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April 22, 2010


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Tom Russell

A nice piece, Glenn. One of my favourite movies-- and Black is one of my favourite actresses. She's terrific in FAMILY PLOT, and in BORN TO WIN, which I became absolutely obsessed with one summer and have seen maybe thirty times.

John Keefer

I'll be revisiting this one shortly, and probably King of Marvin Gardens too 'cause who can't use some 70s Bruce Dern in their life.

This is probably inconsequential for a film with so much to appreciate but there's a little turn pulled off in Five Easy Pieces that always makes me smile. It's the 'not quite titular' line being spoken. In the scene where Nicholson sits at the piano finally he says 'I picked the easiest piece I could think of' and I can't remember when but I think five of something is mentioned. It's almost like the title puts together something the characters can't. Also a fan of the line not spoken that should be spoken as the title, i.e. Goodbye Solo

...I'm sick of all these Star Wars.

Michael Adams

Jack's 73 today.

Mike Mazurki

One of the great films of the 70s, and a great introduction to those unfamiliar with how creative and personal Hollywood filmmaking became for a brief, miraculous period of time. Everyone in it is terrific, but I'm particularly fond of little star-turns by those playing members of Jack's screwed-up family, particularly the sister, who manages to be both hilarious and tragic when having a meltdown in the recording studio. Nice cameos by Toni Basil and Sally Struthers too.

In regards to the famous last scene at the gas station, I understand Rafelson filmed a version with Nicholson going balistic and ripping the bathroom apart, but (wisely) chose to use the more subdued version for the film. I wonder if this might turn up as an extra on an upconing re-release....

Tom Block


Well, I loved it when it came out, and I still like bits of it--mostly, the feeling of the oil field scenes--but it's the polar opposite of what I think was really great about '70s cinema. If the '40s had so-called "women's pictures", the '60s and '70s specialized in men's weepies, with all these guys (everyone from Kirk Douglas to Arlo Guthrie, for crying out loud) going through angst-ridden growing pains as they tried "to find themselves", usually by doing a lot of yelling. Out of all that, "Five Easy Pieces" still managed to be an adolescent exercise in self-regard, with emotions SO big and SO intrusive that they're like tumors. Black's character--wasn't her name something subtle and restrained like Pearline?--was a shrill caricature, and the scene where Nicholson tells off the dry-ass intellectuals was a self-serving embarrassment. (Not to mention Sarah Palin's favorite wet-dream.) The angst and dramaturgy that's packed onto Nicholson's big star turn and his loaded scenes--like wheeling the old man out in a field and then breaking down over how horridly estranged and inarticulate they both are--is, ugh, I don't know what. A lot more masturbatory than genuinely moving, I know that much.

Stephen Whitty

Interesting points, Tom.

I haven't seen the film in years, but all I remember from the last time I saw the diner scene was, "Who's going to pick UP all that stuff now?" And, of course, the answer is that tired, middle-aged, $2-an-hour-plus-tips waitress that the disaffected heir has just spent so much vitriol on. And this bad behavior is supposed to somehow signify his anti-establishment bonafides?

I did like this film when I last saw it, a long time ago, but I think I'd have liked it more if it had acknowledged just how misplaced some of the Nicholson's character rage was (including against the Karen Black character). If you do have anger to express, isn't it better -- or at least, more courageous -- to take it out on people who have more power than you do, rather than on people who have less?

Again, not that I felt I, personally, had to admire or even forgive the Nicholson character. I just got the uncomfortable feeling that the filmmakers did.

Jim Davis

Some dialogue almost no one remembers after the diner scene: Helena Kallianiotes, one of the hitch-hikers, raves about Nicholson's tantrum, telling him, "Fantastic that you could figure that all out and lie that down on her so you could come up with a way to get your toast. Fantastic!"

Nicholson's reply? "Yeah, well, I didn't get it, did I?"

Mike Mazurki

To each his own, I suppose. But then again those "women's weepies" you speak of often included pivotal work from Sirk, Minnelli, Mankiewicz, etc..

It's fair to say that after Five Easy Pieces proved such a hit there were numerous attempts by other filmmakers to recapture FEP's "post-60s male malaise" - an attitude that became somewhat fashionable at the time - but my personal feeling is that few achieved the emptiness, the disquiet, the feeling of loss of something substantial that the FEP put it's finger on. Wether it ages well is largely subjective, but it still holds up very well for me. Better I think- although I love it - than King of Marvin Gardens - which teeters into a kind of morbid desolation. Basically it lacks the humor of FEP.


It's hard to know how to take the Nicholson character. The filmmakers seem to think he's a tormented soul but he comes off as spoiled, to this viewer anyway when I saw the movie years ago.

The Black character would have been overdone from a hundred yards (I didn't blame Karen Black), but I thought the worst scenes involved Catherine, the Susan Anspach character, a different kind of caricature and a lot less fun.

I could never decide if Black was misused or whether she was just always like that. I seem to remember she gave roughly the same performance in "The Great Gatsby" and "The Day of the Locust."

Tom Block

Yeah, I think Rafelson and Nicholson may have gotten too close to Eastman's character and the dramatic fireworks that it offered. Their Dupea is such an idealized creation--he for sure doesn't resemble any grown man *I've* ever met.

>that tired, middle-aged, $2-an-hour-plus-tips waitress that the disaffected heir has just spent so much vitriol on. And this bad behavior is supposed to somehow signify his anti-establishment bonafides?


I think the film *ultimately* shows how misplaced his rage is, but not until the very end. By then Black's become such a pain in the balls that you're happy he's getting away from her, and more importantly, the movie doesn't question his rage *at the time*: when he's in the act of shitting on the waitress or those strawmen intellectuals, he only looks roguish and funny and even heroic because he's supposed to be puncturing bullshit. It was a common problem in movies like FEP and The Graduate, which *look* like counterculture movies but really just cashed in on it. There's nothing remotely longhairish about Benjamin Braddock or Bobby Dupea, yet at the time they seemed to epitomize the counterculture, and it was only later that you noticed their rebellions were just acting out and that Big Brother was only some pain-in-the-ass waitress.


Glenn, read your piece yesterday in the Times. Nice you posted the link here today. One of my favorite films. Will have to make trip to The NuArt, over the weekend, to see restored version.

Also, reminded me of a fine essay written by Henry Miller, "On Seeing Jack Nicholson for the First Time" ('Gliding Into The Everglades', 1977) where he relates his experience to seeing "Five Easy Pieces" and all that is Jack.

Clearly, the film had a major impact on him. In particular, the great scene where Jack (as he always refers to him not 'Bobby' his character) is alone with his father, out on the moor. Miller had a whole other take as to how the scene should have gone. More along the line of Jack being reduced "to a babbling idiot, to a child" rather than "a man getting something off his chest". He seems to have wanted a more passionate monologue, revealing the history of their earlier relationship.

His point being, throughout the film, Jack has been wrestling with his soul, where in the scene with his father, he's out there wrestling alone.

Interesting take.

When all is said and done, it's not hard to believe how a man like Miller, could love a man like Jack.

A. Campbell

Tom's critique applies more to King of Marvin Gardens. 5EP doesn't editorialize, but also doesn't indulge... it asks us to identify with Robert, but also doesn't let him off the hook. His anger, righteous as it may in large part be, gets him nothing.

Tom Block

>But then again those "women's weepies" you speak of often included pivotal work from Sirk, Minnelli, Mankiewicz, etc..

For sure, which is why I put that "so-called" before the phrase. I think those were great films, which I can't say for stuff like The Arrangement, Five Easy Pieces, and Getting Straight.

>5EP doesn't editorialize, but also doesn't indulge

Well, it romanticizes Bobby's confusion and rage like there's no tomorrow; with his forlorn stares into the far distance (which was even on the poster) it practically fetishizes his sensitivity and angst. And if that's not editorializing in that scene with the eggheads or after Nicholson plays the sonata, then Fox News doesn't do it either.


I encourage everyone to seek out the song "Going to Alaska" by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black to top off your Five Easy Pieces anniversary viewing.

The Siren

Loved the article, Glenn, I really did; but all the same, What Stephen Whitty Said. Maybe I spent too many years behind a jewelry counter, but I hate that goddamn diner scene.

Glenn Kenny

I recall Andrew Sarris also being kind of unnerved about the mistreatment of the waitress. And yes, the film stacks the deck to a certain extent by making the waitress as unpleasant as she is.(Lorna Thayer's barely repressed sneers are really the stuff of performing genius.) But, as I wrote in my Times piece, I believe that "[t]he initial exhilaration of the rebellious gesture, though, gives way to a real sadness: The film is full of scenes in which none of the characters can get anything that they want, let alone need." Including, after all is said and done, that waitress.

As for the editorializing, well, I don't know. Maybe the film is taking Dupea's side when he tells off the eggheads. For all the good it finally does him, right?

Peter Nellhaus

Mr. Mazurki's comment reminded of the wag who retitled the film "Five Easy Riders".

For myself, I always looked forward to the releases from BBS.

Mike Mazurki

Putting me in the Biskind camp? Them's fightin' words, by gum!

Sam Sampson

What always bothered me about the finale (if I remember correctly) was that Bobby would somehow have to cross two international borders (into Canada, then back into the States at the Alaska crossing) without money, a coat, or any ID.

James Keepnews

My opinion of Ms. Black has always been colored by Donald Sutherland's comments about her not playing so well with others, notably himself, while making DAY OF THE LOCUST. No question, with the right material -- TRILOGY OF TERROR, anyone? -- she can be superb.

As far as your Rafelson/Nicholson collabs go, I'll take KING OF MARVIN GARDENS over the generally dated PIECES any old day (and I'll take Ms. Burstyn over Ms. Black most times, too, though EB is equally, um, committed as KB in KING). It's worth noting that both films + other mighty Jackwerke from the 70's (yes, CHINATOWN, THE PASSENGER, &c.) are all being screened next month at Peekskill NY's lovingly restored Paramount theater as part of its solid current/retro film series.

Tom Block

BBS fans, rejoice:


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