Friday, January 06, 2012

Five Easy Pieces (1970) or the Elusive Quality of Fame

How do some become household names while others rest in oblivion? 

What is that makes a Star? The texture, the choices or just the Casting Director?

Why do we all know the name of Jack Nicholson, whereas that of Karen Black does not even ring a bell?

This is a companion on how to play Five Easy Pieces (1970) on the piano. Or just some random words on all-time favourite Goddess Fortuna; because, after all, it has always been her call.

Jack Nicholson and Karen Black were almost the same age, when they were chosen by pre-Postman-Always-Rings-Twice (1981) Bob Rafelson to star in his, maybe, first serious attempt at thoughtful cinema, excluding his TV episodes and his bit of psychedelic-musical-like filmic-fun Head (1968) featuring "the famous rock band Monkees" -never heard of them before, just quoting. He had written the story himself and got some help for the screenplay. It was the story of a guy who wanted to be free; or, better, of a guy who didn't really know what he wanted, and if he wanted anything at all in the first place. He wanted adventure, I'd say; changing landscape, that's all. He was insisting that it was not the case; he was running away from things that would turn bad, if he'd stay; or, at least, that was his version of the story.

Jack Nicholson had Free Rider under his belt, before going on this born-to-be-wild depiction again. Fair enough. Karen Black was playing in Easy Rider, too. Jack Nicholson went on to bind his name with   that of Rafelson, being his lead on good or not so good films, like the Postman I already mentioned, with that love-making scene on a table full of flour, which is why everybody remembers it (honestly, I do prefer the Lana Turner version, I slept during this one, remember Andreas and Evangelia?), or like the King of Marvin Gardens and Blood and Wine, which features JLO for god's sake, as early as '96. That was pretty much it for Rafelson cinema-wise, he did Black Widow with Debra Winger later on, and some other stuff, but not much. Nevertheless, his name is still a strong card in Cinema History; retrospectives are being held and books are being written. Karen Black went on to co-star with Gene Wilder, Kirk Douglas and Steven Seagal during the  early seventies. She then did The Year of the Locust, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, like she was nominated for Five Easy Pieces; where Nicholson was equally nominated and Rafelson himself, as well. We can equally see her in Robert Altman's Nashville, and on The Great Gatsby -look out, a remake coming. She even was the jewelry thief in Family Plot, Hitchcock's last picture. 

In the late seventies she was still making plenty of films, but her best era has gone; no big-name cast and directors; then some TV films, some other minor films and so on so forth. Luckily, she is still active and is getting plenty of work. She works with Altman once more on '82, playing the role of a transexual (I have to admit she surprisingly grew up to look like one) for a film for which Cher was nominated for a Golden Globe -could you ever imagine that? and then that was pretty much it. Then she turned indie. She even has a band named after her. Maybe you've seen her in The House of 1000 Corpses (2003), if you are into this kind of stuff. Or in a certain Teknolust with Tilda Swindon; but probably you really don't recall seeing her at all. She is a charm for very well-informed audiences nowadays. Still, she is there in her sixties. Working in the pictures; maybe not the best ones, but still. Even keeping a blog (presumably hacked by now).

As for Nicholson, I don't need to track back his career for you, you know better. This one went past the nominations; has won some three Oscars and uncountable other prizes. He was a confused detective-lover in Polanski's Chinatown, the guy taking down a door with an axe in The Shining, he was flying over The Cuckoo's Nest and he was using his spooky grin once more as that filthy Batman's ennemy, the Joker. This is no career, it's a hurricane. He would need ten times ten life-time achievement awards, this guy. He is engraved in our memories, his is still all around, not so much for what he does, but for what he is.

What went wrong? you will ask. I am asking myself the same, because Karen Black looked damn good and she could have been an eternal sex symbol, like many others. She had also shown signs of pure acting skill; this naive attitude and silliness in Five Easy Pieces that earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination were coming from somewhere and could be forged to something solid and powerful. But, no. I guess typecast is a good thing from time to time. I guess being a man is also good, from time to time. Karen was getting supporting roles as a waitress, a prostitute, or something else which was pining her down to her sexual attractiveness. She was blonde and pretty, she had bombshell looks, but not very sophisticated roles. And you can find dozens of bombshells out there. After all, being a bombshell doesn't last. Even if she eventually became a brunette, she didn't progress accordingly. Something about her choices; or just something about her bad luck.

On the other hand, Nicholson made his posture and traits synonym to Hollywood. After seeing this grin once, you could not live without it. Being cast as a weirdo once may be the end of your career, but in Jack's case, being a weirdo earned him money. There is a demand for loonies over there. He had plenty of time and chances to prove himself as an actor, nevertheless. He has been offered a variety of roles, or he hand-picked the ones that would give him the opportunity to do something different. He worked with Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese lately. Elegies were coming from everywhere. He also had a role in the silliest thing ever, starring the missed screen couple Whitherspoon-Owen, seriously now. I doubt that anyone remembers this or any of his faux-pas, for that sake.

Five Easy Pieces is all about photography and restraint, though. He is a well-off  young man with a background in music and a family that would like to support him. Overly support him, you could say. They could even like to have him tracked down by a detective. On that certain moment in time that Laszlo Kovacs decided to photograph with splendid contrast and desert light, we see him working at an oil field, along with his friend. They hang out playing bowling and he gets pissed because his sexy girl is not smart enough, sophisticated enough or whatever. " If you could just shut your mouth, everything would be all right". He actually says that. And she does not even get offended, such a sweet girl.

She is working as a waitress and that's as cool as it gets. She reads magazines, watches television and  looks in the mirror quite often. She can even sing country songs. She's blonde with blue eyes, she's slim and a doll. What else do you expect from a girl, man?

I understand that he wants philosophical conversations and walks in the nature and a lot of wit, but, then, why does he make her suffer? Or, why doesn't he just make it easier for both of them? This guy is confused and confusing, let me tell you. And he only decides to leave that fast train -and yes, here's a spoiler coming- after falling for his brother's fiancée, after his pregnant girlfriend shows up in the family house, and after he goes to pee in a gas station on the way back, while she is buying herself a cup of coffee. He jumps in the first track that passes by on its way to Alaska. Leaving his coat behind. Now, that's a man to play Five Easy Pieces, isn't it? It's up to you if you want to follow his path or not.

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