By the early sixties American cinema had begun to deteriorate significantly. The studio system had fallen and movies were neither particularly good, nor were they making much money. But by the late sixties, American cinema began to experience a renaissance. Suddenly new and talented filmmakers were making movies with great artistic integrity. Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafaelson and Roman Polanski, all emerged from this era and went on to change Hollywood forever.
One of the earliest and prominent films of this New Hollywood era was Five Easy Pieces, a film that has been on my list for quite some time, and one I finally got down to seeing recently. Directed by Bob Rafaelson, it follows the story of Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a man with a cultured upper-class background as a classical pianist, who opts for a blue-collar existence, working in a California oil field and spending time with his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black).
But when Robert discovers that his father is gravely ill, he wants to reunite with his estranged family in the state of Washington. He and Rayette take a road trip that brings the two paths of his life to an uncomfortable intersection.
Five Easy Pieces is a really absorbing character study that works primarily due to Jack Nicholson’s mesmerizing central performance. Nicholson had proved earlier with Easy Rider that he was a great character actor, but with this film he proved that he had more than what it takes to carry a film too. And his performance here as a disaffected man is full of layers and feels so very natural that it doesn’t even feel like he’s acting at all. It’s easily one of the best performances of his career. And a lot of it is because of the way Rafaelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman write his character and while his actions often make him unlikeable, he is never unrelatable.
Speaking of the writing, it’s great. The dialogue is arguably some of the best ever written, the film’s infamous diner scene is one of the best examples of the film’s great dialogue.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the touchstones of 70’s cinema. It’s a fascinating character study and compelling drama that features Jack Nicholson in one of the finest performances of his career.