Lorna Thayer, Jack Nicholson, and Karen Black.
April 30, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
Few actors have enjoyed a dream-run quite like Jack Nicholson did during the early days of the New Hollywood movement. From 1969-1975 he appeared in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest... and those are just the films he received an Oscar nomination for (underrated Antonioni flick The Passenger deserves a special mention). He didn't win an Academy Award until Cuckoo's Nest in '75; he likely came closest prior to that in 1970, as Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces. The feature is anchored by Nicholson's performance, in which he demonstrates his unique ability to swiftly shape-shift from a cheeky sweet-heart into a volatile beast.
When we meet Robert, he seems like just another frustrated blue collar brute working long hours on a Californian oil rig, drinking too much at bowling alleys, and playing house with a waitress who he's also managed to knock up. An impromptu performance on a piano during a traffic jam reveals his hidden talents; later we learn he was a child prodigy raised in an affluent household of intellectuals and musical phenoms. When his sister Partita (Lois Smith) informs him that their father is close to death, he reluctantly heads home with that aforementioned waitress, Rayette (Karen Black), in tow. A visit to the Dupea estate - something like a commune for insufferable intellectuals - brings Robert back to his roots, though that doesn't exactly instil calm in him. If anything, he begins to feel even further detached from himself, leading him to once again shed not only his original identity, but also the fake one he spent years cultivating.
Five Easy Pieces was written and directed by Bob Rafelson, co-founder of the iconic New Hollywood "studio" BBS Productions. The critical and commercial success of his intimate character piece was instrumental in setting off the best period of American moviemaking (though the door was first kicked open by Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde). It shares - or, more accurately, helped inspire - the meandering tempo of the pictures that defined this era, not to mention a central anti-heroic figure and an ambiguous ending. That said, Rafelson's script - co-written by Carole Eastman - is not ponderous claptrap without a payoff. The arc of Robert Dupea is an intriguing one, and Nicholson is astounding in that central role. His diner blowout is perhaps the most famous moment, followed by his tearful breakdown in front of his father. Consider how diametrically opposed these two sequences are. Then think of all the moments in between, when he's (barely) containing his more extreme emotions; rebuffing flirtations at the bowling alley, playing piano for his brother's fiancée (Susan Anspach), defending Rayette from snobs. Does much happen in Five Easy Pieces? Perhaps not. Does a whole lot happen in Robert? Oh yes.
One moment did, however, elicit a "bulls**t" from me while watching. Robert hooks up with a random woman, and they copulate like animals, supposedly screwing each other upright while walking from room to room. I don't want to get into logistics here, like the science freaks that dispute the math in The Core, but this bends the laws of nature to an incredible degree. I certainly buy that Robert is ferocious enough to want to have sex this vigorously, but he's still just a man!
Five Easy Pieces is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix Play.