"I felt almost systematically rebellious for many years," admits director Bob Rafelson, who was catapulted to the front ranks of Hollywood in the late '60s when his second film, "Five Easy Pieces," struck a sympathetic chord with a nation swinging to the left. Rafelson's pal Jack Nicholson played the overeducated drifter unable to find his place in the world, in a film that could be a parable for the iconoclastic director's stormy relationship with the film industry.
Currently at work on "Black Widow," his first film in five years, Rafelson, now 53, is a prodigal son who returns to the fold considerably wiser about the manic ways of Hollywood. In fact, "Black Widow," which stars Theresa Russell as a woman suspected of marrying and murdering wealthy husbands and Debra Winger as the fed trying to bring her to justice, finds Rafelson working for the very studio that tossed him out on his ear five years ago, 20th Century Fox. His ensuing sabbatical came as little surprise to insiders. Rafelson had earned quite a reputation by that point, but even those who found him impossible to work with never denied his talent.
By the early '70s, Rafelson had produced "Easy Rider" and "The Last Picture Show" and directed two highly original films, "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Stay Hungry." But as the liberal mood of the country (and the film industry) waned, Rafelson's relationship with the Hollywood Establishment headed for the rocks. In 1981, he did a decidedly dark remake of the classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice." The film received mixed reviews, many people feeling that he was trampling on sacred ground.
His career derailed the next year when he was hired to direct Robert Redford in "Brubaker." His employment came to a tempestuous end when he slugged a studio executive in the jaw. (The exec, now with another studio, was contacted the other day but didn't want to talk about the incident.)
"The 'Brubaker' episode was the most painful experience of my life," reflects Rafelson during an interview conducted en route to LAX to shoot a scene on a jet rented for the evening. "But apparently the Hollywood power structure has turned over enough times that my past misdeeds have been forgotten. That must be the case, because I'm making a film within the industry and four other studios have asked me to make films for them. And one must remember that even though I have a reputation for being difficult, my pictures have all made money."
Hollywood is, of course, invariably fast to forgive a proven box-office winner, but Rafelson is faster to point out that that's not the only reason he's working again.
" 'Black Widow' is the first time I've managed to complete a film with a major studio and I attribute that to my change in attitude. I've had a few painful experiences in my life and at a certain point I decided to receive them as lessons rather than thinking of them as obstacles.
"Not that I've given up being cantankerous," he adds. "That's an understatement if I ever heard one, but I've learned that it's not worth it to get upset over minor things. For instance, the first day I arrived on the Fox lot, a security guard stopped me because I didn't have a particular pass suspended from the mirror of my car.
"I went into my office and asked the secretary, 'What the hell is this pass business?' She said, 'That's studio policy.' So I asked her if Barry Diller (chairman of the board) had a pass suspended from his mirror, and she said, 'I rather doubt it.' I replied, 'So why the hell should I?'
"Then I said to myself, 'Now wait a minute. Who cares where the hell the pass hangs from?' Absurd things like that used to drive me into a frenzy and I'd turn them into personal crusades, but I've learned they're simply not worth the energy. And believe me, I'm glad to be rid of that baggage."
Rafelson grew up in Manhattan, where he saw an average of four movies a day. He cites "Mrs. Miniver" as the first movie he remembers making an impression on him, and was an avid film fan from the time he was a small child.
"I always loved movies," he recalls, "but for many years I repressed my ambition to be a director because I had this notion that you had to be a genius to direct movies. In order to overcome my fear of directing, it was necessary for me to learn quite a bit."
Which he did. Rafelson's unorthodox education began at age 14 when he left home to attend theology school. That somehow led to a job breaking horses in rodeos, which in turn led to a stint when he was 17 performing in a band in Mexico. He worked off his draft obligation working for a U.S. radio station in Japan and, while overseas, translated Japanese movies into English. At this point, he began thinking about making his own movies. Returning to New York, he landed a job as story editor for David Susskind, and went on to do extensive work writing, producing and editing for TV.