Scenes That I Love: Jack Nicholson’s Freeway Performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces

Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy 89th birthday to Bob Rafelson, who was one of the first directors to not only truly recognize the genius of Jack Nicholson but also one of the co-creators of the Monkees.  (In fact, Rafelson brought the Monkees and Nicholson together when he made his directorial debut with 1968’s Head.  The Monkees starred in the film while Nicholson wrote the script.)  After getting his start on television, Rafelson became one of the leading figures of the Hollywood counterculture that came to power in the late 60s and the early 70s and a business partner of producer Bert Schneider, Rafelson also played a role in the creation of such classic films as Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Hearts and Minds.  Like Nicholson, Rafelson was never a hippie.  Instead, his vision was closer to the vision of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  Rafelson and Nicholson brought the sensibility of the Beat Generation to Hollywood and, for a while at least, they changed the face of American culture.

In honor of Bob Rafelson’s birthday, today’s scene that I love comes from his 1970 film, Five Easy Pieces.  In this Oscar-nominated film, Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea.  Born to a wealthy and music-obsessed family, Bobby currently works in an oil field and is alternatively angry, cynical, and idealistic.  (That both the main character and the director shared the same first name is probably not a coincidence as Rafelson also came from an artistic family.  Though many of Bobby’s famous outbursts — especially the famous one involving a chicken sandwich — were based on things that had actually happened to Nicholson, the character was equally based on Rafelson.)  After Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated turn in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces featured Nicholson playing the type of role for which he would be best-known in the 70s, the wayward rebel who must choose between being a part of society or being forever an outcast.  

In this scene, Bobby and his oilfield co-worker find themselves stuck in a traffic jam.  Bobby gets a chance to show off both his temper and his talent.  It’s a great scene and Nicholson gives such a strong performance that it’s only later that you realize that Bobby’s anger didn’t really accomplish much.  That was a recurring theme in Nicholson’s early films.  With this scene, Bob Rafelson captures both a man and a country in conflict.

Five Easy Pieces would be nominated for Best Picture, though it would lose to Patton. After his supporting nomination for Easy Rider, Nicholson received his first best actor nomination for this role here. (Again, Patton triumphed, though George C. Scott famously refused to accept his Oscar.) Sadly, Bob Rafelson was not nominated for Best Director.

Equally sadly, Rafelson’s subsequent films received mixed reviews (though most have been positively reevaluated in recent years) and struggled at the box office. With Hollywood becoming more concerned with finding the next blockbuster than producing films about existential wanderlust, Rafelson often struggled to bring his vision to the screen. He hasn’t directed a film since 2002’s No Good Deed. However, his work lives on amongst serious film students and historians of the 70s. If any director’s work is worthy of rediscovery and reevaluation, it’s Bob Rafelson’s.

One response to “Scenes That I Love: Jack Nicholson’s Freeway Performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 2/21/22 — 2/27/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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