Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Five Easy Pieces was made at a time when Hollywood films would simply unfold, and, in that unfolding, tell a story.
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor (Nicholson)
Best Supporting Actress (Black)
"Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, bring me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."
The character in this particular study is Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), who, at the beginning of the film, seems like just another guy working an oil rig. Yes, he has a short fuse, and, yes, his girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), doesn't help matters with her clingy, pouty nature. After a bowling alley tantrum, he consoles her. "Elton and Stoney know that I love ya," he says. "And they're just gonna think I'm not too nice a guy which I'm not and that you're a real helluva good person for putting up with me." Like Bobby himself, this is half truth, half bullshit. Bobby isn't too nice a guy. The aforementioned Elton (Billy Green Bush) seems Bobby's best friend, but after Rayette becomes pregnant and Elton gives him life-advice, Bobby suddenly shouts, "I'm listening to some cracker asshole lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine!" Wow, the viewer wonders. Who does Bobby think he is anyway? A classically trained pianist, it turns out, who is fleeing his upper-crust roots.
Yet there's a basic decency to the guy that makes him fascinating to watch. Even though he looks down on Elton, he comes to his aid when two guys set upon him. Rayette suffocates him, and speaks to him through country music code ("Stand By Your Man," or "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," depending on the situation); yet when he finds out his estranged father is dying and decides to visit him, he can't leave Rayette behind. Everything done, bags in the car, he's suddenly using the steering wheel as a punching bag and returns inside to wearily invite her along. It's my favorite scene in the film. Everyone talks up the "chicken salad sandwich" scene like it's an attack on the system when really it's an attack on an overworked waitress. It's clever but pathetic, and I'd expect Rayette, who waits tables for a living, to side with the waitress rather than laugh at her.
Before they get to the San Juan Islands, though, Bobby deposits Ray in a motel. It's as if his decency extends only so far up the coast. One imagines Bobby is returning home for some kind of reconciliation with his father, but the old man is a near vegetable, and Bobby becomes distracted by his brother's girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach), and spends days sniffing after her.
Why does Five Easy Pieces work? Because we understand wanting to leave Ray, we understand sniffing after Catherine. It's what we would do. When Ray shows up in a taxi, we understand Bobby's disgust. In truth, he's embarrassed by her: her trailer park tastes, her weak intellect. Despite the oil rig, he's a snob. When he attacks his brother's intellectual friends (who are the weakest characters in the film) he's attacking that aspect of himself. In the end, when Bobby and Ray leave together, they seem well-matched in a ying-yang kind of way: the brilliant asshole with the sweet idiot. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. He winds up with no family, no girl, no wallet, no jacket even, but still unable to break free of his past.
December 4, 2000
© 2000 Erik Lundegaard