No movie better captures the maverick spirit of Bob Rafelson and the impact he had on the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s than “Five Easy Pieces.” The film follows Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea, a former piano prodigy who has turned his back on his privileged lifestyle to embrace the life of a blue collar drifter. Dupea’s rejection of his upbringing struck a cord with the counterculture and turned “Five Easy Pieces” into a critical and commercial sensation, making it a rare film that tapped into and reflected the zeitgeist.
Rafelson, who also directed “The King of Marvin Gardens” and helped create “The Monkees” television series, died on July 23 at the age of 89. Lois Smith, a Tony-winning character actress who would later work with the filmmaker on his 1987 thriller “Black Widow,” played Partita Dupea, the sister of Bobby Dupea, in “Pieces,’ who helps set the plot in motion when she urges her brother to return to his childhood home to see their ailing father. Smith spoke to Variety about Rafelson’s directing style and the reasons she thinks his work will endure.
My memories of shooting “Five Easy Pieces” on location are among the happiest of my career. We were close to Vancouver Island and we all stayed in the same motel. Every night we all had dinner together. Bob would sit at the head of the table and we’d discuss the day’s work and then he’d walk us through what we’d be doing the next day. It was so compatible and the way one wants to work, but that’s quite rare to keep the company together and on point in that way.
“Easy Rider” had been a big moment for Jack and this came very quickly after that, but you have to remember that he was not a major star yet. I never saw anything except harmony between Jack and Bob. They were strong voices, but all of the passion and all of the strength went into the work. Because of the atmosphere that Bob created, there was a naturalness and a trust in the material and in each other. I think you see that in how real and lived in everything feels.
On set, Bob was generous and interested in what I had to offer. I never felt under his direction that he was trying to force things. I had some interesting preparation to do to get ready. In the scene in the studio where I’m playing the piano, I worked with a piano teacher so I could do a little bit of the piece. That was very challenging and lots of fun to learn.
In our scenes together, I felt the pleasure in my relationship with Jack and the uncertainty of when I’d see him again. I had big brothers who I loved, but who came and went, and I was able to draw on that. It seemed like a real relationship, and I liked that.
It was exciting and wonderful when the film came out and we played in the New York Film Festival and screened it in Alice Tully Hall. What I remember most was after it opened, it caused such great excitement. I still remember very vividly some of the moments in the movie. The performances were just wonderful. I think of Jack and Karen Black’s scenes or the shot of him playing the piano in the back of the truck, and then that moment at the end in the gas station as Jack sneaks off in the truck and the cars are going in both directions. The camera just stays there as Karen stands and wonders where Jack had gone. It was so touching. It seemed to speak to the world we were living in right then.
It was a time of big generational change. We had just come through the sixties. I was born in 1930, and I remember feeling through that decade that everything had dramatically changed. The mores had changed. People dressed differently. They talked differently. “Five Easy Pieces” encapsulated the restlessness of that era. It spoke to the sense of getting away to find what one wanted rather than just settling down and doing what we’d been told to do. There was a kind of spirit of challenging institutions and systems and habits and manners and ideas and politics. “Five Easy Pieces” reflected all that.
I seldom saw Bob after we finished shooting “Five Easy Pieces,” but then he asked me to be in “Black Widow” and when he called in 1986 he said, “Stick with me and you’ll make a movie every 16 years.”
Bob’s movies really hold up. He was very sensitive to performances and he cast well and got the most out of the actors who worked with him. He’ll be remembered for the high quality of his movies and for their pertinence. I remember him with fondness and admiration and gratitude. May he rest in peace.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.