Jack Nicholson celebrates his 80th birthday on April 22. To celebrate, we’ll be discussing our favorite Jack Nicholson performances all week in our Jackin’ It series, a collection of critical love letters penned to Nicholson’s best characters.
If you’ve never seen Five Easy Pieces, the 1970 Bob Rafelson drama starring Jack Nicholson, you might still be familiar with the well-known diner scene: Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh? Nicholson, as Bobby Dupea: I want you to hold it between your knees.
I hate that scene. Not just for the casual misogyny or the ugly classism Dupea can step in and out of at will, but because there are so many better scenes, more deserving moments to remember from the film, surely one of Nicholson’s best.
In Dupea, Nicholson inhabits both a complex character and a complicated role. The Dupea of the first half of the film is a hard-living California oil field worker, sweating out last night’s beers alongside his friend, Elton (Billy “Green” Bush). The pair carouses together, too, though Elton is married and Bobby lives with his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black). Initially it’s hard to understand why the two are together or even what they mean to one another. We don’t yet know much about Bobby, but we can discern he’s not a typical roughneck. But how do we know? I can only think of a passing bit of dialogue that mentions Bobby playing piano that might explicitly mark him as going against type. Aside from that, we infer Bobby’s traits through Nicholson’s subtle clues: his perfectionism detectable in his frustration with Rayette’s terrible bowling; his contempt for Elton’s wife, Stoney, narcotized by TV; the way his eyes lights up when two women flirt with him at the bowling alley. He’s interested in sleeping with them, of course, but it’s easy to get the impression this is a man more turned on by novelty and challenge.
And men driven solely by novelty and challenge are rarely happy men. Places get old, people get complicated. Rayette gets pregnant. Time to cut and run.
The next time we see Nicholson, he’s seemingly a different character. Cleaned up, turtleneck and blazer, Bobby walks confidently into a recording studio and listens to a woman playing classical piano. Partita, we learn, is Bobby’s sister. The two are children of an acclaimed pianist and teacher, and were raised in a rambling bucolic mansion in the Northwest’s San Juan Islands. And what Bobby learns is that their father is very ill. Bobby returns to the shabby house he and Rayette share to tell her he’s leaving to see his father. This is the first time we see Bobby’s two worlds merge. We now know who (and what) Bobby really is. Part of what makes Nicholson’s performance so layered is that he’s playing a character who has known all along. In Bobby’s mind, he lives in two different worlds, but Nicholson must play one integrated character. Bobby might be trying on personas, but it’s Nicholson who must portray the cognitive dissonance. And how the hell do you even start to do that?
Mainly, I’m guessing, by being Jack. I don’t know much about Nicholson, the man, and it’s offensive to speculate about someone I don’t know. But I don’t think that can stop me—because with a bigger-than-life star like Nicholson, the awareness of that persona can’t be completely shelved when watching him act. Like the audience equivalent of a jury member instructed to disregard a piece of stricken testimony, I still know Dupea is Jack Nicholson no matter how much I consciously try to forget it. And I know his reputation and have some built-in expectations because of it.
This role offers Nicholson the platform to work in some of his best gimmicks. (And if I meant gimmick here in a bad way, know I wouldn’t even be writing this piece). There’s his physicality, for one thing. I can’t think of many roles Nicholson’s had throughout the years that don’t build to a crescendo of physical violence at some point, even if only self-directed. Here, he beats on a steering wheel in a fit of rage about Rayette, and I wince. Here, too, he dances at the dinner table to make his sister laugh. The bit goes on just a beat too long and somehow, in that beat, the performance moves from odd to grating to scary as Bobby just barely keeps his composure. Rage is always roiling right beneath the surface with Nicholson, even down to the way he eats on camera. There’s not another actor who eats memorably, but Nicholson tears into food, taking too much and talking with his mouth open. I don’t know why, but I get the impression that if I sat down to dinner with him, I’d see the same thing.
Maybe this is a me thing, or maybe this is a woman thing (and can I even separate them?), but seeing Nicholson womanize on film feels expected, too. I assume he’s roguish and, frankly, would be disappointed if I found out he weren’t. In Dupea, that charm is turned off and on at will, and while it might be superficial, I don’t think it’s glib. I think this is the way this character wants to be seen because it’s who he wants to be: Liked for the self he chooses to present to the world. And that’s different from plain old just being liked. The problem is that it’s tough to get close to a persona.
The second half treats us to two telling moments that reveal more about this character. In the first, Dupea seduces his brother’s girlfriend, putting her into a trance with a few minutes of his piano playing. When she shares, teary-eyed, how moved she was, Dupea laughs it off dismissively. He picked the easiest piece he could play from memory, he explains. He felt nothing.
In contrast, we later say Dupea on his knees, talking to his stroke-addled father, who can’t possibly understand him. Dupea struggles to express his complicated feelings for the man, and to sum up their relationship. When I read up on this scene, I learned much of the dialogue was ad libbed by Nicholson. It’s one of those movie moments when it’s all too tempting to try and discern where the actor ends and the character begins.
After watching the film again, I realized for the first time that I’d never really considered what its title might mean. At most, my mind probably reverted to some imagistic shorthand and assumed the “pieces” were metaphorical for the different parts of Bobby’s life. And maybe that’s true. But it can also allude to the piano pieces played throughout the second half of the film (the music in the first half is all tinny honky-tonk loneliness). It’s been years since I took lessons, but I reasoned the works were recital pieces—the kind usually practiced over and over and played by rote. But I still wasn’t quite there. I reached out to a friend who teaches classical piano and sent her the names of the pieces. I wanted to know why they were considered easy. She couldn’t answer in that moment and let me know she’d think about it later. Instead, a thought occurred to her and she quickly messaged back:
“Important note: many songs played without artistry could be considered easy, but doesn’t mean they’re being performed well.”
Bobby is terrified: of commitment, of who he is, and of what that means. In taking the easiest path in life (one without expectations or obligations), he has inadvertently given himself the toughest road. Bobby can’t fail because Bobby isn’t trying. Here, Nicholson essentially pulls a Reverse Fred Astaire, making something ostensibly effortless look labored and exhausting.
It’s tiring just to think about. But Nicholson pulls it off without us growing tired of Bobby Dupea. Bobby may be playing without artistry, but in making us feel sympathy for this character, Nicholson sure isn’t.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures