Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Written by Carole Eastman & Bob Rafelson
Directed by Bob Rafelson
The 1970s were a time of significant change and difficulty in America. It was the decade when marginalized groups throughout the United States built on momentum that started in the 1950s expanded civil rights to levels the country had never seen. There was also a lot of disillusionment within America, especially regarding the numerous institutions that had fairly regularly experienced blind devotion from the masses. Despite the recognition of women, LGBTQ people, BIPOC, and other groups, the film industry was still extremely white male-centered. As you’ll see in this series, there’s almost always a white male protagonist. I still believe the themes and sentiments of these movies apply to people who aren’t white and male, but that consistent presence does keep these pictures from sharing the diversity of voices they should have. While the media today is much more diverse on the surface level, it often comes with a catch that BIPOC or LGBTQ representatives espouse the ideals of the status quo, often presenting characteristics from the “dominant” culture; they have to be exemplary rather than just who they are.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) works in an oil field outside Bakersfield, California. He lives with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), whom he doesn’t seem to love or care for very much. He hangs out with his coworker Elton and the two drink, bowl, and philander together with women they meet around town. What Bobby tries to hide from everyone in his life is that he comes from an upper-class family of musicians and that he had the potential to become a profoundly great classical pianist. However, after Rayette gets pregnant, Bobby feels compelled to travel to his family home in Washington. He’s embarrassed at Rayette’s uncouth manners compared to his proper family and also struggling with resentments he has for his father, now paralyzed from multiple strokes. Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother’s fiancee, is Bobby’s former lover, and the two rekindle some of that flame. Bobby’s biggest problem, as outlined by Catherine, is that he hates himself and everyone else and so she can’t be with him.
Five Easy Pieces is a film about the regret of adulthood when realizing that you wasted your youth. It’s a difficult movie to get through because Nicholson’s performance is painfully honest, Bobby is a highly unlikeable protagonist, and most of your sympathy will go to the people around him. Yet, I still felt sad for him at the movie’s end. There are fragments of a warm, loving person in the husk that remains; Bobby just doesn’t understand how to hold onto those things and gets caught up in the worst aspects of his personality. He is consistently frustrating and contradictory, sometimes withdrawn but then delivering emotional outbursts, charming & funny but then suddenly spitting poison at people he’s supposed to care about. It’s such a beautiful organic performance that feels like a genuine person.
We can’t forget Karen Black, though, often overlooked because of how much scenery Nicholson can chew at times. I think Black stays toe to toe with her co-star, at first presenting Rayette as a simple-minded naive woman, but over time we see the tenderness in her heart but also her darker side, being manipulative and nasty towards Bobby. This couple is not showcasing a lot of emotional maturity, but when I think about the relationships I observed up close during my life in the States, I think most of them lack that maturity. So this relationship isn’t some strange anomaly; it’s the norm.
The most famous scene of this film is very deceptive in how Bobby is presented. He, Rayette, and a pair of hitchhikers they pick up are having lunch at a diner. Bobby wants something straightforward, but the restaurant rules are that they can’t do that. So he argues and eventually proposes an absurd order with almost everything being held to get what he wants. This scene is a beautiful example of a reasonably powerless person crying out against the system in a manner that is received as a comedy by the audience. It is hilarious, but if your only exposure to Five Easy Pieces is this scene, then you are interacting with an out-of-context piece.
This film presents itself on its own terms and doesn’t dumb things down to appeal to a broad audience. I can easily see many people feeling angry about Bobby; I would argue that the filmmakers intend that. He’s meant to be a multilayered, complex human being, same with Rayette, Catherine, and everyone else. We don’t often see movies these days playing in our local theaters that portray life as it is; instead, we’re presented with lives we’re meant to aspire to. As a result, blue-collar people and economic class conflict are pushed into obscure indie territory. If you see Bobby exhibiting gross misogyny, Nicholson and the filmmakers would agree with you that these are destructive behaviors.
The filmmakers are partly angry at Bobby, along with Catherine and others in his family, who see him squandering his gift. We understand that his rejection of being a musical performer was a response to feeling alienated. This a character caught between two worlds, unable to determine which one would bring him fulfillment. Bobby is correct in that simply conforming with the life plan his father laid out for him would be a form of spiritual suicide; he would not be living and instead be performing actions that are essentially another person’s life. It’s inauthentic living. So he aggressively rejects this planned life and also abandons his beautiful ability to play the piano.
Bobby is not meant to be a heroic figure; he’s just part of this generation that became enlightened to class consciousness and its place in the manufactured constructs of the United States. From post-WWII onward, there was a drive to shape society into a small group of influential people’s perceptions of what it should be. That repressive movement snapped in the 1970s, not entirely but enough that America was injected with a dose of revolutionary thinking.
Unfortunately, the drop-out mindset of the 1960s was a toxic response that hindered many movements from creating real permanent social change, and it’s hung like a weight on the American psyche ever since. We can see in Bobby how just disengaging is just as empty as following social order. Instead, you have to actively engage in material analysis, truly come to understand where power lies, and then find communities that can act to counter those forces. Bobby’s story is the same one experienced by so many of his generations, unmoored from what was and paralyzed from reaching other fruitful shores of human growth.