Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces arrived in theatres on 12 September 1970. It was the first year of a new decade—the decade after the social revolutions of the 1960s called into question our notions about society and how its individual members interacted with the whole. These ideas were still fresh in the minds of artists, especially Rafelson’s; he had just made Head, the delightfully loopy surrealistic fantasia that ripped apart the wholesome, clean-cut image of the Monkees and replaced it with the current, hip, revolutionary zeitgeist. That film was a failure, sadly—it turns out people couldn’t really accept these kinds of radical notions from a boy band known for its teeny-bopper pop. So, for his sophomore effort, Rafelson decided to wrap this theme up in a stark, gritty, naturalistic narrative better suited to the contemporary sensibility.
The character of Bobby Dupea, played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson, is constantly torn between his own will and people’s expectations. We first see Bobby Dupea working in an oil field. It’s a laborious job, full of lifting, straining, sweating. After a day’s work he comes home to the modest, low-rent house he shares with Rayette (Karen Black), a woman wearing a waitress uniform and maybe too much makeup. Rayette is one of those girls you may euphemistically refer to as “simple” or “uncomplicated.” She cares for him and provides him with companionship, but she and Bobby don’t seem to have many deep or meaningful conversations. They hang out in bowling alleys and their friend Elton’s trailer. Their life is stereotypically blue-collar, and seems to content them both.
Dupea was born a musical prodigy into a wealthy family, but we don’t know that at the start. (It’s nothing you’d glean from observing his job, his girlfriend, his friends, or his colloquial speech.) We get a brief intimation of his origins in an early scene as he and Elton carpool to work. Traffic slows on the highway and the pair get stuck, boxed in by unmoving vehicles. “I can’t take this shit anymore!” Bobby exclaims, puts the car in park, and leaps out. Elton finds it amusing as Bobby climbs aboard a truck carrying an upright piano and other assorted furniture. He sits, and begins to play some Chopin; the instrument is out of tune, but Bobby plays with a precision and proficiency that’s uncharacteristic of his station. When traffic begins to move again and Elton calls out, Bobby just stays on the truck and plays, even when the truck exits the highway.
For someone seeming to live paycheck to paycheck, impulsively brushing off work doesn’t seem like the best idea. But it was as much a show for the stopped traffic as anything. Consider the scene where he quits work: Bobby marches up to the foreman, full of braggadocio and ostentation. “Hey Longcipher! I’m quitting!” he says simply, intending to make quite the scene. But surprisingly, the foreman replies with “I don’t give a damn what you do. I’m glad to get ridda both you dumb guys.” and slams the door to his office. Bobby looks around, and seems disappointed that there was no one to see his concise resignation. Sticking it to the Man doesn’t mean very much if no one knows you did it. Or the Man doesn’t care.
What caused Bobby’s sudden vacating of employment? Elton has found out Rayette is pregnant. This does not enter into Bobby’s plan, you see—not that he really has one, but a baby is definitely not in it. Elton commiserates with Bobby, having found himself in a similar situation a couple years before. But he ended up marrying the girl and raising the kid. “Isn’t it something you just have to face up to?” Elton says, almost unthinkingly. “I’ll tell ya, somewhere along the line you even get to likin’ the whole idea. When Stoney first gave me the news, I coulda shit!” Oh, but Bobby does not want to get to liking the idea. There is still a part of him that feels above the life he’s chosen for himself, and he shouts “Well isn’t that nice! It’s ridiculous; I’m sitting here listening to some cracker asshole lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine! Keep on telling me about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke.”
Elton, however, sees things more simply. “Well, if you’re sayin’ you think you’re somethin’ better than what I am…I can’t say much of someone who could run off and leave a woman in a situation like this and feel easy about it.” Yes, Society has very definite rules about what to do in a situation like this. It also has something to say about wealthy people with natural artistic talent, but Bobby didn’t listen back then, and doesn’t seem primed to listen now. It’s the old call of Expectation, and we now see Bobby quickly tends to run away from it.
The very next scene we see him in a suit and tie walking into a music studio to visit a renowned pianist making a recording. This is Partitia Dupea, his sister (the criminally underrated Lois Smith). He sits down at the piano with her, and this is where we learn that all the preceding scenes have been a kind of act for Bobby. Not that he was faking anything with Elton and Ray, as such, but from this scene we glean that he has adopted some persona of his own making. We now know he has gone to school, has a good education, has money. And most tellingly, Partitia seems to be the only character in the film so far for whom Bobby does not have some kind of contempt. There is a purity in their relationship which is a very important clue that the Robert Dupea we see now is closer to the real one.
Their father is ill, Partitia imparts, the victim of a series of strokes. She implores Bobby to visit him, at their childhood home in Seattle. A pregnant girlfriend? A sick father? The obligations keep piling up, and something’s going to have to give.
So, he chooses to visit his father. He returns to his house where Rayette is laying in their bed, crying, Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” spinning on the turntable. It’s clear that they are at the end of their relationship—Bobby even says “I never told you this would come out to anything. I’ll send you some money. It’s all I can do.” But it’s not all he can do. Eventually, he asks Rayette to come, and of course she says yes, not quite realizing how heavy her presence will weigh on him. So, they drive up to Washington, picking up a pair of hitchhiking, bedraggled lesbians in the process.
Having introduced all his thematic elements, Rafelson wraps them all up beautifully in the diner scene:
Robert doesn’t know what job he wants, what woman he wants, what life he wants, but goddamn it he does know the breakfast he wants. A plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee, and toast. Simple, right? Five Simple Things.
But here comes the waitress. “No substitutions.” With her dour deportment, uniform, and impenetrable devotion to arbitrary rules, she is the very embodiment of everything Robert has spent his life trying to outrun. Okay, he can accept the no tomatoes. But no toast? Seriously? Everywhere has toast. “I don’t make the rules.”
No, but she sure does enforce them. This waitress probably keeps these Draconian policies for the same reason society as a whole has its regulations. It makes her life easier. The less specialized each meal has to be, the easier it is for her to do her job, and she can go about her unglamorous work with the least amount of worry, of effort. Society has rules, written and unwritten, for a similar reason. You marry a girl after you knock her up because it supports some notion of ‘familial cohesion.’ You visit sick and ailing parents because that is what good people do, at least according to those who judge such things. You go to work and do your job everyday because it keeps you occupied and makes you a productive member of mankind, so you can provide for the kid you had after you married that girl you knocked up. Just do what you are supposed to do, just do what is expected of you and everything will go smoothly, life will proceed normally, and everybody will be content, or at least untouched, until they die.
But Robert cannot accept this. In his own life, he definitely knows what he does not want. He gave up the life of the child prodigy, fearing his life would be spent in the shadow of his talent. And he didn’t do this lightly; later in the film, when someone asks him how he could walk away from such immense talent with you a second thought, he says pointedly, “I did give it a second thought.”
And here, he gives a second thought to his order. His first impulse isn’t to cause trouble. Okay. No side orders of toast. So, why not order a sandwich with nothing but the bread?
“A number two—chicken salad san: hold the butter, the lettuce, and the mayonnaise. …Anything else?”
“Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich and you haven’t broken any rules.”
Oh, the waitress (played to crabby, ill-tempered perfection by Lorna Thayer) doesn’t like this. This sounds suspiciously like a substitution! It doesn’t matter at this point if anyone is breaking any rules: the outcome will be the same. The waitress so obviously represents the old guard; can’t you just imagine her screaming out a window “Hey kids! Turn down that racket!”
Ultimately for Bobby, it stops being about getting what he wants. After all, he probably could have gotten his toast if he left well enough alone. But he has to make a point you see. The waitress needs to know how petty and niggling she’s being. It’s an impulse I know all too well. Why be happy and get what you want when you can be RIGHT instead? So, we get this:
“You want me to hold the chicken, huh?”
“I want you to hold it between your knees.”
The rest of the film dramatizes and expands upon the thematic threads of the first half, but this iconic scene ties them all up neatly. Though, perhaps we find the greatest exemplification of the character of Robert Dupea in the dialogue immediately following the diner:
“Fantastic! That you could come up with all that and lie down on her so you could come up with a way to get your toast! Fantastic!”
“Yeah? Well, I didn’t get it, did I?”
Again, why be happy, or get what you want, when you can be RIGHT? This exchange sets us up for the film’s unexpected (and unexpectedly emotional) final shot, which perhaps deserves its own Master Moment. It is the ultimate expression of Bobby finally getting his toast.
Or maybe not. Maybe the entire point of characters like Bobby Dupea is that they never get their toast. We all know people who are always discontent, however slightly or imperceptibly, with their station in life. No matter how many jobs they have, relationships they sift through, places they live, it’s never quite right, and they spend their entire lives trying to get it there, even as they sabotage themselves from ever arriving. Maybe you’re one of those people. You might feel a certain kinship with Nicholson’s character here. If not, then he’ll likely play as incomprehensible to you, or a world-class bastard. Either way, Five Easy Pieces is a peerless study of such a character, with at least one unforgettably masterful scene.
“Yeah? Well, I didn’t get it, did I?”