Oscar Vault Monday – Five Easy Pieces, 1970 (dir. Bob Rafelson)
This is such a fantastic film. It would be an interesting companion piece to another Nicholson film from the era – Mike Nichol‘s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Both films are sort of America’s answer to Britain’s “Angry Young Man/Kitchen Sink” dramas from a decade earlier. There are probably earlier films that fit that bill as well. What’s interesting to me is that they take a look at a new sort of angst that rose out of the sixties and has never really left – an angst that found its roots in the emerging teenager of the 50s (more on that in a bit). This is definitely one of Nicholson’s best performances and a must for any fan. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Karen Black, Best Actor Jack Nicholson, Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Airport, Love Story, MASH and winner Patton.
The title is in reference to the following pieces of classical music played in the film by various characters : Fantasy in F Minor Op. 49 by Frédéric Chopin, Chromatic fantasia and Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, Piano Concerto no. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Prelude Op. 28, No. 4, in E minor by Frédéric Chopin and Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand their importance.
One of the earliest scenes with Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea includes this fantastic reference to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. There is no doubt in my mind that this was intentional. Nicholson’s Bobby and Dean’s Jim Stark have quite a bit in common. It’s this whole idea of questioning your elders, questioning the establishment, questioning life as it has always been. It’s also about this new angst I mentioned earlier. The post-war generations found themselves in a world that was changing drastically and this film – made and set in the late-60s, early-70s – tackles this issue in several ways.
Bobby was raised in an upper-middle class family of musicians – late in the film it’s hinted that he was a child prodigy. When the film opens he is working at an oil field in California. His girlfriend is a simple, lower-class waitress; his friends are co-workers who live in a trailer park. Before you find out about Bobby’s past this doesn’t seem all that odd, given his job, etc. During a traffic jam a slightly drunk Bobby gets out, barks at a dog, yells at some drivers and then hops on the back of this truck and starts playing a very advanced piece of classical music. This is the moment when you realize there is more to Bobby than we’ve been presented.
After Bobby decides to go visit his father, who has had a stroke, we get this iconic scene at a roadside diner. The most telling part of the whole conversation I think is when the waitress tries to placate him by telling him what comes with a certain dish and Bobby replies, “Yeah, I know what it comes with, but it’s not what I want.” To me, that sums up all of Bobby’s problems. He knows what the life he lives comes with, but it’s not what he wants. Living with his family and their pretensions is not what he wants. Living with his girlfriend and her simple needs is not what he wants. I think his breakfast order in this scene is probably the only time in the movie where he really knows what he wants, and yet he can’t get it.
Which is why the end of the film packs such a wallop. I won’t say what happens for those of you who haven’t seen it, but after watching the film twice now, I’m still not sure how I feel about Bobby’s final decision. I guess that’s the point though. Although Nicholson lost the Best Actor award to George C. Scott in Patton, this was his first nomination in the category. Nicholson has been nominated for Best Actor eight times (winning twice) and Best Supporting Actor four times (winning once), making him the most nominated actor of all-time. His other nominations were for Easy Rider (supporting), The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (won), Reds (supporting), Terms of Endearment (supporting, won), Prizzi’s Honor, Ironweed, A Few Good Men (supporting), As Good As It Gets (won) and About Schmidt.
Which brings me to Karen Black as Rayette. Like I said earlier, Rayette is a simple woman with simple wants and needs. She, unlike Bobby, knows exactly what she wants always and tries very hard to get it. She’s direct about how she feels, both when she loves Bobby and when she’s hurt by his behavior towards her. She’s an interesting character because she represents the more “traditional”, for a lack of a better word, youth of America. The ones that weren’t disenfranchised by the American dream. She’s not a hippie. She’s not a radical. She just wants love and a family. She’s sweet and she’s honest, and really she deserves so much more than what Bobby can offer her. Black’s performance reminds me of Candy Clark in American Graffiti. It’s the kind of performance that gets overlooked nowadays.
I still don’t know how I feel about the character of Catherine Van Oost, though I will say Susan Anspach does a wonderful job with the role. She’s able to express so many different emotions with just the slightest changes in her facial expression. She is particularly great in the scene when Bobby plays the piano for her.
I get a kick from the hitchhikers that Bobby and Rayette pick up on their way to his father’s house. Partially because of Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) and her anti-consumerism rant and partially because her lover (or so it’s hinted) is played by Toni Basil, who is the very same Toni Basil of Oh Mickey You’re So Fine fame.
Sally Struthers has a very small but poignant role as a girl Bobby picks up in a bowling alley. She shows us a bit of the genius we all know is about to come.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about László Kovács’ stunning cinematography. Kovács has worked in Hollywood for nearly 50 years and filmed some of my favorite films (his work with Peter Bogdanovich in the 70s is particularly wonderful), yet has somehow never snagged a nomination from the Academy. That happens to a lot of great people, though, so what can you do?
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Posted on November 21, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1970, Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces, Helena Kallianiotes, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Sally Struthers, Susan Anspach, Toni Basil. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.