One of the last of the red-hot American New Wavers, Bob Rafelson was an axiom of the New Hollywood and one of the prime movers of the 1969 to 1971 breakout years. He helped to captain a film culture moment when Dream Factory escapism was out and lost American existentialism was rushing in. 

His one universally hailed masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces (1970), bought him time in the sun that only lasted a few years; trouble was, he was an irascible nonconformist not unlike fellow Jack Nicholson co-conspirator Monte Hellman (as well as Rafelson’s signature hero, Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea), and like Hellman he didn’t much care for deal-making and compromise. Over the next half-century he made only eight more features, sometimes dire, sometimes deft, but the ferocious sense of cultural tragedy Rafelson had grabbed on to during the Nixon years was no longer at hand.

Head (1968)

Maybe Rafelson wasn’t so much an auteur as a product of the zeitgeist – he was certainly in the right place at the right time, partying with the right people. He had years of producing and script editing for TV before allying with fellow discontent Bert Schneider and creating The Monkees – both the pop group and the TV show – the success of which launched the pair into movies. Rafelson’s first, the Monkees’ self-destructing, Duck Amuck-ish film Head (1968), co-written by Nicholson, was as experimental as Hollywood movies would ever get, and, it’s been noted, the first American movie that dared to roast the war in Vietnam while it was raging.

It bombed, but the Rafelson-Schneider-produced hit Easy Rider (1969) made the boys solvent, and Five Easy Pieces sanctified Rafelson’s touch: an acidic sympathy for an unseen America, a rueful fear of family, a maddened questioning of modern life’s materialism, an emotional dysfunctioning curdled into self-hatred. All of that was in Carole Eastman’s script, of course, but it was also there in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), co-written by Rafelson and pop lyricist Jacob Brackman, and the two films together stand as a kind of bitter eulogy diptych said over the shallow grave of American Dreamism.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

The rawness of those two films is perfectly judged, a clear-eyed and unstudied embrace of dissolution and collapse. Rafelson didn’t have the hectic casualness of Robert Altman or the sad comedy of Hal Ashby or the shadowy tension of Alan J. Pakula, but he had an unerring eye for stranded figures in the landscape, and for Nicholson’s reserves of bottled-up dissatisfaction. Contrary to its youthquake cultural context, the stateside New Wave was a mass aggregate portrait of early middle-age frustration, and Rafelson’s films were revealing visions of lives spiralling out and wasting time once the endless opportunities of youth have disappeared.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

After that, Rafelson himself seemed to lose focus – he spent a year in Africa researching a never-filmed project about the slave trade, churned out the fun but purposeless farce Stay Hungry (1976) and got kicked off Brubaker (1980) for physically engaging with a studio exec. His remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) is, despite its weak reputation, a virtually faultless adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, but it’s a Depression-era story of vice and desperation that somehow seemed irrelevant in Reagan’s America. Even so, looking at the aged Nicholson in that film, scarred and weary and unscrupulous, you can see what a few more hard years of lostness might’ve done to Bobby Dupea.

Black Widow (1987) was murder-mystery hackwork, while Mountains of the Moon (1990) was another out-of-place movie, a robust and sincere historical epic – explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Speke search for the source of the Nile in the 1850s – that scratched a genre itch for Rafelson but failed to find the right story or a curious audience. 

Nicholson tried to salvage Rafelson at this point, with Man Trouble (1992) – an ill-advised shot at romantic comedy, from the first Carole Eastman script produced in 17 years – and Blood and Wine (1996), a perfectly sprightly neo-noir of a kind that, in the 90s, could’ve launched a young director’s career.

A few more low-budget neo-noirs, sans Nicholson, and Rafelson retired to Aspen by 2003, a voice out of time in an American industry no longer interested in highway existentialism or films about failure. More’s the pity, of course; as acclaimed as Rafelson was in his Elvis years, his New Wave films, like so many others from that thorny, gimlet-eyed age, have a retrospective glow that gets brighter the farther we get today from American movies that dare to face any kind of truth.

  • Bob Rafelson, 21 February 1933 to 23 July 2022

Further reading

Staying vulnerable: an interview with Bob Rafelson

By John Russell Taylor

Staying vulnerable: an interview with Bob Rafelson

10 great American road trip films

By Samuel Wigley

10 great American road trip films

6 classics in 6 years: Jack Nicholson’s golden run of the 1970s

By Lou Thomas

6 classics in 6 years: Jack Nicholson’s golden run of the 1970s