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By David Schmüdde · July 27, 2011
As a director, the most difficult conflict to convey in cinema is the one happening within. Five Easy Pieces (1970) does an admirable job of comprehensively presenting a man, Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), whose inner-state is completely at odds with his visible activity. The script's primary technique is to surround the main character with significant women who, by the way they're treated and react, demonstrate Bobby's mettle. This differs significantly from Bob Rafelson's finished film.
From the except below, we'll see that Rafelson chose to simplify the supporting characters and convey Bobby Dupea's nuance through sound design and camera techniques. The scene encapsulates all that is wrong with Bobby and his tumultuous relationship with Rayette. She is deeply committed to Bobby, but Bobby is emotionally abusive and distant, only allowing her to see parts of who he really is.
FROM SCRIPT: How It Reads
Five Easy Pieces (1970), Adrien Joyce (screenplay & story) and Bob Rafelson (story)
EXT. RAYETTE'S HOUSE – DAY
(TAMMY WYNETTE'S "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" OVER:)
moving from his car, up the walkway and entering Rayette's house.
INT. RAYETTE'S LIVING ROOM – DAY
ON THE STEREO
playing the above song.
… a rumpled blanket on the couch, to…
… a can of beer and a lighted cigarette burning in an ashtray on the coffee table.
BOBBY: (calling out) Hello?!
He crosses to a hall and moves down toward the bedroom.
BOBBY: You have the day off?!
He steps into the doorway, to see:
Rayette, lying in bed, her back against the pillows, staring at the wall.
BOBBY: Are you sick?
BOBBY: You heard about Elton, I guess.
She turns her gaze to the window. He looks at her briefly, then:
BOBBY: Okay, I get your point.
As he moves to the closet:
BOBBY: Hope you didn't strain yourself, getting in here and into your pose before I hit the door.
He picks up a suitcase from the closet floor, grabs some of his clothes from the rack, and, moving to a chair, sets the suitcase on it and begins packing.
BOBBY: I have to go home. My father's sick.
Rayette turns on her side, making a snorting sound of disbelief.
BOBBY: Yeah, it's very funny.
He moves to a dresser, extracts his underwear and returns to the suitcase.
BOBBY: I'll be gone two or three weeks.
RAYETTE: (not looking at him) You'll be gone, period.
He closes the suitcase, secures it…
BOBBY: I'll try and call you from up there.
… and picking it up, moves around the bed toward the door. He stops, setting the suitcase on the bed and looking down at her.
She is still faced away from him, her shoulders trembling as she weeps soundlessly.
BOBBY: (very emotional) Come on, DiPesto. I never told you it would work out to anything. Did I?
He looks away from her, to the window.
BOBBY: I'll send you some money, that's all I can do.
Returning his gaze to her:
BOBBY: And… I'll call you, like I said… (he pauses, then) Bye, Ray.
THE SCENE: How It Looks
TO SCREEN: How It's Improved (Or Not)
The scene starts with Rafelson electing to shoot an unsure Bobby on handheld as he enters the house. It is clearly conveyed that Bobby is more than a little surprised that Rayette is home. The organic camera work and (mostly) natural light reflect this less-than-ideal circumstance. Bobby cannot just get up and leave like he always does, he has to confront her before he goes.
The audience follows Bobby through the house and discovers the devastated Rayette through a visual reveal – Bobby opens the bedroom door so both the audience and the character first witness the distress simultaneously. Within the same take, the camera operator follows Bobby and stands in the doorway to frame up an imperfect medium two shot. This rough single-take camera work, about one minute in length, gives us a strong sense of Bobby's anxiety; his habitual desire to avoid confrontation.
Bobby's line, "Hope you didn't strain yourself, getting in here and into your pose before I hit the door," indicates his unprompted skepticism of her sincerity. This is a significant divergence from the script. Rafelson chose to omit the inserts of a lit cigarette and beer can from the film. He also fails to decisively acknowledge that Tammy Wynette's D-I-V-O-R-C-E is playing on the record player. In other words, Rayette's emotional distress is clearly staged in the script but not in the film. The script shows a glimpse of her own pitiful insecurity by attempting to manipulate her boyfriend into staying. The film, however, makes Bobby's line unwarranted, doing little for the character.
There are more simplifications to the dynamic between Rayette and Bobby. In the script, Bobby explains he is going to see his sick father and Rayette turns on her side and makes a snorting sound in disbelief. Bobby sarcastically retorts "Yeah, it's very funny." Rayette's skepticism in the script is understandable. Bobby has lied in the past. However, this time he is telling the truth. Thus her snort is more than a snort – it is indicative of the extreme distrust in their relationship – the extent of which it is broken. This interaction is cut from the film and the trade off that Rafelson is making becomes clear: the complex insecurities that inform the relationship's tension are mitigated in favor of focusing on Bobby's turmoil directly.
The scene culminates with Bobby's final emotional plea that there were no promises broken, essentially arguing that he should be able to leave her with a clear conscious. Nicholson's perfect delivery is coupled with Rafelson's unorthodox decision to deliver such an important line with the character's back to the audience. Remember, this is a man who has difficulty expressing his feelings. So although the line is delivered and written to be "very emotional," Rafelson concurrently shows Bobby hiding his feelings and holding back through the camera work and the edit. We literally cannot see the expression on his face. It is the opposite of "very emotional," but clearly shows a conflicted man.
If the dialogue between the main character and the supporting cast isn't the gateway within, then how does Rafelson approach the inner-Bobby? As previously mentioned, the long take, hand-held camera work is superb and implicitly says more than enough about Bobby's uneasiness. Furthermore, shooting a particularly emotional line from behind and obscuring the actor's face conveys a man who cannot fully express himself. These changes demonstrate a use of visual metaphor in place of dialogue. Any film that attempts to tell a story that focuses on the struggle between a man and himself is going to have to find ways to use the language of cinema to its fullest. Five Easy Pieces does just that, which is why it remains an essential viewing experience in the canon of American cinema.