot of the business end of a bulldozer, aggressively dumping a payload of dirt in our laps. It continues to unfold in an ongoing counterpoint of clamor and discord, to the crash of bowling balls meeting pins and steel pipes clanging against one another as they're dropped into position on a barren, dusty oil field. Clash, clash, clash, including Nicholson's Bobby and the world where, we learn, he's an impostor, hiding out. That he's not just one of the good ol' boys we see in a startlingly inspired scene when he and his good-hearted lowlife buddy, Elton (Billy Bush), are stuck in stalled traffic on a freeway outside of Bakersfield, behind a flatbed truck bearing, among other things, an upright piano. In no time, the restless Bobby is out of the car, briefly prowling the freeway, moving from stopped car to stopped car before finally leaping onto the truck, throwing the protective mat from the piano, then brilliantly and unexpectedly unfurling a few bars of Chopin.
Elton is shortly afterward hauled off to jail for a filling station holdup, leaving his wife, Stoney, and infant child behind. The scenes involving Elton, Stoney (Fannie Flagg), Bobby and Rayette seem a parody of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) -- except that Stanley Kowalski's brutish camaraderie is replaced by coed bowling. Not that it does much for Bobby's disposition. He rags on Rayette, driving her to tears. When Bobby indicates to Elton that he might take off upon learning Rayette is pregnant, the otherwise crude Elton takes him to task for his lack of loyalty. But while Elton and Rayette are warm, open-hearted types, Bobby, despite his prickliness, is not without sensitivity.
It's what makes him palatable. His treatment of the rednecks whose company he sought out is at times insufferably patronizing. But when he goes home, and Rayette shows up after he stashed her away in a nearby motel, partly out of shame at the idea of having his family see him dating an unsophisticated woman who can't believe his family doesn't have a TV in the living room, he fiercely defends her against the bitchy putdowns of an aggressively snobbish dinner guest.
Black's career took off after her portrayal of the uncomplicated but likable Rayette. Susan Anspach, direct from the cast of "Hair" on Broadway, had been envisioned for that role. But Anspach wound up playing Catherine Van Oost, the delicate fiance of Bobby's older brother, Carl (Ralph Waite). Here the film makes a misstep by portraying Bobby's older brother as a caricature. Bobby's full name is Robert Eroica Dupea. Carl's is Carl Fidelio Dupea. Obviously their father (William Challee), an inscrutable monster we wish we knew more about, was a Beethoven fan although he named their pathetic sister (Lois Smith) Partita. No Beethoven nomenclature for her. Was it because she was a woman?
Feeling chemistry between them there's none with the buffoonish Carl Anspach's Catherine opens herself to a tempestuous sexual interlude with Bobby after feeling hurt and angry and emotionally rebuffed after she compliments Bobby on his playing, only to be told by him that he felt nothing. The hitherto closed Bobby realizes he feels for Catherine, but she perceptively tells him they have no future, since he, unable to love or accept himself, can't really love anyone else, either. Kovacs really comes into his own here, using the grayness and wetness of the Pacific Northwest island retreat to reinforce the cocooning yet suffocatingly rarefied and emotionally desiccated world from which Bobby bolted. In the end, Five Easy Pieces is a family portrait of lovelessness, for Bobby and everyone he infects with it as he stumbles away from pain through whatever open door may beckon. Nothing is easy for Nicholson's alienated artist rootless, adrift, afraid, on the lam or for the people in his life. Five Easy Pieces, with its title ironically referring to a beginning pianist's manual of practice pieces, is a bleakly indelible thing of clashes and cacophonies and screams, especially the silent ones.
Producers: Bob Rafelson and Richard Wechsler
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce, screenplay) and Bob Rafelson (story)
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction: Toby Rafelson (interior designer)
Music: Pearl Kaufman (piano)
Film Editing: Christopher Holmes and Gerald Shepard
Cast: Robert Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson), Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), Elton (Billy 'Green' Bush), Stoney (Fannie Flagg), Betty (Sally Ann Struthers), Twinky (Marlena Macguire), Recording Engineer (Richard Stahl), Partita Dupea (Lois Smith).
by Jay Carr
Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, by Patrick McGilligan
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind