Although Jack Nicholson has starred in many films during the course of an incredibly varied career spanning over 40 years, it’s a scene in Five Easy Pieces – his first leading role – that Nicholson often cites as one of his favourites. Bob Rafelson’s film is testament to Hollywood’s rich talent base that emerged in the 70s, with Nicholson playing Bobby Dupea, a promising musician from a middle class family who gives it all up to work on an oil rig.
When we first see Bobby, he’s working on the rig and appears to be the embodiment of your average blue-collar American. In fact, though, he’s the son of a middle-class family of musicians (his middle name is Eroica, after Beethoven’s Third Symphony), likes to say he suffered an “auspicious beginning”, and was once a promising classical pianist. Disenchanted by the emptiness of everything, he broke away and reinvented his life into one of working-class toil. The trouble is, this new life’s no more fulfilling than the previous one: when he leaves the rig, he goes home to a coarse waitress girlfriend, Rayette (a wonderful performance by Karen Black), and her Tammy Wynette records.
His sister, Partita (Lois Smith), tracks him down to impart news that their father is very ill and she urges Bobby to come home. He reluctantly brings Rayette with him, dropping her at a local motel, and wearily trudges back to see his family. His father has suffered a stroke and is unable to communicate with anyone. This may be just as well, as Bobby is no prodigal son and his main interest lies in his brother’s fiancée, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Although Bobby eventually seduces his future sister-in-law, things become even more complicated when Rayette turns up. When Catherine chooses to end the affair, Bobby leaves Rayette with his wallet and decides it’s time to surreptitiously hit the road once more.
Sight and Sound wrote that Five Easy Pieces is a “seminal road movie, with Jack Nicholson never better. His emotional explosions are a wonder,” while Time Out called it “a brilliant, infinitely bleak tale of dysfunctional America.” When the film was first released, Variety noted: “Director Bob Rafelson has put together an absorbing, if nerve-wracking, film that qualifies as one of the top-quality entries of the year. Rafelson and Adrien Joyce have stuck to a timeless theme – the search for identity – and have taken a strictly novelistic approach to their subject. And in an era when actors are often treated as pieces of decor, Rafelson achieves his greatest success through a series of bold, subtly conceived performances.”
USA / Columbia – Bert Schneider / 98 minutes / 1970
Writer: Adrien Joyce / Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs / Producers: Bob Rafelson, Richard Wechsler / Director: Bob Rafelson
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Lois Smith, Susan Anspach, Billy ‘Green’ Bush