Five Easy Pieces” refers to a book of piano lessons for beginners. But the five classical piano pieces featured in this film are not necessarily “easy”. Since the film is about the central character who is alienated and a misfit I think the five easy pieces could easily be applied to our misguided notion of putting labels to people according to their race, color, beliefs, status or politics. What we end up with? If not misfits we are breeding hypocrites. Man is beyond any easy labeling since he as an individual owes no allegiance to anyone but to himself. Alas he has to reckon with society whose impact often makes him either fall in or turn back on it as the central character does.
Five Easy Pieces is a moody, thoughtful character study of an alienated, misfit. He is a drifter and drop-out. It is an unpalatable story of a rough-neck California oil rigger Robert Dupea (Nicholson) who has turned his back on his well-to-do upbringing. Why does he do it? As he confesses towards the end. ‘I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking…for auspicious beginnings,..’ A tangible proof of his past is his musical talent and it shall haunt him wherever he looks for auspicious beginnings.
He lives with an ignorant, dim-witted but kind-hearted waitress girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black) – an aspiring (and awful) country music singer. She constantly chatters and when he is annoyed she has this to say, “If you wouldn’t open your mouth, everything would be just fine.” She pathetically clings to him and smothers him with love although he is unfaithful and not committed to her:
I’ll go out with you, or I’ll stay in with you, or I’ll do anything that you like for me to do, if you tell me that you love me.
He doesn’t feel settled in the common lifestyle of a hot-tempered, Southern California blue-collar, redneck oil rigger, who drinks beer, bowls, listens to country music, and chases easy women. He might reject the cultured affluent atmosphere of his home but its mark on him is indeliable. During traffic gridlock on a California highway, when the oil-rigger leaves his vehicle, on an impulse he jumps up on a truck stalled ahead, and plays Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor Op.49 on an upright piano found there. He shall carry home wherever he may go and it shall only make him feel alienated all the more.
Give the modern parable of Cain a period of self-imposed exile of twenty years, does he settle down as the original Cain did? While visiting his sister Partita (Lois Smith) in a Los Angeles recording studio, he learns that his father is seriously ill and dying following two strokes. He plans to return to his home in the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound area, for a final reconciling visit before he is gone. In a memorable scene in his car, he struggles with himself about whether his girlfriend (now pregnant) should join him or not, fearing being embarrassed by her lack of class or refinement. In the end he decides to take her along. During the car trip north, he gives a lift to an aggressive, complaining lesbian couple, aggressive Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) and passive partner Terry Grouse (Toni Basil). The countercultural pair are on their way to Alaska to escape society and because it’s “cleaner.”
The film is most famous for the classic scene of Nicholson’s outburst while ordering a chicken salad sandwich in a diner – symbolic of the 60s generation’s rebellion and alienation during the Vietnam War Era. In this scene in a roadside diner on his way home a live-by-the-rules waitress (Lorna Thayer) stubbornly refuses to serve him a plain omelette (with tomatoes instead of potatoes), a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast, because she dryly explains: “No substitutions”:
Dupea: I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee, and wheat toast.
Waitress: (She points to the menu) No substitutions.
Dupea: What do you mean? You don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what’s on the menu. You can have a number two – a plain omelette. It comes with cottage fries and rolls.
Dupea: Yeah, I know what it comes with. But it’s not what I want.
Waitress: Well, I’ll come back when you make up your mind.
Dupea: Wait a minute. I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee, and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast…an English muffin or a coffee roll.
Dupea: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Dupea: …You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.
Dupea: OK, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A number two, chicken sal san, hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Dupea: Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress (spitefully): You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Dupea: I want you to hold it between your knees.
Waitress (turning and telling him to look at the sign that says, “No Substitutions”) Do you see that sign, sir? Yes, you’ll all have to leave. I’m not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm.
Dupea: You see this sign? (He sweeps all the water glasses and menus off the table.)
His brief stay at home leads him to a fling with the sophisticated, musical wife of his brother (Anspach) but any love between them is impossible as she tells him, ‘You’re a strange person, Robert…A person who 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?’
His stay in his father’s house proves a fiasco. As he returns home with Rayette, he ignores her observation:
There isn’t anybody gonna look after you AND love you, as good as I do.
In the bleak final sequence, he abandons her in a Gulf gas station without explanation, leaving her with his wallet and car, while he catches a lift from a northbound lumber truck toward Canada and freedom. The driver promises they will travel to an even colder climate and he could borrow a jacket: “Where we’re goin’, it’s gonna get colder than hell.” He responds: “Nah, it’s okay. I’m fine. Fine. I’m fine.”
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Karen Black), Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced.
In 2000, Five Easy Pieces was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Also the notable filmmakers Lars Von Trier, Joel and Ethan Coen, Ingmar Bergman, and the award-winning novelists Cormac McCarthy and William Gaddis have expressed deep admiration for the movie.
The movie’s most famous scene takes place as mentioned earlier in a roadside restaurant where despite appeals to logic and common sense, the waitress adamantly sticks to the rules of the restaurant, so Bobby comes up with a plan of his own as Rayette and their two hitchhikers (played by Toni Basil and Helena Kallianiotes) look on:
Back in the car:
Palm Apodaca: 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.
Bobby: Yea, well I didn’t get it, did I?
Palm Apodaca: No, but it was very clever. I would’ve just punched her out.
The roadside diner scene is iconic as a metaphor for the rebellious, free spirit of the youth of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thirty years later Nicholson would perform a scene in the movie About Schmidt which directly drew from this scene.
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Produced by Robert Daley
Written by Carole Eastman
Starring Jack Nicholson
Cinematography László Kovács
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Running time 96 min.
Palm Apodaca: Hey, follow that truck. They know the best places to stop.
Rayette: That’s an old maid’s tale.
Palm Apodaca: Bullshit! Truck drivers are the only ones that know the best places to stop on the road.
Rayette: Salesmen and cops are the ones. If you’d ever waitressed, honey, you’d know that.
Palm Apodaca: Don’t call me honey, mac.
Rayette: Don’t call me mac, honey.
Palm Apodaca: You know, I read where they, uh, invented this car that runs on, ummm… that runs on, ummm… when you boil water?
Palm Apodaca: Right, steam. A car that you could ride around in and not cause a stink. But do you know they will not even let us have it? Can you believe it? Why? Man! He likes to create a stink! I mean, I’ve seen filth that you wouldn’t believe. Ugh! What a stink! I don’t even want to talk about it.
Palm Apodaca: People. Animals are not like that. They’re always cleaning themselves. Did you ever see, umm… pigeons? Well, he’s always picking on himself and his friends. They’re always picking bugs out of their hair all the time. Monkeys too. Except they do something out in the open that I don’t go for.
Rayette: I’m not.
Bobby: You’re just gonna sit here?
Bobby: Okay. I hope no one hits on you.
Rayette: I hope they do.
Bobby: That’s dangerous, you know.
Bobby: Mm-hmm. You play the piano all day and then jump on a horse, you could get cramps.
Bobby: What are you doing screwing around with all this crap?
Catherine: I do not find your language very charming.
Bobby: It isn’t. It’s direct.
Catherine: I’d like you to leave so that I can take a bath. Is that direct?
Bobby: What else do you do?
Catherine: Well, there’s fishing, boating, and concerts on the mainland.
Catherine: I feel funny telling you this. This is really your home. You probably know better than I what there is to do.
Catherine: Well, it must be very boring for you here.
Bobby: That’s right.
Catherine: I find that very hard to comprehend. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored. Excuse me.
Catherine: You’re a strange person, Robert. I mean, what will you 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?
Betty: That’s a wig you wear, isn’t it?
Betty: Yeah, I told her it was you but that you were wearin’ a wig because on the TV you’re mostly all, uh -
[pats him on the head]
Betty: bald up there!
Bobby: [laughs] Your, your little friend’s real, real sharp. Uh, I don’t, uh, I don’t wear the wig on TV because if you’re gonna be out there in front of two and a half million people, you’ve got to be sincere. I mean, I like to wear it when I’m in bowling alleys and slipping around, stuff like that. I think it gives me a little class. What do you think?
Betty: When I was four, just four years old, I went to my mother and I said, “What’s this hole in my chin?” – I saw this dimple in my chin in the mirror, and didn’t know what it was. And my mother said – get what my mother says – she says, “When you’re born, you go on a assembly line past God, and if He likes you, He says,
[grabs her cheeks with both her hands]
Betty: “You cute little thing!” and you get dimples there. And if He doesn’t like you, He goes,
[presses one finger on her chin]
Betty: “Go away.” So about six months later, my mother found me saying my prayers, and I was going,
[holds one hand over her chin]
Betty: “Now I lay me down to sleep…” My mother says, “What are you covering up your chin for?” And I said, “Because if I cover up the hole, maybe He’ll listen to me.”
Rayette: That was real good, wasn’t it? I finally did it!
Bobby: Great. You throw the big Z’s for 19 frames, and then you throw a strike on the last ball of a losing game. Wonderful. Just wonderful.
[Turns around to bowlers at next lane]
Bobby: Isn’t that wonderful, ladies?
Twinky: Are you talking to us?
Rayette: You love me, Bobby?
Bobby: What do you think?
Bobby: [out of his car during a traffic jam, yelling at other motorists] Ants! Why don’t we all line up like a goddamned bunch of ants! Its the most beautiful part of the day!
Bobby: You keep on talking about the good life, Elton, ’cause it makes me puke.
Rayette: I’m gonna play it again.
Bobby: You play that thing one more time, I’m gonna melt it down into hairspray.
Rayette: Let me play the other side then.
Bobby: No, Rayette, it’s not a question of sides. It’s a question of musical integrity.
Samia Glavia: …It was just what I was trying to point out…
Bobby: [interrupting] Don’t sit there pointing at her.
Samia Glavia: I beg your pardon.
Bobby: I said don’t point at her, you creep.
Samia Glavia: But I was just telling about…
Bobby: 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.
Catherine: It’s useless.
Bobby: Look, give me a chance.
Catherine: I’m trying to be delicate with you, but you just won’t understand. I couldn’t go with you. Not just because of Carl and my music, but because of you.
Catherine: 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?
Bobby: Living here in this rest home/asylum – that’s what you want?
Bobby: That will make you happy?
Catherine: I hope it will. Yes.
Catherine: I’m sorry.
List of Five Easy Pieces:
* Chopin – Fantasy in F Minor Op.49, played by Dupea on the back of a moving truck.
* Bach – Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, played by Dupea’s sister, Partita, in a recording studio.
* Mozart – E-flat Maj. Concerto K.271, played by Dupea’s brother, Carl, and Catherine upon Bobby’s arrival to the island.
* Chopin – Prelude Opus 28 in E Minor no. 4, played by Dupea for Catherine.
* Mozart – Fantasy in D Minor K.397
This was director Bob Rafelson’s second film (and his best work) after he had directed the television pop band the Monkees in the mind-blowing Head (1968), a surrealistic and psychedelic film that was co-written with unemployed actor Jack Nicholson, the major star in this film, and emulated the European New Wave pictures of the era.
This was Jack Nicholson’s first major acting role. His particular delivery of lines is evident here. His acting reminds one of Brando in his younger days. For example his monologue to his dying, paralyzed father in a wheelchair in the cold outdoors, in the film’s most powerful scene. He apologizes for his abandonment of his family and talent, for giving up on his responsibilities, and for not living up to his father’s high ideals, breaking down in tears mid-speech:
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…Tita suggested that we try to…I don’t know. I think that she…seems to feel we’ve got…some understanding to reach…She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with…The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway…
He finally bows his head, sighs, and admits with sorrow, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
The soundtrack employed five songs by Tammy Wynette, including “Stand By Your Man.”
Alice’s Restaurant (1969, Arthur Penn)
Fingers (1978, James Toback)
Kings of the Road (1975, Wim Wenders)
You Can Count On Me (2000, Kenneth Lonergan)
The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby)
Stay Hungry (1976, Bob Rafelson)
The Drifter (1966, Alex Matter)
World Traveler (2001, Bart Freundlich)
The Brown Bunny (2003, Vincent Gallo)
Adam at 6 a.m. (1970, Robert Scheerer)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper)
Stay Hungry (1976, Bob Rafelson)
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981, Bob Rafelson)
Head (1968, Bob Rafelson)
On the Nickel (1980, Ralph Waite, Robert Waite)
The Secret Life of John Chapman (1976, David Lowell Rich)
Drive, He Said (1971, Jack Nicholson)
Other Related Movies
is related to: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)
Man Trouble (1992, Bob Rafelson)
(ack:wikipedia,allmovie, Filmsite.tim dirks)
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