New Hollywood renegade Bob Rafelson dies at 89

Bob Rafelson, who co-created the made-for-TV band the Monkees in the 1960s and helped define the ambitious and groundbreaking ethos of New Hollywood, directing Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” and producing generational credentials such as “Easy Rider” and “The Last Picture Show,” died July 23 at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He was 89.

He had lung cancer, said his wife, Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson.

Hot-headed and cantankerous, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and an almost obsessive attention to detail, Mr. Rafelson helped usher in a new era in American cinema, directing and producing films that appealed to younger, disgruntled moviegoers and reflected his interests in European and European films. Japanese cinema.

While his films often lacked the typical ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster – happy endings, established stars, morally upright heroes – they grossed millions of dollars at the box office and helped propel the careers of actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Dern, Sally Field and Nicholson, which he managed six times.

“I may have thought I had started his career,” Nicholson said says Esquire in 2019laughing, “but I think he started my career.”

Like fellow directors Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, Mr. Rafelson was a Hollywood renegade, battling studio executives and seeking new ways to work outside the system. He seemed to “approach a film without any compromise and without any sense of personal danger,” Coppola said in an interview with Esquire. Another admirer, Wes Anderson, described him as someone who “falls into the almost non-existent category of the director who does what he wants”.

He did this in part by co-founding his own production company, Raybert, which grew into an influential but short-lived company called BBS. He and co-founder Bert Schneider launched the business by creating “The Monkees,” a rock band sitcom that became a smash hit after it premiered on NBC in 1966, winning the producers an Emmy Award the following year. . They used proceeds from the show to fund “Easy Rider,” director Dennis Hopper’s 1969 counterculture classic about a pair of hippie bikers and an alcoholic lawyer played by Nicholson.

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The film channeled the alienation and discontent of a generation of young people – “You know, it was a damn good country,” says Nicholson’s character, “I don’t understand what was wrong with that” – and grossed $60 million on a budget of less than $400,000. This led to a six-movie deal between Columbia Pictures and BBS, who soon acquired a four-story office building that became a haven for Hollywood radicals and misfits.

The company went on to produce acclaimed films, including Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” (1971), a black-and-white exploration of a declining Texas town, and “Hearts and Minds” (1974), a documentary Oscar winner for the Vietnam War. He also directed Mr. Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972), which featured Nicholson and explored notions of personal freedom and disillusionment.

“In their engagement with the present moment, their determination to break free from the establishment of the film industry, their commitment to new forms of naturalism, and their reckless and drunken ambition for cinema,” BBS’s films “embodied the spirit of a new Hollywood,” film critic J. Hoberman wrote in a 2010 essay.

Mr. Rafelson took his time between projects, making 10 theatrical features in 34 years, and earned a reputation as a volatile, sometimes prickly, figure on set. When he felt that frames were choking his vision or encroaching on his territory, he could get angry. He once responded to criticism from studio chief Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal Pictures MCA’s parent company, by trashing the mogul’s office, throwing an award, family photo and other memorabilia across the room.

He was later fired from “Brubaker,” a 1980 prison drama, after he allegedly assaulted a Twentieth Century-Fox executive. Mr Rafelson said he grabbed the executive and let him go “with a bit of force”, but denied hitting him. He sued the studio for breach of contract and defamation, and won, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the world I live in and terribly unhappy,” he told The Times in 1997. days of my life.” He added: “There is nothing I have done, there is not a single day in my life that I can remember, that has been spent entirely legally.”

Mr. Rafelson has directed crime thrillers, including “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981), the second – and most raunchy – Hollywood adaptation of a James M. Cain novel; and shot on location in Kenya for his period adventure film “Mountains of the Moon” (1990), about a couple of British explorers searching for the source of the Nile.

But he remained best known for “Five Easy Pieces,” which starred Nicholson as rebellious oil rigger Bobby Dupea, a former concert pianist who gave up on his artistic ambitions and rejected his privileged upbringing. The film stunned audiences when it premiered at the New York Film Festival, landing as “a revelation”, film critic Roger Ebert later recalled.

“It was the direction American films should take,” he continued: “In idiosyncratic characters, in dialogue with an ear for the vulgar and the literate, in a plot free to surprise us about the characters, in an existential end that doesn’t need to be happy.”

The film helped establish Nicholson’s angry but hurt screen persona – in one of the film’s most famous scenes, he sends plates and glasses flying off a restaurant table after unsuccessfully trying to ordering toast, which isn’t on the menu – and received four Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Nicholson and Best Supporting Actress for Karen Black, who played his waitress girlfriend.

Mr Rafelson co-wrote the film with Carole Eastman (she used the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) and shared Oscar nominations for best picture and best original screenplay. He later acknowledged that the film was partly drawn from his own life, a fact which was reflected in Nicholson’s character name (Bobby) and the clothes he wore onscreen, including a collared sweater. rolled up from Mr. Rafelson’s wardrobe.

Discussing the film with Esquire, Mr Rafelson became emotional as he recounted the ending, in which Nicholson’s character confronts his dying father and then abandons his pregnant girlfriend, hitchhiking into the unknown.

“He is doomed to leave,” Mr Rafelson said. “It is destined to disappear and continue. He is doomed to be dissatisfied.

Younger of two sons, Robert Jay Rafelson was born in Manhattan on February 21, 1933. Her father was a hat and ribbon maker and her mother was a housewife.

While his father wanted him into the family business, Mr. Rafelson saw a different future for himself, inspired by his cousin Samson Raphaelson, a playwright and screenwriter who wrote the source material for “The Jazz Singer ‘, Hollywood’s first talkie, and later worked on ‘Trouble in Paradise’, ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and other Ernst Lubitsch comedies.

Mr Rafelson left home as a teenager and worked as a rodeo rider – he said he broke his tailbone after being thrown from a bull, which he rode in a rash attempt to win $5 in a bet – and played in a band in Mexico. He then studied philosophy at Dartmouth College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He managed to do consulting work for a Japanese film studio during a stint in Japan with the military.

Returning to the United States in the late 1950s, he rose through the ranks in television as a story analyst and screenwriter to associate producer. He and Schneider, whose father was the head of Columbia Pictures for a long time, then launched Raybert Productions. In 1968, he made his film debut with “Head”, a psychedelic comedy starring the Monkees and co-written by Nicholson. The film was critically savaged and the band broke up after its release.

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Mr. Rafelson went on to make ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and was also an uncredited producer of French director Jean Eustache’s acclaimed drama ‘La mère et la putain’ (1973). He went on to make films including “Stay Hungry” (1976), a comedy drama starring Bridges as the scion of a wealthy Southern family, and Black Widow” (1987), a crime thriller starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.

After directing “No Good Deed” (2002), an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett story, he retired to Aspen to focus on raising his two young sons, EO and Harper, from his marriage. with Taurek Rafelson.

Her first marriage, to production designer and art director Toby Carr Rafelson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife and children, all of Aspen, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Peter of Los Angeles. A daughter of this marriage, Julie, died aged 10 in 1973 from injuries caused by a gas stove explosion.

While working on his films, Mr. Rafelson was often engrossed in details of authenticity. He said he hitchhiked across the South to immerse himself in the region’s culture for ‘Stay Hungry,’ and prepared for ‘Brubaker’ by spending several nights in a prison. from Mississippi. For “Five Easy Pieces”, he wanted to determine the precise sound an ashtray would make clicking in Nicholson’s car during the driving scenes – and recorded the sound of 400 clicking ashtrays before finding one that suited him.

Filmmaking “is easier for some than for others,” he explained, “because most people don’t. [care] the sound of an ashtray.

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