Thursday, November 14, 2013

154. US director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970): One of the finest examples of screenplay-writing from Hollywood















A lot of thought goes into writing a good screenplay. Unfortunately movie directors often walk away with the credit that ought to be shared with the screenplay writer first unless, of course, the director comes up with a cocktail of visuals and music that takes center-stage pushing the script into the background. Among the best of American screenplay-writers that come to ones’s mind are Horton Foote (Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ernest Lehmann (Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).  Another brilliant screenplay-writer in the same league was the late Carole Eastman (credited under her pen name Adrien Joyce), who wrote the screenplay of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Going by the movie credits, the original story was co-written by Rafelson and Eastman, which was developed into a screenplay by Eastman.

Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, the blue-collar oil worker

Carole Eastman’s screenplay is simply brilliant. For nearly half of the film, she builds the character of Robert ("Bobby")  Eroica Dupea (played by Carole’s real-life friend, Jack Nicholson). The viewer is gradually convinced that Dupea is a blue-collar oil rig worker. The spoken words, the accent Nicholson employs for the first half of the film, and his body movements betray no evidence whatsoever that he was brought up in sophisticated white-collar world of fine tasteful living.

Nicholson as the blue-collar oil industry lout yelling at every one, even dogs

The first indication of the real “Bobby” Dupea is when he gets agitated at being caught in a traffic snarl, gets out of his car, and starts clambering up on another car before the owner yells at him to get off, only to get on the back of a truck carrying household goods that include a piano. The sight of a piano transforms the character of Booby and he sits down in front of the piano and plays Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. The viewer is likely to be shocked for the first time—how come this blue collar oil-rig worker can play Chopin without notes minutes after he was ranting and raving as an ill-mannered ruffian. And Dupea gets so involved in playing Chopin that he does not realize that the traffic is now moving and that the truck he is in on is pulling away in a different direction to his friend’s car. Hats off to the brilliance of Carole Eastman to build up a character and then gradually peel off the made up personality of the oil-rigger Dupea so effectively and in such a dramatic manner!

If the viewer rewinds to what Eastman and director Rafelson have offered up to that point in the movie, Dupea’s disdain for Rayette‘s (Karen Black) Tammy Wynette songs suddenly makes sense. Dupea’s taste for music is apparently notches higher than that of Rayette—a fact that seemed clouded by Rayette’s not very bright demeanor.  But the strength of the screenplay is not limited to the mere ability of the writer to shroud a character and then reveal it. It is also in the second part of the script/movie that we realize that Bobby’s character is not just refined but smart, when he ia ble to order his omelette and toast when the combination is not available on a restaurant menu apart from revealing what he is used to having for breakfast with his real family.
The transformation of Bobby (Nicholson) is evident when he wants a more
sophisticated breakfast than what's on the menu, as Rayette (Black) looks on 

The deeper strength of the screenplay lies in using music to structure the tale.  The “five easy pieces” refer not to five easy women Bobby Dupea  interacts with (Rayette, the bowling alley girl, the two hitch-hikers and Carl’s girlfriend Catherine)  but instead with five classical pieces of music used in the second half of the film—Chopin’s Fantasy (played by Dupea on the truck),  Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue (played by Bobby Dupea’s sister in the recording studio, while Bobby watches), Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.9 (played by Bobby Dupea’s brother Carl and his friend  Catherine while bobby watches), Chopin’s Prelude in E minor or Op. 28, no.4 (played by Bobby Dupea at the request of Catherine and played on the soundtrack of Polanski’s The Pianist) and finally Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor played briefly after Bobby and Catherine have sex. These are all popular pieces for the piano but they are definitely not easy compositions but apparently given to music students as easy works to practice and master. 

Bobby Dupea proves on two occasions that he had fluent mastery of these pieces, that he was probably the most talented person in the musical family, and yet he had a disdain for all that his well heeled family stood for. He liked the family nonetheless, but he was running away from the comfort it offered to his own world of his choosing.

The brilliant screenplay has the Dupea family names linked to music as the family indeed is. Bobby or Robert Eroica Dupea has a middle name linked to the popular name of Beethoven’s Third Symphony,  Bobby Dupea’s sister name is Tita, short for Partita—a term in music for a suit of musical pieces, and  Bobby’s brother Carl has a middle name Fidelio, the name of Beethoven’s only opera (the very name Kubrick would later use enigmatically in his Eyes Wide Shut).

While viewers would wonder where Bobby Dupea is headed at the end of the film a close look at the Eastman’s screenplay provides all the answers. Bobby tells his sister that he will see his father before heading for Canada; the truck driver says he is heading north of Washington State, which would mean Canada or Alaska; and the hitch-hikers given a lift on Bobby’s car talked of Alaska being “clean.”

The transformed Bobby (Nicholson), suave in actions, speech and dress, as sister "Tita" watches 

Beyond the structure and the references to classical music that encompasses the Dupea family (in stark contrast to the Tammy Wynette world of the simple-minded Rayette), the film presents an alienated but very thoughtful Bobby Dupea. Bobby comes back to comfort a hurt Rayette who is sulking in a car lot alone in the night. Again Bobby could have left behind Rayette before going to see his family but he takes her along. When friends of his family poke fun of Rayette’s mental capacity, he comes to her rescue and rebukes her tormentor. Finally, when he wants to cut off his links with Rayette he gives her his entire wallet. So also Bobby cares for his father and his sister. The script builds up a caring Bobby Dupea, who even rushes to the aid of his male friend who is being chased by two strangers.

The script paints the world of USA upset with the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the drug culture, and what classical music meant for upper-class elite even if their lives were dysfunctional and lacked communication in contrast to the blue-collar workers who ‘seemed’ to be more responsible about family responsibilities. The long one-sided “conversation” between him and his father who cannot speak is memorable as it defines Bobby Dupea’s character so well “I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of... I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really... I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking... for auspicious beginnings, I guess... I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say... Tita suggested that we try to... I don't know. I think that she... seems to feel we've got... some understanding to reach... She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with... The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway..I am sorry it didn’t work out.” And Nicholson breaks down and cries. The end of the film reprises these very thoughts without those memorable words. Equally trenchant are the words sculpted by Eastman for Catherine to describe Bobby “You're a strange person, Robert. I mean, what would it come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something... How can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?” The words will be unforgettable for any sensitive viewer even after the movie ends. 

It is easy to misconstrue that the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces solely belongs to director Bob Rafelson, even though it is arguably Rafelson’s finest cinematic work, if not one of the two of his finest works, if one wishes to bracket it with King of the Marvin Gardens. The main architect of this film will remain Carole Eastman, who too, never reprised her feat in writing scripts as she accomplished in this film ever again. Eastman’s screenplays for Rafelson in Man Trouble (1992), for director Jerry Schatzberg in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), and for director Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) never got as sophisticated as in Five Easy Pieces. Just like many truly memorable works from Hollywood, Five Easy Pieces was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed win even a single one. It was nominated for in 1971 for Best Picture/Film, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Actress (Karen Black for her convincing role as Rayette, the simpleton).

Transformed Bobby: Not relating to the way of life of his upper class family

To his credit Jack Nicholson is simply amazing in this film as when he breaks down in front of his father towards the end of his film. Nicholson might be remembered for his fascinating Oscar winning turns in Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brook’s As Good as It Gets but his role in Five Easy Pieces needs to be bracketed with those two.

Silent reflection: Rafelson's and Kovac's touches of creative masterstrokes

Director Rafelson went on subconsciously looking for scripts to make a trilogy on the male US adult that would progress from an alienated son (Five Easy Pieces) to brother (King of the Marvin Gardens) to father/stepfather (Blood and Wine) all with Jack Nicholson.  They never equaled the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces, because even though Nicholson was on hand and he had the Hungarian émigré Laszlo Kovacs as the cinematographer, at least for the first two films of the trilogy, because the brilliant Carole Eastman was missing from the matrix.


P.S. Five Easy Pieces won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Director, and Best Actress (Karen Black) among several other awards.


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