The greatest decade in the history of mankind had ended, but as the hippie wigs went up for sale on the shelves of Woolworths, American cinema was entering the last of its golden ages. Following the downfall of the old studio system an explosion of young independent filmmakers with small budgets but big ideas were shaping the New Hollywood. Jack Nicholson, one its central figures, was fresh from his breakthrough appearance in Dennis Hopper’s iconic (if nigh on unwatchable) EASY RIDER (1969) after spending the sixties in perpetual collaboration with King of the B-movies Roger Corman. Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson had recently produced psychedelic Monkees vehicle HEAD (1968), but it was their next collaboration that would place them both at the centre of the New Hollywood and allow Nicholson to prove himself as a star attraction.
FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) has a curiously European feel for a film on the crest of an American cinematic revolution, perhaps because it deals so much with the subject of class. The film’s central character Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) is a classically-trained pianist who turned his back on his musical upbringing and suffocating family, all of whom are accomplished musicians. As the film opens he’s working on an oil field in Southern California, the distant wells photographed in melancholy fashion by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. He kills time by bowling, drinking beer and cheating on his long-suffering girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress in a truck-stop diner with a Tammy Wynette obsession. Bobby is a new kind of leading man emblematic of American cinema in the seventies: film noir had always had its anti-heroes but they were mostly charismatic and, crucially, likable fellows who would often end up performing some admirable act despite themselves. Bobby, by his own admission, “runs away when things get bad” and seems to think telling his girlfriend that “no one would wanna hit on you, you look too pathetic” constitutes some kind of apology for acting like a jerk all evening. When he discovers that his father is dying he makes one last trip back home, with Rayette reluctantly in tow and Tammy Wynette (who else?) on the radio. This second half of the film turns the first on its head: whereas before it was Bobby who was in hiding, denying his roots, now it’s Rayette who’s the fish out of water.
The two halves are bridged by the road trip to Washington state: a series of vignettes featuring two lesbian hitchhikers that includes the famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene. The scene is Nicholson in classic rant mode, but all the more effective because throughout the rest of the film he largely holds it in, the trademark crazy tics and outbursts that would characterise his later performances simmering just under the surface. Bobby eventually loses his temper with the hitchhikers, who are on their way to Alaska because they believe California is soon to drown in a “sea of filth”. They’re wingnuts, but you get the feeling that Bobby can’t stand them because they’re doing what he never could and leaving it all behind, however crazy they are. On reaching the Dupea family home we see why Bobby ran; his relations make THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) look grounded and well-adjusted. His father seems to have been trying to raise his children in perfect laboratory conditions to turn them into the ultimate musicians. Bobby considers himself to be the only failure. It’s in these scenes at the house that Karen Black’s Rayette comes into her own: some reviewers have criticised the film’s portrayal of the American working classes as one dimensional, but Black plays the role with such pathos and when she interrupts a pretentious philosophical discussion to ask “is there a TV in the house?”, she’s only saying what we’re all thinking.
Bobby’s eventual breakdown and confession in front of his father, who has been paralysed by a series of strokes so cannot respond or give any indication he can hear his son, gives Nicholson a chance to show off his emotional chops, but it’s the film’s ending that is most heartbreaking. As Bobby abandons Rayette at a gas station in the middle of nowhere by hitching a ride on a truck to Alaska, the camera stays on the gas station as the credits roll in silence and we watch the truck disappear into the distance (there’s something about this technique that I find really effective, one of the best bits of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) is watching Anthony Hopkins disappear into the crowd at the end). Made for less than a million dollars, FIVE EASY PIECES transcends its subject matter and becomes a commentary on the deep divisions in American society in the shadow of Vietnam and the turmoil of the sixties. It’s a complex and rewarding character study that never panders to its audience with easy answers. Why can’t we all just get along? This is why.