Time after time, I find myself taken aback by the overwhelming talent of Jack Nicholson. And the awe only increases when narrowing his works to the 1970s, a decade he owned all on his own. Of the many films he did from 1970 to 1979, I have seen him in One Flew Over the
Cuckoos Nest, Chinatown, and The Last Detail. He gave amazing,
iconic performances in every single one of them. But the film that is credited
with taking him into the superstar stratosphere was a little film from 1970 simply called Five Easy Pieces. Nicholson played a former classical piano player turned oil rigger named Bobby Dupea floating aimlessly
in the middle of nowhere and lost in relationships and set aside dreams he cant get rid of.
Its another iconic performance that rivals his best and takes a standard 70s character study and turns it on its ear.
The film moves from dialogue-driven mood pieces to establishing shot to classic bouts of Nicholson. Bobby is an oil rigger happy to put in his time at the dirty job and head home to guzzle beer, nuzzle his
airhead girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), go out with his oil rigging buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush), or bowl. His life is set out for the audience in the first half hour. Bobby
lives a repetitive life, one almost set in stone.
Then the film adds the conflict and begins its steady climb to Bobbys moral fall or last grab at happiness, depending
on how you look at it. Bobby visits his similarly musically talented sister in
the recording studio and she informs him that their father is nearing death. Bobby
hasnt been home in years, seemingly fleeing some discomfort and conflict there, but he voices his recognition of his responsibility
to say goodbye to his ailing father.
To add to the mix, over a lunch conversation at the rig with Elton, Bobby learns Rayette, someone he doesnt even seem
to like, is pregnant with his child. Elton goes into a little speech about complete
acceptance of a child after it is born and accepting life. Booby throws his sandwich
at Elton in an action that may be the realest outburst I have seen from the actor: simple and true. Humorous and perhaps ill-advised. After all, he needed to
eat the sandwich. The two exchange swear words and part ways. In a spin of audience alliances, two men in suits attack Elton, the moral-backbone (?) of the two who has
just finished an impromptu speech about accepting responsibility. Bobby swoops
in to help his friend, but gets the stuffing knocked out of him. Elton explains
to his disheveled friend that he robbed a store a year ago and was on the run until the two policemen in suits found him. He laughs it off while Bobby and the audience shake their heads in disbelief.
Bobby decides to make the trip home to say goodbye to his father and hello to all the unfinished business he left behind. He comes home to find a pouting Rayette in bed and leaves her there to go home. What follows is classic Nicholson. He
heads to his car, shuts the door, ponders, then lashes out irrationally in an outburst that causes his body to flail about
on the drivers seat and steering wheel. He walks back inside and asks Rayette
is she wants to come. Soon enough, shes singing annoyingly alongside Bobby out
on the open road.
The turning on ear comes from having a lead character that isnt especially nice.
In fact, he can be quite mean. But what redeems the irredeemable character
is a brilliant performance from Nicholson that reveals that what we have is not a bad seed, but rather a man uncomfortable
in his own skin and willing to blame anyone he knows for it. That complexity
to what appears to be an above average jerk on the surface characterizes the rest of the movie. Whats underneath the films surface is much better than its exterior.
The best scenes in the film are all Nicholsons, including the often acclaimed but frequently forgotten scene when Bobby
tries to order toast from a disgruntled waitress in a diner. We get the gist
of the character: hes polite until you push him, and you dont have to push him very hard.
I began to wonder if it wasnt about more than just the toast to Bobby.
Another wonderful scene was the aforementioned outburst in the car before Bobby asks Rayette to accompany him home.
Perhaps the most telling of Nicholsons now-realized potential is a one-sided conversation with his wheelchair bound
father during which he lays out his life for the layman and uninformed.
The film isnt perfect. It contains enough needless scenes to make up another
short film. Director and writer Bob Rafelson cant decide what scenes flesh out
Bobby and which ones are filler, so he includes them all. Also, the Oscar-nominated
performance from Karen Black as Rayette Dipesto was misdiagnosed because I dont
think playing an airhead is difficult. I must admit that my distaste for the
performance might be due to the effectiveness of the character. She annoyed the
snot out of me, just like she did Bobby.
The biggest props have to go to Rafelson for staying true to the character of Bobby throughout the film. None of the things he does is inexplicable. Even when he does
the worst of them, youre disappointed but not surprised. Maybe all character
studies should stay the course the same way Five Easy Pieces did. Which
raises the question of whether they even make character studies anymore. (see
Tape, About Schmidt and say yes)