Note: This is a recurring feature on some of the greatest individual scenes in movie history. Please be aware that the posts in this series will often reveal major plot elements, and maybe even surprise endings, of the movie in discussion, so proceed with caution if you haven't seen the movie before.
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Directed by Bob Rafelson
“Half a Conversation” (scene 27 on the DVD)
Five Easy Pieces is probably most often remembered as being Jack Nicholson’s first starring role in a major Hollywood movie (as well as being his first Oscar nomination as a lead actor), and honestly, it’s really the movie that gave us the “Jack” persona that we all think of (a little rebellious, doesn’t like the rules, has some swagger but also some cockiness, and maybe a bit of crazy). Sure, he refined his signature style in The Last Detail (1973), and then perfected it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), but this is absolutely where it first manifested. It’s also possible modern audiences will have some sort of vague recognition of the infamous diner scene, without necessarily having any idea what they know it from. But for some reason, the movie isn’t remembered for being what it is: a classic. It never turns up on lists of “movies you must see before you die,” and didn’t make the cut on either version of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films.
The first half of the movie introduces us to Robert Eroika Dupea (Nicholson), a California oil worker who seems to live a pretty typical blue-collar American life, though perhaps a bit of an unhappy one. Robert clearly doesn’t much care for his attractive but fairly vacuous girlfriend, Rayette, who works as a waitress and spends all her free time singing to him. He also doesn’t seem to really like his job or his best friend, and he finds empty sex with a girl he meets at a bowling alley. Robert seems to feel like he doesn’t belong in his own life, but we don’t know why. He finds out from a friend that Rayette is pregnant, and he finds out from his sister that their father has had a stroke and is in dire health. This prompts a road trip back home to the Pacific northwest, with Robert reluctantly taking Rayette along because he didn’t know how to leave her. Robert’s arrival at his family’s home commences the second half of the movie, as well as the revelation of what he ran away from.
It turns out Robert Eroika Dupea (his middle name comes from Beethoven) is a piano prodigy who comes from a long line of classically trained concert pianists, a profession that his father, sister, and brother all share. It’s never explicitly explained why he ran away from both his family and his talent, but it’s plainly visible that he doesn’t feel comfortable in their lifestyle. He falls in love with his brother’s beautiful student and sleeps with her, and then finds out she’s actually his brother’s fiancée. When he tries to convince her to choose him, she asks him “if a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something—how can he ask for love in return?” This prompts Robert to finally speak honestly with his father, who is unable to respond due to the stroke, but can understand all too well.
In an acting career decorated with numerous accolades and iconic roles, I really believe this is Nicholson’s finest moment. The heartbreaking honesty with which he admits “things go bad” whenever he stays in a place too long, and the way the tears come not by what’s said, but by what he’s unable to say. Considering the almost zany over-confidence that defines so many of his best characters, it’s rather disarming to see Nicholson break down and show so much painful vulnerability. Because this was one of Nicholson’s first major roles, audiences at the time had the luxury of simply viewing the character, and not really seeing “Jack Nicholson: Mega Star.”
If The Graduate (1967) was the first major movie to prominently make a point of showcasing the ennui that an entire generation was experiencing, Five Easy Pieces was surely the movie that turned the “ennui and disaffection laced character piece” into an entire sub-genre of filmmaking. (And where would the careers of Sophia Coppola and Noah Baumbach be without such a genre? Lost in Translation is definitely the feminist grandchild of Five Easy Pieces.) Moviegoers in 1970 had never before seen a character like Robert Dupea, someone who refused to accept the life he was meant to lead, and who clearly wanted to get away from a lot without necessarily going toward anything. The movie also came along at a time when Hollywood was suddenly on the cusp of a new wave that valued truth in character over an audience’s theorized desire to see a happy ending. After spending the movie’s first half looking at the life Robert ran to, and the second half seeing the life he ran away from, the movie ends with Robert running yet again, in a final shot of haunting longevity.