It's a cruel transition that only happens in the movies, it seems, where you can be so good at doing something that you no longer get to do it. We turn actors — real talents who can become anyone — into movie stars, at which point we no longer ask them to act and become anyone and instead merely require them to show up and be themselves. It's the most tender trap of all, and there aren't a lot of actors who avoid it — and it's something I couldn't help but think of watching Five Easy Pieces, the 1970 drama that gave Jack Nicholson one of his first standout roles as Robert Dupea. Robert's a gifted musician from an elite family who we first meet working in the sun-burned oilfields of California, far from privilege and ease, shacked up with a pouting waitress names Rayette (Karen Black) who keeps asking him to say he loves her and gets only silence in return.
Five Easy Pieces, helmed by '70s moviemaking icon Bob Rafelson (who directed '70s classics like The King of Marvin Gardens but also gave us The Monkees) and written by Carole Eastman, is a character study and a unforced, natural drama that works even though it shouldn't. Roger Ebert, in his review, calls it "the first Sundance movie," and in his way he hits it on the head — it's a rambling, talky-but-silent road trip with plenty of long scenes and disorienting leaps in the editing and story that covers more mental geography than physical miles on the road. But it's not some nerdy, niche film either; Five Easy Pieces earned four Oscar nominations, for Original Screenplay, Best Picture and acting nods for both Nicholson and Black. Five Easy Pieces makes for fascinating watching because while you can see Nicholson becoming Nicholson, you can also see him really playing a part — the bursts of riveting, rough intensity are there, but they're tempered by a sadness that Nicholson would lose sight of in later performances. By the '80s, audiences and studios ensured Nicholson played the guy who always won; in 1970, Nicholson could still play a man who knew how much he could lose.
Five Easy Pieces doesn't feel like a modern movie; it has the infamous "chicken salad sandwich" scene — where Dupea, told he can't order just toast at a diner because of the "No Substitutions" rule, asks for a chicken salad sandwich on toasted brown bread. Hold the lettuce, and the mayo, and the tomato. And the chicken salad. It's a great scene, but every time it's played on some Oscar night clip reel, they show Nicholson's drawling request and his subsequent crazed glass-smashing fit but they leave out how Dupea doesn't, in fact, get his toast.
But Five Easy Pieces isn't a one-man show, either; Robert's maddened and matched by Rayette, who may not have his superior education, but nonetheless knows a few things he doesn't. Black may be best known for a series of scream-queen parts in '70s horror films, but she never lets Rayette become a joke. When she explains to him that he better treat her right, because "There isn't anybody who's going to love you and look after you as good as I do," you can see both of them rankle at the idea, depressed by the possibility she's right.
There are ugly emotions in Five Easy Pieces, but there are beautiful moments, too, like when Dupea, stranded in a traffic jam, leaps into the back of a moving truck and starts playing the piano he's found there, showing some of the mastery he learned as a boy and shuns now in a brief expression of joy. (It's a moment so beautiful, in fact, that it was later turned into a cola commercial, which is, depressingly, why the scene may seem familiar.)
Dupea leaves California for the Washington coast to be with his family; his father's ill after two strokes, and Rayette comes along for the ride. Duprea keeps some of his family at arm's length (while seducing his brother Carl's protégé, Catherine (Susan Anspach)) but takes his father — paralyzed, silent, possibly not even capable of hearing — out for a walk and talks in clipped, bitter sentences about who he is and why he is that way, sharing everything with someone who may not even be there to hear him. It's a raw, real scene, and while it's hard to like Robert Dupea as Nicholson plays him, it's easy to understand him, too. Once upon a time, Jack Nicholson was just starting out, long before the renown he's trapped in today; Five Easy Pieces is a great place to witness the roots of that transformation, and glimpse a little of what was lost when an actor became a star.