Five Easy Pieces

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USA, 1970

Director: Bob Rafelson

Production: B.B.S.; Technicolor; running time: 98 minutes; length: 8,828 feet. Released September 1970.

Executive producer: Bert Schneider; producers: Bob Rafelson, Richard Wechsler; screenplay: Adrien Joyce, from a story by Joyce, and Bob Rafelson; assistant director: Sheldon Schrager; photography: Laszlo Kovaks; editors: Christopher Holmes, Gerald Sheppard; sound recordist: Charles Knight; art director: Toby Rafelson.

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea); Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto); Lois Smith (Partita Dupea); Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Ost); Billy "Green" Bush (Elton); Fannie Flagg (Stoney); Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea); Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca); Toni Basil (Terry Grouse); Sally Ann Struthers (Betty); Marlena Macguire (Twinky); John Ryan (Spicer); Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia); Lorna Thayer (Waitress); Richard Stahl (Recording Engineer); William Challee (Nicholas Dupea).



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In many ways Five Easy Pieces marks the end of the 1960s, a decade captured best in Easy Rider, another film in which Jack Nicholson appeared. The youthful drugged dropouts of the earlier film are succeeded in Five Easy Pieces by an older dropout, one who has abandoned the world of classical music to find himself in the southern California oil fields. Bobby Dupea's new, assumed identity, evidence that he is not "really" an oil rigger, consists of a phoney southern accent and Rayette (Karen Black), a "country woman" he has impregnated. Fleeing again from responsibility, Bobby journeys to Los Angeles—his travels mirror his psychological journey—and learns from his concert-pianist sister that their father has suffered a stroke and is incapacitated at the family home in Washington. When Bobby and Rayette, whom he cannot escape, return to his home, the trip is literal and symbolic, for here he must confront his past.

The "homecoming" is a disaster, for his past is his present: Carl Fidelio Dupea, his brother, is an uptight classical musician; his invalid father is still an autocrat; and his sister subscribes unthinkingly to the family's bourgeois cultural values. In effect, the family remains the society Bobby has rejected. Attracted to his brother's fiancée, Catherine Van Ost (Susan Anspach), Bobby seduces her, partly through his accomplished playing of a Chopin prelude. Catherine, however, will not leave with him when he again flees from his past, and after he successfully evades Rayette, a solitary Bobby continues his self-destructive northward journey.

Because of Nicholson's charisma, audiences overlooked Bobby's entertaining but indulgent tantrums and his ranting invectives against rigidity and conformity (behaviors Nicholson is particularly adept at portraying). The most memorable scene from the film is Bobby's manic verbal attack on the waitress, a scene at once amusing and cruel. Audiences identify and empathize with the male protagonist, who expresses the anger they share and who does not alienate them because his irresponsibility and selfishness (later expressed by Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) is so engagingly expressed. Bobby's treatment of Rayette is similarly ignored by an audience which regards country culture and country folk with amused contempt; the cultivated, talented pianist is simply too good for the likes of Rayette.

Fortunately, the film also provides another reading, one which questions easy assumptions about the male chauvinism of the film. The title Five Easy Pieces refers to a book of music which piano students must master before going on to more complex compositions, and it also suggests, through the Chopin seduction linking music and sex, Bobby's sexual conquests. If he must similarly know himself before he can confront life, then Bobby is only an accomplished pianist and womanizer, not a master of his life in pursuit of the truth. He is a drifter whose northern journey, without the coat he has given away, will culminate in death.

Five Easy Pieces concerns cultural clashes, which are reflected in the classical music associated with the Dupeas, which Bobby has mastered, and the country sound track sung by Tammy Wynette (as in Rayette), but Adrien Joyce's screenplay (based on a story she and director Rafelson wrote) does not insist on the superiority of either class. There are real people who do know themselves and conduct themselves with dignity in both classes: Bobby's friend Elton, Rayette and Catherine. Like Bobby, Catherine recognizes hypocrisy and corruption; unlike Bobby, she realizes that she cannot save herself through sex, flight, or power. She will remain true to her values and her work, rather than retreat through alienation and nihilism.

Five Easy Pieces has been compared to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, for both concern dropouts from the world of classical music; but unlike Bobby, who plays on a moving van in a traffic jam or as a foreplay to sex, Charlie Kohler continues to play the piano. Robert Eroica Dupea (the Eroica is the Beethoven work dedicated to Napoleon, whose promise also lapsed into ego) becomes another contemporary American male protagonist whose life is characterized by lack of identity, impotence, and despair. When he resumes his journey at the end of the film, Bobby resembles Huck Finn "lighting out for the territory," but Bobby is hardly an uneducated adolescent. Though he behaves like Huck, who comes to know himself, Bobby is an adult whose actions spring from frustrations, cruelty, and despair—he is a charming but destructive loser.

—Thomas L. Erskine