Five Easy Pieces (1970) A
Columbia (BBS Production)
A key American film of an era that's considered now the last Golden Age (1967-1975), “Five Easy Pieces,” Bob Rafelson's superlative character study, won the Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, and established Jack Nicholson, fresh off from his success in “Easy Rider” the previous year, as the foremost actor of his generation.
Adrien Joyce, who co-wrote the script with director Rafelson, said she had based the chief character partly on her impressions of Jack Nicholson himself and partly on her own dead brother.
One of the few honest American films about social class, downward mobility, family, and alienation, “Five Easy Pieces” is more of a character and mood piece than a straightforward, plot-driven narrative. Considering that the film was about alienation, marked by a pessimistic mood, and influenced by European filmmaking in approach and style, the movie was remarkably popular at the box-office, benefiting from the success of the a cycle of youth movies at the time.
Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea (his full name is Robert Eroica), an upper-middle class dropout, who now works as oil rigger in the California fields, spending his leisure time in bowling alleys and beer pubs with his girlfriend waitress Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), before taking a trip up North to visit his family. In South California, Bobby lives with Rayette in a dreary apartment in a drab working-class milieu.
We learn that Bobby had escaped from his suffocating bourgeois family, headed by Carl (Carl Fidelio), his patronizing concert-artist father, who live with daughter Tita (full name is Partita, played by Lois Smith), a dowdy, scatter-brained, concert artist. Back at his folks house, Bobby jilts his pregnant mistress for his brother's fiance, Katherine (Susan Anspach), a cool, high-cultured, and suave lady who's phony and pretentious.
“Five Easy Pieces” also serves as a road movie. Along the journey, some colorful and eccentric characters are introduced. Among them is Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes), a bitter lesbian hitchhiker obsessed with filth and headed with her lover to Alaska, where it's cleaner, because as she says, “there are no men there.”
The critic Seth Cagin has noted that while the film dissects the protagonists' real and chosen families, it still locates the crises and resolutions within the individual himself. Thematically, “Five Easy Pieces” merges two prevalent and uniquely American concerns: the unease and unrest of the late 1960s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the more traditional American's desire for personal autonomy and self-fulfillment.
Like other films of the times, “Five Easy Pieces” is a tale of young man with an acute identity crisis, a marginal man (in sociological terms) who doesn't fit in anywhere. Hailing from a bourgeois clan of means and intellectual background, Bobby had fled his culture-worshipping family, first for Las Vegas' honky-tonks, then to the manual labor of oil fields, and finally hitchhiking to Alaska.
As a protagonist, Bobby is an outsider, but he is not a hippie who seeks solidarity and pleasure in the Haight-Ashbury sex-drugs-music subculture. That may have been a reflection of Nicholson's age, who was 33 when the film was made. However, like anti-heroes of its era, Bobby is full of anger and frustration, which are manifest in a showdown in a diner with a truck-stop waitress, who refuses to make any substitution in menu.
A dropout, Bobby has adopted proletarian lifestyle, which is visually conveyed through the hot, dusty oil fields of California. In contrast, his family is all restraint and emotional sterility, psychological attributes reinforced by the landscape and climate of rain and cold. It's also hard not to notice the physical disability of Bobby's family members: His kind sister Tita is fat and neurotic, his brother Carl bears a neck brace (sign of impotence), and his father is mute and immobilized by a stroke. In other words, he's surrounded by and rebels against phonies and obtuse snobs, who have betrayed the essence of the American Dream.
In his blend of toughness and sensitivity, Bobby is a reincarnation of American outlaw (anti) heroes of yesteryear, such as William Holden in “Golden Boy,” or John Garfield in “Humoresque,” both playing artists who compromised for a boxing or other materialistic and less deserving career.
As the scholar Robert Ray suggested, the film proceeds by delineating a series of contrasts and oppositions, between the blue-collar universe of the Southern California oil fields and the culture of beer, bowling, and country music (Tammy Wynette) and classic Chopin music (giving the film its title) and country music. There gulfgreat divide–between intellectual and musical upper class family and the more physical and grounded lower class
In the original tale, Bobby and Rayette's go over a cliff in their car, and Rayette survives, but Rafelson and his scenarist have opted for a more open and ambiguous ending, in which Bobby deserts Rayette at a gas station and heads up North, though there is no “home” for him.
“Five Easy Pieces” bears echoes of other counter-cultural and anti-authoritarian films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider,” “Charlie Bubbles,” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” which Jack Nicholson directed in 1972.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, the film contains a lesbian role (one-dimensional): Helena Kallianiotes is cast as Palm Apodoca, a tough lesbian hitchhiker on her way to Alaska to escape what she describes as “America’s accumulated filth.”
In “Easy Rider,” Karen Black played one the prostitutes Nicholson encounters in New Orleans. Based on her turn, Nichols recommended director Rafelson to cast her opposite him in “Five Easy Pieces.” It was a smart move for as Rayette Dipesto, the not-too-bright but warmhearted waitress in love with a man fleeing from his past, Black gives an utterly credible, Oscar-nominated performance (see below).
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson)
Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black)
Elton (Billy “Green” Bush)
Stoney (Fannie Flagg)
Betty (Sally Struthers)
Twinky (Marlena MacGuire)
Recording Engineer (Richard Stahl)
Nicholas (William Challee)
Palm Apodacha (Helena Kallianiotes)
Terry Grouse (Toni Basil)
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Editing: Gerlad Shepard, Christopher Holmes
Costumes: Bucky Rous
Music: Bach, Mozart, Chopin
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Oscar Nominations: 4
Picture, produced by Bob Rafelson and Richard Wechsler
Story and Screenplay (Adapted): Bob Rafelson and Adrien Joyce
Actor: Jack Nicholson
Supporting Actress: Karen Black
Oscar Awards: None
In 1970, the Oscar winner “Patton” competed for the Best Picture with the schlocky disaster flick “Airport,” which inexplicably received 10 nominations but won only one (Supporting Actress to Helen Hayes); “Five Easy Pieces,” which was nominated for 4 but didn't win any Oscars; the blockbuster “Love Story,” which won one out of its 6 nominations; and Robert Altman's military satire “M-A-S-H,” that later became a popular TV series.
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