Bob Rafelson’s ‘Five Easy Pieces’ is the quintessential film of the so-called American New Wave

Bob Rafelson directs Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces. Still photographer: Bernie Abramson.

By Sven Mikulec

The film that turned Bob Rafelson into the leader of the so-called American New Wave, a demonstration of talent and power that established Jack Nicholson as the prime actor of his generation and a beautiful lesson in cinematography that confirmed László Kovács as one of the best directors of photography in the business, Five Easy Pieces is considered to be the quintessential film of the beginning of the seventies. This thoughtful character study offers a thorough portrayal of the alienation and restlessness of the American middle classes, rocked into instability by the shifting, unpredictable political situation and leaders like Nixon who proved to be everything but trustworthy. It was a period of American history when the psychological stability of the nation shifted uncomfortably, when the tension and turbulence gave birth to a social movement of sorts, when the cinematic world capably mirrored these changes with a wave of refreshing, thought-provoking movies that shaped the period’s culture. Rafelson’s film is completely in the spirit of this change: it is a complex, enthralling exploration of American society given shape and substance by perfect performances from both Nicholson and the supporting crew—Karen Black, Sally Ann Struthers, Lois Smith, among others.

When we wrote my first movie Head together and produced it together, Jack had given up acting at the time. He and I would act out all the dialogue, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I said, “Why aren’t you acting anymore?” And he said, “I’m tired of it. I always get to play the shitty B-part, not the A-part, and it’s always in conventional movies.” Then I said, “Well, not the next one. The next one I want you to star in it.” That was Five Easy Pieces, but I produced Easy Rider in-between. Rip Torn was to play the part and I was a little frightened to tell Dennis Hopper that Jack Nicholson should play the part, because I wanted the thrill of discovering him myself. I didn’t want anybody else to get him. That was pretty stupid. And, quite frankly, if Jack hadn’t been in Easy Rider, my film would not have been the success it was. He came in at just the right moment to give Five Easy Pieces an extraordinary buoyancy. —Bob Rafelson

The screenplay, devised by Rafelson and Carole Eastman, does a brilliant job at sculpting the personalities that capture our attention and imagination, characters that are so believable and familiar to us, who share our own fears, insecurities and panic, that it’s painlessly easy to become attached to them. The writing is so good it’s surprisingly difficult to shake the story off once the end credits start rolling. Nicholson was, admittedly, excellent in his prior works—Easy Rider, for instance—but it is here that he fully demonstrates his capabilities. Five Easy Pieces is a vital part of an extremely prolific filmmaking decade that is regarded as one of the highest quality, but critical recognition and film theorists’ approval aside, it’s a film with a soul that touches your heart because of its warmth, sincerity and the omnipresent feeling of humanity that glows from the screen from the first scene to the very last.

In an essay on Five Easy Pieces in the Chicago Sun-Times last year, critic Roger Ebert wrote that “the film’s greatest influence” came through the screenplay: “It allowed detours and digressions, cared more about behavior than plot, ended in a way and tone that could not have been guessed from its beginning. Nicholson, who first met Eastman in Jeff Corey’s acting class in 1957 and considered her “one of my oldest and dearest friends,” said she was “hysterically funny. I had more laughs with Carole than just about anybody.” Of Eastman’s work as a screenwriter, Rafelson, another longtime friend, told The Times: “I don’t think I ever met anybody—male or female—with such audacious and bold imagination.” He said this, combined with her sensitivity, allowed her to provide “rare insights, both into the culture and its inhabitants.” “Here she was, this rather thin and kind of fragile-looking woman,” he said, “and she could easily write about the most obscure things like waitresses, Tammy Wynette, bowling alleys, oil fields… There was nothing common about what Carole chose to write about.” As a screenwriter, Nicholson said, “She went her own way and wrote what she wanted to write. Everybody was always interested in what Carole was doing.” —Carole Eastman, 69; Wrote Screenplay for Five Easy Pieces

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Carole Eastman’s screenplay for Five Easy Pieces [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is NOW available from the Criterion Collection in new, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography László Kovács, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson chat on the deck of Nicholson’s home, Los Angeles, 1969. Arthur Schatz—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Jack Nicholson clowns around at his home with a picture of his friend, the film director Bob Rafelson, Los Angeles, 1969. Arthur Schatz—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Jack Nicholson at home in 1969, taking his first piano lesson with teacher Josef Pacholczyk, prior to starring as a classical pianist-turned-roughneck in the 1970 classic, Five Easy Pieces. Arthur Schatz—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bob Rafelson is one of the seminal figures that ushered in the so-called New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He had a decisive hand in creating the hugely successful television series, The Monkees (1966-1968), centred on a faux pop group of the same name, who would also appear in Rafelson’s dadaist début feature, Head (1968). BBS, the independent company he formed with partners Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, produced Easy Rider (1969) for Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The success of the film allowed BBS to finance some of the defining films of that era, including Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Rafelson’s own majestic duo, Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), two films that would shape the early screen persona of Jack Nicholson and make him the actor most associated with Rafelson’s cinema.

They would team up again for his 1981 adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and, subsequently, Man Trouble (1992) and Blood and Wine (1996). In 1976, Rafelson directed the distinctive and underrated Stay Hungry, set in the world of gymnasiums and body building contests, starring Jeff Bridges and featuring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. When dealing with genre material, Rafelson tends to skew the conventions of the mainstream cinema, as in Black Widow (1987), a nourish thriller with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell as characters locked in an obsessive game of pursuit. In 1990, he made a personal favourite, Mountains of the Moon, a cherished film on the legendary 19th century British writer-explorer, Richard Burton. While never prolific, Rafelson’s career speaks for a filmmaker who was never comfortable in the studio system and, from the very beginning, rubbed against the grain of the conventions and norms of Hollywood.

In 2006, Bob Rafelson was invited by the International Film School in Köln to hold an acting workshop on the use of monologue in film. Rainer Knepperges and Franz Müller attended the class and subsequently took the opportunity to speak to him on a range of topics. A German language translation of the interview was originally published in the film magazine Revolver (No. 16, 2007). —The Monologist and the Fighter: An Interview with Bob Rafelson

Movie Geeks United speaks with master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blow Out) about his remarkable career and friendship with fellow cinematographer László Kovács.

Photographed by Bernie Abramson © Columbia Pictures, BBS Productions, Five Easy Pieces Productions, Raybert Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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