Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
If you swing a dead cat, you’ll hit a film about someone rebelling. Often, this rebellion comes in the form of someone trying for something more than bad luck has given them, youth in revolt against the lower-middle class. So what does it look like when someone revolts against an upper class, classical background? The result is Five Easy Pieces.
Robert Eroica “Bobby” Dupea (Jack Nicholson) works on an oil rig in Texas with his trailer park buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush). He drinks beer, goes bowling, and sometimes cheats on his girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress. For Bobby, this is life. He moves from job to job and woman to woman, looking for something that is never really there. In fact, there’s no evidence that Bobby even knows what he’s looking for or that he’ll be able to realize it when and if he finds it.
Fed up with his job and seeing Elton get busted for skipping bail, Bobby heads off and locates his sister Partita (Lois Smith), a pianist, while she is recording. There are problems with the recording, namely that she is singing the melody, and she takes a break when Bobby appears. She tells him that their father has had a pair of strokes, and that he should return home to Puget Sound to visit. He does, but first must deal with the fact that Rayette is convinced he is leaving her for good, in part because she has discovered that she is pregnant. In a moment of weakness, he allows her to come along.
One of the stranger interludes in the film concerns the pair of crashed motorists Bobby and Rayette pick up along the way. Palm (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry (Toni Basil, yes, Toni Basil) are headed to Alaska because it’s clean there, and Palm begins a monologue about filth. This is also the part of the film that contains the now-famous restaurant scene where Bobby attempts to order off menu and is eventually kicked out. He and Ray reach Puget Sound, and he checks her into a motel, believing that she will not fit in with his family.
He’s probably right, since Bobby the itinerant oil man comes from a family basking in wealth and made up of classically trained musicians. His brother Carl (Ralph Waite) has had a serious accident and has been forced to give up the violin in favor of the piano. It turns out that Bobby has the same sort of musical training. It is here that he meets Catherine van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is engaged to Carl. Despite their differences in outlook, Bobby and Catherine are attracted to each other, which follows a predictable pattern. Things change when Rayette, bored at being left on her own, shows up at the house.
Five Easy Pieces is another film in the long list I’ve been watching lately of plotless narratives that are far more concerned with character than they are with story. The story here isn’t so much Bobby’s reunion with his family or any sort of peace he makes with his estranged and now mute father, but simply about Bobby himself. His complexity and his opinion are never really expressed, most likely because Bobby himself couldn’t express exactly what he was rebelling against or why his life has turned out the way it has. In fact, were you able to ask him, he probably couldn’t explain his actions at the end of the film, either.
Nonetheless, this is a fascinating film. Nicholson gives a tremendous, heartfelt performance, a nuanced view of this character possible in this case because he hadn’t yet become Jack Nicholson who seems to play the same variation of himself over and over (I’m not complaining—he plays that part really, really well). But this is evidence of why he became as prominent as he did. This is a masterful piece of work on his part, since the entire film turns on his moods and his actions. We have only Bobby to move us from point to point, and at each place in the film, Nicholson is required to both be motivated and yet completely without motivation for his actions. It’s not easy to play aimless this well.
There are a couple of fun smaller roles here, too. If you grew up when I did, Fannie Flagg was best known for being on half a dozen game shows, famous for being famous. But here, she plays Elton’s wife Stoney. We also get an interesting view of Sally Struthers as Betty, a woman Bobby has a couple of flings with during the course of the film.
In many ways, a film like Rebel Without a Cause created the idea of a hero motivated by nothing other than his desire to break away from what is in front of him. Bobby follows in this vein. He doesn’t know what he wants; he just doesn’t want what he is presented with. Nothing satisfies him because he just knows he wants to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. He’s a combination of rage and ennui, disappointment, lost talent, frustration, and wasted potential. In other words, he’s like a lot of people drifting through the motions of life without doing anything.
Hell of a film.
Why to watch Five Easy Pieces: Jack Nicholson at his best before he became the Jack Nicholson we all know.
Why not to watch: It’s the strangest rebellion in many a day.