This was one of Jack Nicholson‘s iconic roles. Really. Many years and films later, not that many people remember Five Easy Pieces.
A year after a supporting role in Easy Rider, Nicholson was starring in films, and would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a leading role.
Nicholson played many variations of the Bobby Dupea character – randy, smooth, insensitive, narcissistic and unhappy. He made a career of it, and it paid well.
Five Easy Pieces is a film of clashing contrasts. Country music and classical music. A man who searches for love but can’t love. A sophisticated life verses a blue collar existence. Facing your responsibilities and running from them. Things that come easy verses things developed from hard work. Flirtatiousness verses a grounded and committed relationship.
Bobby is an oilfield worker, with a clinging girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) who wants to be a country singer, and a life going nowhere fast. Bobby knocked up his Rayette but he cheats on her every opportunity that arises.
For an oilfield roughneck, Bobby has a hidden talent. As a child he was a piano prodigy. He seems to rarely play the piano but when he does it seems to take him somewhere else. And yet, he walked away from his gift.
After his friend Elton is arrested from an old robbery charge, Bobby quits his job. In talking with his sister who is also a piano talent, he finds out his father is sick. He wants to go solo to visit his father and family but Rayette pouts and gets Bobby to take her with him.
On the way, they come across two stranded women, and Bobby offers them a lift. One of them is very uptight and seems to find a problem with everything.
The four stop at a dinner for lunch. The “hold the chicken” ordering scene is the most famous scene the film. Bobby wants something not on the menu and tries to order with a substitute item, but the waitress will have none of it. Rules are rules even when Bobby proposes a reasonable way to get his wheat toast. Still she won’t budge and tells them to leave. Angry, Bobby wipes the table with his arm, sending all the drinks to the floor. According to Nicholson in an interview about the film, he actually did that once in a coffee shop as a young actor when the proprietor asked his group to leave for other customers.
Bobby’s family is an odd bunch. His sister and brother live with their father. His brother is engaged to the very attractive Catherine (Susan Anspach), also a piano player. Bobby naturally is drawn to her and the more they seem to insult each other the more attracted they are to each other. He takes her to bed. Usually, after the conquest, Bobby grows disinterested, but this is not quite the case with Catherine.
Rayette, who has been staying alone at a motel, comes to his family’s house. Bobby doesn’t really want her there, he’s really embarrassed by her uncultured ways.
Having Rayette there crimps his ability to woo Catherine. Bobby has a heart to heart talk with his father, who cannot respond because of a recent stroke. Bobby breaks down as he confesses his failings and turning away from his family and piano career. It just For their standards, he didn’t have the drive or the talent. It wasn’t to be.
Conflict erupts at a family party where a loud, know it all, woman seems to be dissecting other people’s issues. She locks in on something Rayette says, like a cat with a mouse. Bobby jumps to her defense and shouts the woman down, to the embarrassment of his brother.
Bobby tries to find Catherine to talk with her but instead finds his father’s caretaker giving his sister a massage. Enraged, Bobby starts a fight with this more muscular guy and winds up on the floor as others gather around.
Bobby finally confronts Catherine, and he tells her that he wants to be with her, but she wants life there, with his brother. She has found what she’s looking for; Bobby was just a fling that helped her know what she really wants.
On a curious sidenote, Nicholson and Anspauch had a brief relationship, never married, but had a son, according to Anspauch. It is uncertin if Nicholson ever recognized the boy’s paternity, athough it is reported in several sources that he paid for the boy’s college. Nicholson and Anspauch had a complex relationship after splitting, including a court case over the collection of money Nicholson lent her.
Anyway, back to our story.
Dejected, Bobby and Rayette pack up and leave. On the drive home, Bobby has retreated into himself, while Rayette is playful and affectionate. He angrily pushes her away. Her feelings are hurt and she tells him that he’ll never find anyone that will treat him like she does. She adds a little vinegar to that comment so he will realize he is not easy to love.
They pull into a gas station. She wants to buy something so he hands her his wallet containing his money. As she’s in the station buying what she wants, he goes to the men’s room. There, he takes a long look at himself in the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. The gears are turning in his head. He leaves his coat hanging on the bathroom stall and walks outside. A lumber truck is idling. As he is standing there thinking, he makes a decision. He walks over to the driver and they talk. Bobby gets in the truck cab. They drive off, going back in the direction Bobby and Rayette came from. Rayette is standing at the car waiting for him to come back from the men’s room. She waits and waits, finally walking toward the men’s room as the lumber truck has disappeared from view.
A very sad ending. One of those 1970s downbeat endings.
Five Easy Pieces was co-written and directed by Bob Rafelson, who would have a long partnership with Nicholson. Rafelson and producing partner, Bob Schneider, made their mark in television, producing the Monkees television show and then working with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on producing Easy Rider.
Five Easy Pieces is a film that is very interesting in it’s view of Bobby and the people who come into and leave his life. It is also a very hard film to watch as Bobby uses people to get what he wants. His boyish charm has a high price.
In 1970, a lot of young people were in search of something. In Easy Rider, that didn’t work out so well. In this new decade, the altruism of the peace and love generation, was already evolving into self-interest and emotionally damaged hunters, like Bobby Dupea.
The next year, Nicholson would play Jonathan Fuerst in Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge, another emotionally impotent man who objectifies and only takes from he desires women. Jonathan is Bobby but on a larger playing field.
Nicholson and Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge.