It was amidst the pre-production for the Vincent Minnelli picture, On a Clear Day Your Can See Forever, when producer Robert Evans was at a loss. He could not find a single person who seemed to fit the role of Tad, the brother of Barbara Streisand’s Daisy. In one of the final casting sessions, Evans claims to have finally said, "Hold it!" Thinking he was speaking of the young man they were watching act, his head of talent said, "I think he’s terrific too, could be the next Jimmy Dean," to which Evans replied, "No, not him. The other guy. The one who didn’t talk. The smile." And after weeks of tracking him down, Evans finally met with “the smile;" all he wanted was to hear the guy talk. He asked the kid what he’d been working on: Just finished a flick that could be a real winner. Been in the can for just a month. Somethin’ about it’s real interestin’…it’ll turn ya upside down. Evans didn’t understand "a fuckin word the guy was saying," but he thought he was original. Not even knowing if he could act, he was cast—signing him, off nothing more than a flash of that devilish grin. "It sure in hell was a first for me, mesmerized by another guy’s smile."
That incredible mug happened to be the now legendary and iconic man of many talents, Jack Nicholson—who, at the time was beginning to garner attention from audiences with his minor but stand-out role in Dennis Hopper’s ode to a generation lost in the search for the American Dream, Easy Rider. Having left his home in Neptune, New Jersey, to pursue an artistic career after hearing he had "the face of an actor," Nicholson began earning his chops, studying meticulously on his craft in acting classes. And it was there that he met lifetime friend and collaborator, the master of B-movie schlocky brilliance, Roger Corman, with whom he would go on to write, direct, and star in pictures for throughout the ’60s. [Sidenote: If you’ve seen last year’s documentary Corman’s World, it’s impossible to forget the exposed and tender moment in which Nicholson tears up and begins to cry talking about Corman’s importance to him and how their relationship changed his life.]
But it was a time when a host of young actors, writers, and directors were on the precipice of something huge, about to take over Hollywood and lay their bones as the frontiersmen of New Hollywood, a movement that would shake a generation. Influenced by everything from Charlie Parker’s jazz, Marlon Brando’s performances, andthe writing of Camus and Sarte, Nicholson and his friends—Hopper, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, and Monte Hellman—were "the first people in America who weren’t buying the American Dream," recalls Nicholson. The "accent was on Holden Caufield-style iconoclasm, Beat intellectualism, and going to parties, but the focus was always on film acting and directing," as noted by Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray in their 1984 book Hollywood Films of the Seventies.
But before he became the smooth-talking, charismatic wise-guy we consider one of the cinema’s greatest personalities—hell, the studio heads at Paramount during the casting of Chinatown weren’t even sure if they could sell him as a romantic lead—he was known around town as a versatile character actor. But even throughout his early career—solidifying just how wrong those producers were—he still managed to tackle an array of diverse roles in every genre. He dug his hands into every aspect of filmmaking, working as a writer, director, and actor while a part of BBS (previously Rayburt Productions), an independent American company formed in the ’60s by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who together developed The Monkees. BBS went on to put out some of the most prolific films of the early 1970s, including Peter Bogdonovich’s now-classic black and white drama The Last Picture Show. BBS launched the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars but most notably that of Nicholson with the Rafelson-directed film, Five Easy Pieces—an amalgamation of American road movie, in-depth character study, and European art film.
Made for under $900,000 in 1970, Five Easy Pieces was the first Columbia-financed BBS release and worth every dime. Written by Carole Eastman, the film drew on Rafelson’s own life and the collective unconscious of the time. The leading character Bobby Duprea (played by Nicholson) represents an anonymous American existence. He’s a man who hides in the culture of others, never having to face the permanent sense of indecision that plagues him. Bobby is a volatile and aggressive man who rejects his intellectual, upper-class background, preferring to disappear in the life of an everyday man. He’s a classically trained pianist who chooses the life of a hard-hat—working in the oil fields and living modestly with a big-haired, Tammy Wynette-singing, truck-stop waitress, Rayette (played to perfection by Karen Black). Bobby doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. This sense of displacement echoes the anxieties of the time, not knowing where the world was heading or how to deal with the onslaught of social dissonance.
Bobby represents a post-1969 frame of mind, when it wasn’t only the youth culture that was feeling the social and political afflictions of society. The "hippies" of the previous generations weren’t the only ones going through upheaval and anger but "could now be seen in any American." Easy Rider served as the ultimate symbol for that previous generation of youth counter-culture, and now Nicholson was here with that same sense of ill-ease and disillusionment, but in the character of an everyday man’s own identity crisis. Bobby wanted to escape the confines of his own upper-class background by assimilating into the blue-collar working class, a place where he would be free from pretense; he feels "alone in his ordeal," but that sense of isolation reflects the culture at large.
Bobby is "terminally ambivalent" as Kent Jones puts it: "watching the film is like being compelled to sit down with a stranger and hear the tale of an unresolved life." He wants to be free of class distinction, but no matter what world in which he exists, he finds himself devoid of feeling or ability to truly connect with those around him. He’s affected by them and will occasionally show a hint of passion or wild sexual impulse, but can never commit to a feeling or place, let alone a person. There’s a nonchalance about the poor way in which he treats the people in his life, namely, Rayette. Around her, he acts hostile, as if he’s held captive by her oppressive love for him. His distain for her is palpable, and you can feel the anxiety he has just being in her presence. He acts on his need for freedom by sleeping with other women and lying to her while still feeling possessed by her feelings towards him. In a brilliantly acted scene, Bobby tells Rayette he needs to leave for a few weeks, to which she responds with despondence and desperation. At first he doesn’t invite her with him, but as he gets in his car to leave, he begins flailing his body around, banging the steering wheel, knowing the right thing to do is to bring her along, but the thought makes him want to put his head through the windshield. But she comes along, and thus begins the road movie aspect of the film.
His father is dying. At the request of his sister, Bobby agrees to travel to his family’s home, which represents the antithesis of the life he’s been living with Rayette. While traveling between these two worlds, the road serves as a place where Bobby’s disaffected psyche can really hit its stride, adhering to no one and nothing. Vast highways and open roads have always served as a romantic metaphor for personal expansion and possibility, or opportunity and the promise of something better lying just beyond the next stop. When you’re in transit, you’re unknown and the world feels free of consequence. Even though Raynette is with him, he drops her off at a hotel and heads to be with his family alone. While there, he has an affair with passionate woman who attempts to pull some feeling from Bobby, but his lack of desire to pick a side—even to his emotions—turns her away. In the end, he chooses that anonymous life, a "self-exile," as Kent Jones put it.
J. Hoberman said that Five Easy Pieces is "predicated on the non sequitur," making it similar to the European art films of the time. It takes our expectations of cinematic convention and flips them on their head. It’s like traveling down a long road that keeps veering off in different directions, with pit stops on the way that never provide anything but momentary enjoyment and brief revelation, only to disappear before the next sudden turn. There’s one scene in which Bobby is stuck in traffic in the passenger seat of his friend’s car. He sees a piano sitting on the back of a flatbed truck in front of the them and simply exits the car and hops onto the truck to play some Chopin—as if the world is watching. The truck drives off as we see it disappear in the distance, and Bobby continues to play, unruffled. The next scene is at the diner where Rayette works; there is no mention of the flatbed experience again. In a similar vein, Rayette’s pregnancy is hinted at once, but never mentioned again. It’s a novelistic film with flourishes of the absurd set in the vivid and dust-filled American landscape of the time.
But what the film does best is provide a vehicle for Nicholson, showing the strength of his acting abilities. Five Easy Pieces is Bobby’s world and thus Jack’s world. His character’s wise-cracking attitude and outbursts established Nicholson’s maniacal acting style that would characterize him throughout the rest of his career. His performance is truly the work of someone completely dedicated to his craft and able to disappear into his characters without losing sight of himself. Although he did receive an Oscar nomination for Bobby Duprea, he lost to George C. Scott in Patton. But awards are no matter; what’s important was how, after 43 years, the film still feels important. Not only does it encapsulate a bygone generation, but it speaks to the questions of identity and the desire to escape that we hold onto, regardless of time.