By 1970, the sixties may have been over, but the youth of America was still riding the crest of the Woodstock Festival into the new decade. 1969 gave us Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, Charles Manson directing his followers to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders, Senator Edward Kennedy driving his car off a bridge, disclosure of the My Lei massacre, American troops bombing Cambodia, and American cinema celebrating the life of the hippie with Easy Rider. 1970 seemed an extension of the same year as the Chicago Seven were convicted of conspiracy to riot, National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University, and American cinema celebrated the restlessness of the new middle class in Five Easy Pieces.
Five Easy Pieces is the ultimate road movie, a relaxed masterpiece, a film of laid-back innovation that hasn’t aged one iota since its original release. There’s no particular dramatic impetus in Five Easy Pieces, just a journey from nowhere to nowhere, featuring a new actor who grabbed the attention of the film-going public and who hasn’t let go yet. Before Jack Nicholson turned into Mr. Over-the-Top, he was an actor of supreme subtlety and nuance. After several unremarkable appearances in Roger Corman films and a couple of existential westerns, Nicholson finally demanded some attention through a small role in Easy Rider, a part he got only after Rip Torn dropped out of the film. He played a straight-laced lawyer who gets turned on by two biker drug dealers played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. It earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1969, which turned into a nomination for Best Actor the next year for Five Easy Pieces.
In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, an oil rig worker in Los Angeles whose life is going nowhere. He lives in a world of lower-class people, day laborers, waitresses, bowlers, poker players, etc. There’s nothing extraordinary about these individuals; in fact they’re so damned commonplace that it’s extraordinary that anyone decided to make a movie about them. But somehow we’re attracted to Dupea, which is no easy feat considering the way he treats people, especially his girlfriend, played by Karen Black with her patented form of vacuousness.
She’ll do anything he tells her to do as long as he tells her that he loves her, which we know he will never do. But she still does whatever he tells her to do, which frustrates him even more. When she flat out asks him if he loves her, he says, “What do you think?” Bobby is a very good liar. After his best friend is surprisingly taken away by the FBI, Bobby decides to drive to Seattle to visit his sick father. Not that he particularly cares; it’s just something to do. Dupea isn’t running from anything or to anything; he’s just running, and taking advantage of every situation he possibly can. Obviously he will never be satisfied. He’s burdened with the overriding belief that there’s got to be something better than this, and he confuses a quest for freedom with an inability to commit. “My character in Five Easy Pieces was written by a woman (Adrien Joyce) who knew me very well,” Nicholson said years later. “I was playing it as an allegory of my own career.” In this film, Nicholson plays out one of the all-time classic scenes in American cinema. Dupea finds himself beating his head up against the establishment, personified by a waitress who is just doing her job. It’s impossible to imagine anyone not identifying with this ridiculously funny attempt to simply get some toast. Who hasn’t been stymied by a bureaucrat? Who hasn’t wanted to knock over all the dishes on the table? With that one sweep of his arm, Nicholson becomes everyone’s favorite iconoclast.
Considering the background of the filmmakers, Five Easy Pieces displays a surprisingly sophisticated view of simple country western mentality. Bob Rafelson was born in New York City, and he spent his teens doing an odd variety of jobs, from rodeo worker to playing drums and bass for a jazz combo. He eventually became a TV writer, adapting stage productions for The Play of the Week, which led to his creating The Monkees TV show along with Paul Mazursky. Though the show was denounced by critics as a piece of calculated nonsense, Rafelson redeemed himself after the show was off the air by sending up the Monkees in a brilliantly satirical and anarchistic film called Head (1968), which he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced with Jack Nicholson. Who would have guessed that two years later, this creative team would have conceived such a thoroughly adult and refined film as Five Easy Pieces. Both critics and audiences agreed that the film was something special. As usual, Pauline Kael put it best, and longest. “It’s a striking movie,” she said, “eloquent, important, written and improvised in a clear-hearted American idiom that derives from no other civilization, and describing as if for the first time the nature of the familiar American man who feels he has to keep running because the only good is momentum.”In the end, Dupea is still on a journey, an oil rig worker on his way to Alaska for no reason at all. It’s an easy way out, and it seems the perfect vague ending, but hindsight gives the scene a strange psychic twist. How could he, how could anyone have known, that the U.S. was about to embark on one of the largest oil construction projects ever attempted, the Trans-Alaskan Project, completed in 1977? Bobby actually made the perfect move. He’s on his way to a gold mine.