Almost fifty years since he made his first imprint on American popular culture by coproducing The Monkees television show (1966-68), Bob Rafelson is still a hallmark name in the hallways of higher-education film production and theory programs. Those of us who started going to the movies in the late 1960s and early 70s know BBS—the production house of Bert Schneider,1 Bob Rafelson, and Stephen Blauner—as the birthplace of Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and The Last Picture Show (1971). BBS became synonymous with the development of American independent cinema during that time period.
Bob Rafelson, one-third of BBS, was born in New York City on February 21, 1933. Rafelson's film career began with the idea of a television show, which would eventually become The Monkees. Although he had this idea years before the concept was turned into the television show, he had to wait for the Beatles to become a worldwide phenomenon for his idea of a television show based on a boy band to be taken seriously by studios. The Monkees won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1967 for its first season. This early success opened many doors to Rafelson.
He was able to securely explore writing and directing, given that he was also the producer of the show and made the decisions on which crew to hire and fire. Thus, he wrote and directed various episodes of the show and eventually produced, wrote, and directed a feature film about the band, Head (1968). This film is a blend of genres and is structured as a series of vignettes, which Rafelson explains by pointing out that he did not know whether he would ever get the chance to direct a second film. He sought to explore all that he wanted to do as a director in case he did not get another chance.
But he received many more chances, building an impressive résumé that includes directing ten feature films, five of which he also produced. Other credits include editing, acting, and writing. His 1970 film Five Easy Pieces garnered him two Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay and two Golden Globe nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. He won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director for the film. Rafelson's career started in a very promising and successful way, if measured by high-profile award nominations and the Emmy win. From this viewpoint, Rafelson could never again connect with his early success.
His films, however, show the evolving signature of a great director who uses music and locations as key motifs in his films. The television show was centered on a band that traveled; Five Easy Pieces follows Robert, who travels from the oil rigs to a wealthier side of America; No Good Deed (2002) is a journey piece that centers on reevaluation of one's life at a key moment in time, with characters trying to leave one location and reach another, with musical instruments playing a key role in characters' lives. Man Trouble (1992) opens up to an orchestral rehearsal, with a star opera singer for a [End Page 49] protagonist. Music is such an important component to Rafelson's work process that he signs a composer to a movie as soon as he is committed to the picture. His favorite composer—and collaborator on four films—was the late Michael Small (1939-2003).2
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Another important signature of Rafelson's work is his ability to find new talent, introducing the public to new actors. At the start of his career, he introduced audiences to Jack Nicholson. The two first worked as cowriters for Head (1968), and two years later Nicholson became the lead in Five Easy Pieces. The two continued to collaborate over the years, working together on seven productions. Along the way, Rafelson continued to discover new talent or assist rising stars to shine in his films, including Arnold Schwarzenegger (Stay Hungry...