Five Easy Pieces is one of the great masterpieces of the New American Cinema that stretched from 1967 to 1979 or thereabouts. Directed by Bob Rafelson (whose sole directorial feature before that was the Monkees’ trippy triumph Head) and written by Carole Eastman, the movie is practically a filmic version of Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a prescient gleaning of bad vibes in the society at large—in September 1970, when the movie came out, no other movie was within ten miles of its grasp of the unsettled feeling that the country was going through at that moment.
The movie has several striking set pieces that stick in the mind—Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea playing piano on the back of a truck, a long hippie harangue by a hitchhiker played by Helena Kallianiotes, and so forth—the best-known scene in the movie, the one that has the highest likelihood of getting thrown into an Oscar montage, is unquestionably the diner scene in which Dupea, finding himself hassled by an irritated waitress who is intent on enforcing the eatery’s “no substitution” policy, violently sweeps his right arm across the table, upending several glasses and a few placemats.
Pupi’s Combination Bakery and Sidewalk Café
Criterion has just released on YouTube an interesting excerpt from the extra features of its new Blu-Ray edition of Five Easy Pieces, which was released yesterday, in which Nicholson and Rafelson discuss the origins of the scene. It turns out that Rafelson had been annoying waitresses all over the country with his (reasonable-sounding) substitution requests—indeed, still does—while Nicholson had actually pulled the table sweep at least once before:
We all hung out in a coffee shop called Pupi’s up on the Strip. We were actors, so we’d go in there, sit there all day, lookin’ at people, and I came like at the end of the afternoon, and I ordered up my coffee, but they’d been there three or four hours, and I’m sipping the coffee, and Mrs. Pupi came over, and she—she took my coffee! I mean I hadn’t even—I had just got there. “You people have to get out of here” and so forth. And I said, “Oh really?” and I went like this and I just cleared the table.
It seems that Carole Eastman witnessed this incident and incorporated it into her screenplay. The restaurant in question was Pupi’s Combination Bakery and Sidewalk Café, and Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Nicholson treats the incident as follows:
Pupi’s is where Jack flew into one of his storied rages one night, quarreling with a waitress and threatening to kick in a pastry cart. That is the incident Carole Eastman said she drew on when she wrote the famous “no substitutions” scene for Bobby Dupea. … Maybe Jack actually did kick in the pastry cart. Or maybe he didn’t. It is one of those legends. …
If nothing else, Nicholson’s account in this interview is a useful corrective for what McGilligan calls a “legend”—it wasn’t a waitress, it was Mrs. Pupi herself, and there’s no mention of a pastry cart.