Bob Dupea (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t play well with others. A blue-collar worker on an oil rig near Los Angeles (such things existed then), he’s moody and difficult. He treats Rayette, his live-in waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) horribly. He has one good friend, but he lashes out at him, as well.
As we discover reasonably early in the film, he hasn’t always been working class. He grew up in an economically well-off family of classical musicians. At some undefined point in the past, he ran off–and he’s been running ever since. News that his father has had a stroke brings him back home, where his two siblings still live. Here we discover the dynamics that made him what he is–a drifter who imagines himself to be some sort of rebel.
Today it’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio (Columbia in this case) financing and releasing this sort of film. And even in 1970, it was astonishing. The surprise success of Easy Rider the previous year ripped a hole in the studio system, and a generation of experimental filmmakers streamed in. No one was in a better position to take advantage of that opening than Bob Rafelson, whose company had produced Easy Rider. Rafelson produced and directed Five Easy Pieces. For more on this, see America Lost & Found: The BBS Story.
The film never asks us to like Bob, but it does make us care for him. His inability to stay in one place or relationship, his constant alienation and internal anger wins our sympathy, if not our love. He’s clever, good-looking, and magnetic, and easily gains friends and lovers (in the course of the film, he has sex with three woman–including a pre-All in the Family Sally Struthers). But when things get serious, he either becomes abusive or runs away.
Nicholson gives a brilliant performance here; probably the best of his career. He spent the 60s playing supporting roles in cheap B pictures. A scene-stealing support role in Easy Rider made him marketable. Five Easy Pieces, his first leading role, proved him to be star material.
But his isn’t the only great performance in the film. Karen Black’s Rayette is another masterwork of acting. Depressed, insecure, and–let’s be honest–not very smart, she clings to Bob with a desperation that’s heart-breaking. She takes his insults and verbal abuse, and desperately tries to bring the spark back into the relationship. She clearly lacks the confidence to dump him and find someone better.
Bob, on the other hand, clearly feels ashamed that he’s with such a trashy woman. And yet, in the one scene where he acts somewhat decently, he defends Rayette against the patronizing attacks of a pseudo-intellectual.
Other standouts in a uniformly excellent cast are Lois Smith as Bob’s loving but insecure sister, and Helena Kallianiotes as a constantly-complaining hitchhiker. Her character, who is only in the film for maybe 15 minutes, provides an unusual form of comedy relief.
Five Easy Pieces does something rare in American film. It gives us an unlikable leading man, and makes us care about him–even when it makes us care far more for the people he hurts.