1970

Film #275: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

With the 1970s heralding a turning point in filmmaking we’ll see a lot of directors making their debut on the blog. Additionally a lot of actors who considered some of the greatest movie stars of all time also made a big impact during the decade. One of these was Jack Nicholson who is the subject of the first post, and is one of only a handful of actors who have been nominated for their performances in films over five decades. Oscar’s relationship with Nicholson started at the 1970 ceremony where he was nominated for his role in Easy Rider. But it wasn’t till the next year that he garnered his first Best Actor nod in a film that also was nominated for Best Picture.

That film was Five Easy Pieces and saw Nicholson play oil worker Bobby Dupea who spends most of his free time with ditzy waitress girlfriend Rayette or drinking with best buddy Elton. Though Bobby is initially portrayed as a slacker, we later learn that he is a talented pianist and comes from a family of eccentric musicians. After learning that his father is incredibly ill, Bobby returns home and is forced to take Rayette with him after she threatens suicide. Feeling that Rayette is too common for his family, he leaves her in a nearby motel and journey’s to his childhood home. Here he meets and falls in love with his brother Carl’s fiancée Catherine, a young pianist who is wowed by Bobby’s playing abilities. As time goes on, we begin to realise why Bobby left home in the first place and why he’s never been back. The house is full of intellectuals and people who he feels talk a lot of nonsense. Meanwhile Bobby’s father is incredibly ill and he’s unsure whether or not he can actually be heard when he lays a few home truths to his dear old dad. Eventually, Rayette appears at the house and her arrival isn’t welcomed by Bobby who is still intent on chasing Catherine. Like all three of the films in the post, Five Easy Pieces doesn’t have a particularly happy ending as we get an ambiguous conclusion for Bobby.

Five Easy Pieces is the only one of the three Nicholson films in this post that I haven’t previously seen. It definitely has the feel of an early 1970s experimental piece as the first thirty minutes passes without much incident. Instead all of the first third of the film is intent on presenting Bobby as sort of a working class man who loves bowling, drinking and having sex. It’s only after the revelation of his musical ability that the film opens itself a bit more as we meet the quirky members of the Dupea family. The role of Bobby is perfect for Nicholson and sort of saw his transition from supporting player to leading man. He excels playing the quiet and brooding Bobby, who every so often snaps at those around him. Ultimately he is presented as a man who is unable to feel passionate about the music he plays or the people around him. Nicholson earned his first ever Best Actor nomination for his role in the film and I feel that it’s more than deserved. For her portrayal of Rayette, Karen Black also received a Supporting Actress nod and again I really enjoyed her turn here. Rayette’s unrefined persona was the complete antithesis of the characters that frequented Bobby’s family home and this mismatch provided some of the film’s best moments. Black made Rayette a memorable character and one who was much more than just a dumb bimbo. Unfortunately, the day I watched the film was the same day that Black tragically passed away which puts a downer on my whole memory of the film. Despite only being 96 minutes long, I did find that Five Easy Pieces dragged occasionally, most notably during Bobby and Rayette’s journey to his family home where they pick up a couple of hitch-hikers. Overall though this was 1970s film-making at its most raw and was an interesting exploration of Nicholson’s early acting career.

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