The solitude. Of men, sometimes women, who refused to settle on a place, a role, a “stable” identity. They walked through my life for a few years when I was a boy—carpenters, child-care workers, counselors, psychiatric patients. Some of them were my teachers.
Were they happy or sad, kind or mean? None of the above. They 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. Now, in 2010, when conformity comes in an endless array of shapes and sizes and styles, these people would be classified under “the sixties,” and then assigned one of the following subheadings: Selfish, Lost, Narcissistic, Alcoholic, Bipolar, Privileged, Disturbed, etc. But that’s not the way I remember them. Back in those days, no one categorized, celebrated, or condemned them. You just watched and listened, and read their personal dissent in their eyes, their silences, their gestures. It’s a kind of existence that is largely gone now. The people who lived it either adapted or shifted gears, stabilized or imploded. Some became realtors or contractors. One of them, the one I loved the most, took off one night and wrapped his car around an oak tree.
Five Easy Pieces was and is a great film 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—“Auspicious beginnings—you know what I mean?” Film production is a cumbersome and lengthy affair, and the finished product, no matter how good, almost always lags behind or stands apart from its moment. Occasionally, though, when the conditions allow, movie and moment are one. Like Warner Bros. at the dawn of sound or Preston Sturges at his blindingly brilliant peak, Five Easy Pieces speaks with eloquence and simplicity from and to the America of its time, from melancholy opening to ineffably sad closing shot. In 1970, it was a revelation. Today, it remains a shattering experience, in part because it contains an entire way of life within its ninety-eight minutes.
“The irresponsible behavior does not exclude a clear feeling that Nicholson is touched and perplexed by people,” wrote David Thomson so perceptively of Jack Nicholson’s terminally ambivalent Bobby Dupea. The same could not be said of The Graduate’s Benjamin or Two-Lane Blacktop’s Driver, two other famously irresolute heroes of the era, and the difference is telling. Five Easy Pieces is not a statement about America but a closely observed report. Or, perhaps, a confession. Watching the film is like being compelled to sit down with a stranger and hear the tale of an unresolved life: “I stayed for a while in Bakersfield, worked on an oil rig. My girl got pregnant. Then I went home, and that’s when things started to go wrong again. Did I tell you I come from a family of musicians . . . ?”
Touched, perplexed, and, above all, curious. What would it be like to go through life with someone who listens to Tammy Wynette when you’ve been raised on Beethoven? Or to make a living working in an oil field when you’ve been groomed for a career on the concert stage? To live as if nothing were permanent and everything were up for grabs? There has been a lot of ink spilled about the irresponsible behavior, but maybe not enough about the restlessly inquisitive nature that resorts to it to get “away from things that get bad.” Bobby Dupea and the world of his beginnings are so subtly shaded that he could have been created only by artistic temperaments similar to his own, with a shared yen to go deep into the heart of the outside world.
Bob Rafelson himself was born into the purple, as they used to say, and he left his home in Manhattan when he was young, setting off on a wayward trail that took him from theology school to breaking horses for the rodeo, drumming in a jazz band in Mexico, fulfilling his draft obligations as a DJ for an English-language station in Tokyo, subtitling for Shochiku studios, and then into TV and film production in New York and Los Angeles. Rafelson’s friendship with Nicholson had resulted in the script for his directorial debut, Head (written in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement), and in Nicholson’s showstopping performance in the Rafelson–Bert Schneider–produced, and Dennis Hopper–directed, Easy Rider. “There’s quite a portrait dead center of Easy Rider,” wrote Manny Farber of Nicholson’s George Hanson. “Practically a novel of information, this character’s whole biography is wonderfully stitched from all directions.” A compliment to writers Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern, but above all to Nicholson himself, an actor with a writer’s disposition.
Nicholson had come to Hollywood from New Jersey in the midfifties, and like a lot of young actors, he found himself taking classes with Jeff Corey. Corey had made a name for himself on the New York stage, then moved out to California in 1940, where he became a respected character actor and founded the Actors Lab. When he was blacklisted after taking the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he started to teach acting out of his house in the Hollywood Hills. Corey’s tutelage went beyond craft and technique. “I was aware of the fact that there was a lot of healthy transference,” he said of his young students, who also numbered Stanton, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Robert Blake, Irvin Kershner, Richard Chamberlain, James Coburn, Carol Burnett, Warren Oates, and a tightly knit “wild bunch” that included Monte Hellman, Roger Corman, Nicholson, Carole Eastman and her brother Charles, Dean Stockwell, and Robert Towne. “I tried to be a good influence,” said Corey. “We not only talked about acting, but in the course of the work, I might make references to Oedipus Rex or the Bible or Greek mythology or music, or sometimes I’d urge them to read poetry. It was a broadening experience.” For Nicholson, it was defining. “Acting is life study,” he said, “and Corey’s classes got me into looking at life as—I’m hesitant to say it—an artist.”
Eastman was “eerily beautiful” during those years, Towne said, with “a head shaped like a gorgeous tulip on a long stalk.” “Believe me, the first reason I was attracted to her wasn’t that she was a writer,” admitted Nicholson of the woman who would become one of his closest friends and collaborators. Eastman revealed herself to be an unusual and rarefied talent from the word go with her script for The Shooting (1967), one of two now legendary westerns Nicholson and Hellman made back-to-back (Nicholson himself wrote the twin film, 1965’s Ride in the Whirlwind). The Shooting proudly bore the mark of what was then referred to as “European influence,” and it was toward Europe that Rafelson told Eastman to look when she began to fashion, from his own drafts, what would eventually become Five Easy Pieces.
In 1970, the winds were blowing both ways across the Atlantic: Antonioni, Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy had recently come to California (Eastman worked with Demy on his “American” film, The Model Shop); Point Blank (by the British John Boorman) and Petulia (by the American expatriate Richard Lester) emulated Resnais, and Antonioni’s L’avventura and Fellini’s 8½ had become touchstones. Rafelson and his collaborators at the newly formed BBS Productions followed their European examples by divesting their movies of generic trappings and taking their inspiration from the life around them, fashioning a new and distinctly American mode of cinematic address in the process. Their cinema—which would also include Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Nicholson’s Drive, He Said, and Rafelson’s later The King of Marvin Gardens—was quietly contemplative and patiently observant of characters and places we’d seldom if ever seen from Hollywood.
Unlike the many American films, before and after, that have struggled with class distinction as an issue, Five Easy Pieces takes it as a given and sees both ends of the spectrum with clarity and calm. And unlike Michael Corleone in The Godfather, another family-dynasty film, made two years later, Bobby Dupea never goes the way of Prince Hal or the Prodigal Son. He doesn’t “come to his senses.” His ambivalence is seemingly permanent, and he is self-exiled to his own terrible purgatory, forever on the verge. 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 (all rendered so vividly by László Kovács, who also shot Easy Rider and The King of Marvin Gardens), and the blue-collar pleasures Bobby shares with Billy “Green” Bush’s Elton, Fannie Flagg’s Stoney, and Karen Black’s Rayette are as detailed as the familial in-joking and high-flown aesthetic conversations among the Dupea siblings and their guests as their silent father sits nearby. I’ve heard and read complaints about the second half of the movie, doubts over the veracity of this “elitist” family of musical prodigies—all I can say is that the people doing the complaining probably haven’t spent much time around classical musicians. Lois Smith’s Tita is a particularly fine creation—permanently adolescent, unkempt, dutiful, and abstracted, her physical approach to piano playing in the recording studio (where she is sarcastically taunted from the control room by a masterful character actor, Richard Stahl) absolutely on target, from the Gould-like humming to the hunched posture. I suppose one could argue about the “intellectuals” and their theorizing about mass culture, perhaps too heavily pointed, but by that time, the movie has generated so much quiet force that it’s not such a big deal for Bobby to knock over a couple of straw men.
It’s Nicholson’s performance, of course, that lives at the vibrant core of this movie. “At bottom, I always thought that a part of Jack was sad,” Corey once remarked. “I don’t think it’s awful to be sad. Mourning becomes Electra.” It’s an interesting comment that illuminates Nicholson’s gift for sounding the most troubled and mournful depths of his characters and hitting on a beautiful harmony. Rafelson had to argue his friend into shedding tears for the film’s greatest scene, Bobby’s lonely confession to his unresponding father at the top of a hill, written on the set by the actor. Not as instantly anthologizable as the celebrated diner scene, this is a high point in Nicholson’s and Rafelson’s careers, and in American moviemaking. Bobby’s uneasy self-reckoning merges with the surrounding quiet and with Kovács’s embrace of inclement weather, and the scene builds unassumingly to a shattering conclusion with a simple and plainspoken admission that speaks volumes—“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“There is no moral in this novel,” writes Philip K. Dick at the end of A Scanner Darkly, a kindred work from the same era. “It is not bourgeois; it does not say [the characters] were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were”—a description equally fitting for this troublingly resonant milestone. And then Dick voices a sentiment that I’m certain would strike a chord with Rafelson and Nicholson: “I myself, I am not a character in this novel; I am the novel. So, though, was our entire nation at this time.”
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. A film he directed and wrote with Martin Scorsese about Elia Kazan is forthcoming.