Is it possible that there ever was a time when we didn’t know who Jack Nicholson was? We first saw him in Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” in what I still consider Jack’s funniest role, that of a troubled, ACLU lawyer, drunk and local trouble maker. He was hilarious. And then we forgot about him.

Then in 1970 up he pops in a 360 degree turn, in Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces,” the story of a man caught between two worlds, as Bobby Dupea, an oil rigger out on the hot, dusty moonscape of a California field.

Even though he moves easily amongst the beer drinking, hamburger chomping, trailer-park day workers, there is something about Bobby that doesn’t fit. Going in without reading a single review, we thought we were going to see a remake of an old Clark Gable movie, full of spit, fist fights and black gold. The title didn’t make any sense, but it was a hot day and the theater was cool, and there was that guy from “Easy Rider,” only it wasn’t that guy. It wasn’t that cackling drunken clown in the white suit, this was somebody else. This was an actor, and that was the birth of a legend, of “The Jack.” By the time we found out that his real name was Bobby Eroica Dupea, we were convinced that something good was up.

We watched Bobby Dupea work his job, spend his nights in diners and beer halls, sleeping and sparring with Rayette, a puffy-lipped, big-haired diner waitress (a delightful Karen Black, who nails the part to the wall), who adores him and wants to be Tammy Wynette and “stand by her man.”

But Bobby’s days are filled with dirty air and good old boy chatter with his mates, and especially Elton (a wonderful Billy Green Bush) who one day slaps him in the face with some news that Elton thinks is good. Bobby’s girl is pregnant, and Bobby is red-faced mad. He walks out on her and starts fooling around with a local slut.

One day, out of the blue, Bobby meets up with his sister (Lois Smith) and hears that his father has had a stroke, and that it’s time that he return home to heal old wounds. What wounds? This then is the story of Bobby Dupea.

Home is a fog-drenched island out in the middle of Washington state’s Puget Sound, and the road trip to getting there provides us with some of writer Carole Eastman’s best scenes. Touched with a microscopic bit of guilt, Bobby takes Rayette along, and somewhere on the road, they pick up a couple of roaming hippie girls.

The group stops in at a diner and it is here where the famous “Chicken-sal-sand” scene takes place. Jack asks for a complicated combo order that the waitress (a marvelous Lorna Thayer) tries to reduce to dumpy diner-menu code. If you have not seen this famous scene, you’ve heard of it. It’s one of filmdom’s most iconic moments, and I won’t give any of it away. It seems at first to be out of place until we realize that what we’re seeing is the internal roar of Bobby’s lifelong frustration, and the long overdue eruption of his personal volcano.

At home on the island, we meet three generations of classical musicians played by a spate of first-rate actors who have now vanished from the big screen, but the echo of their presence still resonates: Lois Smith as his sister Partita, Ralph Waite as Bobby’s softer brother Carl, Sally Struthers, Susan Anspach and character actress Fannie Flagg.

It’s here on the remote island that the saga of this family of educated, classical musicians is unveiled, and that we find that Bobby was once a promising pianist.

Eastman has carved out a splendid script, and even generously allowed Nicholson to write some of his own lines.

If you pay attention and are a “Jack” fan, you can tell which scenes contain them.

Rafelson (1981’s “Postman Always Rings Twice”) smoothly moves his film along the many curves.

As well as the diner scene, there is one other famous moment when Bobby and Elton are stalled in a horn-blowing storm of a traffic jam. Bobby leaps onto a moving truck that holds a piano, and in hardhat and Levis, starts playing a flawless classical piece as the truck veers off onto the deserted plains.

Near the end of the film when Bobby rolls his mute father in his wheelchair out to the edge of the island, we see the beginning moves of whom we now know as one of our greatest film actors. His father Nicholas (William Challee) sits stone faced as Bobby, unable to find the words he seeks, breaks down.

Forty-two years later, “Five Easy Pieces” returns to the big screen in an opera house far from the oil fields and Puget Sound and Hollywood to show us what movie making and acting is all about. Don’t miss it.

Maine International Film Festival website

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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