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Jack Nicholson’s Defining Role (Five Easy Pieces)

Earlier this month, Radar Online started a fire when it ran an article stating that Jack Nicholson had quietly retired from acting due to memory issues. http://radaronline.com/exclusives/2013/09/hollywood-legend-jack-nicholson-retires-from-acting/

Although the article was quickly debunked by mainstream media sources like Maria Shriver, Nicholson’s three years-and-counting absence from simply appearing in a movie at least indicates the presence of smoke to Radar Online’s incendiary claim.  Given that Nicholson is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest movie stars of all time, it got me to thinking: What is his quintessential role?  Determining this isn’t easy, as by my calculations, starting with his breakthrough in 1969’s classic Easy Rider, Nicholson has starred in or played a significant part in an eye-popping fifteen films meriting a rating of two-and-a-half or three guys (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, The Shining, Reds, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Ironweed, Batman, A Few Good Men, Blood and Wine, As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt), with Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest widely regarded as two the greatest movies ever made with his performances equally legendary.  But it was Nicholson’s turn in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces which takes the prize for me.

Five Easy Pieces

Directed by: Bob Rafelson
Written By: Carole Eastman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black
Reviewed by: Sean Daly

Five Easy Pieces was Nicholson’s first starring role in a feature film.  The movie was written by Carole Joyce and directed by Bob Rafelson, with whom Nicholson would team with on four more films (The King of Marvin Gardens, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Man Trouble, Blood and Wine).  Nicholson plays Robert “Bobby” Eroica Dupea, a gifted pianist from a wealthy family of classical musicians who chooses to reject his talents and class status in order to be a drifter, picking up work on oil rigs in California and shacking up with Rayette (a phenomenal Karen Black), a ditsy waitress and singer wannabe whom Bobby alternatively treats horribly and nurtures.  The dynamic of their relationship consists largely of the far more intelligent Bobby ridiculing Rayette about every little thing until she sticks up for herself by crying and threatening to kill herself, evoking both sympathy and a sense of satisfaction within the often-cruel Bobby.  If such mental abuse feels cringe-inducing in its similarity to real life relationships you have observed or even experienced first-hand, it’s because it is. The courage of the actors and Rafelson to make the two main characters so deeply flawed (i.e. real) is difficult to imagine in today’s vanilla movie world.  Equally unimaginable is the skill displayed by Nicholson to make such a prick somebody the audience still cares about.

Bobby and Rayette enjoy hanging out with another couple, fellow oil rig worker Elton (Billy Green Bush, an actor with an extremely unique laugh) and his girlfriend Stoney (Fannie Flagg).  We first learn of Bobby’s musical prowess during a hilarious freeway traffic jam, when he jumps out of Elton’s truck and onto the back of another one transporting a piano. It’s the first of many scenes Nicholson absolutely crushes, hilariously mocking societal norms and our collective misplaced priorities in the process.  Bobby and Elton drink lots of beer and frolic with local bowling alley goddesses (one of whom is played by Sally Struthers).   But they, too, are from different worlds, something extremely apparent by Bobby’s blatant discomfort when he and Rayette visit Elton and Stoney’s trailer and toddler son.

Not surprisingly, Bobby isn’t exactly a paternal soul, making it quite awkward when he learns of Rayette’s pregnancy from Elton.  Our anti-hero becomes enraged and seeks to escape his situation, transforming into upper-class Robert, complete with a suit and tie, while visiting his seemingly meek sister Partita (Lois Smith, another standout) at a recording studio.  Here we see a different side of Bobby/Robert—that of the caring big brother, a facet of the character Nicholson also crushes. The relationship between Bobby and Partita resembles that of Holden Caulfield and his younger sister Phoebe in The Catcher in the Rye, hardly the only part of the movie evoking J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece coming-of-age novel.  Partita informs Bobby that their father Nicholas (William Challee, tasked with playing a key character without any lines) has had two strokes and asks him to return home to Washington to visit, where he has not been in three years. Bobby is reluctant but can now rationalize leaving Rayette behind. That is to say, until he displays a conscience for the first time in the movie and decides to let her at least come along with him for part of the drive north.

At this point, the movie takes on a decidedly quirkier tone, with Nicholson playing largely the straight man to a number of strange characters, particularly a pair of cleanliness-obsessed hitchhikers (played by one-hit wonder singer Toni Basil of Mickey fame and Helena Kallianiotes, who should have received a Best Supporting Actress nomination) headed to Alaska.   After leaving Rayette in a middle of nowhere motel to await his return, Bobby arrives at his family’s island mansion, a place populated by more oddballs.  Aside from Partita and his father, there is his brother Carl, whose cello playing and ping pong skills have taken a great hit following a bike accident that has left him in a neck brace permanently.  Also present is Spicer, the father’s non-verbal, weight lifting caretaker to whom Partita is attracted (“He was once a sailor; sailors are sadistic,” she notes lustfully). Finally, there is Catherine, Carl’s attractive, piano playing wife who shares an instant spark with Bobby.  Catherine is clearly bored by her life, a feeling understood very well by the restless Bobby.  She convinces him to play piano for her while he seduces her.  Bobby seems to fall for Catherine but his plans to be with her are thwarted when Rayette suddenly shows up.

Bobby is not happy to see his girlfriend but defends her vehemently against what he perceives as snobbery during a roundtable conversation, referring to everyone present as “full of shit.” He is further agitated when Catherine ultimately rejects him, storming off with Rayette but not before a touching encounter with his father that Nicholson, yet again, acts the hell out of.  It is during this scene we learn what we have come to suspect: like Holden Caulfield, Bobby’s battle isn’t so much against a world he deems hypocritical but himself.  The difference, of course, is that while Caulfield was an adolescent likely to mature and evolve, Bobby will not. He is, despite his gifts and advantages, a man destined to fail no matter what the situation. The ending of the movie is absolutely perfect and absolutely would never be tolerated nowadays.

Five Easy Pieces is considered a landmark film of the late-Sixties to mid-Seventies New Hollywood Movement (ultimately done in by Jaws and Star Wars, which will be a blog for another time).  It is almost perfect in every way, with Nicholson funny, charming, maddening, frightening, heartbreaking, and ultimately unforgettable in, what was in my opinion, his finest performance.  I give Five Easy Pieces a rating of three guys and highly suggest going out of your way to watch it on Amazon right this very second.

3guys copy

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • scottydynamite September 25, 2013, 6:10 am

    Great piece Sean, sadly many Nicholson fans have probably not seen this one. My favorite is One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and The Shining a close second.

    • Sean September 25, 2013, 6:41 am

      Thanks, Scott. I agree that not many Nicholson fans have seen Five Easy Pieces, which is a shame. It’s definitely dated in some respects but it has to be to reflect the time. Personally, more and more, I appreciate movies without technology. Hard to go wrong with picking One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, The Shining, or Chinatown as his best role, either.

  • Maurice Mitchell September 25, 2013, 9:07 pm

    I hope the rumor isn’t true since it would be a sad way for his career to end. I’ll have to watch this one Scotty.

    • Sean September 26, 2013, 1:17 pm

      It wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. Even though Nicholson is in some way the picture of Hollywood with his shades, being front court at Lakers games, and mugging for the camera at awards shows, he’s also private and avoids the limelight. For example, he’s never done Letterman or Leno.

  • Joe Sikes October 3, 2013, 5:54 pm

    Hey Sean,
    I’ve always been a fan of Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens and I think that this is due to the complex roles that Nicholson plays and the amazing supporting cast that surrounds him in both films. I agree with you wholeheartedly that Five Easy Pieces is a must see for any fan of film. It is interesting to watch the movies that led to Nicholson’s blockbuster starring roles like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. Great review and looking forward to more.

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