Movies That Rule: Five Easy Pieces (1970)
We’ve just seen this man, handsome, rugged, probably 30 or 31 years old, degrade his girlfriend, a woman who truly loves him, because she’s a terrible bowler. She throws a strike on the last frame of a “losing game,” and though there’s anger seething beneath his eyes about this trivial happening, he cuts her down with quick verbal jabs instead of blowing his top. But that’s not enough. He must turn to two younger women behind him and openly flirt in the company of his loyal girlfriend. She gets up and walks away, without getting that angry.
But then, as the flirtation ends, the camera studies his face for about 30 seconds (as it often does in Five Easy Pieces), and we, the audience, see a seriously pensive man who shows nothing but dissatisfaction. The shot stays eerily still, regarding the subject the way a psychiatrist might eye-up his patient before asking him “Where do you think this hostility comes from?” After spending 96 minutes with this character, we can deduce that, while he might be in need of major psychotherapy, five or ten years on the couch would do little to change his disposition.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the best films to come out between 1966 and 1979, what many call the heyday for American cinema. It easily stands in such esteemed company as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nashville, Taxi Driver, and the like. It also introduced us to Jack Nicholson as not just a great actor, but a something more like a major force, a guy who descended upon each and every picture he starred in with an intensity that rivaled an erupting volcano. Though he was absolutely brilliant as drunk lawyer George Hanson in his Easy Rider supporting turn, this film proved that Nicholson had the chops to carry an entire movie on his own. He is twisted and unpredictable, going from thoughtful to batshit-crazy in just seconds. (And in those circumstances, I find myself giggling hysterically.) We get a lot of that in Five Easy Pieces, and the world’s a better place because of it.
Bobby Dupea (in what I think could be Nicholson’s strongest performance) is the seemingly average guy who refuses to commit to anything. He cheats on his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), drinks too much, and works in Southern California oil fields all day with his buddy Elton. He’s a blue-collar worker, the subject of countless country tunes penned by the likes of Bakersfield legends Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
He gets angry at her for trying to force him into marriage, but always smooth talks his way out of the predicament when she threatens to leave him. Early on, when he comes home to his abode, six-pack in hand, she says, over a famous Tammy Wynette tune “You are never satisfied.” His reply: “That’s right.” If nothing else, Bobby seems brutally honest—she might be too dumb to understand it, but he’s made it clear to her that what they have is a glorified fling.
The girl, Rayette, loves him dearly. She is a diner waitress, attractive in that specific way—pouty lips, too much make-up, loveable and remarkably dense. In the first half-hour, we see more examples of how Bobby doesn’t respect her, much less love her. But he does need her, at least for the time being. He keeps going back to her, bullshitting his way out of rude flirtations and nights spent with other women. Because she wants to believe he’s a good, loving person, she always takes him back, thinking that this affair might be his last, and that he might finally settle down.
Bobby has an undefined past though, making him all the more enigmatic through the first half-hour. In the first third of the film, we catch only glimpses of what might be in his past, not in flashbacks, but through subtle foreshadowing. The most telling scene: as he sits in the middle of an oil field with Elton eating lunch, his best friend informs him that Rayette is pregnant. Elton (who has a son) makes the mistake of equating his life with Bobby’s which, at this point, seems completely apt—they’re both half broke, living in trailers, getting wasted all the time, and can’t be faithful. But Bobby doesn’t see things that way and has a massive outburst:
I’m sitting here, listening to some cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine. Keep on telling me about the good life, because it makes me wanna puke!
Finding out that Rayette is pregnant clearly scares Bobby, considering her can barely commit to her, much less clothe and feed a newborn. We saw earlier that, when Stoney, Elton’s wife, hands their kid over to Bobby, he looks downright terrified. But, why would Bobby call Elton a cracker? Or make fun of his trailer? Bobby’s no dummy like Elton, but he’s not exactly a world-class innovator either.
But, again, there’s an earlier scene, a great one, that makes a little more sense when viewed in this context.
Bobby and Elton are sitting on a massively jammed freeway driving into work, passing a pint of Jim Beam back and forth, laughing, playing guitar, and bitching about the traffic jam. When people start honking their horns, though, Bobby loses his shit. “Why don’tcha flash your lights so we can all see what’cha got for Christmas?!” he screams out the window. The hazy red-orange sunrise beats down on everyone and Bobby, in a split second, goes totally postal. And anyone knows that watching Jack Nicholson go completely bug-fuck is something to treasure (at this point, his zaniness is only warming up).
He hops out of his Chevy and starts strutting among the cars on the freeway, barking loudly at a dog in an approaching car, and yelling random insults into the early-day air. Finally, he climbs up on a flatbed truck, uncovers a piano, and starts slamming away at the keys in a tone so ferocious it might scare the gun-toting Jerry Lee Lewis. The truck quickly switches lanes, and while Elton tries to get his attention, Bobby just pounds on. The sound’s angry and aggressive, but it sure as shit ain’t rock n’ roll. We’re surprised later to find that he’s a gifted pianist, but think very little of it at the time.
But, both scenes are the set-up for the film’s transition.
Bobby, after nailing one of the broads he met in the bowling alley, gets a call from his sister (Lois Smith)—his father’s just had a second massive stroke and probably doesn’t have much longer to live. His sister, like Rayette, is a woman who seems to love him unconditionally. With some cajoling, she gets Bobby to come back to the family estate in upstate Washington to see his dad one last time.
While he agrees to make the trip up north to visit his intensely cultured family, he’s terrified of bringing his down-home girlfriend Rayette along. This point of conflict is represented by another absolutely brilliant Nicholson freak-out—he gets in his car after telling Ray that he never thought things would last between them. He walks out with his suitcase, her crying over another Tammy Wynette record, and jumps into his car. At first, he sort of pats the steering wheel and calmly adjusts his mirrors. Then it escalates: he starts yelling quietly, slamming his fists into the steering wheel and roof of his beater, and lurching back and forth in his seat like he’s having a seizure. After all of this “deliberation,” he runs back inside; the next scene we see is the both of them cruising down the highway toward his father’s compound in the Pacific Northwest. The camera again focuses on Bobby, his thoughtful yet hostile face taking precedence over the Rayette’s goofy smile.
Along the way, Bobby and Rayette pick up two women hitching on the side of the road, one sitting quietly in the backseat chaining cigarettes, and the other pontificating endlessly about all the “crap” in the world. They provide the comic relief in the film: they hop in the car with a sewing machine, make fun of Rayette for saying some hilariously dumb things, and antagonize Bobby to no end. Watching his quiet exasperation, you can’t help but crack up.
This segment reminds you of the short, but important part in Easy Rider where Captain America and Billy pick up a hitchhiker who is only trying to make his way back to his bizarre commune. Those scenes, while they paled in comparison to those with George Hanson (who, as played by Nicholson, seemed to be a comedian of sorts), serve as down-time. But the road trip does give us the most memorable scene in Five Easy Pieces—what many call the “Chicken Salad” scene. Because the restaurant they stop at has a “no substitutions” policy, Bobby can’t get an order of wheat toast with his omelet. Being a relatively sharp guy, he hilariously improvises.
Bobby: I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.
At this point, Bobby throws every single plate and glass on the table straight to the ground in one fell swoop. When he drops that last line, you’re kind of shocked. Again, he is direct, and without swearing or going into too much detail, he elicits laughter. Miraculously, after a few short moments, he gains control of himself in the car. When the one woman calls his actions “fantastic,” he dismisses his acts, stating that he didn’t get what he wanted anyway.
(This scene should be on the best of Jack Nicholson LP along with the “here’s to the first of the day fellas” drinking sesh and the “Freedom” speech in Easy Rider; the “Now Affection is Contempt” scene in Carnal Knowledge; and pretty much any scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Departed.)
The film’s exceptionally frank dialogue is no surprise when the road trip’s said and done. But, there are two noticeable changes: one in the cinematography (shot by the incredible Lazslo Kovacs), and another in Bobby Dupea’s speech patterns. During the opening forty minutes, before Bobby beats up a couple of cops trying to arrest Elton out in the middle of the oil fields, the action is oftentimes accented by warmer colors—oranges, reds, yellows. And even when those colors are mostly absent, we see the desolate browns and tans of oil fields with a sunset straining to come through.
These early parts contrast with the later sections of the film where Bobby visits his family—the southwestern colors are replaced with muted blues, grays, and dark greens. The landscape may appear more lush, but the hopelessness of Bobby’s life is always apparent. The sky’s no longer blocked by dust, but by clouds, so you feel melancholy almost every second. The desolation of the oil fields is, rather quickly, replaced with something sadder—there’s a noticeable tinge of the idea that “you can’t go home again.”
When Bobby’s around his family, there’s another major transition: the way he talks. After watching him use a faux-hillbilly accent with his buddy Elton, it’s interesting to see him measure his words more carefully when speaking to his sister, brother, and his brother’s live-in fiancé (Susan Anspach).
As Bobby sits in his hotel room the night before he moves forward to see his family, we see the same look on his face as we did in the bowling alley: thoughtful displeasure. Rayette tries to coax him out of this meditation, but he just keeps starting, ignoring her words and advances. Then they make love. The next morning, he leaves, telling her he’ll call in a couple of days, though we’re certain he’s going to do everything in his power to avoid talking to her, maybe for the rest of his life.
Free from Rayette and Elton, two major characters at the beginning, Bobby beings to reinvent himself to fit in with his hyper-intellectual family. He sits at dinner with them the first night, his father unable to speak, and eats quietly with the rest of his family. They talk about music and why he left such a beautiful home. But it seems music isn’t something he much likes to discuss, and he dismisses the subject by acting out, going nuts like he did on the interstate earlier. Even though Bobby played for a short while in Vegas (not classical music), he does everything in his power to alienate the people at the table. He quietly describes his work, but eventually gets wrapped up in the showmanship of working in Vegas and really starts to ham it up by banging on the table and singing obnoxiously. Bobby is mannered one second, then goes crazy the next; in this case, his anger seems calculated, as though he uses crazy antics to put more and more space between himself and those around him.
Even the scenes with his snobbish brother’s very attractive fiancé show that he’s incapable of anything resembling a relationship. He tries flirting with her, and it’s funny to watch him use his “direct” method of conversation on her. Trying to woo her, Bobby condescendingly tells her that there’s “nothing” to do in upstate Washington even though he can tell the woman enjoys her life there.
Later, in a touching scene, she asks Bobby to play something on the piano. He chooses a quiet, simple Chopin piece (Representative of Bobby himself? I won’t get into it.), and the camera slowly scans over childhood pictures, memories, and a variety of musical instruments. Finally, it rests on the woman’s face for the concluding notes, and as Bobby finishes, she tells him, truthfully, that what he played was beautiful.
In a lesser movie, this scene would be a phony turning point—Bobby would realize that he was wasting his gift, and we’d watch him turn his life around in montage-format with “Solsbury Hill” playing in the background. But in Five Easy Pieces, a movie driven by intelligent, introspective dialogue and realistic character development, we get what would truthfully happen—a complete lack of an emotional response. What does he feel after playing something so wonderful? Not a fucking thing. He played it better when he was eight years old.
When they sleep together just a few short moments after it, we’re not sure why. While Bobby maintains that, “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big reaction” (great line), and then has another outburst about her lifestyle (a life he clearly resents), they’re drawn to each other in passion. The only explanation, I guess, is that she was really moved by his playing, or that his bluntness is a turn-on for her. (Of course, it’s no surprise later when the woman refuses to leave his brother to go with him.)
In a few short scenes, everything goes from bad to horrid for Bobby Dupea. Rayette, after being stuck in a hotel room for almost two weeks, unexpectedly appears at the family house. She obviously doesn’t fit in with his family or his brother’s insanely loquacious friends who only find pleasure debating abstract philosophical topics, sneering at the concept of “love” and thoughtfully smoking.
Watching this scene, we can probably best understand Bobby’s reasons for leaving. We’ve all been stuck in conversations with people like this before (they never shut the hell up), and realize that he probably had to deal with them on a daily basis. After a particularly self-absorbed woman makes a disdainful remark at one of Rayette’s dim-witted observations about modern life, Bobby comes to her rescue, insults the woman (he calls her a “pompous celibate”—God, the dialogue is good) and tells everyone they’re completely full of shit. Even if he doesn’t love Rayette, he’ll defend her, probably because that’s exactly what he thought of everyone in his family before he left and ended up working out in the desert.
But Bobby simply goes through life telling people that they’re full of shit; it’s his way of distancing himself from everyone. While he yells at Elton for comparing his blue-collar lifestyle to his own, he bitches at these intellectuals for being too talky and self-absorbed. Redemption is impossible, and he’ll walk out on everyone in the same way he abandoned his family. He will never grow to enjoy Rayette’s offer of unconditional love, he will never make amends with his brother and father, and he’ll probably end up disappearing again, making new friends, only to find that they’re full of shit too. He finds fault with anyone and everyone; he’s never satisfied.
Making one last stab at getting his brother’s fiancé to come with him is even a half-hearted attempt. He knows that, even if she did come with him, he’d be unsatisfied and leave her at some point. Even before she says anything, it’s obvious he won’t put up a fight when she inevitably tells him off. And it would be foolish for her to give up music to leave with a man who feels nothing about the thing she cherishes the most. She remarks:
You’re a strange person, Robert. I mean, what will you come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something – how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?
When Bobby finally sits down to talk to his dying father, he is, as usual, direct, but we finally see shreds of emotion peaking through. This is a wonderfully filmed and written scene that is one of the best I have ever seen in any movie. It does end with probably the only honest-to-God apology Bobby Dupea will make for the rest of his life. His last words, about playing the piano: “We both know that I was never really that good at it anyway…” Even watching his father’s face, that of a dying man, we can see the faintest hint of disapproval in his eyes.
As he leaves his family behind with Rayette, we can sense that the two of them have absolutely no future together. She tries to kiss him on the ride back, showing her undying affection, but he callously shoves her away. As they pull up to a truck stop, he jumps into the bathroom, and we catch the final glimpse of Bobby Dupea. He fittingly stares at himself in the mirror for a few moments, symbolically washes his hands, and exits. The final shot, one of a Gulf station along a mostly abandoned highway at dusk, holds endlessly as the cars pass by intermittently, and trucks pull in and out. The pine tree-lined roadway stretches into the horizon. And Bobby Dupea will go north, probably to disappear into further obscurity.