“I don’t know if you’d be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean… Most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of… I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really… I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking… for auspicious beginnings, I guess…”
I recently revisited Bob Rafelson’s landmark achievement in American cinema, Five Easy Pieces (1970). Jesus. Watching it, you can practically feel American film pivoting, and pivoting hard, in a way that will disrupt how movies look and feel forever after. Also, Jack Nicholson in the 1970s? Jesus. Powerhouse.
The quote I lead with comes from the movie‘s most revealing scene, the one time we truly hear our antihero Robert “Bobby” Eroica Dupea (Nicholson) express, in his own halting, fumbled words, the alienation and disconnection he feels from his own life, and everyone in it. Dupea’s near-pathological adherence to self-sabotage comes from a dark place, a self-loathing so strong he’s enslaved by it. We catch glimpses of why he’s like this. For the first part of the film, we can see he is an outsider in the life he’s living as an oil rig laborer, surrounded by blue collar survivors with whom he doesn’t seem to share anything in common. The second half of the film takes us back to Bobby’s hometown, where we discover he was a classical pianist prodigy from a wealthy, musical family. His father is now nonverbal and dying. He could never talk to his father, and it’s certainly not any easier now. He and his brother share a superficial relationship, at best. He is tender and compassionate with his sister (played sympathetically by Lois Smith), who loves him unequivocally. Their relationship seems wholly unique in his life, yet still he can’t open up entirely, or give himself freely to her.
His hatred for his life—for himself—is always simmering just beneath the surface until it explodes in moments of intense frustration. He berates his oil rig buddy Elton, “I’m sittin’ here listening to some cracker asshole lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine. Keep on tellin’ me about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke.” Later, he unloads on his siblings’ insufferable friends when one of them punches down on Bobby’s sweet, long-suffering girlfriend Rayette (an impossibly young Karen Black): “Where do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class, or who the hell’s got it, or what she typifies? You shouldn’t even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate… You’re totally full of shit! You’re all full of shit.” Bobby is uncomfortable no matter what circles he travels in—high or low brow, it doesn’t matter, he is a man perpetually out of place.
So many seventies New Hollywood films centered on antiheroes out of place, or out of time, who struggle mightily with human interaction while berating themselves for their faults before anyone else can do it for them. Bobby Dupea is an early archetype for these characters, and for how filmmakers in the seventies would handle them. Five Easy Pieces also ends on the sort of heartbreaking, bleak final shot that became a hallmark of so many of that decade’s best films. Bobby doesn’t find some miraculous salvation from a lifetime of conditioning that’s left him emotionally inert, because that’s not how life works. Everyone is a constant work in progress. One step forward often leads directly to two steps back. For all of Bobby’s searching on his visit home, it comes down to his brother’s fiancé’s blunt, truthful assessment of him: “You’re a strange person, Robert. I mean, what would it come to? 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? I mean, why should he ask for it?”
At the dawn of the seventies, in the nascent days of the New Hollywood revolution, Five Easy Pieces lead us to ask ourselves these difficult questions, alongside characters who experienced the same alienation and uncertainty that we struggled against. The answers were rarely easily available. Nicholson’s astonishing portrait of a man unable to break free of his own self-hatred remains as powerfully felt today as it did in 1970, because no matter what decade it is, our same interior emotional struggles will still be there. That’s why truly great cinema like Five Easy Pieces will always be relevant, important, and enduring.