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Film pioneers ; 'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Easy Rider' included in new box set

By the late 1960s, Hollywood was losing touch with American moviegoers -- especially the youth audience.

Although "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" proved that it was possible to make that connection, the film industry continued to bet on expensive flops such as the musical "Doctor Dolittle." Ticket sales plummeted as people turned to their TV sets for entertainment.

Clearly, it was time for a company like BBS Productions.

Named for its founders -- Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner ("Bert, Bob and Steve") -- BBS was ahead of the curve in taking an independent approach to filmmaking.

Its output from 1968 to 1972 is the subject of a nine-disc boxed set, "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story" ($99.95 DVD, $124.95 Blu-ray; Criterion Collection).

The set offers new digital transfers of seven feature films, including BBS' biggest hits: "Easy Rider" (1969), "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) and "The Last Picture Show" (1971). Also included are "Head" (1968); "Drive, He Said" and "A Safe Place," both released in 1971 and new to home video; and "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972).

As usual for a Criterion Collection release, there's an abundance of extras, including audio commentaries, documentaries, video interviews, outtakes, screen tests, theatrical trailers and a booklet of essays.

Rafelson and Schneider, who produced the "Monkees" television series, could afford to take chances, and Blauner had a gift for choosing the right theaters in which to launch the films. Just as importantly, BBS tapped into a counterculture sensibility that befuddled Hollywood.

"Easy Rider," about two drug-dealing bikers played by Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Peter Fonda, took in $19 million (more than $110 million adjusted for inflation).

"The Last Picture Show," directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on Larry McMurtry's novel about a Texas town in the 1950s, earned eight Oscar nominations, winning for supporting actor (Ben Johnson) and supporting actress (Cloris Leachman).

"America had enormous talent in cameramen and actors and writers and directors," Rafelson says in the documentary "BBStory: An American Film Renaissance," on the "Five Easy Pieces" disc. "But what we lacked was a kind of talent to recognize the talent. And I thought that maybe that was our role."

At the heart of "America Lost and Found" is Jack Nicholson. With the exception of "The Last Picture Show," he was involved with all of the feature films included.

Nicholson got his big break as an actor in "Easy Rider." He played George Hanson, a philosophical small-town lawyer who befriends bikers Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper). Hanson believes in extraterrestrials, but he's also down-to-earth.

Nicholson, who had considered giving up acting, received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for the role. Just a year later, he got a nod in the lead category for his portrayal of classical pianist-turned-hard hat Bobby Dupea in "Five Easy Pieces," which Rafelson directed.

The character is perhaps best remembered for two things: playing a beat-up piano on the back of a truck in the middle of a traffic jam, and clearing a restaurant table in a gesture of defiance toward an uncooperative waitress. But Dupea, whose wisecracking style obscures deep self-doubt, was the starting point for Nicholson's iconic screen persona.

As a favor to "A Safe Place" director Henry Jaglom, Nicholson appeared in the drearily experimental drama as star Tuesday Weld's occasional lover. Nicholson's next role for BBS was as David Staebler in Rafelson's "King of Marvin Gardens."

Staebler, an introspective radio monologist, couldn't have been more different from cynical private eye J.J. Gittes in "Chinatown" and charismatic rebel Randle Patrick McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," roles that would secure Nicholson's fame.

Nicholson made his directorial debut with "Drive, He Said," which is best appreciated as a cultural time capsule.

"Drive, He Said" is worth watching despite its datedness, but "Head" isn't. Starring the Monkees, featuring comic vignettes and concert footage and written and produced by Nicholson and Rafelson (who also directed), the film is a cliched relic.

Unquestionably, the BBS films were essential to the evolution of American cinema. The boxed set recalls a bygone era in which a movie's impact on society had the potential to be just as important as its box-office performance.

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