Friday, June 07, 2002


This was not at all what I was expecting it to be. Because it sometimes gets lumped in with EASY RIDER, I assumed it would be about hippie youth. Then when I brought it home from the library, the box made it look like it was going to be about the oil industry. Neither is the case. Jack Nicholson, who would get his first best actor nomination for this (the year after getting a supporting nomination for EASY RIDER), plays a man who essentially feels out of place wherever he is. First, we see him working on an oil rig and he seems to fit right in with his redneckish friends and neighbors. Karen Black is great (and was nominated for supporting actress) as his uneducated and somewhat trashy girlfriend who constantly plays (and sings) Tammy Wynette songs--this made me think of her part in NASHVILLE a few years later where she would play a country star. It slowly becomes clear that Nicholson has a strong musical background that he seems to have buried; one of the best scenes has him jumping up on the back of a truck and playing a piano during a traffic jam.

During a fit of angst, he makes contact with his sister (Lois Smith), a classical pianist, and she tells him to come home to see his dying father. It turns out that Nicholson comes from an upper-middle class family, all of whom have some musical training, and he has deliberately left and his family behind him, or tried to. Ralph Waite, who I only knew from THE WALTONS, is very good as Nicholson's older brother. Susan Anspach is Waite's fiancee, and she and Nicholson begin flirting. Karen Black, who Nicholson has left in a nearby motel for more than a week because he's embarrassed by her, shows up and the already tense family situation gets worse. The ambigious ending (which I won't reveal) is right in line with the movie's time and themes. This is basically a small movie, a character study, which, if made at all these days, would certainly be an indie film. We don't get a strong sense of what is at the heart of Nicholsons's feelings of rootlessness, although metaphorically he seems to be reflecting the 60's generation as a whole: feelings of disconnection from parents and from mainstream society in general; a desire to rebel, though not always for reasons that could be clearly articulated; a sense that the past didn't matter and that old standards for what made up a fulfilling life no longer applied; a rejection of traditional responsibilities). Nicholson's famous scene where he tries to get a waitress to bring him a chicken salad sandwich on toast still works after all these years. Toni Basil has a small part, as does Sally Struthers (who has a topless sex scene with Nicholson). An actor named Billy Green Bush is great as Nicholson's oil rig buddy; he went on to do a few more roles, but his twin daughters (who are in this movie as infants) went on to be regulars in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

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