The film tells the story of surly oil-rig worker Bobby Dupea, whose seemingly rootless blue-collar existence belies his privileged youth as a piano prodigy. When Bobby learns that his father is dying, he goes home to see him, taking his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Black). Nicholson and Black were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.
The film was selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry in 2000.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) works in a California oil field (shot in and around the city of Taft in the San Joaquin Valley) with his friend Elton (Billy "Green" Bush), who has a wife and a baby son. Bobby spends most of his time with his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), who has dreams of singing country music; or in the company of Elton, with whom he bowls, gets drunk, and has sex with other women. Bobby has evidently not told Elton that he is a former classical pianist who comes from an upper-class family of musicians.
Rayette gets pregnant and Elton is arrested for having robbed a gas station a year earlier. Bobby quits his job and leaves for Los Angeles where his sister Partita (Lois Smith), also a pianist, is making a recording. Partita informs him that their father, from whom Bobby is estranged, has suffered two strokes. She urges Bobby to return to the family home in Washington state to visit him.
Rayette threatens to kill herself if Bobby leaves her, so he reluctantly asks her along. Driving north, they pick up two women headed for Alaska, one of whom is obsessed with "filth". The four of them are thrown out of a restaurant when Bobby gets into an argument with a waitress who refuses to accommodate his special order. (see below)
Embarrassed by Rayette's lack of polish, Bobby registers her in a motel before proceeding to the family home on an island in Puget Sound. He finds Partita giving their father a haircut, but the old man seems completely oblivious to him. At dinner Bobby meets Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), a young pianist engaged to his brother Carl (Ralph Waite), a violinist. Despite personality differences, Catherine and Bobby are immediately attracted to each other and have sex in her room.
Rayette runs out of money at the motel and comes to the Dupea estate unannounced. Her presence creates an awkward situation, but when pompous family friend Samia ridicules her, Bobby comes to her defense. Storming from the room in search of Catherine, he discovers his father's male nurse giving Partita a massage. Now more agitated, he picks a senseless fight with the nurse, who knocks him to the floor.
Bobby tries to persuade Catherine to go away with him, but she declines, believing he does not love himself, or anything at all. After trying to talk to his unresponsive father, Bobby leaves with Rayette, who makes a playful sexual advance that he angrily rejects. When Rayette goes in for some coffee at a gas station, he gives her his wallet and abandons her, hitching a ride on a truck headed north.
A famous scene from the film takes place in a roadside restaurant where Bobby tries to get a waitress (Lorna Thayer) to bring him a side order of toast with his breakfast. The waitress refuses, stating that toast is not offered as a side item, despite the diner's offering a chicken salad sandwich on toast.
Bobby appeals to both logic and common sense, but the waitress adamantly refuses to break with the restaurant's policy of only giving customers what is printed in the menu. Ultimately, Bobby orders both his breakfast and the chicken salad sandwich on toast, telling the waitress to bring the sandwich to him without mayonnaise, butter, lettuce, or chicken, culminating in Bobby's responding to the waitress' incredulity at his order to "hold the chicken" with "hold it between your knees!" The waitress then indignantly orders them to leave, and Nicholson knocks the glasses of water off the table with a sweep of his arm.
While much of the film was shot on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, this scene was at a Denny's along Interstate 5 near Eugene, Oregon. (at 3652 Glenwood Dr., exit 191, (44.0342°N 123.0403°W / 44.0342; -123.0403))
Thirty years later, Nicholson performed a scene in the movie About Schmidt that directly drew from this scene (available as a "Deleted Scene" extra on the DVD release). Nicholson's character in About Schmidt, an emotionally downtrodden retiree, in contrast, humbly accepts the waitress' "no substitutions" rule.
The five classical piano pieces played in the film and referenced in the title are:Frédéric Chopin: Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, played by Bobby on the back of a moving truck.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903, played by Bobby's sister, Partita, in a recording studio.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271, played by Bobby's brother, Carl, and Catherine upon Bobby's arrival at the house.
Chopin: Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4, played by Bobby for Catherine.
Mozart: Fantasy in D minor, K. 397.
According to Variety, the film earned $1.2 million in North American rentals in 1970.
By 1976 the film had earned $8.9 million in rentals in North America.
The film opened to positive reviews; it holds an 87% "Certified Fresh" rating on online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 45 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The critics' consensus states: "An important touchstone of the New Hollywood era, Five Easy Pieces is a haunting portrait of alienation that features one of Jack Nicholson's greatest performances."
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four:
The title of Five Easy Pieces refers not to the women its hero makes along the road, for there are only three, but to a book of piano exercises he owned as a child. The film, one of the best American films, is about the distance between that boy, practicing to become a concert pianist, and the need he feels 20 years later to disguise himself as an oil-field rigger. When we sense the boy, tormented and insecure, trapped inside the adult man, Five Easy Pieces becomes a masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity.... The movie is joyously alive to the road life of its hero. We follow him through bars and bowling alleys, motels and mobile homes, and we find him rebelling against lower-middle-class values even as he embraces them. In one magical scene, he leaps from his car in a traffic jam and starts playing the piano on the truck in front of him; the scene sounds forced, described this way, but Rafelson and Nicholson never force anything, and never have to. Robert Eroica Dupea is one of the most unforgettable characters in American movies.
He named the film the best of 1970, and later added it to his "Great Movies" list.
The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Karen Black), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay. Nicholson lost to George C. Scott, but was nominated several times before getting the Award for the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
On November 16, 1999, Columbia TriStar Home Video released the film on two-sided DVD-Video, featuring both fullscreen (4:3) and widescreen formats.
Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures conducted a 4K restoration of the film, and it was screening theatrically in DCP by 2012.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in November 2010 as part of the box set, "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story". It includes audio commentary featuring director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson (originally recorded for a Criterion laserdisc), Soul Searching in "Five Easy Pieces", a 2009 video piece with Rafelson, BBStory, a 2009 documentary about the BBS era, with Rafelson, actors Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Ellen Burstyn, and directors Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom, among others, and audio excerpts from a 1976 AFI interview with Rafelson.
On June 30, 2015, Five Easy Pieces was released as a stand-alone DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.