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Five Easy Pieces at 50: a troubling yet thrilling arrival of a new leading man | Film

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In This is Spinal Tap, Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist of the world’s loudest rock band, surprises the film’s director, Marty DiBergi, with a delicate piano composition that seems far removed from the heavy-metal sludge of songs like Hell Hole, Sex Farm, and Big Bottom. Nigel refers to it as a “Mach” piece – a fusion of Mozart and Bach – and intends it as part of a musical trilogy in D minor, which he calls “the saddest of all keys”. DiBergi thinks the piece is beautiful and asked him what it’s called. Nigel stops chewing his gum momentarily and deadpans: “Oh, this piece is called Lick My Love Pump.”

Perhaps the similarities are merely coincidental, but the most important scene in Five Easy Pieces plays out in essentially the same way. Only here it’s Jack Nicholson behind the keys as Bobby Dupea, doing a soulful rendition of Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, which at a minimum sounds like the second saddest of all keys. Though part of an upper-class family of classical musicians, Bobby hasn’t sat on a piano bench since returning to home to Puget Sound, Washington, but he’s willing to make an exception for his brother’s fiancee, Catherine (Susan Anspach), because he wants to get laid. (That’s another thing he and a rock musician like Nigel have in common.)

The performance moves Catherine to tears, just as Bobby intended, but her reaction stirs the contempt and self-loathing that’s always simmering below the surface. He tells her it’s the easiest piece he could think of, and that he played it better when he was eight years old. If she believes it reflects some heretofore masked inner feeling, she is mistaken. “I faked a little Chopin,” he says. “You faked a big response.” That doesn’t mean Catherine is wrong to notice some flicker of soul in that moment – later scenes reveal that he really does feel something for her – but Bobby has spent his adult life trying to extinguish it. He won’t allow her to see the real him, whoever that might be.

Fifty years later, Five Easy Pieces still puts us in Catherine’s shoes, puzzling over this charismatic mess of a human being. After spending the better part of the 60s stealing scenes in independent films like Little Shop of Horrors and Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson announced himself as a leading man with Bobby Dupea – and, in turn, introduced a decade where flawed characters like him were possible. In the hands of a lesser actor – or even a very good actor – Bobby could come off as a sour, abusive drip, unworthy of our interest, much less our sympathy. But Nicholson plays the audience like Bobby doing Prelude in E Minor, utterly confident that he’ll seduce us into caring about a man who’s incapable of returning the love he attracts so effortlessly.

The timing of Five Easy Pieces is uncanny, coming just after a decade spent by Nicholson in independent cinema – before he was truly ready to infiltrate Hollywood in the 70s. Though the film was distributed by Columbia Pictures, the production company behind it – then called Raybert Productions and later known as BBS Productions (for producers Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blaunder) – was a flag-bearer for New Hollywood, which would import the exciting, iconoclastic work coming out of Europe at the time. Rafelson, who directed, and the screenwriter Adrien Joyce (AKA Carole Eastman), who had written The Shooting for Nicholson and the director Monte Hellman three years earlier, made a film of almost radical modesty, a character study with the richness and interiority of a great novel.

And as with all great novels, it’s the smallest details that matter. The earliest scenes in Five Easy Pieces set the parameters of Bobby’s blue-collar life around the oilfields of Kern county, California: the grueling physicality of working on a rig; his contentious domestic life with Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress he’s comfortable mistreating; a bowling outing during which he insults Rayette while flirting shamelessly with the women in an adjacent lane. It isn’t until later, when he meets his sister Tita (Lois Smith) at a recording studio in Los Angeles, that we learn that he’s running from his past as a classical pianist of impressive musical stock. When Bobby learns that his distant father has suffered a debilitating stroke, he makes the drive to Puget Sound for a visit. But he’s so intent on separating his past from his present that he deposits Rayette in a motel and heads to the island alone.

rayette and bobby hug



Karen Black as Rayette Dipesto with Nicholson. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

The big standalone scene seems like an anomaly, with Bobby castigating a waitress for not allowing him to order a simple side of toast with his omelet. His workaround for the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy is to ask for a chicken salad sandwich sans everything – “I want you to hold it between your knees,” he says of the chicken – and he winds up sweeping the waters across the table in frustration. It’s a funny moment in a film with few of them, but it’s also Bobby in a nutshell: it’s no coincidence that he’s directing his anger toward a woman who shares his girlfriend’s occupation. It’s not out of character for him to combust so dramatically. And, in the end, he doesn’t even get the toast he wanted.

But who knows what he wants? Bobby operates by impulse, which allows him to chase short-term desires like bedding women and getting toast with his omelet, but leaves him existentially adrift. Unlike the restlessness in a film like Easy Rider, which looks dangerous and cool and a lot like freedom, Five Easy Pieces is about the terrible uncertainty of being unmoored from any kind of satisfying life. The masterful closing sequence, like an elegant short story in itself, leaves the impression that Bobby will never find one, either. It’s possible to see Five Easy Pieces as representing the fallout after a turbulent decade – akin to the “what now?” final shot of The Graduate – but that would deny the specificity of a film that actively resists making statements. If it was representative of anything, it was the potential of what American film could be.


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Hear me out: why Maid in Manhattan isn’t a bad movie | Jennifer Lopez

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2002 was a bumper year for romcoms. Banking on the commercial safety of a saccharine love story, studios splashed out on everything from the Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy to Gurinder Chadha’s Hounslow tale Bend It Like Beckham, Sandra Bullock facing off against corporate shill Hugh Grant in Two Weeks Notice, matrimonial romp My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Reese Witherspoon’s nostalgic Sweet Home Alabama, to name just a few titles.

This was a golden age for will-they-won’t-they tales set to the backdrop of the new millennium, burgeoning digital literacy and predictable scripts that ensured that they, in fact, always did. Nestled amongst these releases was a critically derided, commercially dominating cultural relic: Maid In Manhattan.

The film stars Jennifer Lopez as a maid working in a luxury Manhattan hotel, who finds herself falling for a senatorial candidate (Ralph Fiennes) – who in turn has a soft spot for Richard Nixon – via a farcical case of mistaken identity. Lopez keeps up with her adopted, socialite guise until her secret is revealed and much hand-wringing ensues. Fiennes ultimately decides that her lowly status as a maid is good enough for him; he can share his wealth anyway. Over the closing credits we see that Fiennes has won his seat and Lopez has now transitioned from maid to an employer of maids.

Lopez was at the height of her popularity and power when the film was released, having broken through with the title role in Selena in 1997, then played alongside George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, before starring in hit The Wedding Planner with Matthew McConaughey, as well as reaching number one in the US charts with her second album J.Lo – a nickname coined by director Oliver Stone on the set of his 1997 film U Turn. Lopez’s money-making credentials were solid. Fiennes, meanwhile, brought an outsized theatrical gravitas to his role, following Oscar-nominated turns in Schindler’s List and The English Patient.

From the lofty, hindsighted position of this century’s increasing political turmoil and structural inequality, their pairing in the film now becomes an excellent satire on new millennium naivety – an attempt to shoehorn fairytale tropes into an unruly and unbalanced modern society.

In the film’s moral universe, the only place for women of colour is in the bowels of the hotel, performing menial work, and the only way one of the more ambitious of their ranks, Lopez, can progress is by mistakenly posing as a white socialite and ultimately romancing her way out of her social class. Above all, Fiennes is implicitly praised for his willingness to elevate her into his ranks, to be seen with someone like a brown maid in public. And in the film’s climactic scene, Lopez’s son argues that his mother should be given a second chance, making a clumsy comparison to rehabilitating Nixon after his impeachment in the process. If nothing else, we know by now that impeachment should not be so easily glossed over …

Even the film’s poster is absurd. Lopez sits on a bench in front of the Manhattan skyline in her maid’s uniform – a visual signifier of her servitude – while she daydreams in an infantilised pose an image floating in the sky of her in a diamond necklace flanked by Fiennes, him showing more than a glimpse of his future turn as Voldemort through an unnerving smirk.

With the hindsight, too, of Lopez’s scene-stealing turn in 2019’s Hustlers, here we see her acting chops in embryonic form, while the supporting cast props her up in impressive fashion. The late Bob Hoskins provides paternal authority as butler Lionel, Stanley Tucci is on reliably camp form as Fiennes’ adviser Jerry and the late Natasha Richardson is the gleefully villainous socialite Caroline Lane. All the while Fiennes holds court as the smiling, yet ominously ambitious senatorial candidate.

In a year of popular romcoms that at least attempted to incorporate the nuances of reality – immigrant experiences in Bend It Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, depression in About A Boy, southern anachronism in Sweet Home Alabama – Maid in Manhattan stands out as a curious, absurdist fairytale. It deserves another watch because of its fantastic ignorance to the context of its making. It is the unexpected death knell of the romanticised American dream onscreen; it is the last gasp of old-fashioned romcom idealism in a different world. It tells us, in the most glowing of terms, that you can’t hope to work your way into a better life any more, that in fact the odds are so stacked against you if you are a single, working-class mother that all you can hope for is a chance, mistaken encounter to be swept off your feet. And then, you too can become a profiteering business owner, enacting the means of your own subjugation on those less fortunate. Happily ever after, indeed.


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Only Old Millennials And Gen X'ers Will Be Able To Do Well On This '80s Kid Quiz

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It’s time to take a trip down memory road with this quiz!


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Does Umbridge Like You?

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“You know, I really hate children.”

Editor’s Note: BuzzFeed does not support discriminatory or hateful speech in any form. We stand by the LGBTQ+ community and all fans who found a home in the Harry Potter series and will work to provide a safe space for fans. If you, like us, feel impassioned about trans rights, learn more or donate here.

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