Saturday, August 5, 2017


Watching Dennis Hopper’s classic, counterculture, road trip “Easy Rider” (1969) co-starring Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, you may wonder what made this movie such a zeitgeist for its time.  Of course, the America of 1969 was turbulent in ways that seem a far cry from contemporary America.  The divisive Vietnam war dominated the headlines. Civil Rights activism had culminated with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and hippie movement with all its flower power had flourished. Reportedly, after Columbia Picture's chief executive Leo Jaffe saw “Easy Rider,” he observed, "I don't know what the f*&k this picture means, but I know we're going to make a f*&k of a lot of money." When you look at the film, the simple plot amounts to little more than a picaresque journey, with our protagonists on a cross-country trip from California to Florida.  They pause along the way to meet a variety of people: a rancher, a commune, hostile Southern diners, and Florida duck hunters who have a blast.  Essentially, “Easy Rider” is a fish-out-of-water fable, with Captain America (Peter Fonda of “The Victors”) and Billy (Dennis Hopper of “Rebel Without a Cause”) as the fish-out-of-water. At the time that it was made, Dennis Hopper was a noted character actor.  Peter Fonda had starred in a few American International drive-in movies, most notably “The Wild Angels,” and Jack Nicholson of “The Raven” was earning his living as a character actor, too.  “Easy Rider” made star of all three.  Arguably, Nicholson went the farthest. Indeed, Nicholson is the heart of “Easy Rider.”  Simultaneously, Nicholson’s small-time lawyer George Hanson inhabits both world: the establishment and the counterculture. Nicholson has the best lines, too.  The meditation that he provides on the meaning of ‘freedom’ are point-on, brilliant. He explains to Billy that Wyatt and he represent a threat to Americans who had pigeon-holed by society’s expectation. Sadly, when Nicholson exits “Easy Rider,” the film never recovers from his passing.  Lenser László Kovács makes everything look spectacular, with our heroes tooling through gorgeous landscapes straight out of vintage westerns.  The source music from Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Fraternity of Man, The Electric Prunes, Smith, and The Byrds enhance the scenes, especially Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” as our heroes hit the road.  Although American International Pictures and other low-budget film companies had exploited “The Wild One” to produce scores of yarns about violent, murderous bikers, “Easy Rider” departs from that formula.  Wyatt and Billy are unarmed and don’t go searching for trouble.  Interestingly, Hopper had filmed a chase with DEA helicopters in hot pursuit of Wyatt and Billy.  Scenes like this would had imitated past motorcycle movies and detracted from the film’s message.  Hopper lensed “Easy Rider” as if it were a documentary, with real-life locals are supporting characters.  Furthermore, he filmed everything on location, using natural light.  The jail cell that Wyatt and Billy occupy with George Hanson is the actual deal. 

Peter Fonda was no stranger to motorcycles when he made "Easy Rider" with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. This seminal saga cost roughly $360-thousand and reaped $60-million at the box office. Basically, "Easy Rider" is all about intolerance and the Generation Gap in America during the 1960s. A couple of hippies sell cocaine to a wealthy gent (Phil Spector) and then set out for Mari Grais in New Orleans. Along the way, they pick up an alcoholic lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson of "The Terror") and rednecks ridicule them as they try to eat in a cafe.  Although the older men deride our heroes, the young, impressionable girls in another booth idolize them. Later, these evil rednecks attack our heroes in the wild, and beat the lawyer to death. "Easy Rider" is a forerunner of "Deliverance." In "Easy Rider," rednecks slaughter the angelic but stoned motorcyclists, while the rednecks rape the sportsmen in "Deliverance." Since Hollywood could not depict back rape back in the 1960s, particularly man-on-man--sadistic homosexuality, the rednecks simply beat them up. Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy encounter intolerance from traditional society and die as a consequence of being too different. This is liberal, gonzo film-making at its zenith and it exerted considerable effect on Hollywood and the industry at large. The word is that Fonda and company smoked real marijuana on the set which reflects the indie nature of this venture. Columbia Pictures didn't understand this counter-cultural masterpiece but they embraced its millions. "Easy Rider" couldn't have come at an more opportune time in Hollywood and social history. The imagery of the film influenced the cultural landscape and it appeared at a time of deep social unrest in the post-Civil Rights era. So if the marginal plot—call it existentialism—does nothing for you, the portrait of America and the intolerance displayed toward the hippies stands as an accurate barometer of the times. "Easy Rider" couldn't have been made much earlier because the Production Code Administration had only recently been dismantled in favor of a rating classification system. Fonda and Hopper don't so much deliver believable performances as they inhabit their costumes. Jack Nicholson is simply brilliant as the doomed lawyer George Hanson who understands the moral conscience of the terrain. He summarizes this when he tells Billy, "What you represent to them is freedom." The soundtrack features many tunes of the times that immortalize this picture. For the record, Billy dies from the first shotgun blast. Despite its laid-back pace and routine plot, “Easy Rider” ranks as a landmark picture and speaks volumes about bigotry in America.