#608) Five Easy Pieces (1970)
OR “This Prodigy Is Condemned”
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Adrian Joyce (aka Carole Eastman). Story by Rafelson and Joyce (aka Eastman).
Class of 2000
The Plot: Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy, having abandoned that life years earlier and now living an aimless existence as an oil rigger in Bakersfield, California. When he learns that his father (William Challee) is dying, Bobby reluctantly returns to his family home in Puget Sound, Washington, with his bubbly girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) in tow. While there are sparks between Bobby and Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspagh) – a pianist engaged to his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) – Bobby must ultimately come to terms with his impetuous behavior and become a responsible adult. Or not.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a]n intense character study” that “exudes the themes of alienation and self-destruction that often appeared in films of the 1970s.”
But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “minor classic” / “You had to be there” category of NFR films. “Five Easy Pieces” is by no means a bad movie, with its top-notch performances and incisive screenplay, but it is definitely a movie of its time. Historically, “Five Easy Pieces” is part of the wave of New Hollywood films that bucked the traditions of the classic studio system, opting for complex characters, aimless plots, and ambiguous endings. “Five Easy Pieces” was an early example of this, but there have been so many other films in the last 50 years that have emulated this style that it’s hard for the original to stand out on its own. And while an important moment in Jack Nicholson’s career, the film has been largely overshadowed by his later, more iconic filmography. A yes for “Five Easy Pieces” on the NFR, but a little context is needed to fully appreciate it.
Everybody Gets One: Bob Rafelson started his show business career in television, founding Raybert Productions (later BBS Productions) with producer Bert Schneider, and scoring a hit with the TV show “The Monkees”. A film starring The Monkees, 1968’s “Head”, was Rafelson’s directorial debut and, while not successful in its day, was his first collaboration with the film’s co-writer, Jack Nicholson. The success of “Easy Rider” (produced by BBS) gave Rafelson the freedom to make “Five Easy Pieces”, based on a semi-autobiographical script he penned with friend and screenwriter Carole Eastman.
Title Track: “Five Easy Pieces” was the name of a beginner’s piano book and was meant to be the film’s working title. According to the opening credits, the five “easy” pieces are: “Fantasy in F minor” by Chopin, “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” by Bach, “Piano Concerto no. 9” by Mozart, “Prelude Op. 28, No. 4” by Chopin, and “Fantasy in D minor” by Mozart.
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit with critics and audiences alike in its initial run, “Five Easy Pieces” received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Jack Nicholson’s first Best Actor nod. Unfortunately, it was the only one of 1970’s five Best Picture nominees to go home empty-handed, losing Picture, Actor, and Original Screenplay to “Patton“, with Karen Black losing Best Supporting Actress to Helen Hayes in “Airport”.
- Nicholson is, of course, dynamic as Bobby, effectively oscillating between the character’s implosive and explosive behavior. Bobby lacks a lot of redeeming qualities, but because it’s Jack, you can’t help but keep watching him. Also, with Bobby’s penchant for turtlenecks, this whole thing looks like a prequel to “The Shining“.
- Ah yes, the misogyny that permeates most of ’70s cinema. Bobby and Rayette’s relationship is severely unhealthy, but that’s the point. Kudos to Karen Black for making Rayette the only genuinely redeeming character in this movie. She’s unapologetically herself (re: white trash) without becoming arrogant or annoying. And Black has a lovely singing voice when she’s crooning along with her country music. Are you watching this, Altman?
- Like many New Hollywood films, there are plenty of “Before-they-were-famous” performances on display in “Five Easy Pieces”. We get Ralph Waite right before he became the patriarch of “The Waltons”, Sally Struthers in a bit part before her eight-season run as Gloria on “All in the Family”, and when I learned that future “Fried Green Tomatoes” author Fannie Flagg was in this movie, I _________.
- The traffic jam sequence was filmed on an unopened section of I5 in Bakersfield. With all the vacations and road trips I’ve taken in my lifetime, the odds are very good that I have been stuck in traffic on that very site.
- “Five Easy Pieces” earns my trademark “What is happening?” note. There’s a whole lot of meandering in the first chunk of this film (please Lord, not again. I just sat through “Licorice Pizza”), but thanks to Rafelson and Eastman, I always knew that the film was heading towards something. It’s a hard balancing act to pull off and, like many a ’70s character study, patience is a virtue.
- That’s veteran stage actor Lois Smith giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as Bobby’s sister Tita. As of this writing, Ms. Smith is still with us, and won her first Tony award last year at the age of 91!
- Tammy Wynette is to “Five Easy Pieces” as Cat Stevens is to “Harold and Maude“. Every piece of music in this movie is either classical piano or ironic usage of “Stand by Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E“.
- And then this movie stops being an aimless character piece and becomes an aimless road picture. A good chunk of Bobby and Rayette’s trip to Washington involves them picking up two female hitchhikers, one of who launches into an extended monologue about consumerism (I’ve never heard the words “crap” and “filth” so many times in my life). The monologist is played by actor Helena Kallianiotes, and her friend is Toni Basil, choreographer and future “Hey Mickey” singer.
- Easily the film’s most iconic scene: While making a pit stop at a diner, Bobby berates a waitress who refuses to let him substitute the roll that comes with his omelet with wheat toast. He then orders a chicken sandwich, and tells her to hold the chicken “between your knees”. I’m sure it was a monumental moment in 1970, a verbal middle finger to “The Establishment”, but without its original context it plays as yet another of Bobby’s “Christ, what an asshole” moments. That being said, I’ve never had a problem making substitutions at a diner in my life, and that may be in part to this movie.
- We arrive in Washington, and the movie shifts gears yet again. Now back in his upper-class origins, Bobby is a different kind of uncomfortable, equally out of place here as he was on the oil rigs. We get some lovely subtleties from Jack (especially the scene with his father), plus some nice work from Susan Anspach, as well as the aforementioned Waite and Smith. Anspach in particular does a good job of balancing Nicholson’s energy in their scenes.
- [Spoilers] Well that’s a downer ending. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Bobby would just abandon his current life and try something new. Even from a distance, watching Rayette walking around an empty gas station looking for Bobby is heartbreaking.
- Following the success of “Five Easy Pieces”, Rafelson’s follow-up film was “The King of Marvin Gardens”, once again starring Jack Nicholson. While the film was not as well-received as “Pieces”, it is not without its own following of devoted film buffs today. Among the other Rafelson/Nicholson collaborations is 1981’s steamy remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Jessica Lange.
- BBS Productions had a string of counterculture successes in the early ’70s, including “The Last Picture Show” and “Hearts and Minds“. The company eventually dissolved, selling its shares to distributor Columbia Pictures.
- The “hold the chicken” scene has been referenced and parodied many times over the years, but the best one was the parody we didn’t see. A scene from 2002’s “About Schmidt” was to feature Jack Nicholson’s character at a diner, calmly accepting that he couldn’t substitute anything on his order. Although intended as commentary on how much times have changed, and despite a positive reaction from test audiences, director Alexander Payne felt the reference took people out of the movie and cut the scene.
Listen To This: Bach, Chopin, and Mozart are all well represented on the National Recording Registry, but all I really care about is that a) Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” was inducted in 2010 and b) Cary O’Dell wrote an essay about it.