Nicholson dines out amid the 70s pieces
JACK is back, in a season of three of his lesser-known films from the early 1970s. It’s always a pleasure to watch the young master at work; between 1969 and 1980 Nicholson’s resume included Easy Rider , Carnal Knowledge , Chinatown , One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining . His directors were also masters of their craft: among them Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman and Stanley Kubrick. Nicholson must have infuriated other actors as he stole most of the plum Hollywood leads for a decade.
Directed by Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces ( 1970) is a film full of existential angst, the story of cultured rich guy Robert Eroica Dupea.
When the film opens he has long ago ditched his affluent classical music background to work as a roughneck on Californian oil rigs, both beguiled and repulsed by gentle southern beauty Rayette ( Karen Black), a waitress and aspiring country singer.
The ABC blurb for this film describes Rayette as ‘‘ a woman of average intelligence, whom he constantly insults’’.
Yes, Robert is a snob, mean, selfish and egotistical. He is also terminally insecure and a product of his times, as is Rayette, who adds a touch of masochism to her subservient mien, plus big hair and lots of mascara.
When Robert puts on a suit and visits his eccentric sister, who is recording a piano recital, the gap between his former life and his present one, hanging with the trailer park set, becomes clear.
The film proceeds in a series of interludes. Robert and Rayette drive off to his home in Washington state, meeting a couple of strange women heading to Alaska, ‘‘ where everything
Young master: Jack Nicholson stole the show in the early 1970s is clean’’. Dumping hapless Rayette in a motel, he goes to stay with his family.
His home is a peaceful if smug shrine to classical music and critical thought. Naturally, this drives Robert nuts, so he throws a few tantrums and tries to seduce his brother’s fiancee ( Susan Anspach), who is a mirrorimage of Rayette.
The film is a reflection on a troubled America, at a time when the inflexible rules of conservative life were chafing a large part of the population.
Thus the famous diner scene, where Robert wants wheat toast but has to order a chicken sandwich on wheat bread, hold the chicken, hold the mayo, etc. All this is underscored by a brilliant soundtrack from Tammy Wynette and Chopin.
Rafelson leaves many questions unanswered. We never even really know why Robert is so troubled. Will he become a Zen buddhist or drink himself to death? Will Rayette ever find true love?
Next week, another interesting Rafelson film, The King of Marvin Gardens ( 1972), followed by Hal Ashby’s underrated 1973 slice-ofmilitary-life The Last Detail .