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Lessons from Bob Rafelson

Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson on the set of Five Easy Pieces (1970)

“The first shot is to grab the audience and the last shot is to redeem yourself,” writer, director, and producer Bob Rafelson told the Los Angeles Times’s Kristine McKenna in 1986. Rafelson, who died last week at the age of eighty-nine, often didn’t know what that redemption would look like until a day or two before he shot the final scenes of his films. Two of his best, Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)—together, they “stand as a kind of bitter eulogy diptych said over the shallow grave of American Dreamism,” writes Michael Atkinson for Sight and Sound—were shot in sequence and strayed from the screenplay long before the final crack of the clapboard.

For an outstanding profile that ran in Esquire in 2019, Josh Karp spoke not only with Rafelson but also with directors who admired his work. Wes Anderson told him that Rafelson fell “into the almost nonexistent category of the movie director who does whatever he wants,” and Francis Ford Coppola called Rafelson “one of the most important cinematic artists of his era.” Though Rafelson carried on working into the early 2000s, the era Coppola clearly had in mind was the late 1960s and 1970s.

BBS Productions, cofounded by Rafelson and producers Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, was a “trailblazing company that doubled as a cool-kid clubhouse for what was also called the American New Wave,” writes Dennis Lim in the New York Times, and it “remains today a romanticized symbol of the freedom once permissible at the edges of Hollywood.” In rapid succession, BBS produced Dennis Hooper’s Easy Rider (1969), a counterculture western with hippies on bikes in place of cowboys on horses; Rafelson’s own Five Easy Pieces, with Jack Nicholson as an aimless piano prodigy working the oil fields of southern California; and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), a bleak black-and-white portrait of a dying town in Texas.

Bogdanovich told Karp he didn’t know anyone else who would have taken the risk. “With an average budget of around one million dollars (about $7 million in today’s dollars), each of those films lacks a traditional story line, a happy ending, a hero, and an established movie star,” wrote Karp. “But collectively, they earned fourteen Oscar nominations and an estimated $100 million at the box office, capturing the mood of the largest generation in history.” As Ty Burr notes, every BBS production rolled out according to a “long-term game plan of changing the movie business not by being the right people to make the movies but by being in a position of power to hire the right people.”

Growing up in Manhattan as the son of a well-to-do hat ribbon manufacturer and an alcoholic mother, Rafelson set out early, spending his teens riding in a rodeo—and breaking a few bones—in Arizona and playing in a band in Acapulco. He kept notes on the mischief he and his bandmates got up to, and by the time he arrived in Hollywood, where he found work first as a story editor on the television anthology series The Play of the Week and then as an associate producer, he had an idea for a sitcom. The success of Richard Lester’s Beatles vehicle A Hard Day’s Night (1964) made it feasible.

He met Schneider while working at Screen Gems, and the two of them founded the BBS precursor Raybert Productions. They auditioned hundreds of actors, including Stephen Stills but not—contrary to urban legend—Charles Manson. Drummer Micky Dolenz, cute Brit Davy Jones, the genuinely talented Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork, the quiet one, became the Monkees. Music supervisor Don Kirshner hired some of the finest songwriters in the land, including Carole King and Neil Diamond, and the Prefab Four eventually sold more than seventy-five million records worldwide.

The show itself, exhilaratingly paced and often delightfully nonsensical, ran for just two seasons, but from the fall of 1966 to the spring of 1968, it was a pop sensation, scoring two Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series. “The average number of set-ups for a television show would be twenty to twenty-five a day,” Rafelson told John Russell Taylor in a 1976 issue of Sight and Sound. “I brought the production crew together and said, ‘Look, we will not travel the customary teamster vans and all the equipment—we’ll do this on the run.’ The first day that I shot I made 125 setups.” Dolenz, the sole surviving member of the Monkees, tells Variety’s A. D. Amorosi that “Bob was always the one that I looked to for the creative input, the vision.”

As a kid, Rafelson thought you had to be some sort of “genius” to become a movie director, so he decided that the job was simply out of reach. He did look up, though, to his older first cousin, Samson Raphaelson, a screenwriter who had worked with Ernst Lubitsch on Trouble in Paradise (1932) and with Alfred Hitchcock on Suspicion (1941). “Samson took an interest in my work,” Rafelson told David Thomson in a 2012 Sight and Sound interview. “If he liked a picture, then I was his favorite nephew. But if he didn’t like it, I was a distant cousin! The film he liked the most, if you can believe it, was Head!”

In Head (1968), Rafelson’s first feature, the Monkees blow their image to smithereens. Sprinkled with cameos from Frank Zappa, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, a young Teri Garr, boxer Sonny Liston, and stripper Carol Doda, Head is “1968 in an acid tab,” wrote Chuck Stephens in 2010. “Lost somewhere between wartime agonies and freewheeling love-in, it’s time in capsule form, history as hopheaded high jinks and hilarious pop-cult aggression, a fearless exposé—and a perverse sort of celebration—of the commodification of the Monkees, the Ulysses of a hip New Hollywood about to be born.”

Rafelson figured he might not ever get the chance to make another movie, “so I might as well make fifty to start out with and put them all in the same feature,” he told Taylor. “I was in a sense emulating or satirizing the styles of various American pictures. There’s a Golden Boy episode, a desert episode, a harem dance number; the French immediately picked up the scene where Davy Jones dances in white on a black set and in black on a white set, and I intercut the two, as being a tribute to Vincente Minnelli.” Quentin Tarantino “told me it was in his top five favorite films,” says Dolenz. “Edgar Wright, too.”

Rafelson wrote Head with Jack Nicholson, whose acting career was floundering to such a degree that he was considering sticking to writing and directing. But as Rafelson watched Nicholson act out lines of dialogue as they wrote the screenplay while smoking weed in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement, he decided he could make Nicholson a star. He often joked that he was jealous of Dennis Hopper for beating him to it with Easy Rider. Nicholson plays a lawyer who chucks it all to hit the road with Hopper’s Billy and Peter Fonda’s Wyatt, and at one point, he muses, “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” That, suggested J. Hoberman in 2010, “was nothing less than the BBS motto.”

Easy Rider was a game-changing hit. BBS struck a six-film deal with Columbia Pictures, which gave them free rein for a fifty-percent cut of the profits. Rafelson was working on two screenplays and getting nowhere, so he handed his pages to Carole Eastman, who was writing at the time under the name Adrien Joyce. Together, they came up with Five Easy Pieces. “Like Warner Bros. at the dawn of sound,” wrote Kent Jones in 2010, “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.”

Turning his back on his well-heeled family, Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea heads off to mingle with the working class in search of meaning and sex. The echoes of Rafelson’s youth are unmistakable; half of Nicholson’s wardrobe comes from Rafelson’s own closet. Cinematographer László Kovács “lavished his attention on the bowling alleys, trailer parks, gas stations, diners, and cheap motels that, however familiar from Robert Frank’s midfifties photographs, had rarely been seen in American movies,” wrote Hoberman. Five Easy Pieces, which Ty Burr calls “one of the greatest, smartest, saddest movies ever made in this country,” was nominated for four Oscars—Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), and Supporting Actress (Karen Black)—and swept the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

For Peter Tonguette, writing in Sight and Sound, “Rafelson’s greatest film is also, without question, his quietest: the 1972 drama The King of Marvin Gardens.” Bruce Dern plays a brash con man in Atlantic City, while Nicholson is cast against type as his brother, an introverted late-night radio talk show host. “Jack suffers like all other movie stars, in that people want him to repeat what it is that the audience adores about him, a kind of rapscallion nature,” Rafelson told Howard Feinstein in a 1997 Los Angeles Times interview. “I suppose one of the reasons why we tend to collaborate is because I say, ‘Let’s try something better, let’s try something different, let’s not have you play the same kind of guy.’”

Rafelson had hosted his own radio talk show when the Army shipped him to Japan right after college. While there, he translated subtitles, worked as an advisor to the production and distribution company Shochiku, and developed an undying admiration for the films of Yasujiro Ozu. “In Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, the style was such that in the exteriors the camera was, with maybe one or two exceptions, totally static the whole time, much the way that Ozu is totally static in many of his films,” he told Taylor.

Writing about Marvin Gardens in 2010, Mark Le Fanu observed that Rafelson “knows exactly how to mount a scene, to move seamlessly from medium shot to close-up, or to hold on a particular framing for emphasis; nor does he forget to provide us, when necessary, with those little, but vital, silent inserts (what the French call temps morts) that go to make a film’s cadence and thoughtfulness.” But Marvin Gardens fared poorly at the box office, and by this point, Schneider’s attention was shifting from movies to politics. BBS produced one more film, Hearts and Minds (1974), Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning documentary on the Vietnam War, before everyone walked away.

Rafelson spent a year in Africa researching a film about the slave trade that never got off the ground before he settled down with Charles Gaines to freely adapt the latter’s 1972 novel about a wealthy southerner who needs to buy a gym if he’s going to close a shady real estate deal. Stay Hungry (1976) starred Jeff Bridges and gave a boost to the careers of Sally Field, who at the time was still primarily known as The Flying Nun, and a young bodybuilder from Austria by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1981, working from David Mamet’s first screenplay, Rafelson directed an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice that hewed much closer to James M. Cain’s 1934 novel than Tay Garnett’s 1946 version with Lana Turner and John Garfield. Jessica Lange, written off by critics following her debut in Dino De Laurentiis’s production of King Kong (1976), revived her career with erotic flare, her Cora Smith surrendering to her passion for Nicholson’s Frank Chambers. Josh Karp notes that, when he saw it for the first time, Nicholson excitedly declared to Rafelson that “this picture is gonna get me laid for the next ten years.”

Black Widow (1987) is a noirish thriller that pits Debra Winger’s agent for the Department of Justice against Theresa Russell’s Catharine, who has been marrying and murdering a string of wealthy men. In 1990, Rafelson finally got to realize a project he’d dreamt of for years. Mountains of the Moon tracks an expedition in the 1850s, the search for the source of the Nile River led by Richard Francis Burton, one of Rafelson’s childhood heroes, and John Hanning Speke. “The movie is about the unquenchable compulsion of some men to see what is beyond the horizon, and about the hunger for glory,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It is a tribute to this movie that, at the end, neither the filmmakers nor their audience have much interest in whether anyone found the source of the Nile.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever made a movie that could be defined as a specific type of film,” Rafelson told Kristine McKenna. “Character is the thing that interests me.” Peter Tonguette contends that Rafelson was “drawn to characters who vacillated between states of discontent and anger, and nearly every movie he ever made had, at its center, a scene with something of the quality of a spontaneous combustion.”

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