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Five Easy Pieces Analysis Essay

Background

Five Easy Pieces (1970) is a moody, incisive, thoughtful character study of an alienated, misfit drifter, outcast and non-committal drop-out. The film was awarded Best Picture honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, and established Jack Nicholson, soon after his success in Easy Rider (1969), as the foremost actor of his generation. It benefited from a cycle of youth-oriented countercultural movies at the time with disgruntled characters - including The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Alice's Restaurant (1969), and the documentary Woodstock (1970).

Its main character was a defining one for the era in which this American New Wave film was produced. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US political situation was very unstable and in upheaval, with Nixon's secret bombings of Cambodia and the uncertainty of the Vietnam War, the Kent State Massacre in the late spring, and Wall Street's hard-hat riots. He reflected the aimless, restless, dissatisfied middle-class spirit that was prevalent. He had abandoned his upper-class bourgeois musical roots - first using his musical talent in cheap Las Vegas musical revues, and then forsaking music all-together as an oil field manual laborer, before finally heading into the unknown - possibly to Canada or Alaska. It had a few taglines:

  • "He Rode the Fast Lane On The Road To Nowhere."
  • "Keep on tellin' me about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke."

The road-trip story from Columbia Pictures was about rough, red-neck California oil rigger Robert "Bobby" Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson in his first starring vehicle) who had turned his back on his well-to-do upbringing and his musical talent. [Note: He was named after "Eroica" - the title of Beethoven's Third Symphony.] His selfishness, lack of ambition and insecurity led him into a period of self-imposed exile, discontent, emotional emptiness and restlessness for twenty years as a blue-collar worker.

Themes of masculinity, class, alienation and family were examined, as the disillusioned misfit was caught in the gulf between his intellectual upper-class family (where he had dashed their expectations) and his lower-class, part-time girlfriend (representing a lusty lifestyle of boozing, partying, bowling, and sex), and felt himself immobile to advance himself in life. His uncomfortable journey ended in an open-ended way, in the film's ambiguous ending, as he hitched a ride to nowhere.

The film's title refers to a commonly-used practice book of easy-to-play piano selections for beginning students - exercises on how to learn the art of mastering a piano. Metaphorically, the protagonist was also taking the 'beginners' approach to challenges that he faced in life. The lonely rebel would always take the "easy" route (usually denial, escape, or flight) from his discordant problems, various jobs and women, family responsibilities, the thought of settling down, fears and loved ones. The number five was also an important indicator in other ways:

Instances of the Number Five
The Five Classical Pieces ("The Five Easy Pieces") Played in the Film (listed in the title credits) Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 (Chopin)
Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue (Bach)
E-Flat Maj. Concerto, K. 271 (Mozart)
Prelude in E Minor Op. 28 # 4 (Chopin)
Fantasy in D Minor K. 397 (Mozart)
The Five Main Females - Significant for the Reactions Each One Draws From the Protagonist Rayette
Betty
Tita
Hitchhiker Palm
Catherine

The only time in the film that Bobby seriously played a classic musical work on the piano was a selection he dubbed "the easiest piece" he could remember. The opposition between the two lifestyles was reflected in the geography of the film - North (upper class), and South (lower class). He worked in the arid and dusty climate of Southern California, and was hiding out in the milieu of mobile homes and low-rent houses, while his family was from a colder, more remote, and rainy area (on an island), and living a more cultured life of refinement. The physical struggles of the Dupea family in the North were clearly evident, however: he had a neurotic, love-starved, unkempt sister Partita (Lois Smith), a neck-braced brother Carl (Ralph Waite) whose fiddle playing was hampered (was he also impotent?), and a mute and stroke-immobilized father. Both of his two siblings had musically-derived names: (1) Partita - a synonym for a collection of musical pieces, or suite; and (2) Carl Fidelio - the name of Beethoven's only opera, a German piece with spoken dialogue in two acts.

In a major turning point in the film, the misbehaving blue-collar worker returned to his estranged family's home in the North (Puget Sound) for a final reconciling visit when his father was on the verge of dying. There, he found love with sophisticated, musical protege and fiancee Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach) of his brother Carl. Meanwhile, he emotionally abused and turned his back on his vulgar but well-meaning, dim-witted and needy girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), and then abandoned everything by taking flight even further northward.

The two irreconciliable, contradictory worlds of his existence (his own existence and his parents' generation) were examined and contrasted:

The Protagonist's
Present Life (His Generation)

An Alternate Lower to Middle-Class Life Style
The Protagonist's
Past Life (His Parents' Generation)

Different Upper Class Culture and Values
A rebellious, hot-tempered blue-collar hard-hat, oil-rigger redneck worker, using the common name "Bobby" and speaking in the vernacular with an Okie-Arky accent. A former child prodigy at the piano, formally named Robert Eroica Dupea, who rejected, despised, and left his wealthy, upper-class, well-educated, artistic background and family, which included white-collar society, elitism, pampering, and over-cultivation.
A mean, sweaty manual laborer, who lived and worked in the stark, arid, hot and dusty Southern California (near Bakersfield?). His family was talented and pretentious - living lived in the Pacific Northwest's Puget Sound area, on a pristine island that was only accessible by ferry across choppy and gray waters.
Preference for feel-good, sad country western songs by Tammy Wynette.Preference for classical piano pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Chopin.
Living in a mundane, soul-less world of trailer parks, six-packs, bowling alleys, fast and lusty women, lots of womanizing, boozing, poker card-playing and petty gambling. Bred in a rarified and cerebral world of concerts, horseback riding, fishing and boating, intellectual gatherings, large country mansions with fancy dinners.
Partnered with pregnant, intellectually-inferior, waitress girlfriend/lover in an unsatisfying, restless, and insincere relationship; he can't commit and settle down.Found rapport with his brother's sophisticated fiancee, another classical pianist, in another ultimately impossible relationship.

The film was most famous for the classic scene of Nicholson's outburst while ordering a plain omelette with a side of toast (ultimately a chicken salad sandwich) in a roadside diner - symbolic of the 60s generation's rebellion and alienation during the Vietnam War Era. A second key scene was the one during traffic gridlock on a California freeway, when the oil-rigger left his vehicle, jumped up on a truck stalled in the line of cars ahead, and played a Chopin concerto on an upright piano located there.

This was director Bob Rafelson's second film (and his best work) after he had directed the television pop band the Monkees in the mind-blowing Head (1968), a surrealistic and psychedelic film that was co-written with unemployed actor Jack Nicholson, the major star in this film, and emulated the European New Wave pictures of the era. Although the film has been criticized as misogynistic, its script was actually penned by Carole Eastman (pen-name Adrien Joyce), and co-written by Rafelson.

The film was nominated in four categories without Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) (lost to George C. Scott for Patton (1970)), Best Supporting Actress (Karen Black), and Best Story and Screenplay (Bob Rafelson and Adrien Joyce).

The Story

The road movie opens at an oil field where hard-hatted, blue-collar redneck Robert "Bobby" Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is revealed behind the bucket of a backhoe moving dirt. He is part of a team or crew working on oil derricks in the Southern California desert near Bakersfield. Under the title credits as the sun sets on the horizon, and the men are at quitting time, Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" plays in the background. He drives to a low-rent neighborhood and carries a six-pack of beer into a house he shares with his girlfriend, where a phonograph record player is spinning the tune.

His ignorant, dim-witted, countrified, insecure but kind-hearted girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black) is in the bathroom, barefooted and still wearing her orange diner waitress uniform. She has teased up hair, heavily made-up cat's eyes, and frosted lips. Obsessed with Tammy Wynette, the aspiring (and awful) country music singer insists on playing the record another time, although he protests: "You play that thing one more time and I'm gonna melt it down into hair spray." He explains: "It's a question of musical integrity" - he is unhappy with her common, low-life interests. She accuses him of being selfish:

You can play on the piano. Your whole damn family can play some kind of musical instrument. All I'm asking is for you to help me improve my musical talent.

[Note: He was a talented classical child prodigy pianist/musician who had rejected his well-to-do cultured family in the Pacific Northwest's Puget Sound area, and given up his promising career as a concert pianist.]

He suggests that they go out and have a "good time" with oil-rig co-worker friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) and his wife Stoney (Fannie Flagg). Seductively and pathetically, Rayette clings to Bobby, smothers him with love, and rightfully fears that he will leave her. She provides some alternatives for their evening together, including "I'll do anything that you'd like for me to do if you would tell me that you love me." He is not committed to her and doesn't feel at home or settled with her, evidenced in his response: "You can sing the song." She is annoyed and complains that he is never satisfied, and then quickly apologizes by rolling on top of him and kissing him.

Rayette has reluctantly joined him to go bowling at the Black Gold Bowling Lanes with Elton and Stoney. During a competitive couples' match, Rayette keeps rolling gutter balls, and he is frustrated with her performance: "Just do what the hell I tell ya." At the end of the games when she finally throws a strike on her second ball, she is ecstatic, although Bobby sarcastically notes: "Great. You throw the big Z's for 19 frames and then you throw a strike on the last ball of a losin' game." Depressed by the outcome, he lingers at the alley as an aggravated Rayette retreats to her car. As they leave, Elton and Stoney invite them over to their mobile home to have "a good time."

Bobby begins flirting and chatting with two friendly females in the adjoining banquette: bottle blonde Twinky (Marlena McGuire) and chubby-faced, busty, curly-haired brunette Betty (aka Shirley) (Sally Struthers, later of All in the Family fame). They mistake him for a TV car salesman and fawn over him. After he encourages them: "I wish I had more time to talk to you girls," he checks on attention-seeking Rayette who is pouting and sulking in the car in the parking lot, and is upset by the evening. He warns: "I hope no one hits on you." He walks away to go to Elton's, but then returns and adds: "No one would want to hit on you. You look too pathetic." Hurt and teary-eyed by his uncaring treatment of her, she calls him "pathetic" and then defends herself:

I am not a piece of crap...You treat me like I was. Go slip around right before my face in front of Elton and Stoney that way. What do you imagine they think of somebody you treat like that?

He admits that he is "not too nice a guy," and she is a "real hell of a good person" because she puts up with him. The guileless female sputters for his sympathy as a victim: "Just find me dead one time. You'll just kill me...If you ever really get up and leave me, you'll read about it in the newsprint." He adamantly asserts that he will not leave her - and kisses her. When she pitifully asks: "Do you love me, Bobby?", he hesitates to directly answer and throws the question back at her: "What do you think?"

After-work activities for Bobby include impromptu poker games with betting, and womanizing-drinking. Elton, Bobby, Twinky and Betty sit and party in their underwear in Twinky's apartment. Elton rides Twinky on his leg as both sing "Ride a Cockhorse To Banbury Cross." Betty describes her mother's explanation about how she acquired the dimple on her chin, and the traumatic impact it has on her feelings of self-worth:

When I was four, just four years old, I went to my mother, and I said: 'What's this hole in my chin?' I saw this dimple in my chin in the mirror and didn't know what it was. And my mother said, get what my mother says. She says: 'When you're born, you go on an assembly line past God, and if He likes you, He says (while grabbing both her cheeks): 'You cute little thing!' and you get dimples there. And if He doesn't like you, He goes (while pointing into her chin): 'Go away.' So, about six months later, my mother found me saying my prayers, and I was going (she demonstrates by holding her hand over her chin): 'Now I lay me down to sleep...' My mother says: 'What are you covering up your chin for?' And I said: 'Because if I cover up the hole, maybe He'll listen to me.'

The next morning, the drunken males with hangovers are refused work from their main rig supervisor, who claims they are "unfit." As Bobby (swigging from a bottle) drives away from work on the freeway, his "loaded" passenger Elton strums on a ukelele, singing "Raffle of a Dog":

Do you wanna buy a ticket to the raffle of a dog
That comes a-runnin', lickin', when you whistle, holler "Claude"?
A big brown dog, just as sound as a ring, He'll be eight years old, if he lives 'til the spring.
Tickets, tickets, two for a quarter! If you haven't got your ticket yet, well, you'd better order!
He'll wet your carpet and he'll fertilize your grass, He's got three white feet and a hole in his ass!

Bobby is frustrated by the massive traffic jam: "What the hell are these people doing here?...I can't stand this goddamn freeway."

[Note: They are just before the Shafter - Wasco exit off Interstate 5 at Rte. 43 in the San Fernando Valley.]

He gets out, yells back at a honking car, and then preaches: "Why don't we all line up like a goddamn bunch of ants in the most beautiful part of the day." He spots an open-bed truck several cars further up, with covered pieces of furniture, and climbs up onto the back end. He reveals an upright piano under a cover, sits down on a chair and plays the film's first piece - (1) Chopin's Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 concerto - blending the classical piece with the symphony of honking car horns. It is a perfect synthesis - bridging the high-culture world of his family and upbringing, and his chosen, vulgar and low-life existence. Elton exclaims: "Oh s--t, what's he doing?" but then applauds ("Play it!").

When the truck begins to move, an unnoticing Bobby continues to play the piece as the truck signals a right-turn and takes the off-ramp exit. He is finally able to jump off the back of the vehicle when it stops in front of the Top Hat Adult Theatre (featuring HOT CROSS BUNS and TNT SPECIAL, The Voyeur). He wanders aimlessly on the town's desolate sidewalks, by an adults-only theatre advertising the next attraction, Office Party. As the sun sets, he passes various cheap shops, including a Shoe Shine, a Loans company, a Palmist, and a Barber College (he waves to someone inside), and crosses the street to visit Rayette's diner - her place of work. As he waits for her, she basically ignores him and attends to a second male customer (with a crying child), while he is served coffee by another waitress. After her work, Rayette exits into the parking lot, where she maintains a suffering and hurt attitude for his unexplained absence the night before, calling him out: "You son of a bitch." She turns her head away as he kisses her neck, to reassure her. She quietly sobs as he hugs her.

By 1970, the sixties may have been over, but the youth of America was still riding the crest of the Woodstock Festival into the new decade. 1969 gave us Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, Charles Manson directing his followers to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders, Senator Edward Kennedy driving his car off a bridge, disclosure of the My Lei massacre, American troops bombing Cambodia, and American cinema celebrating the life of the hippie with Easy Rider. 1970 seemed an extension of the same year as the Chicago Seven were convicted of conspiracy to riot, National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University, and American cinema celebrated the restlessness of the new middle class in Five Easy Pieces.

Five Easy Pieces is the ultimate road movie, a relaxed masterpiece, a film of laid-back innovation that hasn’t aged one iota since its original release. There’s no particular dramatic impetus in Five Easy Pieces, just a journey from nowhere to nowhere, featuring a new actor who grabbed the attention of the film-going public and who hasn’t let go yet. Before Jack Nicholson turned into Mr. Over-the-Top, he was an actor of supreme subtlety and nuance. After several unremarkable appearances in Roger Corman films and a couple of existential westerns, Nicholson finally demanded some attention through a small role in Easy Rider, a part he got only after Rip Torn dropped out of the film. He played a straight-laced lawyer who gets turned on by two biker drug dealers played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. It earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1969, which turned into a nomination for Best Actor the next year for Five Easy Pieces.

In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, an oil rig worker in Los Angeles whose life is going nowhere. He lives in a world of lower-class people, day laborers, waitresses, bowlers, poker players, etc. There’s nothing extraordinary about these individuals; in fact they’re so damned commonplace that it’s extraordinary that anyone decided to make a movie about them. But somehow we’re attracted to Dupea, which is no easy feat considering the way he treats people, especially his girlfriend, played by Karen Black with her patented form of vacuousness.

She’ll do anything he tells her to do as long as he tells her that he loves her, which we know he will never do. But she still does whatever he tells her to do, which frustrates him even more. When she flat out asks him if he loves her, he says, “What do you think?” Bobby is a very good liar. After his best friend is surprisingly taken away by the FBI, Bobby decides to drive to Seattle to visit his sick father. Not that he particularly cares; it’s just something to do. Dupea isn’t running from anything or to anything; he’s just running, and taking advantage of every situation he possibly can. Obviously he will never be satisfied. He’s burdened with the overriding belief that there’s got to be something better than this, and he confuses a quest for freedom with an inability to commit. “My character in Five Easy Pieces was written by a woman (Adrien Joyce) who knew me very well,” Nicholson said years later. “I was playing it as an allegory of my own career.” In this film, Nicholson plays out one of the all-time classic scenes in American cinema. Dupea finds himself beating his head up against the establishment, personified by a waitress who is just doing her job. It’s impossible to imagine anyone not identifying with this ridiculously funny attempt to simply get some toast. Who hasn’t been stymied by a bureaucrat? Who hasn’t wanted to knock over all the dishes on the table? With that one sweep of his arm, Nicholson becomes everyone’s favorite iconoclast.

Considering the background of the filmmakers, Five Easy Pieces displays a surprisingly sophisticated view of simple country western mentality. Bob Rafelson was born in New York City, and he spent his teens doing an odd variety of jobs, from rodeo worker to playing drums and bass for a jazz combo. He eventually became a TV writer, adapting stage productions for The Play of the Week, which led to his creating The Monkees TV show along with Paul Mazursky. Though the show was denounced by critics as a piece of calculated nonsense, Rafelson redeemed himself after the show was off the air by sending up the Monkees in a brilliantly satirical and anarchistic film called Head (1968), which he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced with Jack Nicholson. Who would have guessed that two years later, this creative team would have conceived such a thoroughly adult and refined film as Five Easy Pieces. Both critics and audiences agreed that the film was something special. As usual, Pauline Kael put it best, and longest. “It’s a striking movie,” she said, “eloquent, important, written and improvised in a clear-hearted American idiom that derives from no other civilization, and describing as if for the first time the nature of the familiar American man who feels he has to keep running because the only good is momentum.”In the end, Dupea is still on a journey, an oil rig worker on his way to Alaska for no reason at all. It’s an easy way out, and it seems the perfect vague ending, but hindsight gives the scene a strange psychic twist. How could he, how could anyone have known, that the U.S. was about to embark on one of the largest oil construction projects ever attempted, the Trans-Alaskan Project, completed in 1977? Bobby actually made the perfect move. He’s on his way to a gold mine.

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