A Hard Look Back at 'Easy Rider'

The 1969 road movie doesn't hold up, but its soundtrack rocks and the footage of America is achingly beautiful

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were born to be wild.

Want to feel really old? “Easy Rider” had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival exactly 45 years ago.

The echt-'60s counterculture road movie — starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson — caused a sensation. Hopper, who also directed, won an award at the French festival for best first film.

When “Easy Rider” opened in the U.S. later that summer, the movie became a must-see for anyone trying to understand the zeitgeist. Remember, this was 1969: Nixon had just become president, the Vietnam War was raging, young men were burning their draft cards, hippies were still at least a decade away from becoming yuppies, and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were all still alive and making wondrous music.

Made for about $500,000, “Easy Rider” went on to gross more than $60 million and was the third-biggest box office success of the year, ranking behind only “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Midnight Cowboy.” It fundamentally changed Hollywood, heralding a whole new era of filmmaking. Suddenly, studio bosses were throwing money at every young filmmaker with a dream and sufficiently long hair.

I remember my parents, then fortysomething academics living in a university town, going to see “Easy Rider” and liking it. What they liked, though, was Nicholson, who had mostly made low-budget exploitation films before that. He’s the one they came home and raved about. The movie earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and launched his career.

Today, “Easy Rider” plays like a self-indulgent period piece. It’s nearly unwatchable, though the soundtrack (featuring Steppenwolf doing “The Pusher” and “Born to Be Wild” and Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) singing “Ballad of Easy Rider”) still rocks.

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Fonda, who co-wrote the minimal screenplay with Hopper and novelist Terry Southern (“Candy”), has said he wanted to make a modern Western. The movie begins with Wyatt (Fonda), who’s also portentously known as Captain America, and Billy (Hopper), scoring big bucks via a cocaine sale in Mexico. (Their customer is an oily character played by record producer Phil Spector.) Newly flush, they decide to ride motorcycles eastward across the U.S.

Along the way, they get off their choppers for long enough to smoke copious amounts of weed and drop acid once. (Fonda and Nicholson were actually stoned in many scenes and Hopper drunk.) They also visit a commune, join a parade in a small town, spend a night in jail (they’re arrested for “parading without a permit”), get set upon by hostile rednecks, celebrate Mardi Gras and visit a brothel in New Orleans. While in jail, Wyatt and Billy befriend George Hanson (Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who joins them on their journey and smokes his first joint.

Nicholson’s character gets to speak the movie’s most pretentious, heavily symbolic lines. After Wyatt and Billy are harassed by local rednecks in a café, he tells them, “They not scared of you, they’re scared of what you represent. You represent freedom.”

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Well, OK then.

What’s surprising, and telling, about the movie is its fatalism. All three major characters — spoiler ahead — end up dying, either beaten to death or shot by local hicks. They become martyrs for the counterculture. (The movie came out a full year before the shootings at Kent State.)

What still impresses when viewing “Easy Rider” today, aside from the soundtrack and video montages set to music, is the film’s almost documentary-like footage of the nation’s highways, byways and small towns and their residents, all shot on location by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs.

This footage, much of it as achingly beautiful as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange photographs from the 1930s, renders patently false the movie’s tagline (“A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere …”), which was plastered on every poster alongside a close-up of Fonda in his American flag-bedecked, black leather motorcycle jacket.

America is right there in front of him in nearly every scene in the movie. It’s just that Wyatt and Billy are mostly too stoned to appreciate what they were seeing.

Tags: movies

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