Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Easy Pieces

You probably know this already, but the Academy Awards love Jack Nicholson.  He has the most nominations (twelve) and is tied for the most wins (three) of any male actor.  Five Easy Pieces was Nicholson's first film after his breakthrough supporting role in Easy Rider the year before, which also made it his highest-profile starring role to date.  Back in 1970, Jack Nicholson was still an unknown quantity in Hollywood, so this was really a make-it-or-break-it film for him.  Now, I normally enjoy critically acclaimed movies, but I have a bad history with 1970 cinema --- what is up with all of those abrupt endings? --- so, I wasn't sure just how much I would enjoy Jack Nicholson's first Oscar-nominated role for Best Actor.

Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a rough-around-the-edges oil rig worker in California.  He's got a chuckling hick (Billy "Green" Bush) for a best friend and a ditzy girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), but he doesn't quite fit in with them.  Sure, he bowls and guzzles beer, but it all looks like he's slumming.  He talks down to his friends and pyschologically dominates Rayette, often treating her like a child.  While not necessarily important, those were some of the signs that Bobby was meant for something more than manual labor.  One day, Bobby and his buddy come to work, still drunk from the night before.  When they are sent home, they manage to get stuck in a traffic jam; looking for a cure for his boredom, Bobby sneaks into the bed of the truck ahead of his car in traffic and finds a piano.  Bobby begins to play Chopin's Fantasy in F Minor, and gets so involved that he chooses to stay in the truck, rather than stop and go home.  From this point on, we begin to learn more about Bobby, a classically trained pianist from a family of musicians who is estranged from his father.  When he learns that his father has had two strokes and will probably die soon, Bobby decides to return home to Puget Sound and reluctantly agrees to bring Rayette with.  After a road trip that was marred only by his choice to pick up obnoxious hitchhikers (Helena Kallaniotes and Toni Basil), Bobby drops Rayette off at a motel and comes home.  There, he has to deal with the upbringing he has been rebelling against, the high society that he despises, and the civilized society that he still enjoys --- throw in women that he can actually talk to and has things in common with, and Bobby is at a major crossroads in his life.

This film focuses entirely on the character of Bobby Dupea, with little regard to typical plot construction or much of a dramatic arc.  In fact, this character study is more of a detective story than anything else; what is this guy doing, slumming it with mouth-breathers?  It turns out that Bobby doesn't know either, which makes the mystery somewhat anticlimactic.  Despite, or perhaps because of, that ambiguity, Jack Nicholson's performance stands out as one of the more nuanced you're going to see in a movie.  I often complain that characters in movies are one-dimensional or basic, but this is a complex, contradictory character, and Nicholson is amazing as he brings out all the little facets in Bobby's personality.  This movie depends so heavily on this single character, and yet Nicholson goes out of his way to make the audience uncomfortable, being both drawn and repelled by his character.  There are other memorable characters in the film, but they feel inconsequential next to Nicholson.  Karen Black played the slavishly devoted and somewhat brain-dead Rayette with more passion than a ditzy role might demand, but her performance is good.  Helena Kallaniotes was purposefully annoying as the obnoxious and butch half of the lesbian hitchhiking couple, with Toni "Hey Mickey" Basil spending most of her time being quiet and staring.  Sally Struthers makes a brief appearance as a bowling alley slut, but it's nothing special.  Lois Smith and Ralph Waite are socially awkward as Bobby's siblings, which fits in their home-schooled character history, but I didn't particularly care for either.  Susan Anspach was pretty good as Bobby's sophisticated love interest, but I thought she was too reactive in her performance; sure Nicholson was an obvious force, but she could have tried to match his intensity.

Bob Rafelson (who directed and co-wrote the Monkees movie, Head, with Nicholson) directed and co-wrote Five Easy Pieces, which is nice --- I always like to know to to blame or praise for a movie.  I didn't find Rafelson's camera work to be terribly interesting, but I will definitely argue that he can direct actors.  The two most memorable scenes in the film are Jack Nicholson monologues (his quest for toast in the diner and the long-awaited talk with his father), but they are also surprisingly quiet scenes.  The acting is pretty subdued and the camera doesn't miss a thing.  You could argue that Rafelson just let Jack do his thing and filmed it, but there are a couple of moments where the director struts his stuff.  The final, dialogue-free shot of the movie, which is zoomed-out and feels like it will never end, is a great end to this movie.  When this movie ends, it is because there is really nothing left to say, as that last scene implies.

At the time this film came out, American cinema was undergoing a great change, and films were doing things they never did before --- the heroes were less heroic and more realistic, the endings weren't always happy and sometimes not really endings at all, and some of the most memorable characters of the decade were not nice characters.  Five Easy Pieces was part of that renaissance, and Jack Nicholson's performance was also emblematic of that movement.  The ambiguous ending, which I really liked, was also a sign of things to come in high-profile movies in the 70s.  I understand the importance of this movie in the context of its time --- it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress (Karen Black), and Original Screenplay Oscars --- but I think it has lost some punch over the years.  Part of that is due to the film's innovative bits becoming somewhat commonplace over time, but it has more to do with Bobby's character than anything else.

It's difficult for me to articulate what I don't like about Bobby Dupea because his character never really explains just what his problem is.  He's an underachiever, and proud of it, decades before Bart Simpson.  He is proud of his life when amongst snooty upper-class socialites, but bored when he's home.  He's talented, but indifferent about it.  While Nicholson's performance is truly fantastic, Bobby Dupea comes across as a spoiled child in a man's body.  I realize that the audience is not supposed to entirely identify with Bobby, but his character doesn't feel revolutionary any more; I admire the performance, but the character being performed is no longer a revelation.  And, I'll admit it, I'm not a huge fan of movies that cater solely to one character, at the expense of a plot.  Sure, it works sometimes, but unless some sort of artificial structure is imposed on the movie (like the Top Five lists in High Fidelity), I find my interest wavering by the end of the film.  As much as I admire the artistry that went into making this movie, the story didn't appeal to me.

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