Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Flashback, September 1970: ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Marks Generational Clash—and Nicholson as Leading Man

Five Easy Pieces, which opened at the New York Film Festival 50 years ago this month, reflected its creators’ desire to bring a French “New Wave” sensibility to American audiences, with a drama that was character- rather than plot-driven, focused on an anti-hero who could find no easy resolution to his problems.

In the process, it propelled 33-year-old Jack Nicholson—who, after a decade of acting in low-budget flicks for exploitation-movie mogul Roger Corman, had finally gained significant mainstream attention with a supporting turn the year before in Easy Rider—into contention for leading roles, even in studio pictures—a perch he would continue to occupy for the following four decades.

Although Nicholson went on from triumph to triumph, the same could not be said for his two collaborators in creating his misfit, Bobby Dupea. Director Bob Rafelson would make other unusual films (Black Widow, Mountains of the Moon), but a characteristic he shared with Bobby—resistance to authority—limited the quantity and quality of his subsequent work. (See Josh Karp's excellent 2019 profile of him for Esquire.)

The least heralded member of the trio was screenwriter Carole Eastman. A fellow student of Nicholson’s in acting class, she had come to admire his brilliance. Four of her six produced screenplays would feature her friend, but none of these was as successful as channeling his snarling but smart persona into a complex character who continually surprises audiences. (At some level, this former model may have identified with Bobby herself; like him, she was highly intelligent, funny, an object of desire, and not always understood even by those who knew her best.)

Eastman’s Oscar-nominated screenplay used the road-picture genre as the basis for its gossamer plot. But the road offers less of an opportunity for Bobby’s brooding oil-well rigger to understand himself than for the audience to glimpse his restless heart.

Meeting his sister after years away from the family, he follows her urging to see their ailing father while there is still time. Bobby must re-enter his musically minded family’s home off the coast of Washington---which, for all its pristine beauty, had led him to escape its stifling atmosphere of pretentiousness and privilege.

The “chicken salad” scene in the film’s first half, in which Bobby explodes at a waitress for the menu’s absence of his desired item (an omelet with a side of toast), is the one that inevitably ends up in highlight clips of the film or of Nicholson’s long career, as it showcases the unexpected edge that the actor brought to so many roles.

But it is a more subtle scene in the second half of the film (in the accompanying photo) that I think demonstrates Nicholson’s range, while pinpointing the source of Bobby’s aimlessness.

The chicken salad scene presented the actor with a foil—actress Lorna Thayer, with dialogue that Nicholson could react against. In contrast, when Bobby talks alone on a hillside with his father, a mute stroke victim, Nicholson had to face an actor (William Challee) who could only react with sad eyes.

Nicholson speaks jaggedly, letting the audience absorb Bobby’s anguish as he searches futilely for words that can connect him to his long-estranged parent:

“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'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say.”

Nicholson’s slow, soft dissolve into tears is a far cry from the rage he displayed in the diner scene. As Bobby pulls himself together, he confronts what he has long avoided about himself, but with no happiness realized: “The best that I can do, is apologize….We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway...I'm sorry it didn't work out.”

At the same time, the scene shines a different light on the “generation gap” than the one depicted in Easy Rider. The gap between parents and children here in Five Easy Pieces is not over counterculture issues like music, drugs or the Vietnam War, but a broader division over values—one that predated the film’s release in 1970 and endured well beyond it.

That inability to bridge the divide has left the younger generation adrift—in Bobby’s case, unable to commit to a relationship or even a steady job.

Many of the “youth” films that Hollywood greenlighted after the success of Easy Rider (e.g., Zabriskie Point, The Strawberry Statement) are little remembered these days. But Five Easy Pieces and a movie that opened the month after its release, I Never Sang for My Father, examined, in the context of a similar generational conflict, another issue that would become even more salient for baby boomers: how to work out a relationship with an aging parent in failing health.

In I Never Sang for My Father, Melvyn Douglas’ Tom Garrison represents the obdurate, querulous parent that Nicholas Dupea was before his stroke. His son Gene, more dutiful and repressed than Bobby Dupea, is similarly unable to make peace with the past issues that corrode his bond with his father. “Death ends a life,” Gene concludes, “but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”

That struggle began years before for Bobby, so resenting his father that he casts himself out of the family’s Edenic home and is cursed, Cain-like, to roam the Earth. His best actions—rushing to aid oil-field buddy Elton when he’s being assaulted, defending pregnant waitress girlfriend Rayette against a pompous visiting philosopher—end up for nothing because he sees no value in what he does.

After he makes a floundering plea to the third woman he sleeps with in the course of the film, his brother Carl’s student-lover Catherine, she rejects him to devastating effect: "You have no love for yourself, no love for family, for friends—how can you ask for love?"

Put in 2020 norms, Bobby is unable to negotiate the distance between cultural norms for his Red State acquaintances (signified by the country music in the first half) and his Blue State family (indicated by the classical music they all play, but none so well as he). Nicholson, Rafelson and Eastman showed a half century ago that this conflict, not the parental one, was cleaving its anti-hero in two. Now, we know, the entire nation feels so riven.

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