Five Easy Pieces (1970)

“I don’t know if you’d be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean… Most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of… I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really… I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking… for auspicious beginnings, I guess… I’m trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation… My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn’t be talking. That’s pretty much how it got to be before… I left… Are you all right? I don’t know what to say… Tita suggested that we try to… I don’t know. I think that she… seems to feel we’ve got… some understanding to reach… She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with… The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway…”

‘Five Easy Pieces’, directed by Carole Eastman in 1970, is an American drama starring Karen Black and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays a blue-collar California oil-field worker called Bobby Dupea. Dupea is dating Rayette, played by Black, a waitress who dreams of being a country singer. Dupea spends his evenings hanging out with his friend Elton, bowling and womanising, but when Elton is arrested and Rayette falls pregnant, he returns home. It transpires that Dupea is not as working class as he first appeared. His family live on an estate and are musicians and Dupea turns out to have been a child prodigy at the piano. When Rayette joins him at his family home, Dupea has to deal with his embarrassment at her inability to engage with his family, at his family for their attitude towards her, and at his own confusion about his identity. It’s a melancholic film, the two halves: the first charting Dupea’s blue collar life, the second his affluent upbringing, each have their own feeling of vacuity and despair. These tones are relayed through Eastman’s direction: stark and severe, but also through the performances. In some ways, this is the foundation piece for Nicholson’s subsequent career. Here you can see the birth of his later characters including Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’, Frank Costello in ‘The Departed’ and Warren Schmidt. Nicholson cultivates a sense of repressed (and then unrepressed) rage, a feeling of danger and unpredictability, and, occasionally, an almost buffoonish quality. His reaction to Rayette’s belittling creates a chain of circumstances that lead him to being beaten up by a masseur and then abandoning both his lives to go on the road.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it contains some profound themes about class and identity, but more importantly it turns Nicholson from a character actor into a movie star. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Nebraska


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