When Bobby (Jack Nicholson) plays some Chopin for Catherine (Susan Anspach) in Five Easy Pieces (1970), he claims he feels no emotional connection to the music. Catherine, on the other hand, is brought to tears. “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response,” he says.
Despite his rejection of her attitude, the two start a brief fling. He seems to genuinely see something in her that he can’t find in any other aspect of his life, but her lust for him soon rears the ugly head of reality, and she deems Bobby to be someone incapable of love. As such, he isn’t deserving of hers.
Bob Rafelson uses Five Easy Pieces to make multiple commentaries on Bobby’s disillusioned category of character types from the early 1970s. The film notes changing gender roles, economic status, masculinity, and most of all, identity. The latter is Bobby’s central crisis. He abandoned an upper-class childhood where musical talent was rampant and success almost guaranteed to bumble through life as a self-made American idealist. He forewent tradition and values and vocation with an intent of aimlessness, yet has realized he is equally discontent in either lifestyle. As a consequence, he is insincere in almost everything he does. Rafelson contrasts the first half of the film with the second as warm versus cold, evoking the warm colors of southern California against the cold gloom of Washington's Puget Sound.
But perhaps most effective as a translation of Bobby’s inner conflict is his choice of women.
Rayette (Karen Black) is a waitress, and Catherine is his brother’s fiancee. Bobby seems drawn to Rayette’s evident sexiness and her authentic candor, as she lacks the pretentiousness he ran away from as a younger man. This rebellion against pretense shows up late in the film when he flips out on Samia (Irene Dailey), the intellectual woman at his father’s house who is over-analyzing everything and everyone. “What gives you the right to sit there and tell anybody about class and who the hell's got it, and what she typifies,” Bobby shouts at her. “You shouldn't even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate! You’re full of shit!” He defends Rayette for possibly the only time in the film. In this moment, he sides with her, with the life he has chosen, and an image of why he left that family becomes abundantly clear.
Yet, despite that defense, Bobby finds Rayette intellectually inferior to him and has contempt for her simple-minded nature. He can’t stand the idea of settling down with a woman like that and raising her child, as that would mean he would fully embody the slumming lifestyle he has adopted. Even though he abandoned his life of privilege, the seeds of his upper class upbringing carry through his personality. Rayette is the type of girl whose life lessons are likely drawn from the country music she cherishes, and she would stand by her man no matter how poorly he treated her. Though there is something to admire in that, Bobby treats his own life as a structureless series of new beginnings. Locking down with her is out of the question.
Contrasting Rayette, Catherine is intelligent and cultivated and Bobby finds the idea of her becoming trapped at the family estate with his physically impaired brother an ill-fitting fate for someone of such promise.
Bobby spends a bit of the film fussing over he and Catherine’s potential, suggesting they elope and make their own life. It may be the best idea Bobby has ever come up with towards giving his life purpose, though it would arguably come at the expense of Catherine’s benefit. She declines his suggestion, and Bobby falls hard. The film’s end scene effectively illustrates that if she won’t run away with him, he’s going to simply run away with himself, as he always does.
Five Easy Pieces does a great job of contrasting the two shades of Bobby’s character through the two major females in the story. Though each has their positives, Bobby is likely to live a life of romance discovered primarily with the likes of the casual bowling alley girls he meets early in the film, as their lust is as dismissable as Bobby’s own life.
Like he tells his father, “I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.”