#295) Easy Rider (1969)

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#295) Easy Rider (1969)

OR “From L.A. to LA”

Directed by Dennis Hopper

Written by Hopper & Peter Fonda & Terry Southern

Class of 1998

The Plot: Los Angeles motorcyclists Wyatt, aka “Captain America” (Peter Fonda), and Billy (Dennis Hopper) use their money from a drug deal to fund a trip to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. With custom-built choppers and a well-chosen soundtrack, the two ride across the country, taking in the sights and a lot of marijuana. Among those the two meet along the way are a hitchhiker/commune inhabitant (Luke Askew), ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), prostitutes Karen and Mary (Karen Black and Toni Basil), and a string of locals who clearly don’t approve of their lifestyle. It’s the road trip movie on LSD, perhaps literally.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a fascinating time capsule”, and praises Nicholson, cinematographer László Kovács, and the score. The write-up does, however, take the time to call the film “[o]casionally banal and dated”. Come on, NFR, it’s your pick! The essay by film critic William Wolf is only slightly more supportive.

But Does It Really?: “Easy Rider” is to film what “Hair” is to musical theater: the Generation Gap from the younger perspective, with the creative freedom to show the world their viewpoint. As a viewing experience almost 50 years later, “Easy Rider” is very much of its time, but still accessible. At times it feels like a documentary. “Easy Rider” isn’t a great film, and the culture it showcases may be lost on those who weren’t there, but this is the right film at the right time, and its historical impact (and therefore its NFR induction) cannot be denied.

Everybody Gets One: Son of Henry and younger brother of Jane, Peter Fonda found his motorcycle-riding counterculture persona thanks to Roger Corman’s “The Wild Angels”. Fonda next appeared in “The Trip”, a B-Movie about LSD featuring Dennis Hopper and a screenplay by Jack Nicholson. The germs of what would become “Easy Rider” started on the set of “The Trip”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Ev-er-y-thing. If you want to distill the counterculture movement of the late ‘60s into 95 minutes, “Easy Rider” is your movie.

Take a Shot: After allowing “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to be featured in the film, Bob Dylan wrote the first verse of “The Ballad of Easy Rider” before handing it off to the song’s eventual composer/performer Roger McGuinn.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Easy Rider” was one of the biggest hits of 1969 and solidified New Hollywood’s standing as the status quo, but Old Hollywood still dominated the Academy, so the film only received two Oscar nominations. The writing team lost Original Screenplay to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and breakout star Jack Nicholson lost Supporting Actor to overdue veteran Gig Young for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Other notes

  • Some films on this list are known for their difficult or troublesome production, but “Easy Rider” takes the cake. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda fought constantly on the set, to the point that Fonda tried to use his producer status to kick Hopper off the film, and both of them – as well as Terry Southern – all have differing stories over who actually wrote the script (or if there even was a script). And the alleged amount of drug intake both on-and-off-camera begs the question: Does anyone involved actually remember this shoot?
  • Coincidentally, Terry Southern also wrote Jane Fonda’s counterculture movie: “Barbarella”.
  • Are we starting in the middle of the film? Apparently Dennis Hopper’s original cut was three times longer, and among the trims was an entire opening sequence showing Wyatt and Billy at their day job: L.A. stunt riders.
  • Who better to lead the Hollywood revolution than Henry Fonda’s son? Wyatt and Billy even ride through Monument Valley at one point.
  • Before They Were Infamous: That’s legendary record producer/future murderer Phil Spector as The Connection.
  • Four words: “Born to Be Wild”. At a time when films rarely used popular music, this film’s needle-drop of the Steppenwolf song set the mood of not only this film, but also of many films to follow.
  • Whoa, these transitions are a trip. Shoutout to editor Donn Cambern and whoever was supplying the drugs that week.
  • Be on the lookout for Peter’s daughter Bridget Fonda as one of the children in the commune.
  • Jack Nicholson was fresh off his stints with Roger Corman and “The Andy Griffith Show” when Dennis Hopper asked him to play George after Rip Torn dropped out (but that’s another story). It’s great to see Jack in a performance before he became a self-parody, and George helps add a bit of dimension to the proceedings.
  • Hey no fair, you can’t change songs mid-montage! You damn hippies and your flouting of conventions!
  • If the Mardi Gras footage seems out-of-place, it is. The sequence was shot before principal photography began, on 16mm (rather than the higher quality 35mm) and with a different crew than the rest of the shoot.
  • So many Catholic overtones in this movie, especially once Wyatt and Billy are on their bad trip. Which one of the screenwriters was Catholic?
  • I know a lot of locals were cast in smaller roles for authenticity, but the two truck drivers at the end are not actors.
  • Well that’s a real downer of an ending. What point were Hopper et al trying to make exactly?

Legacy

  • Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” loaded the bases, but “Easy Rider” was the home run that proved New Hollywood was here to stay. The big studios spent most of the ‘70s trying to make another “Easy Rider”.
  • Dennis Hopper was given free rein on his next movie: long-time passion project “The Last Movie”. The film was a flop, and Hopper’s directing career was essentially over.
  • Jack Nicholson became the breakout performer of “Easy Rider”, and his leading role in 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” solidified his standing as a movie star.
  • Peter Fonda would go on to star in the motorcycle safety film “Not So Easy” (get it?).
  • Thanks to some computer wizardry, Dennis Hopper appeared in this 1998 Ford Cougar ad with…Dennis Hopper from “Easy Rider”!
  • Filmmaker Phil Pitzer somehow obtained the sequel rights and, along with Dustin Rikert, created the completely unnecessary (and illogical) sequel “Easy Rider: The Ride Back”. Honestly I’m doing everyone a disservice by mentioning this film even exists.
  • I can’t end on that note: how about “Born to Be Wild” again?

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