Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Susan Anspach
Fuck. Five Easy Pieces is awesome! I don’t even know where to begin.
Let’s start with Jack. His character, Robert Eroica Dupea, isn’t heroic. In fact, his character has very little character. But he has a whole lot of charm, and that comes from Nicholson. The man can make us love a character even if that character is a big piece of shit. That’s talent. If Nicholson wasn’t awarded the Oscar the year this came out, then who was? Let me Google it…Patton! Well, all right. I guess so. Patton was an asshole too. But George C. Scott made us love him.
And there we have it. Both actors achieve impressive feats by experiencing, and thus allowing us to deeply empathize with, what these characters —these individuals —experience. When Robert Eroica Dupea spits out his sandwich and tosses his coffee after his friend, Elton (Billy Green Bush), suggests Robert make an honest woman of his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), we can feel the fear and immaturity behind his overreaction. We feel his vulnerability. Nicholson so persuasively inhabits his role that he can deliver subtext directly into our heads and our hearts. That’s acting, my friends. Great acting.
Five Easy Pieces was directed and co-written by Bob Rafelson. Apparently, this dude also co-created The Monkees, which was a smash hit that later crash landed. After it did, he went on to produce Easy Rider and kickstart New American Cinema. Not bad, Bob. Not bad at all. Then he and Jack go and make Five Easy Pieces, a cinema verité retelling of the prodigal son. Except when Robert returns home to the moody state of Washington, he wasn’t ready to repent, and his father, Nicholas Dupea (William Challee), had suffered multiple strokes and couldn’t utter any words or signs of forgiveness. The problem for Robert is he doesn’t fit in anywhere, and he’s always on the move. He “gets away from things that get bad if [he] stays.” He slums it with the working class but feels above them. He dates a diner waitress but can’t stand her taste in music. All he does is drink and hate. Rafelson brilliantly builds a portrait of this cornered soul by creating scene after scene where Robert is confronted with situations that require him to do what’s right. For Robert, that ain’t easy, and he usually reverts to his M.O. – being an asshole. Five Easy Pieces continually challenges us to do one difficult thing: heed Ms. Tammy Wynette’s plea and “stand by this man.”
Speaking of Tammy Wynette, that’s another great thing about this film: it comes with a great soundtrack. What stronger contrast could there be than between Tammy and the classical piano that figures prominently in the film? Rafelson and his team whipped this oil and water together into a deep-felt emulsion of sound. Wynette’s performance of the now classic “Stand by Your Man” is stunning. Her upper register is a powerful blend of opera and Appalachia. She pulls so much emotion out of every phrase, and when she cries out “Stand by your man,” you know she means it. The same is true of Pearl Kaufman’s performances of Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor or Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, or from the film’s famous freeway scene, Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor. So sophisticated is Pearl’s touch, that she too draws tremendous amounts of emotion from every phrase. I love this soundtrack. The combination is unexpectedly beautiful.
The other unexpected aspect of this film is how much I found myself loving it. Everything about it: the story, the performances, the lighting, editing, camerawork, and set design. Rafelson and his crew crafted a compelling piece of artistry. One scene in particular highlights this craftsmanship. A simple shot/reverse-shot that is so elegantly framed, focused, and lit it left me speechless. Closeups aren’t overused in this film, and that makes this scene all the more powerful. The lighting, the lenses, and camera angles… they all work in concert to elevate the extraordinary depth of feeling each actor conveys. I won’t tell you what scene it is. I’ll just implore you: whatever you have to do to view this masterpiece, download it or dig through used DVDs at a thrift store, do it. It’s easy. And well worth your time.
This film is undoubtedly CINEMATIC SUPREME.