News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (4): Five Easy Pieces
The magnificent Five Easy Pieces (1970) is an exemplar of everything the Seventies Film aspired to be. Directed by Bob Rafelson (who also co-wrote the story), the movie was a product of the legendary six-picture deal that BBS Productions (Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner) reached with Columbia Pictures—one that traded small budgets in exchange for no studio interference with the product. BBS, with Jack Nicholson as a virtual fourth partner (the outfit would produce his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, featuring Bruce Dern), reflected the dream of the American New Wave: to make movies that were commercial Hollywood products – films that hoped to reach an audience and turn a profit – but that were also, at the same time, serious expressions of an ambitious, personal cinema with something to say.
Five Easy Pieces was written by Carol Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) with Nicholson in mind for the leading role; she had previously written the screenplay for Monte Hellman’s existentialist western The Shooting (also featuring Nicholson) and would go on to write Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Pieces brought together a number of seventies notables including Karen Black (whose next role would be in Nicholson’s Drive; she would also appear in Born to Win, Cisco Pike, and Nashville), and Susan Anspach (Blume in Love). It was shot by Lazlo Kovacs, one of the cinematographers-in-chief of the New Hollywood.
Five Easy Pieces is best remembered for a classic counter-culture confrontation: The inspired attempt by Bobby (Nicholson) to get what he wants (a piece of toast) while conforming to the letter of the arbitrary and absurd rules imposed by society. But this shared bit of cultural nostalgia is the wrong take-away from this movie—audiences may properly cheer the rebellion, but, as Bobby himself points out moments later, he didn’t get the toast. Moreover, and more to the point, unlike his character in Easy Rider, Nicholson’s ultimate problem has nothing to do with society, rather (and representative of the “inward turn” that would increasingly characterize the 70s film), it is with himself. Bobby may treat Rayette (Black) and others with contempt, but most fundamentally he is consumed by his own self-loathing, which he is unable to shake and is inevitably his undoing. Reaching out, finally, to Catherine (Anspach), she rejects him with a devastating indictment: “I’m trying to be delicate with you, but you’re not understanding me. It’s not just because of Carl, or my music, but because of you . . . I mean, what would it come to? If a person has no love of himself, no respect, no love for his work, family, friends, something . . . How can he ask for love in return?” That speech leads Bobby – once again – to shed his skin and take flight, his only survival mechanism. But does he survive?
In retrospect, Pieces can be seen as part of an alienation trilogy, followed by The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and The Passenger (1975). Marvin Gardens, (also directed by Rafelson and shot by Kovacs, featuring Dern and Ellen Burstyn), nears its conclusion with Nicholson’s character once again delivering a heartfelt monologue that amounts to a confession of his own failings. In The Passenger, directed by New Wave Icon Michelangelo Antonioni, David (Nicholson) does Bobby one better, attempting to free himself, from himself, by stepping into the life of another. It does not end well. But it was motivated by the same despair shared by all the protagonists of these three films—when they look in the mirror, they are disappointed.
Bobby (Jack Nicholson) Invariably Treats Rayette (Karen Black) Poorly
Bobby is Dominated by Spicer in a Sexually Charged Confrontation . . .
. . . And Irretrievably Cut Down by Catherine (Susan Anspach)
Bobby, About to Shed His Skin, Yet Again