An Appreciation – Five Easy Pieces
Whenever we talk about Five Easy Pieces (1970), the conversation almost always comes back to the infamous diner scene. Oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) tries to get a specific food order, to which the waitress sternly declines. After a heated back and forth, Bobby coolly stands up and sweeps the entire table with his arm. Modern audiences may not make much of this now, but when the film was first released it was viewed as a point of revelation. Obviously, the scene isn’t really about ordering food or chicken salad, but it was an allegory for an entire mindset. It was indicative of a youth movement that moved past WWII and transitioned to an era encapsulated by The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, and the emerging counterculture. The scene – and the movie itself – was emblematic of an entirely new wave of American filmmaking.
Perhaps no other actor best represented this new mode of cinema than Jack Nicholson. While Easy Rider (1969) may have busted him out of obscurity, and Chinatown (1974) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) cemented his superstardom, it was Five Easy Pieces that proved him to be a performer of considerable depth and emotion. It was the role of Bobby that established the onscreen persona that Nicholson would return to repeatedly: Outsiders and rebels that relied less on good looks as opposed to their charm and wit. Nicholson is not a traditional leading man. He has a lined face, distinctive eyebrows, and in 1970 was already sporting a receding hairline. But he used these as a strength. Nicholson can exude a rugged spontaneity – able to balance an animalistic nature with a sensitivity that makes his performances so unique. He represented a new form of masculinity, one of anxiety, insecurity, vulgarity, and grace.
Nicholson brings these qualities to Bobby, adding nuance to the character. Bobby is a walking contradiction, full of conflicting emotions. We learn that he was once a promising pianist, came from a family of artists, yet turned that life down. He lived aimlessly, eventually working at an oil rig in the southwest. Bobby is in a relationship with Rayette (Karen Black) but doesn’t seem to be much in love with her. He willingly sleeps with other women, leaves Rayette by herself for days, and constantly tells her that he will call her but rarely does. Where Rayette is deeply attached to Bobby and wants to settle down, he is unable to commit to her (or anything, for that matter). Black gives an equally strong performance as Bobby’s counterpoint. She is ready to dive headfirst into a full-on partnership where he is unable to. Bobby is constantly uneasy, always uncomfortable wherever he is, no matter the situation. Watch how Nicholson shifts his body, as though he could never sit still for more than a few minutes. Why is Bobby such an outsider? Does he see himself better than everyone, maybe worse? He calls his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) a “Cracker As—-e,” but what does that make Bobby?
Bob Rafelson’s direction and László Kovács’ cinematography give the film an immediate and grounded aesthetic. Just as the actors’ performances are free of pretense, so too are the construction of the visuals. Scenes are not shot with any glamorous lightening; everything appears to be lit from natural sources. The film stock has heavy grain, which gives the mood a roughness around the edges. Characters look as though they came right off the street – with the story allowing them to play within a real-world environment. Not one moment has a sense of staginess or falsehood. Not only does the production show its quirks and peculiarity (both in terms of character and in style), but it embraces them as unique, identifying attributes. This is a lived-in world – not a heightened reality but an everyday place that could stand for just about anywhere in the country.
Bobby is prone to rude and selfish behavior, but to simply call him a brute would be oversimplifying him. The direction, writing (Rafelson, Carole Eastman), and acting paint him with dimension. He doesn’t fit into any one category, which makes him all the more interesting. As the narrative progresses, Bobby’s layers start to peel back, revealing an inner truth he’s worked so hard to keep hidden. The first notable moment occurs during a highway traffic jam, when he unexpectedly jumps out of his car, yells at other drivers, and even barks at a dog. At first, we assume that this is Bobby at his most primal, expressing himself through sheer aggression. But the scene takes a turn when he hops on the back of a pickup truck carrying a piano, takes a seat in front of the keys and begins to play classical music. He continues playing, even when the truck drives off. This sudden change hints toward Bobby’s complexity – that he is more than just anger and self-loathing. Somewhere inside of him is a person capable of artistic inspiration.