My ability to evaluate Five Easy Pieces is complicated by the fact that for ten years, I worked in a factory, a job that was a bit at odds with my upbringing (and my life after the factory). I didn't grow up in an upper-class family of classical musicians, although my mother was a musician who might have aspired to a higher class of living than we had. And in 1970, I didn't know this ... I became a steelworker in 1974, and it was after that when I really identified with Bobby Dupea. And once you start identifying with a character, your reaction to a movie is suspect.
Easy Rider got everyone's attention, but it was here that Jack Nicholson announced himself as a star. It's his movie ... I'm trying to remember if there's even one scene he is not in. His charisma makes Bobby seems much more likable than he should be. We root for Bobby, we see where his inner traumas come from, we understand his frustrations with the world. The question is, do Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman offer us a dispassionate look at Bobby's world, or do they adopt his attitudes?
Bobby is better than the people he works with on the oil rig ... at least, that's how it's presented. He's better than his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). He's better than the family from which he tries to escape. The one balance to all of this is that Bobby is a rotten person, even with Nicholson's charisma, so presenting him as "better" only goes so far. It's hard to find anyone worthwhile in Five Easy Pieces ... Rayette, maybe Bobby's sister Partita (Lois Smith).
The key is the famous diner scene, when Bobby tries to get wheat toast with his breakfast. It's hilarious, it's memorable, it's iconic. And the reasons the scene sticks with us to this day are twofold: we get to see Bobby at his best/worst, and the waitress gets the abuse she so clearly deserves. Except she doesn't deserve it. She's just a poor schlub with a bad job, someone who has to take shit from customers every single work day of her life.
The scene is remembered fondly, but to give credit to Rafelson and Eastman, once you get past the delight of watching Nicholson is action, you notice ... well, as Bobby says to the hitchhiker who thinks he was fantastic in the diner, he didn't get his toast.
Maybe it's the sign of a great work that multiple possibilities present themselves. Or, more likely, I mistrust my own reaction to the movie too much. By the movie's end, if not already, Bobby is shown to be the prick he knows himself to be.
Meanwhile, there is great dialogue, the film looks wonderful, and there are several noteworthy performances, none better in my mind than Karen Black's. Her character is a stereotype, but she runs with it and turns Rayette into a living, breathing human being. And the anti-snob in me always loves the scene during the conversation among the intellectuals where she asks, "Is there a TV in the house?" Bobby's response is too on-the-mark ("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."). And the intellectuals are set up to be too easy of a target. But Black's reading of the line about TV cuts through all of that ... every time I've seen this movie, when she pipes up, I think I'd love to watch TV with her.
Of course, if I'm talking memorable performances, I can't forget Helena Kallianiotes as the ever-irritated hitchhiker, Palm Apodaca. You could make a Greatest Hits page of nothing but Quotations from Palm, although really you need Kallianiotes to get it right. Pretty much everything she says is hilarious.
I don't think I'll ever come to a final conclusion about Five Easy Pieces. But I'm guessing I'll always like to watch it. You keep on talking about the good life, Elton, 'cause it makes me puke.
When I feel worst about myself, I often think of this scene ... yes, I identify with it.