Five Easy Pieces

Here Jack Nicholson stars as Bobby Dupea a complex malcontent, whose personality is equally magnetic and malign. He’s a character who is hard to admire but impossible to forget and this was the performance that deservedly made Nicholson a true star.

Bobby, when the film kicks off, is working as a rigger on an oil field in Southern California with his pal Elton. On his return home, he chides his girlfriend Rayette’s (Karen Black) taste in music, baulking at the idea of her playing Tammy Wynette’s sickly Stand By Your Man yet again.

When she suggests Bobby spin the B-side instead as if this might improve his mood, he tells her: ‘It’s not a question of sides. It’s a question of musical integrity.’

Bobby will never be happy for any prolonged period. He is what would today be called a commitment-phobe. He’s also downwardly mobile – although we don’t yet know it. And I should point out that there will be spoilers in the final paragraphs of this post.

Karen Black & Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

Bobby and Ray go ten-pin bowling with Elton and his wife Stoney and Bobby gets pissed off with Rayette’s inability to launch her bowling ball in anything resembling a straight line down the lane.

Her bowling balls might veer into the gutters but Rayette is at least occasionally looking at the stars even if her dreams of becoming a country and western star are entirely unrealistic She’s naive and clingy, and she’s also far from Bobby’s intellectual equal but Karen Black never reduces her to a dumb redneck caricature and Rayette always remains much more likeable than her partner.

Okay, this isn’t that difficult. Verbally abusive on a very regular basis, he’ll pick fights or battle with not only with his girlfriend but with Elton, some cops arresting Elton, and even a noisy dog during a traffic jam on the freeway. The latter frustration eventually leads him to jump on the back of a removal wagon to get a better view to assess how long the tailback is. There he spots a piano, and he begins to play away although it’s hard to tell how good he is as his tinkling is accompanied by a constant cacophony of honking car horns.

Most memorably, he engages in a war of words in a roadside restaurant with an inflexible waitress. Although not a dramatically pivotal scene, this is the one that many viewers recall most fondly. The argument revolves around a chicken salad sandwich and ends with a brattish Bobby scattering the glasses on his table onto the floor with an angry sweep of the hand.

An angry Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

By this point Bobby has been given a family update via his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Their father is seriously ill in the aftermath of suffering two strokes.

Bobby is advised that he should see him before he dies and he reluctantly agrees, taking Rayette with him. On the road, and with some amusing consequences, they pick up a pair of hitch-hikers heading for a new life in Alaska played by Helena Kallianiotes and Toni ‘Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, You’re so fine you blow my mind’ Basil. The former complains incessantly about the dangers of dirt and when asked why she wants to move north, she replies, ‘It’s cleaner.’

‘That was before the big thaw,’ Bobby remarks dryly.

Five Easy Pieces - On the Road

On the verge of reaching his destination, he dumps Rayette in a cheap motel, presumably ashamed of her, at best figuring that she might feel out of place in the social milieu there.

Back at the family home, he hits on a musician Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is working with his brother Carl, played by Ralph Waite, later to be the head of the Walton clan. Indeed, Bobby spends more time in pursuit of her than in tending to his father, although he does at least share some time with the dying old man, hoping to achieve some kind of reconciliation with him. ‘I move around a lot,’ he explains, ‘not because I’m looking for anything really but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.’

The reasons for Bobby’s discontent are never explained. No flashbacks to his childhood being scolded by his perfectionist father (or similar) and if you’re looking for any explanation of why Bobby is the way he is then this is as near as you’ll get to it.

Jack Nicholson alone

He leaves with Rayette, saying goodbye only to Partita.

The film that began in an oil field ends in a gas station and the final scene is one of those endings that you desperately hope has become confused in your memory. Watching it for the first time since Alex Cox featured it in his Moviedrome series in the late 1980s, I began hoping that, as Rayette went in search of some coffee, Bobby wouldn’t have a word with the driver of a parked logging truck. That he wouldn’t step inside the truck, that instead he might get out and face his responsibilities. Head back to the family home with Rayette and, like a prodigal son, help care for his father and maybe even rekindle his career as a concert pianist.

Of course what an audience want doesn’t translate as what is artistically right.

There’s a big clue to the ending in the final location. At the gas station, a sign hangs advertising one of America’s best known oil companies, GULF. All along, there’s been too much of a gulf between Bobby and his respectable upper-middle class family for any great rapprochement, too much of a gulf between the former piano protege and the Tammy Wynette loving waitress for any relationship between them to realistically work. While Rayette is in the cafe thinking of the man she loves, Bobby sets off with the trucker to somewhere that’s ‘colder than hell’, probably Alaska.

Bobby won’t be any less restless or cantankerous there but least he’ll be clean.

Five Easy Pieces Gulf

The idea for Five Easy Pieces was conceived by its director Bob Rafelson, together with Carole Eastman. It’s surely no coincidence that Rafelson himself was born into a relatively wealthy family and also – before finding his direction – earned a living from a wide variety of jobs from breaking horses for the rodeo to drumming in a jazz band based in Mexico.

He directs his second feature beautifully. The cinematography is flawless. Nicholson is brilliant. Karen Black is also superb. Fifty years ago it might have resonated more and Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest might be better films but this is still a wonderful watch that everybody should see at least once, a key film in what became known as New Hollywood.

If you liked Five Easy Pieces you might also like Head.

Firstly – if anybody is remotely interested – my favourite group when I was a kid I’ve been told was The Monkees, although my memory doesn’t quite stretch back that far. According to my parents, I liked to argue that they were a much better group than The Beatles. All these decades later I still reckon they put out some cracking singles like Stepping Stone and Valeri – even if they might not have played all the instruments on them. The fifty-something me, though, would have to admit that they never recorded anything as extraordinary as Helter Skelter or Day in a Life.

How long my Monkee-mania lasted, I have no idea but I wish I knew if I’d stuck with both them through to the closing moments of the final episode of the series, when Tim Buckley performed Song to the Siren.

It was Bob Rafelson who initially hit on the idea of making something like A Hard Day’s Night into a madcap TV comedy show. An ersatz band was assembled, and the series proved a massive ratings winner.

After two seasons, and with the band wanting to shed their frolicsome four image and establish themselves as ‘serious’ musicians, they agreed to go further down the experimental route they’d always embraced for a film co-written and co-produced by Rafelson and Nicholson, 1968’s Head. This was a crazed attempt to deconstruct the pop band that owed as much to underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage as Richard Lester.

I wouldn’t claim that it’s a great film but it does contain some startling moments. From it, here is Porpoise Song. Dig those psych flavoured solarizations.