(1970) Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Adrien Joyce (aka: Carole Eastman); Story by Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman; Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Toni Basil, Lois Smith and Susan Anspach; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…I felt that the character that I was trying to write the movie about should be about a man who’s condemned to search for the meaning of his life, and it’s not a very happy search at that.” – Bob Rafelson (from Criterion DVD commentary)
“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.” – Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson)
A great big thanks to Gill Jacob of Realweegiemidget Reviews for inviting me to participate in the Here’s Jack Blogathon 2017, honoring Mr. Nicholson’s 80th birthday. The word “iconic” is thrown around so often these days, it’s almost ceased to have meaning. In Jack Nicholson’s case, however, calling his cinematic presence iconic isn’t mere hyperbole, it’s the truth. Among the many great Nicholson performances to choose from, the one that’s resonated with me the most is Bobby Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. Director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman construct a character study that’s simply told, naturalistic and personal.
Jack Nicholson paints a complex portrait as Bobby Dupea. Bobby drifts through an aimless existence as an oil rigger in a desolate California town,* where he lives with Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), his girlfriend of the moment and hangs around with his ne’er do well pal Elton (Billy Green Bush). He’s groundless, without a moral compass or discernible purpose. Propelled by his id, he says what he likes, does what he wants, and acts on sheer impulse, with little regard for the consequences. But as we soon discover, Bobby is much more than he appears. His lifestyle is by choice, not out of necessity. He resides in self-imposed exile from a comfortable upbringing, where he showed boundless promise as a classical pianist. He’s a man who’s no wiser by the film’s conclusion, fated to repeat the same maladaptive behavior ad infinitum. It’s a testament to Nicholson’s acting skills that he portrays such an amoral, self-centered, callous individual, yet still manages to hold our attention, and yes, gain our sympathies.
* Fun fact: The first half of the film was shot in Taft, California. The second half was filmed on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Eastman’s script takes some detours, which don’t necessarily contribute to the plot but provide some much-needed humor and color to Bobby Dupea’s universe. When Bobby and Elton become stuck in a traffic jam, Bobby suddenly engages in an impromptu piano recital on the back of on open truck. On the road to see his family in the northwest, he picks up a pair of Alaska-bound hitchhikers (Toni Basil and Helena Kallianiotes). Basil is hilarious in her deadpan role, spouting a diatribe on man’s penchant for “crap” and “filth.” In the film’s most famous scene (much to Rafelson’s chagrin), Bobby deals with a surly waitress, attempting to talk his way around the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy, and failing in spectacular fasion.* But in my favorite scene, which always makes me cheer, Bobby puts a pedantic intellectual and her pretentious cronies in their place (something most of us would never have the chutzpah to do, but wish we could).
* Another fun fact: In the DVD commentary, Rafelson explained that the genesis of the scene came from his tendency to make substitutions when he dines out, and the subsequent friction from restaurant servers. Additionally, Eastman incorporated a volatile real-life incident involving Nicholson, when he swept a table’s contents onto the floor at a Hollywood-area restaurant.
Compared to the blue collar world of the oil fields, Bobby’s family might as well be from another planet. We glimpse the seeds of his discord in the family house, and panned shot of portraits, a sterile environment where music – the family trade – is valued over individuality. He’s stifled by the prospect of being yet another classical musician in a long line of professional musicians. The film’s most poignant moment occurs when Bobby speaks with his mute, wheelchair-bound father (William Challee). As the result of a massive stroke, the once powerful family patriarch is a shadow of his former self, and a captive audience to his estranged son. The scene packs an emotional wallop because it’s one of the few moments when Bobby lets down his guard, and permits himself to reflect on the empty shell he’s become. At once, we see his self-reflection on a wasted life and unwillingness to change. We get the impression Bobby could still pick up where he left off, with his budding music career, but he’s a victim of his hubris, unable to stop this pointless, self-destructive trajectory.
Everyone Bobby touches seems to get hurt in one way or another. The most pathetic of the bunch is Rayette,* who hopes to tame his wilder tendencies and settle down. She can’t seem to grasp that he’s incapable of reciprocating her affection, or that, in Bobby’s mind, she’s reaching her expiration date. Their oil and water relationship is brought to the surface when she unexpectedly drops in on Bobby and his family. He enjoys a brief tryst with his brother’s wife Catherine (Susan Anspach), who sees Bobby for what he is – good for a few laughs, but incapable of establishing or sustaining a meaningful relationship. She agrees to be complicit in Bobby’s sexual conquest because he’s everything her husband Carl (Ralph Waite) isn’t – impish, playful and unstable. By far, the most functional relationship is the one Bobby shares with his sister Partita (Lois Smith). They share an unspoken bond, free from judgment or disdain.
* (SPOILER ALERT) According to Rafelson, screenwriter Eastman originally had a very different ending in mind for Bobby and Rayette. When they have their final squabble in the car, their vehicle veers off the road and sinks into a body of water, with Rayette the sole survivor.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the rare films that rewards with subsequent re-viewings, to reveal different layers of meaning. The film resonates on a personal level, as well. Having once occupied the role of black sheep in the family I can identify with Bobby’s dissociation from his family of origin. Unlike my personal narrative, however, there’s no respite or redemption for Bobby; we can only presume he’ll continue to alienate his family and make the same mistakes, leaving a trail of fractured relationships and a life without direction or purpose. We’ve all probably known someone like Bobby Dupea at one point or another, and can understand the damage he’s inflicted. A serious character study with surprising moments of levity, Five Easy Pieces is a great American tragedy.