Five Easy Pieces follows along an existential strain of American cinema that began with films like The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), where, in the latter example, two men went looking for America and, as its tagline states, couldn’t find it anywhere, and continued through the vehement introspection that emerged from the tormented minds of Martin Scorsese’s anti-heroes, like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver ) and Jake La Motta (Raging Bull ). Somewhere in between these two manifestations of anguish is Jack Nicholson’s Robert Eroica Dupea, the main character of Bob Rafelson’s 1970 feature. Disenchanted with life and the people who surround him, and utterly aimless in his restless, insatiable quest for self-contentment, Bobby is continually disheartened by the realization that his ideals of happiness and unhappiness don’t apply to everyone else, and may not even be applicable to himself.
In a 2010 essay that accompanied the Criterion Collection’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story box-set, of which Five Easy Pieces was a part (it’s out now as a solo edition), Kent Jones writes that those like Bobby were, “discontented with the choices offered to them. They were acutely aware of their discontent, and they were trying to find a way to act on that awareness.” Five Easy Pieces is and was a great film, he continues, “because it gives us such a clear and unobstructed view of this particular type of American existence, brought into being at a certain interval in our history when the expectations of class and family carried more weight than they do now…” So despite his artistic, upper middle class background, classically-trained musician Bobby has drifted—intentionally or as a matter of happenstance—to a life far less outwardly glamorous. He toils away on a California oil field and resides with his girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress with dreams of country music stardom. His free time is spent carousing with friend and co-worker Elton (Billy Green Bush): drinking, playing cards, bowling, having flings with other women. Rayette, on the opposite end of the personality spectrum, is a dutiful companion, naively obedient, patient, and forgiving. She embodies the rather antiquated lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” one of several songs by the singer featured in the film.
While Bobby has a physically demanding occupation, it’s also a job where one easily becomes an anonymous cog in the wheel of industry. This could be just as well for Bobby, whose loss of identity in such a position seems more than a little deliberate—it’s something he can do where he doesn’t stand out nor does he really need to. Repeatedly frustrated by one thing or another (and there will always be another for Bobby), he quits the job anyway, leaves Rayette, whom he was just told is pregnant, and visits his pianist sister, Partita (Lois Smith), in Los Angeles. There he learns of his estranged father’s severe illness and so, with a reconciled Rayette later in tow, he travels to Washington State to reunite with his family. This familial gathering is the last thing Bobby needs in terms of external pressures, but the dose of reality, of real suffering in particular, breaks down, if only temporarily, his veneer of cynicism.
Bobby Dupea is an exceptional figure, one of great contrasts and quirks. According to Partita, the piano she plays has “no objectionable idiosyncrasies,” which makes it the opposite of everyone in the film, Bobby not the least. He’s a difficult character to identify with, even though his concerns are universal and easily relatable. Giving one of his finest performances, Nicholson helps with the understanding. With his trademark madman expressions and wildly animated behavior, he shifts from deviousness to despair in the blink of an eye. He’s explosive and temperamental, and when he clears the diner table during the famous chicken salad sandwich scene, acting out against life’s little absurdities and frustrations, we can’t help but get behind the bastard.
Otherwise though, he’s crass and cruel and regards Rayette with an attitude that hovers between utter distain and embarrassment. Still she keeps on coming back; what’s more, her love seems to grow with each affront. Bobby can’t make up his mind either though: One minute he’s calling Elton a “cracker asshole,” the next minute he’s running to his defense. Five Easy Pieces is full of such oscillations between conflicting emotions, ideas, and desires, and the music in the film further sets the tone for this recurrent theme of contrast, especially between “low” and “high” culture, with Wynette’s greatest hits playing opposite Chopin, Bach and Mozart. Throughout the film, Bobby inhabits both sides of this cultural division, apparently unhappy wherever he is. He looks down on his life with Rayette, as if activities such as bowling were somehow beneath him, but at the same time, he gets angry when she doesn’t play well enough. On the other hand, when a pretentious intellectual later drones on and mocks Rayette for her perceived simplicity, Bobby slams the “pompous celibate” for her derisive manner. But Bobby himself is also prone to mocking the ambitions and sentiments of others. When he and Rayette pick up some hitchhikers going to Alaska, where they say it is cleaner, Bobby questions condescendingly, “Cleaner than what?” Or, even while Bobby flirts with his brother’s fiancé, Catherine (Susan Anspach), he defies her sincerity when she is moved by his piano playing, ridiculing her reaction by stating, “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response.”
Aided by László Kovács’ photography (Kovács who composed so many vivid cinematic portraits from the period), director Bob Rafelson delivers a textured realism in any setting. Again to quote Jones: “In order for such a narrative to work, every character and setting needs to be pungent and acutely drawn. So the oil fields and bars and bowling alleys and tiny houses in Bakersfield are as lovingly attended as the Pacific Northwestern Dupea compound.” There is no explicitly overriding style from Rafelson, save for the occasional use of hand-held camera, just enough to mirror and barely contain the vitality and volatility of Nicholson, but his ability to present a detailed and authentic atmosphere no matter the milieu is exceptional. Carole Eastman’s pitch-perfect screenplay further adds to the accuracy, as does Toby Rafelson’s interior design. Clothing, furniture, paintings and pictures on the wall, knick-knacks, etc.—it’s all just as it should be.
Five Easy Pieces is a film of big scenes. The chicken salad sandwich outburst is probably its most famous sequence, and understandably so (even if Rafelson remains disappointed that this one section of the film is more remembered than others). But when Bobby exits his car during a morning traffic jam, hops aboard the back of a truck and begins playing piano as it drives away, one gets the first real sense of just how unpredictable and dramatic this guy can be—and with the horns blaring over the classical music, we also get a further example of aural contrast. It is scenes like these two, where Bobby flaunts acceptable behavior and stolid social dictates, that make Five Easy Pieces as equally rebellious in its own way as Easy Rider was.
Five Easy Pieces is also a film of small moments and small performances. Certainly, Nicholson leaves a thundering impression, but credit should also go to Black, who is fantastic as the tragic, earnest, and sympathetic Rayette. Few actors can steal a scene from Jack Nicholson, or even just a two-shot for that matter, but here she does so repeatedly. Her sitting contently in the car singing Wynette’s “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart” is simply a thing of beauty. A quick survey of the film’s awards show that she, indeed, received more accolades that Nicholson, though neither won their respective Oscars (nor did the film take best picture or screenplay, for which it was also nominated). And then there’s Lois Smith. Five Easy Pieces is a film that rewards multiple viewings. As much as this has to do with its tonal subtitles and the maturity of the themes and character concerns, it also has to do with performers who, at first glance, are somewhat overshadowed by Nicholson. Such is the case when rewatching the film and paying particular attention to the brilliantly natural and understated Smith.
Having not seen Five Easy Pieces for some time, while viewing it again I was reminded of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), in particular a comment written about that film being an ode to giving up. Ultimately, this is what Five Easy Pieces is as well, and Bobby voices as much when he admits a penchant for getting out of bad situations and moving on instead of facing or fixing the problems at hand. One of the defining features of these character-driven studies is that character development isn’t always a given. These are vibrant and multifaceted characters, but they aren’t necessary going to grow or evolve as human beings. As a result, the open ending of Five Easy Pieces is really the only ending possible, for when it comes to Bobby Dupea, there is no reasonably absolute conclusion or resolution, except, perhaps, death (as, incidentally, the original screenplay had it).