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.
BAFTA is the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and every year there is a BAFTA award ceremony held in London, which is kind of the British equivalent of the Oscars. For the 1974 awards, hosted by the always suave David Niven at the Royal Albert Hall, a few of the important winners had to pre-record their acceptance speeches due to filming commitments. One of the deserving winners that night was Jack Nicholson, who won the BAFTA for Best Actor for Chinatown and The Last Detail. As Nicholson was on a set in Salem, Oregon filming Miloš Forman celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he sent over what is probably the best ever in absentia acceptance speech in BAFTA history with a little help from Danny DeVito, Louise Fletcher and some of the other inmates.
This is one of those weird episodes that you’d think you would hear more about….. I can hardly find anything about this on the Google machine. As a result I suspect I’m missing some key points of information.
As Wikipedia indicates with its usual dry understatement, “Lois has been accused several times of taking credit for others’ ideas and for exaggerating his participation.” To read his book Covering the ‘60s: George Lois, the Esquire Era is simultaneously to gape at the sheer visual genius behind the covers and to cringe at the sheer magnitude of the the ego on display (in his accounts of how the covers came to be). Often his stories have more than a whiff of a self-aggrandizing tall tale that is short on a few key details. If you click on the links in the last paragraph, you can read some of his ego-fueled prose for yourself—really, he seems like a spirit animal for Robert Evans.
So by 1972, Esquire had spent several years being one of the most talked-about magazines in America. Landing a Lois cover wasn’t just a good placement, it was the most happening place you could be. So in 1972, after Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and Drive, He Said in rapid succession, it was becoming increasingly clear that Jack Nicholson had become an actor to seriously reckon with. So when Lois asked if Nicholson would agree to appear naked on the cover of Esquire, it’s not so strange that Nicholson said yes with alacrity.
The crazy thing about Lois’ account of the October 1972 cover with a naked Jack Nicholson on it is that he never quite says out loud that the cover never made it to press. There’s an allegation of Nicholson’s agent shitcanning the cover and a tale of a power play in which Esquire editor Harold Hayes and Lois were forced out, but while we’re reading that, our eyes are taking in the visual evidence of a perfectly finished October 1972 Esquire cover with a naked Jack Nicholson on it. But in fact, it never ran. Here, read for yourself:
The manuscript was all about the high jinks of L.A.‘s Hollywood community. So photographer Timothy Galfas and I convinced the biggest movie star of them all to be photographed, bareass. Since the story related how hotdogging Jack Nicholson had greeted the writer wearing nothing but sandals, a hat, and a cigar [!], convincing the irascible rogue to post in the buff was a cinch. He loved my covers and wanted to support what he called “the best magazine ever.” Esquire’s ad boys, of course, once again thought “Lois has gone too far.” But this time, even as the covers were roaring off the high-speed printers, management shouted: “Stop the presses!” Nicholson hadn’t told his agent he had agreed to pose, and the concerned agent was threatening to sue the magazine. In 1972, nudity was no joke. Well, when Harold Hayes called to say the owners had killed the cover, in effect cowtowing to the oncoming power of the celebrity and their business agents, I knew it signaled the end of an illustrious road for Hayes at Esquire.
It goes on in that vein for a little more. I love Lois’ characterizations of what other people think of him, Nicholson “loved my covers” while the “ad boys” think “Lois has gone too far,” etc. Hell, maybe it’s all the gospel truth. (Personally, I don’t really buy this story of the agent being the heavy here, that’s the role of the agent, to take on the client’s worst aspects, to represent his or her self-interest. It’s entirely possible that Nicholson changed his mind….) I also adore his dated gossip columnist’s patter, “high jinks,” “irascible rogue,” “in the buff,” “cowtowing,” etc.
Fortunately it doesn’t take but a minute to find out what Esquire actually had on its cover for October of 1972, and in fact, the cover that ran was almost as interesting—a picture of a young and un-mustachio’d Burt Reynolds, naked from the chest up, peering down at his nether regions in a dismayed fashion next to the words “The Impotence Boom.”
The odd thing is that this shitcanned cover seems to have had virtually no echo. If you Google, in various combinations, the terms “Jack Nicholson,” “George Lois,” “Esquire cover,” and “October 1972,” there isn’t that much out there to find. Apparently nobody’s that interested that Nicholson came that close (hold thumb and index finger a little apart) to appearing naked on the cover of Esquire.
Before his roles in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces propelled him to perma-fame, actor/writer/director Jack Nicholson performed in two bit parts on The Andy Griffith Show. His first appearance was in 1966, as the husband of a woman who forgot her baby outside the Mayberry Sheriff’s Office, to have it discovered and rescued by Opie. (It’s season 7, episode 10, if you want to watch the whole thing on Netflix.)
Maybe this is just values dissonance at work, but no amount of suspension of disbelief in the world can get me past the idea of a ranking law enforcement officer simply handing an abandoned baby over to a strange couple just on their say-so—not even in ‘60s small-town America, and least of all when the claim they’ve laid on the child is a explicit admission of horrifying negligence.
His second appearance was a meatier part in 1967, around the time he began making serious turns toward the weird, writing the script for Roger Corman’s bizarre attempt at counterculture pandering The Trip and appearing in the drugsploitation oddity Psych-Out. But in Andy Griffith’s season 8’s episode 7, Aunt Bee is called to serve as a juror and finds herself recast as Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men. Nicholson plays the defendant. I suspect there’s loads of potential in this episode for a mashup with A Few Good Men.
Self-taught Detroit-based sculptor Bob Causey aka Bobby C creates these incredibly realistic life-sized and scaled down busts. In an online interview with The Armchair Empire, Bobby C discusses how long it takes to make one, “Upward to 6 months for the proto, I can get my end done fast but It seems to take everyone else a bit longer for the clothes.”
You can view the finished Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) bust here. Apparently this sculpture was a wacky Christmas gift for someone named “Wendy.”
Jack Nicholson was ahead of the curve with his hydrogen-powered H2-4 Chevy Impala back in 1978.
Nicholson appeared on Canadian television show “Marketplace” to promote a hydrogen-fueled Chevrolet Celebrity, which he hoped would revolutionize the car industry.
Anticipating the green-car revolution (and Chevy’s Volt!) by nearly 30 years, Nicholson’s Celebrity was (per the video) “a standard Chev’, with a standard Chev’ motor,” but used a specially-designed carburetor which allowed the car to burn hydrogen gas instead of vaporized gasoline.
Nicholson brings his sardonic humor to the mix with this very funny line:
“If nothing else, this will revolutionize suicide. Instead of carbon-monoxide poisoning, you’ll just get a steam bath.”
As habitual readers of Dangerous Minds know, when I do “product reviews” I try to stay away from debating the merits of the music of “classic rock” acts because, frankly who cares what I think about Neil Young or The Beatles? As for me, I really don’t care what you or anyone else has to say about their music, either. If you don’t like Young or the Fab Four, too bad, buddy, I just can’t help you. They’re awesome, and it’s been long ago settled. Done.
But what I do care about is: Does it sound/look good? Is this newest version a significant upgrade from the last “definitive collector’s edition” they put out? And most importantly, “Is it really worth shelling out the money for this sucker if I’ve already bought this goddamned album in several obsolete audio formats, including 8-track tapes?”
Admittedly, oft-times the answer is “No.” (I don’t think the newly released Tommy Blu-ray sounds all that great, for instance. The surround mix of David Bowie’s Station to Station album is just terrible). Other times the answer is a resounding “Yes!” as in the case of the newly restored Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Monkees’ psychedelic opus, Head.
Head was written and produced by Bob Rafelson (co-creator of The Monkees) and Jack Nicholson, and directed by Rafelson. The film aimed to deconstruct the “manufactured” image that the Monkees wished to leave behind far behind them in 1968. The group wander through a number of surrealistic scenes, Hollywood sound stages and trippy pop art musical production numbers. Along the way, they encounter the likes of Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Annette Funicello, Terri Garr, stripper Carol Doda, Frank Zappa, Toni Basil, fighter Sonny Liston, and weirdo character actor Timothy Carey. Victor Mature, an over the hill actor known for appearing in Biblical epics and sword and sandals films, played a King Kong-sized version of himself (I’m not old enough to have much context for Victor Mature, but the way I take it is that he’s playing himself in a “human punch-line” kind of way, something that will no doubt be lost on future audiences for whom he’ll just appear to be a weird old giant who appears appropos of nothing).
Head was initially released with a mysterious advertising campaign that never mentioned the Monkees and instead featured the head of a balding man (John Brockman, future literary super agent). The Monkees’ teenbopper fan base must have been mighty confused. These were still the Monkees they loved, but what was with all the lysergic Marshall McLuhan stuff, the Viet Nam footage and the hookahs? Head is an audio-visual mindfuck. Head was a total flop.
Head’s reputation grew during a couple of national CBS late night TV airings in the 1970s. A VHS was released in the mid-80s during the revival of interest in the group brought on by MTV screening The Monkees for a new generation. Today Head is properly considered a odd milestone in Hollywood history—it’s one of the highest budgeted rock films of the era and one of the first counter culture films to be produced by the studio system. What a stylish time capsule of the era it is! In his liner notes, Chuck Stephens called Head, “the Ulysses of a hip New Hollywood about to be born.” What he said!
I’d have to say that of all of the various music related Blu-rays discs that have passed through my BD player since I got it last year, Head is the very best of all. It’s THE thing I’d reach for to geekily demonstrate my sound system for a guest. Seldom are things done this right, but when you consider that it’s Criterion behind this issue of Head, of course it makes more sense. I have no doubt that seeing this new Criterion version on a large HD screen with a good surround system is a superior experience even to seeing it in a movie theatre when it was first released. How could it have been better then? 42-years after Head’s initial release, we have the technology!
So, is it a significant upgrade from the Rhino DVD of Head, still on the market? Hell, yes. There’s simply no comparison, either in the video quality—Rhino’s DVD sucks on that count, they used a scratchy fullscreen print, whereas Criterion’s disc is letterboxed and immaculate, transferred from a 35mm negative—or in the audio department, either, as Head has been gloriously remixed in 5.1 surround. Holy shit did they do an amazing job with the audio.
Head’s opening moment, where Micky Dolenz runs through the dedication ceremony and jumps off the bridge, has, of course, as its soundtrack, one of the greatest numbers the Monkees ever did, “Porpoise Song.” The pristine quality of that scene’s solarized underwater footage combined with the HD DTS surround mix is nothing short of astonishing. Visually, it’s like looking at a stained-glass window. The audio is deeply immersive—like you’re standing in the midst of a strange waterlogged orchestra—and the video so vibrant that I must’ve played that one scene ten times in a row before moving on to “Circle Sky.” Again I wasn’t disappointed, the group’s presence is immediate and electrifying—Head’s performance of “Circle Sky” is the first time a “live” rock performance was used in a Hollywood film. I’ll say it again, they usually never get it this right. As far as slick audio/visual products go, Criterion’s Head deserves a special award.
At the moment, Head is only available as part of the Criterion Collection box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. Although the rest of the films in the set—Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, The King of Marvin Gardens, Drive, He Said and the first ever release of Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place (with Nicholson, Tuesday Weld, Orson Welles and Dangerous Minds pal Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theatre)—are all worthy, frankly I’d sooner have just had Head. Although it’s not on their current release schedule, I’m sure Criterion will release Head solo on Blu-ray soon enough. Surely the word of mouth, in the meantime, will continue to spread.
[A personal anecdote here: In 1994, I met Micky Dolenz and his (super cute) daughter Ami, at the Whisky Bar in New York. He was really cool and a gas to talk to, but after about 20 minutes I sheepishly revealed to him that although I could not have possibly had any forewarning that I was going to meet him, earlier that day I’d actually bought a CD of the Head soundtrack that I had in my coat pocket. The conversation got slightly awkward for a minute until I changed the subject and he politely allowed me to do so. I got the feeling that he had about as much desire to talk about something he’d done 30 years ago as most people would.]
Below, one of the best musical numbers in Head, Mike Nesmith’s powerful “Circle Sky.” Who says The Monkees weren’t a good live band? Also. keep in mind as you watch this, that as cool as this clip is, it’s still a pale comparison to the crisp, vibrant new Criterion Blu-ray release with six channels of audio coming at you:
Ran across this thinking it was possibly a cartoon rendering of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith (see previous post). Nope, just E.T. looking to take an axe, or, in this case, his finger, to The Shining‘s Wendy Torrance. And here’s a bit of that film’s Shelley Duvall (now, sadly, bonkers) talking about shooting with director Stanley Kubrick: