Heralding the explosion of the New Hollywood—-half a decade after the conclusive fall of the old studio system—-were three successful, independent, small-budget, personal films of a kind not seen before in American pictures: In 1968, John Cassavetes’ brilliant Faces, shot in his own house and backyard in grainy black-and-white with explosively real and honest performances; in 1969, the Peter Fonda-Dennis Hopper counter-culture triumph, Easy Rider, which first set up Jack Nicholson, and which became an enduring pop-culture icon; and in 1970, the movie that not only assured Nicholson’s ascendance to major stardom but made him an emblem of his generation, directed by one of the producers of Easy Rider: Bob Rafelson’s disturbing and memorable, peculiarly American tragedy, FIVE EASY PIECES (available on DVD).
Written, with considerable input from Rafelson, by the enormously gifted Carole Eastman (billed as Adrien Joyce), the picture received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Original Screenplay, and features fresh, excellent performances from Karen Black (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Susan Anspach, Lois Smith, Helena Kallianiotes and Sally Struthers. The superbly melancholy photography was by the great Laszlo Kovacs. The New York Film Critics voted Rafelson the year’s best director.
It is difficult to imagine a film being made today with this kind of European pacing and New York intelligence combined on an ambiguous story about artistic and moral integrity. The picture could be described as an upper middle-class reverse variation on Clifford Odets’ classic, Golden Boy, the play in which a man is torn between commercial and artistic success, between being a boxer or a violinist. Here, Nicholson’s Bobby is a gifted classical pianist who has renounced his privileged upper-crust Washington State upbringing to become a Southern California oil rigger. His acquired hillbilly accent and country-western girlfriend Rayette (Black)—-who loves Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” the picture’s ironic signature song—-are totally at odds with his real background, with any of his roots. When he hears his father is dying, Bobby returns home one last time.
Ultimately, this is the tale of an artist—-in perhaps Nicholson’s purest performance—-who discovered he wasn’t good enough and so chose to renounce his talent for hard honest labor rather than settle for dishonest mediocrity. Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is a thinking man’s movie with extraordinary visceral energy backing it up. What it said as the shaky 1970s began is all the more relevant as the hapless, morally adrift first decade of the 21st century comes to an end. In movies today, values rarely seem to be an issue any longer.
The entirely independent manner in which Five Easy Pieces was made—-for less than a million dollars—-speaks of a particularly precious moment in U.S. film history (see last paragraph below). The production company known as BBS–after the first names of its three partners: Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner—-was also responsible for producing Easy Rider; the Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary, Hearts and Minds; and my film, The Last Picture Show, which received eight Oscar nominations and won two. Under a totally autonomous arrangement with Columbia Pictures, BBS could do whatever movies they liked as long as they didn’t cost more than a million, or run longer than two hours.
The company produced both Jack Nicholson’s and Henry Jaglom’s first films as directors (Drive, He Said and A Safe Place), as well as Terrence Malick’s critically acclaimed second film, Days of Heaven. The same team also presented Rafelson’s first movie, Head, which he and Nicholson wrote as a vehicle for the Rafelson-Schneider TV rock creation, The Monkees; as well as Rafelson’s complicated follow-up with Nicholson to Five Easy Pieces—-another moody, edgy family drama, The King of Marvin Gardens. The working atmosphere at BBS had a spontaneity, lack of pretense, and dedication that stands by itself in my experience, and the often risky and influential work that came out of it, therefore, is no accident. Five Easy Pieces remains one of the most distinctive and resonant of modern American films.
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This month, by the way, the uniquely enterprising and invaluable Criterion Collection is releasing a huge seven-disc box set of most of the BBS films, in Blu-Ray editions. Titled America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, it includes Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and The Last Picture Show; plus these never-before-released-on-DVD works: Rafelson’s challenging The King of Marvin Gardens with Nicholson and Bruce Dern as fractious brothers; Head with The Monkees in an avant-garde script by Nicholson and Rafelson; Henry Jaglom’s sensitive and poetic A Safe Place with Nicholson, Tuesday Weld and Orson Welles as a Jewish magician; and Drive, He Said, distinctively and daringly directed by Nicholson. All in all, a magnificently presented look (many Special Features!) at perhaps the most innovative and influential moment in New Hollywood history, and a reminder of what we gained after the old system crumbled, and of what we have somehow lost since then.