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Viewer Guide: Five Easy Pieces and The Ghost Writer

September 11, 2020 | Richard Peña


Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Tonight’s classic is Five Easy Pieces, the seminal 1970 drama directed by Bob Rafelson.

In one of his career-defining early performances, Jack Nicholson stars as Bobby Dupea, a restless malcontent seemingly trapped in a dead-end job on a California oil field. Bobby’s leisure hours are largely occupied by Rayette Dipesto, his needy girlfriend played in a startling performance by Karen Black. A waitress with dreams of becoming a country singer, Rayette’s smothering devotion is more often than not a point of friction for the couple, with Bobby looking increasingly desperate to escape. But the more we learn about Bobby, the real question becomes, “escape from what?” Traveling to LA to meet up with his sister Tita, a classical pianist played by Lois Smith, it becomes clear that Bobby is not your typical oil field roughneck. And with a middle name like “Eroica”—as in Beethoven’s Third Symphony—strongly suggests that Bobby hails from rather rarefied origins. After Tita tells him that his estranged father is in poor health, Bobby grudgingly makes the trip to his family’s secluded home in Washington state, reluctantly allowing Rayette to tag along, all the while filled with ambivalence about his past, present and future.

Also featured is Susan Anspach as Bobby’s new romantic obsession, with cameo appearances by Ralph Waite, Fannie Flagg and Sally Struthers, along with Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil as a couple of hitchhikers who join Bobby and Rayette for a memorable stop at a turnpike diner.

In the mid-60s, Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson teamed with producer Bert Schneider to form Raybert Productions, creating The Monkees TV series before venturing into theatrical film with The Monkees’ movie Head. But after Raybert’s production of the groundbreaking Easy Rider in 1969, Rafelson and Schneider founded BBS Productions with producer Steve Blauner with the aim of helping create an “American New Wave” of cinema, producing films that echoed the modernist aesthetics of European filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman. Although quintessentially “New Hollywood,” Five Easy Pieces garnered official “Old Hollywood” approval with four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, Best Supporting Actress for Karen Black and best original screenplay for Rafelson and Carole Eastman. Although BBS Productions proved to be short-lived, its other films included The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Picture Show, and the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds.


The Ghost Writer (2010)

This week’s indie is The Ghost Writer, the 2010 political thriller directed by Roman Polanski.

Ewan McGregor stars as a writer simply known as “The Ghost,” who finds himself summoned to the London offices of Rhinehart Publishing to take over a lucrative but unusual rush project: ghost writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. A veteran of several memoirs, The Ghost is wary of the project’s extreme secrecy, requiring him to work on location at Lang’s compound on a rain-swept Martha’s Vineyard. Furthermore, the Ghost’s predecessor abruptly died after falling off a Vineyard-bound ferry, with his autopsy revealing a high alcohol blood level. Greeted at Lang’s bunker-like beach home by his cool assistant Amelia Bly, played by Kim Cattrall, The Ghost is still getting acclimated to the job when news breaks of war crime allegations against Lang due to his alleged role in releasing terrorists to the CIA for torture. As Lang’s inner circle springs into battle to handle the crisis, Lang’s wife Ruth, played by Olivia Williams, takes a contrary point of view. Ruth it turns out has been with Lang since his university days, a critical detail holding a significance The Ghost takes too long to fully appreciate—or understand.

Also featured is Tom Wilkinson as a mysterious Harvard Law professor, with cameo appearances by Timothy Hutton, James Belushi and Eli Wallach in one of his final film roles.

If Pierce Brosnan’s role as “Adam Lang” invites comparison with actual ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that’s no accident. The Ghost Writer’s co-screenwriter Robert Harris was reportedly inspired to write his original novel in reaction to Blair’s policies following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nicolas Cage and Tilda Swinton were originally announced to play The Ghost and Ruth, but a delay in the start of production forced both to drop out of the cast. And due to Roman Polanski’s inability to return to the US stemming from his controversial and unresolved 1977 rape charge, principal photography for the film was primarily conducted in Europe, with Berlin standing in for London and the Baltic Sea island of Usedome providing the exteriors for Adam Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard compound.

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