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‘Five Easy Pieces’ at 50: How a Female Screenwriter and a Fiery Jack Nicholson Helped Launch the New Hollywood

FIVE EASY PIECES, Jack Nicholson, 1970
Courtesy Everett Collection

If the action-fueled, hit genre films “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 and “Easy Rider” in 1969 were the shotgun blasts whose breakout success opened the filmmaking doors for what became known as “The New Hollywood,” 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” actually better represented the kind of film that the era’s aspiring young directors, producers, writers and actors were dreaming of making in those heady, hopeful days.

It’s been 50 years since Bob Rafelson’s powerful, perceptive drama about a young man torn between a life of white privilege and high culture in the Northwest and a more earthy, elemental existence in the oilfields of Bakersfield, scored critical raves and four Oscar nominations; for best picture, Jack Nicholson’s lead performance as Bobby Dupea, Karen Black’s supporting turn as his lovely but not exactly Mensa-contending waitress girlfriend Rayette, and Carole Eastman’s still dazzling, still wise and worldly screenplay.

You don’t have to be a twenty-something would-be intellectual punching a steel mill time clock in 1970 to appreciate the film, but I still remember the first time I saw it in Westwood on opening weekend. I’d made the 60 mile trek to L.A. from my mill town (Fontana) only a few times back then and I remember thinking at the end of the film that drew me into The City, “Who is Adrien Joyce? (Eastman’s nom de plume) and has she been reading my mail?”

Within a few years I’d have my own gig working inside the Roger Corman low-budget indie moviemaking machine that helped fuel the careers of Nicholson and Eastman, but in 1970 I was a lot closer to Bobby Dupea’s adopted world of oil-rigging rednecks than to the Jeff Corey acting classes and B-movie sets that set the table for the decade of game-changing movies to come.

I knew it moved me, challenged me, stimulated me, but I had no idea who made the film or what inspired them to tell a story that appealed so strongly to those of us out in the hinterlands as well as those in snootier places that came with fresh espresso and freshly-issued college degrees.

The film’s casting director, Fred Roos (who’s also an Oscar-winning producer), recalls the creation of “Five Easy Pieces” from deep inside that filmmaking world. That illustrious moment quickly led to landmark American films such as “Chinatown,” “Godfather I & II,” (“II” co-produced by Roos) “Shampoo,” “American Graffiti,” (which Roos helped cast) “Badlands,” “Last Picture Show,” “Apocalypse Now” (Roos co-produced) and so many others.

No, it wasn’t an accident and yes, it all started in Europe.

“Where we all kind of bonded,” recalls Roos, “was going to those kinds of movies; the French New Wave, Italian films by directors like Antonioni and Fellini. (Director) Monte Hellman formed a little film society and we would go in groups to see the newest European films at the Coronet Theater on La Cienega or the Cinema Theater on Western and afterwards we’d all go as a group to Pupi’s (a Sunset Strip coffee shop) and talk, talk, talk, it to death.”

The “we” that Roos casually refers to as his fellow Eurofilm buffs were some of the key pre-”New Hollywood” artists such as Nicholson, Hellman and Eastman, who’d all made a wonderfully Euro-styled obscurantist Western called “The Shooting” a few years earlier. It also included “Shampoo” and “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne and actress Sally Kellerman, whose role in “M.A.S.H.” put her in competition for the supporting actress Oscar against Black in 1970.

Roos also remembers the 1970 “vibe” around the film’s producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who were riding high indeed after the mega-success of their little motorcycle movie that could, “Easy Rider.”

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Karen Black, Billy Green Bush and Jack Nicholson in 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” Courtesy Everett Collection

“The whole feeling at BBS (Schneider and Rafelson’s production company with Steve Blauner after “Pieces”) and with Jack (Nicholson) and all of us was ‘We’re where it’s at, we’re cool, we’re hip, we’re looking down at the rest of the industry,’” says Roos. “It started with ‘Easy Rider,’ so they had that success and The Monkees thing (Schneider-Rafelson produced the TV series) carried over. It was kind of cool to be part of that.”

Roos also notes, more ruefully, that the “New Hollywood” quickly bore a strong resemblance to the Old One. “They turned into moguls overnight with the same kind of tightness about money. There was an arrogance about them and not always a pleasant side. I always liked Bob and Bert, but Blauner, I didn’t like a bit.”

Roos also finds irony in the fact that “rebel” Schneider “came from the heart of the studio system. In his mind, he was rebelling, breaking away, even though he couldn’t have gotten BBS started without the help of Columbia Pictures and his father (Columbia Pictures president Abraham Schneider.)”

But on the artistic side of the “Pieces” puzzle, Roos says it really all started with the word and the woman behind the script, his fellow art film fan Carole Eastman. Even 50 years later, she still elicits awe from Roos, who marvels, “Someone still needs to make a movie about Carole Eastman!”

“I remember reading it (the “Pieces” script) very, very early. I’m sure Bob says he shaped it and made it better and maybe he did. But the movie it became and the script I read were in my memory, one and the same. It was such a beautiful piece to read. And what’s it about? You can’t just say in a sentence what it’s about and so it was just like going to see the new Antonioni, or the new film from the French or the Czech New Wave.”

And going back to the “we” that made films like “Pieces” and other New Hollywood gems, Roos describes the casting process as natural and organic as the emerging filmmakers’ caffeine-fueled cinema diatribes at Pupi’s.

Among the film’s riches are an array of characters who sprung fully-formed from Eastman’s pen and Roos’ found the perfect actors to bring their memorable lines and still-provocative quirks and musings to life. One of the most colorful is certainly Helena Kallianiotes’ hilariously ecological doomsaying hitchhiker.

“I knew Helena through Carole. She was Carole’s sidekick and they were such a great duo. Carole, the intellectual woman and this wild Greek girl who’d been belly dancing, someone without much education. I remember Carole would be at her house writing and Helena would come in and say, ‘When are you going to stop that typing?’ She never called it ‘writing.’ Just ‘typing.’”

Dupea’s father in the movie was played by veteran actor William Challee. This is where Roos’ roots as casting director for top TV shows like “That Girl,” I Spy” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” which featured Challee, came in handy.

Challee “had really stepped away from acting” recalls Roos “and started the Ankrum Gallery on La Cienega. But when I watch the scene between him and Jack where he can’t speak and Jack pours out everything, I can’t imagine anyone else.”

Lois Smith, lately of “Lady Bird” and who’ll soon be seen in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” scored a New York Film Critics Circle nomination for her work in “Pieces” and this is one case where Roos the insider found his actor the same way I found “Pieces:” on the big screen.

“Do you remember her in ‘East of Eden?’” asks Roos with a fervor in his voice as if talking about a performance he saw last night. “She played a young servant and I loved her in that film! I never forgot her. So over the years I had interviewed her and knew her and met her in New York. The minute I read the script, I cast her in my mind.”

If you haven’t seen “Five Easy Pieces,” it may be a canon title of the “New Hollywood” of decades ago, but don’t hold that against it. It’s a movie made by a gang of film lovers, Roos’ “we,” who weren’t so far from the time in the late 50s and early 60s when he remembers them all as “being total outsiders, trying to break in scuffling just to get a day’s work.” It’s a film borne out of their collective love of the kinds of movies that it seemed no one in Hollywood wanted to make. Until they did.

And if you’ve never seen it, and you’re not from around these parts, it might even inspire you to quit your job at the mill and try your luck in Hollywood.

If so, I’ll see you at Pupi’s after the movie and we can talk, talk, talk.