Five Easy Pieces: Five Decades Later

One of the key attributes of any successful form of creative expression is it’s resilient faculty to withstand perhaps the greatest test of them all: the test of time…

These days, one doesn’t need to look further than their own window to observe that our world is moving at breakneck speed. And yet, as we continue to evolve, the band of our collective memories seems to be growing shorter and less tensile. With a new digital age upon us, paired with it is the irony that whilst the world is now at our fingertips, that same virtual environment has become intangibly difficult to touch, or grab hold onto. 

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Nicholson received his 2nd Oscar nomination in as many years for his role as the sardonic Bobby Dupea, in Five Easy Pieces.

Looking back at Five Easy Pieces; Bob Rafelson’s poignant jewel of New Hollywood cinema (the movement that swept through the hearts and minds of young Americans in the early 70‘s), it’s hard not to understate the magnitude of such a film having as profound an impact on audiences some five decades later. Released at the dawn of a new decade, and on the heels of a string of groundbreaking films, including Bonnie and Clyde-1967, The Graduate-1967, Night of the Living Dead-1968, and Easy Rider-1969, Rafelson’s intelligently restrained screenplay (co-written with ex-actor Carole Eastman under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) still holds it’s weight, and then some.

‘Five Easy Pieces has the complexity, the nuance, the depth, of the best fiction. It involves us in these people, this time and place, and we care for them, even though they don’t request our affection or applause’.

-Roger Ebert

Skimming the surface, the story of Five Easy Pieces may appear relatively straight-forward enough: After throwing in the towel at his dead-end job on an oil rig, Bobby Dupea- a cynical drifter who was once a promising pianist, embarks on a homeward road trip after hearing news of his father’s ailing health. As one peels back the skin to expose the bones underneath however, the thematic pulp that lies at it’s core might prove more ambiguous.

When quizzed about the character of the film’s antihero protagonist, Rafelson once offered the simple explanation that he was ‘a guy who is out of touch with his emotions’. One might also add that Dupea is foolishly running from his own shadow; but hasn’t the convictions nor the courage to look back and see it connected at his heels. He speaks of auspicious beginnings; and confesses in the end:

I move around a lot… not because I’m looking for anything really, but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay’.

Therein lies the root of Bobby Dupea’s reckless aloofness. It’s an asinine pursuit at best; a safety mechanism that keeps him at an arm’s length from anyone attempting to get close to him.

Whether watching Five Easy Pieces at it’s 1970 premiere, or 50 years later on your laptop at home it matters not… there’s still little debate that this was the role a young Jack Nicholson was destined to play. And yet, as his co-star, Academy Award nominee Karen Black would later point out, the character portrayed on screen was paradoxical of the man himself:

‘I think that Jack has very little in common with Bobby. I think Bobby has given up looking for love. But Jack hasn’t, he’s very interested in love, in finding out things…’

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After shooting Easy Rider in 1969, cinematographer László Kovács shot Five Easy Pieces in 1970 and The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972.

Nicholson at this point was already coasting atop a wave of popularity for his portrayal of alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, in the seminal American independent road picture Easy Rider, released a year prior. The film made him an overnight hero among the counterculture movement that was sweeping through the nation at the time, as well as gaining the attention of the Academy- who, as a result awarded him with his first Oscar nomination.

All of a sudden, the gates of Tinseltown that had once been bolted shut were flung wide open, and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick were now jostling to recruit him (Kubrick had sought to cast Nicholson for his legendary epic biopic Napoleon, but due to complications the project fizzled out). 

Up until the mid-late 60’s however, Nicholson’s career as an actor was anything but fruitful. His first major performance was barely a breakthrough role; a low-budget teen noir produced by Roger Corman, called Cry Baby Killer in 1958. And aside from a couple of minor roles on stage and television soap operas, his filmography for the first half of that decade would have been less than sparse if it weren’t for a few horror and Grindhouse films made under Corman, and a couple of cheaper westerns directed by Monte Hellman (who incidentally would later go on to direct Two-Lane Blacktop, another important film in the counterculture movement, in 1971).   

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Director Bob Rafelson sets up the scene with co-stars Jack Nicholson and Karen Black. Rafelson actually makes a brief cameo in the film walking into the elevator at the recording studio.

Around the same time too, Bob Rafelson was cutting his teeth in the then-booming television industry as a story editor, co-producer and sometime writer; forging a working relationship along the way with producers Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner. The three eventually struck up a small deal with Columbia Pictures to begin producing motion pictures under their subsidiary company, BBS Productions (Bert, Bob and Stephen).

As it turned out, their timing in making the transition over from television to film was to prove fortuitous; for the industry itself was being forced to make some drastic adjustments. The days of the major studios were looking numbered; due in part to the feverish popularity of television, and the changing thoughts and ideals of a new baby boomer generation. A spike in world cinema meant also that audiences were looking outside of Hollywood more than ever for their film-fix; with the French New Wave, Spaghetti Westerns and cinema from the far east generating ripples across the globe.

By the time Arthur Penn’s romantic depiction of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker was tearing through America and breaking cinema taboos with it’s scenes of graphic violence, Nicholson was trying his hand as a screenwriter for the acid-laced psychedelic film The Trip, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (both would go on to co-star with Nicholson in Easy Rider, two years later).

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Nicholson based the screenplay for The Trip upon his own experience with LSD, and on his own marriage breakup with his first wife Sandra Knight.

The Trip was a moderate success at best. Nevertheless, this would lead Nicholson to co-write the script for the satirical musical film Head, Bob Rafelson’s first feature film, starring The Monkees a year later in 1968, cementing the working relationship between Rafelson and Nicholson that culminated in a collaboration spanning 40 years.

Five Easy Pieces was a revolutionary piece of cinema for the time; shunning the way the major studios had traditionally approached the craft, and bucking the long antiquated tradition that usually saw the studio executives making the last and penultimate call.

Rafelson’s independent film company paved the way for others, like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971, or Peter Davis’ 1974 Academy Award winning antiwar documentary Hearts and Minds. It anticipated the rise of American independent cinema throughout the 80’s and 90’s, with directors taking the key authorial role and producing cinema that often made social statements, challenged censors, and appealed to a new generation of disaffected or disenfranchised youth in a way like never before.

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The majority of Five Easy Pieces was shot on location on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

The film’s title literally refers to a book of piano lessons for beginners; and despite it’s somewhat cryptic meaning, if you think about it the name makes perfect sense. Bobby Dupea has always taken the easy way out… and when the going got too tough for him he simply packed up and shipped out.

In one of several memorable scenes that stick with you long after the film’s final credits, Nicholson’s protagonist character moves his violinist brother’s fiancé (played by Susan Anspach) to tears as he recites Chopin on the family piano. He coldly rejects her fervorous sentiment; sniggering at her and claiming he had picked the easiest piece and simply recited it without any attached emotion. Not long after this he is asking her to leave his brother and run away with him, by which she replies:

‘If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love for his friends, family, work, something – how can he ask for love in return?’

Bobby Dupea is governed by a complicated web of contradiction that jeopardises everything he seeks, and scolds everyone he cares for. In the end he is left to answer life’s hard questions in some dingy bar or rundown motel on his lonesome.

The film would pave the way later for two more standout collaborations between Rafelson and Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens-1972 and The Postman Always Rings Twice-1981 that would explore similar thematics, and was nominated in the end for 4 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay). Many of it’s explored themes still resonate with it’s audience 5 decades later; but it’s the effortless poeticism that emanates from Five Easy Pieces that just may reward it it’s immortality in the end.

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