When you think of the movie FIVE EASY PIECES, what comes to mind? Odds are overwhelming that you picture the scene in which Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) gets into an argument with a waitress in a diner because she will not allow him to make substitutions in his order. It ends with Bobby telling her to hold the chicken between her knees. Even if you’ve never seen FIVE EASY PIECES, you probably thought of that scene. It’s one of the most famous in cinema history for a reason. Bobby’s quip to the waitress is funny, and the moment ends with him dramatically clearing the table. People often site this brief sequence as exemplifying all the anger and disillusionment Bobby feels, and which the film itself addresses.
But here’s the thing: that is not the quintessential scene in FIVE EASY PIECES. If we’re going to talk about the very core of this film, we need to look at a scene that comes much earlier.
When director Bob Rafelson first introduces us to Bobby Dupea, he’s working as an oil rigger. He comes home filthy at the end of the day to be with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Rayette is what you might charitably call a little tacky. He doesn’t treat her very well. Bobby likes to go over to best friend Elton’s trailer to drink beer after a hard day. Sometimes they go bowling or cheat on their girlfriends together. From everything we can see, Bobby is a blue collar kind of guy, and quite possibly a real asshole.
Then the scene occurs. Bobby and Elton are in the car. They get stuck in a traffic jam. In front of them is a flatbed truck carrying a piano. Bobby hops out of the car, jumps onto the truck, and begins playing a beautiful piece of classical music. He gets so caught up in his performance – or maybe just doesn’t want to stop – that he keeps playing, even after the truck begins moving again. In this precise moment, we realize that we don’t know Bobby Dupea at all. The real theme of FIVE EASY PIECES emerges right here.
Bobby, it turns out, has reinvented himself. As the story progresses, he returns home to Washington state in order to visit his ailing father, at the behest of his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Far from the product of a blue collar upbringing, he comes from a very wealthy, artistically-inclined family. Partita and brother Carl (Ralph Waite) are both accomplished musicians. There is a visible appreciation of culture in the home. Now back in his original element, Bobby reverts to his former self. Gone are the greasy blue jeans and denim jackets, replaced instead by button-down shirts, sweaters, and blazers. His hair is more neatly combed. Family members begin referring to him as “Robert.” His whole demeanor changes, too. Bobby starts carrying himself in a more proper way that somehow simultaneously feels natural and uncomfortable for him. Even more telling, he puts the moves on Carl’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach), a woman far more sophisticated and worldly than Rayette. This is not the oil rigger anymore. It is the man we saw playing piano on the back of a truck.
FIVE EASY PIECES is about many things, but perhaps nothing more than a man desperately attempting to construct a version of himself that he can live with. Interactions with his father and siblings suggest that Bobby never measured up in this cultured, well-to-do clan, so he invented a new personality – one that was intentionally the exact opposite of what he was bred to be. When Rayette shows up unexpectedly at the Dupea home, Bobby is deeply embarrassed by her (despite briefly defending her honor when she is insulted by a snooty party guest) and by his family’s unspoken recognition that he is living “beneath” himself. There is a climactic scene in which Bobby finally opens up to his father, who doesn’t acknowledge the emotional outpouring. He then leaves to return home with Rayette.
Or at least that’s what we think. (And this is a great big SPOILER ALERT.) The last scene of FIVE EASY PIECES finds them stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Bobby hands Rayette his wallet to pay for gas and food while he uses the restroom. Upon emerging – and away from where she can see him – he hops into the cab of a tractor-trailer after a short discussion with its driver. In a long, unbroken, utterly devastating final shot, the truck pulls away, leaving Rayette wandering around, looking for the now-absent Bobby. It’s a fascinating ending, in that Bobby’s action can be read as either cruel or merciful. Abandoning Rayette may seem mean, or perhaps he simply realizes that he’s no good for her and wishes to spare her any further hurt. Either way, we know that Bobby Dupea is still searching for himself, and this iteration of his identity has ultimately been no more fulfilling than that of “Robert.” His search continues, somewhere else down the road.
FIVE EASY PIECES is so powerful because it steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on Bobby. The film simply observes what he does. Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) allow the viewer to decide how sympathetically to view Bobby, if at all. This quality marks it not only as an American classic, but also as one of the best films ever made about the torturous act of soul-searching. Movies about characters trying to find themselves typically end with a success; FIVE EASY PIECES leaves Bobby Dupea in a place that’s possibly even less certain than where he was at the outset.
And it all begins with that scene at the piano, when Bobby’s past bursts through his present, revealing that it still exists in spite of his efforts to bury it. The heart of this character lies right there. Cinema is filled with magnificent entrances: Harry Lime abruptly revealed by an errant light to be hiding in the shadows in THE THIRD MAN, Darth Vader emerging from a cloud of smoke in STAR WARS, Hannibal Lecter standing motionless before Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, etc. To this list, we should add Bobby Dupea jumping on a truck to play a piano. We’ve been watching him for twenty minutes at this point, yet it’s the first time we’re truly seeing him.
It’s a classic moment that deserves to be what we remember when we think about FIVE EASY PIECES.
Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan