It took some time to decide whether to put Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces or his later King of Marvin Gardens on to my 100 best list. Both films, made in the early 70s, starred Jack Nicholson and expressed the particularly American angst of the period.
In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays a man – whose middle name is Eroica, after Beethoven, and who once studied to be a concert pianist – who rejects middle-class aspirations in favour of a messy life as an oilfield rigger. In King of Marvin Gardens, he is an introspective all-night talk jock whose brief hope of getting away resides in his brother’s moonshine plan to win a gambling concession in Hawaii. Both films are funny, poetic and touchingly observant of the kind of American society you don’t often see on film. But they are deeply melancholy at the same time, as if there’s no rational reason for their characters to behave as they do, only cracked emotional ones.
Rafelson had great success with Five Easy Pieces, which pitched Nicholson into stardom every bit as much as Easy Rider. But the more tragic and acutely personal Marvin Gardens is perhaps ultimately the more reverberating film, pitching into real tragedy with a ludicrous murder at its end. In any case, Rafelson, hard as he continued to try, in particular with Stay Hungry and The Postman Always Rings Twice, never managed the same amazing grace again.
What made Marvin Gardens so good was the dovetailed playing of Nicholson as the talk radio man and Bruce Dern as his conman brother – hopeless cases who can’t manage their lives or the equally well-drawn women who come into contact with them. Dern lives with an ageing blonde, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her pretty step-daughter (Julia Anne Robinson) and the film achieves a sexual contest between them. Rafelson’s portrait of a wintry Atlantic City as a down-at-heel holiday and gambling resort seems to point up the characters’ disillusion. Only Louis Malle, in Atlantic City, pitched a tale into such accurately crestfallen waters.
Rafelson, David Thomson has said, is “a raconteur of vivid, touching events, himself looking on from the dark”. And in both films what we see are people we can’t dislike, and who seem very real, struggling to make sense of lives which have ceased to be capable of the kind of redemption they hesitantly seek.
It’s possible that, after this extraordinary beginning, Rafelson’s kind of highly personal cinema became more and more difficult to make. More likely, however, times moved on without him. It happens to the best of directors as well as the worst.