If you want to see the moment that Jack Nicholson became a huge star, you have to go back to 1970’s groundbreaking FIVE EASY PIECES.
Jack had broken out in his small role in 1968’s “Easy Rider” but had never taken on a leading role. That all changed with his powerful, heartbreaking turn as Robert Dupea. The first half of the film casually introduces us to blue collar Bobby, working in a grunt job in a Texas oil field by day and drinking beer with his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) by night.
Bobby seems to have fun with Rayette, but he’s not the most committed boyfriend, sleeping casually with two goofy women he meets at the bowling alley, Betty and Twinky, memorably played by a pre-All in the Family Sally Struthers and Marlena MacGuire.
Billy Green Bush is hilariously offbeat as Bobby’s best friend Elton. Their casual lunch break talks in the oil fields are so normal and every day, they really don’t seem like they belong in a movie.
And that’s the groundbreaking style of Bob Rafelson’s film. In 1970, the box office was still driven by big budget musicals, western and war films, but the times were changing and studios were struggling to connect with young audiences.
Rafelson throws away convention and hitches his camera to Bobby Dupea’s life. It’s not a glamorous one. Each motel room is grimier than the last. Bars are dark and unhappy. Homes are tacky and tempers and passion run equally hot.
Just when we think we know Bobby, he gets word that his father isn’t well, so he jumps in his car and drives to the Pacific Northwest to see him. Bobby’s family comes from another world, and so does he. Wealthy, steeped in culture and class but emotionally repressed, his family brings revelations in waves about his past.
A promising concert pianist, Bobby (Robert to his family and friends) reconnects with family members and former lovers. Catherine (the excellent Susan Anspach) and Robert feel old sparks but she refuses to fall in love with a man who doesn’t know himself.
Rayette arrives at the family home and brings her country sensibility to a terrific formal family dinner scene. Karen Black delivers every line like a twangy dagger and you begin to realize that she’s a LOT smarter than she lets on. Rayette wields her country bumpkin persona like a cloak, pouncing on people as soon as they let their guard down.
Classic film scenes abound. Nicholson’s famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene is brilliantly executed against a by-the-book diner waitress, Helena Kallianiotis’s performance as the grumpy, lecturing half of two gay hitchhikers is fall over funny and Robert’s one-on-one talk with his stroke addled father is devastating. Nicholson ad-libbed much of the dialogue with his father and it’s crushing.
Watch Jack when he explodes on a pretentious guest at his family’s house who seems hell bent on demeaning Rayette. It’s a perfect sequence in a film that alternates between long sequences of observing a normal day and those pivotal moments that change lives.
Nicholson’s career exploded when the film was released and he’s been a star for over five decades since.
With some solid laughs sprinkled through its serious themes, FIVE EASY PIECES feels more like a meditation than an adventure. In 1970, the ending was shocking in its refusal to conclude the story. Today, it feels perfectly bleak, as cold and shrouded as its Pacific Northwest setting.
FIVE EASY PIECES gets an A.