Dennis Hopper, without whom there would never have been an Easy Rider, died May 29th in Venice, California. Hopper co-wrote, co-starred in and directed the film.
Easy Rider is, all at once, one of the worst films ever made and one of the most iconic movies ever. It gave a name to the first, real biker magazine. And, it is very fondly remembered by a whole generation of aging bikers – at least until the day each of them sits down to watch the DVD with his fifteen-year-old son.
When it was written, Easy Rider was meant to be just another biker film. Hopper and Peter Fonda took their script to American International Pictures which was the low-budget production company that made more biker movies than anybody in the 60s. American International turned them down. So they took the script to Columbia. Columbia let them make the film but with such a limited budget that the shooting schedule was rushed and they had no money for a musical score.
The happy result of that was many scenes, as Vincent Canby described them, of men on motorcycles, moving in “isolation, against the magnificent Southwestern landscapes of beige and green and pale blue. They roll down macadam highways that look like black velvet ribbons, under skies of incredible purity, and the soundtrack rocks with oddly counterpointed emotions of Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Electric Prunes – dark and smoky cries for liberation.”
Easy Rider was a very important movie the summer it was new. Hopper won an award for directing it at the Cannes Film Festival. Jack Nicholson won an award for best supporting actor from the New York Film Critics Circle. It was advertised as: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”
Good And Bad Hippies
The film is the culmination of two decades, the 1950s and the 1960s, when the worst thing to be in America was a “conformist.” It is an artifact from a moment when the most admirable and morally superior subculture was called “Hippie.” And, in July 1969, when the film debuted, bikers were widely considered to be a kind of hippie.
It was still playing in theaters a month later as both the Manson murders and Woodstock unfolded. It was no longer in distribution four months after that when the free concert at the Altamont Speedway became something other than a total love fest. By the end of 1970 two kinds of hippies had cytokinesed in the American imagination. There were good hippies and bad hippies and the Manson family and bikers were how bad hippies looked.
What The Hell Is Easy Rider About
The film tells the unlikely story of two bikers named Wyatt and Billy who score two kilos of cocaine in the Andes, sell it to Phil Spector at the end of a runway in Los Angeles and then, for some reason, decide to smuggle the money in their gas tanks to New Orleans. Maybe they just don’t trust banks. Along the way they meet an interesting hippie who takes them to his commune, gets them laid and gives them a tab of acid that is so potent that they must promise to consume it only if they first split it four ways.
After practically begging to get arrested by disrupting a patriotic parade they meet a stupid and drunken lawyer named George Hanson who tags along with them. In the finished film Hanson is played by Jack Nicholson but he was not the first actor in that role. The part originally went to Rip Torn but according to Hopper, Torn was fired after he and Hopper got into a knife fight on the set. Torn later stated that he never had a knife.
Eventually Wyatt and Billy make it to New Orleans, go to a whorehouse and split the tab of acid with two whores in a cemetery. It sounds like it could be fun but the acid trip is portrayed in such a way as to suggest that maybe Wyatt and Billy should have split that tab of acid eight ways.
Then Wyatt and Billy are murdered by Rednecks, not because they are bikers but because they are hippies with long hair.
And So On
In 1998 the prestigious American Film Institute named Easy Rider one of the one hundred greatest American movies ever. And, that may say more about the American Film Institute than it does about American film.
Dennis Hopper was a bright, artistic and interesting man who lived an interesting life. (See photo above.)
His friends included Vincent Price, James Dean, Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. His romantic conquests included Nathalie Wood and Michelle Phillips. He once described one of his days as “A half gallon of rum washed down with a quart of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine.” He once tried to blow himself up by climbing into a coffin with 17 lit sticks of dynamite. He survived all that.
He died of cancer. He was 74. It was his time.
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