was a turning point for both its star, Jack Nicholson, and director Bob Rafelson when it came out in 1970 (they'd already collaborated on the psychedelic Monkees vehicleHead
). Nicholson, who'd previously worked on a series of B-movie projects with Roger Corman and also tried his hand behind the camera and writing scripts, first gained critical notice as an actor in his role as lawyer George Hanson inEasy Rider
the year before; inFive Easy Pieces
, the story of a man living in denial of his privileged roots, he earned his first Oscar nod with a Best Actor nomination (unfortunately, in a year dominated by George C. Scott and the military biopicPatton
).Five Easy Pieces
also still stands as Rafelson's signature work.
Nicholson portrays a directionless California oil worker who returns to his home in Washington to re-confront his past as a concert pianist when his estranged father falls ill. He brings his dim but beautiful waitress girlfriend, Rayette (played to cross-eyed perfection by the sex-bomb Karen Black), plowing directly into ivory-tower eye of a brewing storm. On the way north, Bobby and Rayette pick up a couple of hitchhikers; his ensuing "chicken salad sandwich" scuffle with a waitress in a truckstop diner is still regarded as one of the great moments in twentieth-century cinema.
Bobby, embarrassed to bring Rayette into the cultured milieu of his past, leaves her in a motel room when he arrives home; once there, he begins a cagey romance with his brother's fiancee Catherine, (Susan Anspach), also a pianist, who calls him Robert and ends up horrified by his loveless emptiness. The movie's title, we come to learn, refers to past musical selections, each learned like notches in Bobby's belt.
To Bobby's consternation, Rayette eventually makes her way to the estate, too, where she obviously doesn't fit in. Torn over which way to drift next, Bobby fiercely defends her when an intellectual friend of the family mocks Rayette's ignorance.
Catherine rejects Bobby and his last-ditch attempt to make amedns with his stricken, unhearing father fails; it's a signal that there's nothing left for him there, and Bobby hits the road with Rayette. The end of Five Easy Pieces will feel abrupt, perhaps because no questions are answered in the existential denouement, for which there will be no sequel.
Susan Froyd, in another life, toiled for a few years in some of Denver's most beloved and belated repertory cinemas. She has also seen a lot of movies over a lot of years. In this weekly series, she'll recommend forgotten films, classics, cult favorites and other dusty reels of celluloid from the past. You might like it.
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