A MAN WENT LOOKING FOR AMERICA. AND COULDN’T FIND IT ANYWHERE…
Jack Nicholson wasn’t the first choice for the part of boozy lawyer George Hanson in Easy Rider. That was Rip Torn, but after a fight between Torn and Dennis Hopper that involved a butter knife and a salad fork (according to Peter Fonda), the former was out of the project. The incident came back to haunt Hopper in 1994 when he recounted the story to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Torn took him to court and won a defamation suit.
The incident illustrates two facts: Easy Rider is an iconic film that we keep coming back to… and the stories about how it was made are almost more entertaining than the movie itself.
Two hippies, Wyatt (Fonda), who’s sometimes called “Captain America”, and Billy (Hopper), smuggle cocaine from Mexico to Los Angeles. After selling it, they hide the money inside their choppers and head for New Orleans, hoping to make it there in time for Mardi Gras. During their journey, they have several memorable encounters, including a farmer and his family, a commune of hippies, and an alcoholic ACLU attorney (Nicholson) who joins them. Wyatt and Billy introduces him to the pleasures of marijuana… but a visit to a small town restaurant in Louisiana has dire consequences.
Fascinating time capsule
In “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls”, Peter Biskind’s riveting account of how Hollywood changed in the 1970s, the writer selected Hopper’s directing debut as the starting point. Made on a tiny budget, with no stars, and employing visual tricks that were more familiar to a European art-house crowd than multiplex audiences, Hopper and producer Fonda proved to the establishment that there was a thirst for original stuff out there – and that it could be lucrative. Easy Rider was also a highly effective portrayal of America in tumultuous times, and it remains a fascinating time capsule. The best parts of the film have the duo riding through stunningly beautiful American landscapes to the tune of contemporary songs like The Band’s “The Weight” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma” (performed by Roger McGuinn); securing the rights to this rock treasure allegedly cost a lot more than making the movie, but it paid back in spades as the soundtrack album became a huge hit.
Watching those scenes strikes me at times as watching somebody’s home movies, capturing a period long gone. Since the movie was shot guerrilla style, much of what we see has a ring of authenticity; some of the redneck locals are genuine, working up their hatred against Wyatt and Billy after being falsely told by Hopper that the duo “had just raped a girl in another scene”. The film’s themes touch primarily on the issue of freedom and independence, as the hippie lifestyle is attacked by people who are afraid of what they don’t know or understand. Nicholson is excellent as the ACLU fighter who falls victim to bigotry.
There was never a shortage of drugs during the making of the film; every time you see someone light up a joint, that’s exactly what it is. We’re treated to at least one hallucinatory sequence, and some general disarray. It is easier to view the film as historically noteworthy and a rough product of its time; it’s a little harder to be genuinely moved by the two protagonists’ confused plight.
Easy Rider 1969-U.S. 94 min. Color. Produced by Peter Fonda. Directed by Dennis Hopper. Screenplay: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs. Cast: Peter Fonda (Wyatt), Dennis Hopper (Billy), Jack Nicholson (George Hanson), Karen Black, Luke Askew, Luana Anders… Phil Spector.
Trivia: Fonda’s young daughter Bridget plays one of the kids in the commune. Followed by a prequel, Easy Rider: The Ride Back (2013).
Last word: “I went out and shot the movie in five and a half weeks. Laszlo Kovacs said it was the best-organized picture he’d ever shot. When we spoke at AFI a few years before he died, he said ‘People talk about how crazy the shoot was, but there was nothing crazy about that shoot.’ The thing was, after shooting the film I came back to eighty hours of footage that I hadn’t seen, because in those days there was no way for me to see my dailies out on the road. I had an editing job that was just horrendous, took me over a year. And driving on the way to the studio to cut the picture, I’d hear all this great music on the radio: Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds. I heard all these songs and cut the picture to picture, and not to sound. Then when I put in a song like “Born to be Wild” it just fit perfectly. But when you see the movie, the story is told through the music, not the dialogue. It was just one of those things that worked.” (Hopper, The Hollywood Interview)