In 21st Century America, we talk about race all the time. But we rarely talk about class.
While race conflict is America’s very public Achilles Heel, class differences are swept under the rug.
If you were brought up in a lower-class household, you have virtually no chance of being promoted or elected to a position of power. The Glass Ceiling has been almost completely shattered. The Class Ceiling is still there and it’s harder than ever.
If you were raised by working class parents and you want to marry into an upper-class family, it’s not going to be easy. Your in-laws are going to make you feel insecure and dumb even if they aren’t trying to.
“Five Easy Pieces” is the most insightful and culturally sensitive film about class that I have ever seen.
Jack Nicholson stars as Bobby Dupea. When we meet him, he seems to be your average blue-collar dude. He works in a California oil field. He goes bowling with his buddy. He fights with his waitress girlfriend Rayette.
Though Bobby lives in a working-class world, he never looks comfortable there. One morning – while stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work – he gets out of his car, climbs up on the back of a moving truck, and starts playing the piano. He plays like a virtuoso. Who is this guy?
Slowly, we learn that Bobby grew up in an elite musical household and was raised to be a concert pianist.
When he discovers that his estranged father is dying, Bobby drops everything and heads up to Puget Sound. Even though he’s plainly embarrassed by Rayette, Bobby brings her along. A culture clash is inevitable.
“Five Easy Pieces” is a perfectly paced drama. It’s never boring; but the story unfolds organically, like a novel.
Carol Eastman should have won the Oscar for her magnificent screenplay.
There are several important female characters in “Five Easy Pieces.” Each one is interesting and completely unique.
There’s the lesbian hitchhiker who’s obsessed with the “filth” of American culture. She says that she doesn’t want to talk about it but then she won’t stop talking. Sally Struthers is only in the movie for five minutes playing a bowling alley floozy. But Eastman gives her a powerful little speech about childhood trauma.
Above all, Eastman makes a hugely important feminist statement with Rayette. In any other movie, drama queen Rayette would be the butt of jokes. But Eastman makes her sympathetic and the emotional heart of the film.
Rayette foolishly loves Bobby and wants nothing more than for him to love her back. But it’s never going to happen. Part of her knows that Bobby isn’t being open with her. Part of her knows that he is unfaithful. Part of her knows that he looks down on her for being white trash.
“Five Easy Pieces” has an incredibly important message for young women. If your man isn’t really into you, you must leave him – sooner rather than later.
When he finally makes it up to Washington to reunite with his snooty family, we realize the full tragedy of Bobby’s life. He isn’t comfortable with them, either.
Jack Nicholson’s performance is brooding but subtle.
Bobby is not insecure or even depressed. He just does not like life at all. And he expresses his discontent by being a jerk to everyone he knows. And when Bobby can’t stand how badly he is treating someone anymore, he leaves.
“Five Easy Pieces” is as great as cinema gets: perfectly written, perfectly paced, and perfectly acted.
And it is a rare movie that has something to say about class differences in America. It is brutally tough to be a working-class woman trying to earn the respect of elites. But, at the end of the day, life is hard for everybody.