No matter what variety of cinephile you might be, it’s pretty damn hard to settle on a favorite Jack Nicholson performance from his golden run in the late ’60s to the early ’70s. Some swear by his crazed, magnificent turn as mental patient Randall P. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next,” while others may be partial to his reefer-mad, conspiracy-spouting lawyer in the seminal outlaw flick “Easy Rider.” My personal pick would have to be Nicholson’s pitch-perfect turn as private dick Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s immortal “Chinatown,” but there’s no denying the power and magnetism that he exhibited in “Five Easy Pieces,” the 1970 film for which Nicholson was deservedly nominated for his first Oscar (he lost, but ended up taking one home five years later for his stellar work in ‘Cuckoo’s Next’).
Bob Rafelson’s drama, about a hard-living blue collar sonofabitch named Bobby Duplea who’s running away from his past as a pampered musical prodigy, is a bruising, blackly funny look at the wayward drifters of America and an undeniable high point for ’70s cinema. Rafelson’s masterwork —it was only his second film, following 1968’s trippy “Head,” also featuring Nicholson— has recently been graced with a well-deserved Criterion Collection release. Seriously, how gorgeous is that cover art? In addition to audio commentary and excerpts from an unearthed AFI interview from 1976 with the director, Criterion’s signature “three reasons” to watch the film are included, as well as an amusing and informative look into the making of the film’s now-famous diner scene.
For those who have not seen the film, the aforementioned scene sees Nicholson’s frequently pissed-off Bobby trying to relay a very complicated food order to a very bored waitress (“an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast – no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce and a cup of coffee,” in case you were wondering). The scene is definitely memorable for its cutting, uncomfortable comedy as well as the thread of latent tension that ripples through the dialogue, but it’s also an incredibly revealing character moment, showcasing Bobby’s irascibility in an unexpected key. The scene is perhaps unsurprisingly at the top of the “three reasons” list, although I’m a bit baffled as to why the Criterion folks neglected to include the film’s unforgettable, dreamlike midway sequence where Bobby starts playing piano in the bed of a stranger’s pick up truck during the mother of all traffic jams.
What do you guys think? Sound off and watch both of the videos below. “Five Easy Pieces” is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the Criterion Collection.