The BBS Story- Five Easy Pieces, by Scott Nye
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1971) is the kind of film that almost never happens anymore. And I don’t mean that bunk that baby boomers won’t quit talking about, that “movies were just better back then! They had stories! Now you just have effects!” No, I mean a movie that completely and totally made a star of its lead. Stars nowadays, if there are any left, come up slowly through the ranks until suddenly we all know who they are. Or, increasingly, we get stars whose names we know but whose work, if they’ve done any, we cannot name.
Jack Nicholson was on the public’s mind after Easy Rider, but every second of Five Easy Pieces makes him a star. He takes all the attention-grabbing personality he displayed in the former and builds a character, a kind he will revisit constantly throughout his career and will lead more shortsighted viewers to declare “he’s not much of an actor, he just plays the same guy over and over.” The latter might be true, but he invests that guy with so much depth and charisma, and what exactly are we doing watching actors anyway if not to see some element of truth buried in performance? Nicholson always managed to find that truth, and here, as Bobby Dupea, is where he discovered it.
The set-up is not a particularly new conceit, one of a privileged young man who left it all behind, either purposefully or not, to live amongst “the people.” But there is so much that separates Five Easy Pieces from the rabble that glorifies the working class and demonizes the wealthy. The lower class is hardly portrayed as the fun-loving, live-for-today types you see in many other films – there’s a sadness that pervades the Tammy Wynette-scored environments in which they live. They bowl, but not particularly well. They have parties that serve to only momentarily distract from their pervading depression. And they work awful jobs that only get them by month to month.
The thing that really sucks about their lot in life is that their moments of insight and introspection have no outlet, and they can’t even recognize them as such. Rayette (Karen Black), Bobby’s girlfriend, has such an intense interest and passion for everything around her, but has never been surrounded by anything of much interest. And there’s that heartbreaking story Betty (Sally Struthers) tells about how her mother told her that God probably didn’t want her, fodder for many a moment of self-examination in the dark if she wasn’t busy bouncing up and down on some guy’s lap.
And then there’s Bobby himself, clearly a talented, impassioned pianist who has no interest, not just in finding his potential, but in expressing everything he already has. Bobby’s the flip side to Rayette and Betty, somebody who’s been introduced to a world of ideas but time after time says “no, not for me.” It’s one thing to say, “oh, he could be a great pianist if he only gave a damn.” If he doesn’t want to be a great pianist, and would rather play burlesque halls, so be it. But the truth is he could be happy if he only gave a damn. He could be fulfilled. And in small moments with Rayette, you get the sense that he really is where he belongs but is burdened by the feeling that he should be somewhere else, with someone “better.” Too often men who hate the women they’re with are reduced to “men who hate themselves.” Bobby may well hate himself, but a large part of that hate comes from being happy with someone like Rayette. Later we’ll feel for him on two levels when he can’t find a way to connect with another woman who he feels he should be with – on one level, the basic sympathy of unrequited feelings; on the other, pity because he can’t stop chasing an unattainable goal.
The film’s structure is ingenious, and most certainly not one you’d find in a film today – we’re not even given the premise of the lead character until halfway through the picture. We get glimpses, sure; in the bowling alley, Bobby pauses for a moment while changing his shoes, the sound goes down, and we see that this is not a happy man. Later he’ll play the piano on the back of a truck, the film’s most indelible image. But it isn’t until an impromptu visit to his sister’s recording session that we realize there’s a whole other world to him.
That world is not depicted as kindly as the first, and that’s saying something. Bobby’s frustration with the intellectual upper class is more than a little exaggerated at times, to the point of becoming cartoonish, but Rafelson wisely redirects the focus to Bobby’s immaturity. In the film’s most famous scene, Bobby overreacts when a waitress informs him of the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy, and as much as we kind of cheer him on for pointing out one of life’s great absurdities, in the very next scene he reminds us that he didn’t end up getting what he wanted anyway. Nor, we realize, any other food for that matter.
This behavior is repeated when he comes back into collision with the intellectual community. A woman goes on and on about the language Rayette used to describe a rather horrible incident from her life, and the woman portraying her has no problem going all the way with her role as “stereotypical upper class woman,” and I’m sitting there wondering if all this is really necessary when Bobby lets out with a tantrum to shut her down. And again those predisposed to Bobby’s position on the matter let out a slight cheer until we realize that Bobby’s kind of being an ass about the whole thing. The woman was certainly wrong, but that wasn’t at all the way to handle the situation, and we’re left with a worse impression of Bobby than anyone else.
The film’s ultimate conclusion is what really sells it, though, and spoilers await if you haven’t seen the film. Bobby’s been up at the old family house to see his father, who had recently had a stroke (two, in fact), and has a bit of a heart to heart with the old man, even though it’s possible he can’t hear him. Bobby talks about how he moves around a lot, “getting away from things that get bad if I stay,” and we can practically see the writing on the wall. But you really aren’t prepared for him to leave Rayette in a gas station in the middle of nowhere. And that ending is absolutely crushing, as a familiar sadness and exhaustion overcomes Bobby; familiar to us from having spent a few weeks with him, and a constant companion for him throughout his adulthood. It’s a classic 70s-cinema ending in a lot of ways, and it’d be a cliche if it wasn’t damn near the one to invent it.
I just want to mention one more moment before I wrap this up, because it might be Nicholson’s finest of his career – or at least the one where he got me the most. He’s packing his bags to go visit his family while Rayette lays on the bed, crying, certain he won’t return. Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” is playing in the background (which is just the saddest song ever if you have any appreciation for country music). Bobby’s in the bathroom, and calls into the bedroom, “I’ll be gone for two or three weeks.” She replies, “You’ll be gone, period.” Bobby looks down, fighting back not tears, but emotion itself, and states as flatly as possible, “I’ll try and call you from up there.”
If I could describe it, it wouldn’t need to be on film, but thank God it is. It’s such a simple line invested with incredible longing and regret with seemingly simple inflection. I’ll never be able to understand people who don’t see Nicholson as a great actor. I really never will.