JACK NICHOLSON: FIVE EASY PIECES/Us Upon The Screen
By Alan Chrisman (All Articles ARE written BY ALAN CHRISMAN), copyright 2012-2015 (A Praveen Patel has tried to hack them and claim them).
One of the fascinating things about art to me is how we, as the audience, invest what we see, hear, or experience with our own meanings. The artist produces something from his own experience or imagination, and we meet them half-way. I think the artist, almost like a psychic, perhaps picks up something in the air, often before the public, and articulates that and we identify with it. Each of us has our own interpretation of that though, depending what we ourselves are going through. A lot of this is unconscious which makes it even more powerful, so that it’s etched into our memories and perhaps takes us back to where we were or whom we were with at the time. And occasionally, a piece of music, film, writing, painting, etc. even reaches a level that it becomes almost universal in scope, and those become our in-common cultural experiences.
One of my favorite Jack Nicholson films is Five Easy Pieces (1970). Most people probably know it from the diner scene; they usually show it each year at the Academy Awards. You know the one, where Nicholson, gets mad at a snooty waitress, because he can’t order something because it’s not on the menu and he blows up. Why do we remember that scene? Because we’ve all probably been there, dealing with a service person or a bureaucracy, and felt like doing the same thing- so it becomes a universal experience. Nicholson , of course, would go on to make many more memorable films like Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, Terms of Endearment, China Town, Batman, etc. And the year before, in the generation-defining, Easy Rider, Nicholson, although on screen for a short time only, playing a small town liberal lawyer, almost steals the film. He had been in small budget Roger Corman flicks before like Little Shop of Horrors, but it was Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces that made him a star.
Easy Rider, which became one of the touchstones for my 60’s generation, I had happened to see at a particularly important moment in my life. I saw it in a little art theatre on the University of Illinois campus; actually the very night before coming to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft. I remember, there weren’t many people there that evening, but a few bikers (the main characters, co-written and played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are two hippies who ride motorcycles, rebelling against the system). The film hadn’t yet become known as the symbol of the counterculture it was soon to become and that would lead to a youth revolution in Hollywood film making. But it was clear to me that this Nicholson actor was going somewhere. Seeing Easy Rider that final night along with John Lennon’s recently released song,“ Come Together” ( ‘All I can tell you is you’ve got to be free’), were the final deciding factors for me, along with my political and moral beliefs, for making make that life-changing decision. So again, we invest these cultural events with our own clearly personal experiences and interpretations.
Likewise, Five Easy Pieces also has very personal reasons why it resonates with me still after all these years. Looking back, although I haven’t seen the film again for the last several years, there are so many great scenes in it, I still remember, besides the diner scene.
It’s basically the story of the main character, Bobby (Nicholson), who’s working on oil wells in California. He’s dating a working-class waitress, played wonderfully by Karen Black (who had been briefly in Easy Rider the year before). But we soon learn, Bobby is not what he seems. He was once a classical piano prodigy (thus Five Easy Pieces’ title and the excellent combination classical music and Tammy Wynette/”Stand by Your Man” country music soundtrack), who’s been pressured by his sister to come and see his estranged, dying father. So he reluctantly travels north with Rayette (Karen Black). There’s a funny scene on the way, where they pick up two female hitch hikers, one of whom goes on and on about all the “filth “in the world.
When he arrives at his father’s (after leaving Rayette at a motel), we see his other background. There are a few other classical piano students including his sister, an effeminate man, and a sexy woman (played by Susan Anspach). There’s a stand-off, at first, between the clearly attracted bull-male Nicholson character and somewhat femme fatale Anspach. They spar like two animals in heat and finally do consummate the act. And it’s a great summing up of the two sex roles. There’s a get together later where some pseudo-intellectuals put down working-class Rayette (Rayette has shown up, despite Nicholson, telling her not to) and Nicholson defends her. There’s also a very moving scene, where he tries to communicate with his estranged father, finally. Five Easy Pieces is to me, among the best acting that Nicholson was ever to do, as well as Cuckoo’s Nest (he’s the most Oscar-nominated male actor in history). Nicholson’s friend, Bob Rafelson, supposedly based it somewhat on Nicholson’s own life. Nicholson didn’t realize that his “parents” who raised him were actually his grandparents and that his “sister” was actually his mother. Interestingly, Bobby (Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces) also has a hidden background, for some reason, that he’s running away from. And Nicholson and Anspach had a real-life relationship.
Again, I identified with this film and character as I had to flee my own land and family. At the end of Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson hitches a ride with a trucker going North up to Canada. The trucker throws Nicholson, who has left everything behind, a jacket and says,” You’d better take this, where we’re going, it’s cold”.
It’s easy to see why, of course, that scene and film meant and still does, mean so much to me, mixed with my own emotional experience and time in my own life. In fact, I end the first chapter of my memoir/book about coming to Canada and becoming involved in music, “It’s A Long Way Home” (& How Beatles’ Music Saved My Life), with that quote from that Five Easy Pieces scene. That’s what those great moments in music, movies, etc. do for us all, in different ways. Excerpts from Alan Chrisman’s memoir available: http://www.rockthistownproductions.com
See Nicholson’s classic “Diner” scene from “FIVE EASY PIECES” film:
We’ve all been there too!