EASY RIDER (1969)

  • Director: Dennis Hopper
  • Writers: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern
  • Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew, Karen Black, Toni Basil, Warren Finnerty, Luana Anders, and Sabrina Scharf
  • Accolades: AFI Top 100 list (#84), Shown at Cannes International Film Festival, 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Jack Nicholson, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Few movies are as of their time as Easy Rider. If it were not for the counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s, basically no part of this movie could possibly exist. To say its themes are painted in broad strokes is probably an understatement. This is a movie that has applied its themes with one of those paint rollers. Yet there is something about it that could work just as well today, dressed up in different clothes and hairstyles. It is about an intense disconnect between one generation and its predecessors, which is hardly something you can’t say is a common topic of discussion today. The modern version of this movie would probably leave out the bit where Peter Fonda has to explain to Jack Nicholson (playing a slightly more square character) what the word “dude” means, which is a real thing that happens in this movie.

Easy Rider was originally intended as a sort of modern update of the western, with motorcycles replacing horses, and I get the feeling that over the course of shooting everyone did a bunch of drugs and this is where we ended up. If that sounds like a complaint, trust me, I don’t mean it that way. Lots of movies have many crazy stories behind them, but this one seems to have lots of stories in direct conflict with each other. Screenwriter Terry Southern said that he wrote most of the script, and that he only agreed to add the names of lead actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to the writing credits after the fact. Hopper claimed that Southern had written a 12 page outline and basically all of the film’s dialogue was improvised. Hopper also claimed that actor Rip Torn was written out of the movie after pulling a knife on him in a bar. Torn denies this. One story says that Hopper’s original cut was 5 hours long. Another says that, during one scene where Fonda teaches Nicholson to smoke pot, over a hundred joints ended up being smoked. I have no idea how to separate fact from fiction here.

Hopper directed the movie with the intention of creating a wholly American independent film. He had seen Bonnie and Clyde two years earlier, and was clearly influenced by it, but thought it wore its own influences in the French New Wave too much on its sleeve. Easy Rider is unbound by any conventions, Hollywood or foreign, whether we’re talking about shot selection, sound design, or, you know, the basic idea that you’re supposed to have a story. The movie follows two bikers, Wyatt (nicknamed “Captain America,” as he has an American-flag painted bike), played by Fonda, and Billy, played by Hopper. At the start of the story, we see them making some sort of cocaine deal (the drug dealer, who never gets any lines, is randomly played by superstar music producer and future convicted murderer, Phil Spector).

The two men spend the rest of the movie trundling around the American South and Southwest, vaguely headed for Mardi Gras, but there is no real goal, and neither of them has any character arc or anything like that. They stop in and observe a series of episodes, each of which feels entirely separate from the others. A rancher (Warren Finnerty) helps the pair fix a flat tire, and Fonda tells him how much he admires his lifestyle. They spend a while at a commune, where a bunch of city kids with no idea how to care for themselves seem to be living on borrowed time. They get arrested for “parading without a permit” in a hick Louisiana town that hates hippies on principle, where they pick up Nicholson’s alcoholic civil rights lawyer, who expounds at length at a campfire about how aliens live among us. In the end, they are randomly and suddenly gunned down along the roadside by more rednecks.

Most movies like this, a road trip with a series of episodes strung along it, have some sort of overarching quest, but Easy Rider has none that I can discern. So it survives entirely as an exercise in tone, a portrait of these people who live outside a society that reviles them. Nobody involved seems sure why they are so hated. Nicholson comments that it is because they are free. “But don’t tell a man he’s not free, because he’ll prove to you that he is by killing you.” Or something like that, at any rate. Nicholson, in one of the roles that jump-started his legendary career, gets only a handful of scenes but makes a big impression. There are a couple of scenes with him where the group has these big, abstract discussions about society that feel like the reason Hopper, et al., actually wanted to make this movie.

Perhaps there’s something to be said here about the fact that this is only a very specific slice of 1969 America. There are almost no minorities in this movie, who likely would have been hated by these same rednecks except for reasons they would have absolutely no control over. Which is to say that Fonda and Hopper could cut their hair and put on suits, this is a choice they’re making. It’s less about prejudice than “they hate us ‘cause they ain’t us.” If this is a forerunner of modern American indie movies, it has many of their virtues and their flaws. Among those possible flaws is that indie movies have a tendency to be sort of myopically about the people making them, because nobody is there to tell those people not to do that. That can be good in the sense that it can bring us new and interesting perspectives, but well, is that perspective really Dennis Hopper’s? Another story about this movie is that it was supposed to have an original soundtrack by Crosby Stills & Nash, but Hopper threw them off the project because they were too commercial to ever understand his vision. Or the scenes had already been edited to the tracks that ended up in the movie and they decided to keep them. Whichever I guess.

This might sound weird, but by far the most interesting thing in this movie is the part where they have a bad drug trip in a New Orleans cemetery. I guess that there isn’t a good place for a bad drug trip, but a creepy New Orleans cemetery seems particularly bad. It feels like somehow more insightful than most portrayal of drugs you’re likely to see on film, perhaps because it’s not fettered with having some large plot implication. There’s this piledriver going in the background that turns into this beat of doom. They’re with these two prostitutes, played by Karen Black and Toni Basil (yeah, that Toni Basil), and they take acid with the girls, and things go sort of haywire for a bit. When movies have a lot of disparate parts, sometimes some of those parts are not great (there’s a part here with a “mime troop” that definitely is not made up of mimes, I can tell from the singing), and some of those parts are bizarrely great. Anywhere, here is part of it, the part with (slightly) less Toni Basil getting naked and rocking back and forth on a tombstone.

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