2009 marked 40 years since the theatrical release of Easy Rider (1969). Ten years ago the film’s three-decade anniversary was marked by a special edition DVD, which included a newly produced documentary entitled Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage (Charles Kiselyak, 1999). Featuring many of the film’s key creative participants – Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Karen Black, Lásló Kovács, Bill Hayward – this featurette attempts to detail the production and reception of Easy Rider through their memories. Although there are some reminders of tensions and disagreements, it is an altogether friendly affair in which the still-existing rancour between key players is barely discernible and, through judicious editing, the issues of creative authorship are delicately handled. Instead, we are presented with a wistful reflection on a bygone period in American filmmaking, culture and society, a reflection which applies yet another coating to Easy Rider’s mythology.
Seeing Easy Rider today is akin to viewing a museum artefact. The film itself is a conundrum: posturingly hip yet naive, ostensibly rebellious yet curiously conservative, self-consciously avant-garde yet with an overriding conventionality; from a purely cinematic view it remains an intriguing relic. Yet Easy Rider was never just a narrative and much less just several canisters of celluloid. Even upon its initial release in 1969 the film had already garnered its first coating of mythology by winning a prize at the Cannes film festival. By the end of its first run it had been recognised as a groundbreaker in terms of Hollywood aesthetic, politics and industry machinations. As the 1960s receded into the not-so-distant past, there was its recognition as a key film of the decade and, when the period came under critical re-assessment during the 1980s, Easy Rider had claimed a reverential position as a summation of the counter-culture. Those that participated in its creation were more than willing to wax lyrically as to its influence, with each determined to stake a claim in its legacy. Even Columbia, the studio that released Easy Rider, was willing to attest to its crucial place within the company’s history. So much mythology, so many claimants, so many ancillary sales to be made, so many exhibitions for the artefact to be the artefact. So what is the legacy of Easy Rider and, just as importantly, who are its stakeholders? What was its impact and how long were its effects felt?
Towards the end of Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage as each of the key players ruminate on the film’s legacy, Dennis Hopper states that: “It was the first real independent movie that was ever distributed by a major company”. Presented with neither explanation nor rebuttal, the claim is allowed to stand as the sort of fact favoured by the marketing arms of major companies which commission such promotional DVD extras.
The notion of ‘independence’ within the Hollywood ethos has had a long cultural cache. Creative freedom and financial control are among the most desirable achievements within the filmmaking community, especially if one can manage it within the strict confines of the studio system and its meddling executives. Yet, as Denise Mann explains, “the term independence, when applied to cinema, is a notoriously slippery designation.”(1) The validity of Hopper’s claim of Easy Rider’s groundbreaking status in terms of ‘independence’ can be easily countered by various precedents: from the formation of United Artists in the 1920s, Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett and Walter Wangers’ Diana Productions in the 1940s, and the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster enterprise in the 1950s (among many others). Each paved the way for independence within Hollywood and all at a time when the foundations of the studio system were in a stronger state than when Easy Rider was in production for Columbia in the late 1960s.
However, perhaps the caveat within Hopper’s claim is that Easy Rider was the first ‘real’ independent movie. The earlier precedents of independence wee initiated by those already possessing industry clout: stars such as Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Burt Lancaster, and directors including D.W. Griffiths and Lang. Maybe ‘real’ independence is when creative control and financial freedom is granted to the disenfranchised. And if this is the true definition of Hollywood independence, and the cornerstone upon which the mythology of Easy Rider has been based, then Hopper may be correct. Yet Hopper and Peter Fonda, the film’s producer and co-star and co-writer, where hardly neophytes within the film industry. Both had been active within the margins of the studio/independent scene for a number of years (Fonda, of course, had gained entry to the industry through the reputation of his father, Henry) and, after adherence to the hierarchal regimen of the Hollywood system in which they dutifully acted in assigned roles they drifted into the less archaic environment of American International Pictures (AIP).
AIP did not rank as a major motion picture company and yet its influence within the Hollywood sphere was substantial. Produced on tight budgets and shooting schedules, their films were aimed squarely at the youth market and the company had the innate sense of embracing the latest movements within that culture. Consequentially, AIP’s films rarely lost any money and the company’s filmography reads as a barometer of the shift from the teen culture of the late 1950s to the counter-culture of a decade later.
Yet, although hands-on production at AIP (under the guidance of Roger Corman) offered a form of freedom and bonded a community of young filmmakers, the company still traded in formula. After the success of starring in The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966), it was Fonda who had the idea of producing a biker movie unlike any other and called his friend Hopper to join him as director on a script they would develop from Fonda’s story.
According to Fonda, it is this step within the building of the Easy Rider mythos that still rankles with Hopper. To this point within their film’s genesis, independence can be claimed and perhaps the status of making the ‘first real independent film’ could be argued, but autonomous authorship cannot. Conveniently left out of the Shaking the Cage featurette was any mention of the unpleasantness that has developed between the Fonda and Hopper as to who may claim the greater creative stake in Easy Rider’ s production. Both men’s accounts wildly differ and legal battles have ensued over the residual payments the film has generated. Dennis Hopper’s need to claim Easy Rider as his own also acts as desire to stake authorship over its legacy. His need to voice his claim has manifested itself in the least expected venues, including a 1998 appearance on David Letterman’s late night chat show on which Hopper was a guest. With the Academy Awards looming, the host asked him about both Fonda and Jack Nicholson being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. “Ah yes, Peter Fonda, who I directed in Easy Rider” was his thoughts on his former creative partner. For the record, Hopper hoped Nicholson (his “great friend”) would win, which he did for As Good as it Gets (James L. Brooks, 1997).
With hindsight, AIP head Samuel Z. Arkoff was dismayed by his decision to pass on Easy Rider, for which Roger Corman was going to act as executive producer for the company. Instead, the project was taken to producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. Their Raybert company had produced The Monkees television series which was a ratings success from 1966-1968 and, as the musical group’s popularity began to wane, Raybert were quite prepared to deconstruct their story in Head (1968), a theatrical film for Columbia which Rafelson directed. When Steve Blauer joined Raybert , its name was changed to BBS (Bert, Bob and Steve). Teresa Grimes has investigated the history of BBS and the legacy it owes to Roger Corman (and, indirectly, AIP) from whom BBS recruited many of its key creative personnel. She argues that although an AIP-produced Easy Rider would have differed greatly from the eventual product, the AIP apprenticeships served by Hopper, Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Laslo Kovács, among others, bear a direct relationship to the Corman style to the point where the BBS films (beginning with Easy Rider) can be seen as the natural progression from the AIP model and mode. (2) Does Hopper and Fonda’s experience within the industry, the influence of Corman and AIP and the business acumen of Raybert/BBS invalidate the claim for Easy Rider’s independence, and if so, to what degree? A potentially interesting package bearing the hallmarks of a successful series of films developed by a production company and financed and then distributed by a major studio. Does that differ greatly from the model long practiced by United Artists and, increasingly since the 1950s, other Hollywood studios?
One may dispute the independence (even the ‘real’ independence) of Easy Rider in terms of its pre-production methods, however, its production did receive little interference from Columbia, the studio who had agreed to finance and distribute the film. According to on-set anecdotes, producer Fonda found it difficult to control Hopper’s dictatorial style and their inexperience led to BBS executives taking a greater role in overseeing the production. Indeed, the finished product bore little in common with Columbia’s hits of the previous year, such as Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968) and Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968), and few executives at the studio held little faith in its prospects. The combination of a fine marketing campaign (including the enigmatic tagline; “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere…”), a soundtrack of popular rock music and the Cannes prize of best film from a new director, which gave it a legitimacy that separated it from the biker movie pack, saw Easy Rider achieve $19.1 million in rentals against its paltry $501,000 budget. It was to be Columbia’s highest grossing film of the year and would rank as Hollywood’s 28th most successful film of the decade. Without the film’s canny exploitation campaign and the might of the studio’s distribution arm it is highly doubtful that Easy Rider would have achieved such wide spectatorship and resonance. In fact, had it been offloaded as cheap filler for gaps in theatrical schedules, it is most likely its critical revivals would be enforced by the narrative alone, with little to say of its historical and cultural significance. Other than providing the funding, Columbia had little hand in Easy Rider’s creation, yet its influence was a crucial part of its reception and, therefore is a deserved stakeholder in its legacy.
The unforeseen financial success of Easy Rider did naturally lead to a seismic shift within the industry, however it must be emphasised that the film was only one of a number of such productions that contributed to that shift. The dependence upon potential blockbusters that were too few in number and too expensive in cost had Hollywood dangerously reliant on a risk-laden business model. When a number of these films inevitably failed, many of the studios were on the brink of financial collapse (intriguingly, Columbia’s finances were relatively sound prior to Easy Rider’s release). With their own gambles failing the Hollywood industry could have expected outside challenges to their screen dominance, yet (perhaps more worryingly so) those challenges came from within, as a series of in-house productions thought to have only middling prospects clicked with audiences and critics alike. Subverting from the inside, Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1968) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969), were among those that defied their modest expectations. Dealing (directly or otherwise) with contemporary issues and featuring a range of new actors, it was apparent that there was no longer a clear formula for success. The established track records of budgeting, stars, directors and genre upon which the industry had relied for half a century were now void. It is probably not surprising that the studios should attempt to emulate after this unprecedented success yet without understanding this interplay between product and audience, it is also unsurprising that the result was a mad rush to hire a number of young directors. Invariably, few of the resulting films were successful; either due to the quality of the finished films or the inability of the studios to market them to their potential audience.
A case in point is Peter Fonda’s directorial debut The Hired Hand (1971), a sensitive, deliberately paced western which Universal attempted to sell as a combination of an Easy Rider sequel and an action-revenge oater. Using the only tools they were accustomed to – exploitable elements – the marketing department missed its audience completely. Universal should have sensed danger when BBS passed on the opportunity to produce Hopper’s next film as director, The Last Movie (1971). His drug and alcohol fuelled excess had resulted in such erratic behaviour that Schneider and Rafelson refused to work with him. Yet Universal was so convinced that there was a market anticipating Hopper’s new film that they agreed to produce it. If The Hired Hand could not find an audience, The Last Movie could not find a theatre with Universal shelving the film after its disastrous New York run of $33,000 in three weeks. In comparison, the first run of Easy Rider in that city grossed $714,000 in 21 weeks at a single venue. An allegorical musing on the filmmaking process, the cross-cultural seepage of Americana and the culture of his own celebrity, Hopper’s sophomore feature, in all its meta-mash glory was seemingly designed as a cult-leader’s valediction. But by 1971 nobody – distributors, critics and audiences alike – were prepared to follow.
The so-called “New Hollywood” era has been characterised as one in which a number of young directors were allowed near unfettered access to bring their personal visions to the screen. However, in what is an instructive lesson, Columbia had also passed on The Last Movie, regardless of how profitable Hopper’s previous vision had been for the studio. According to Peter Biskind’s account in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the studio believed it was only a matter of time before an Easy Rider bucked the system and if it had not been Hopper’s film, another would have achieved a similar result. (3) In a continuation of Hollywood’s tradition of favouring producers over directors, according to Columbia it was BBS (and especially Schneider) who were the true architects of Easy Rider’s success. Is true authorship restricted to the personal vision contained within a narrative or does it also encompass the mode of production and the film’s reception? Had Easy Rider not been the financial success that it became then its critical and artistic standing may have been preserved, yet its effect upon the industry and relationship with popular culture would be greatly diminished. As Easy Rider’s history unfolds, then, it becomes apparent that its legacy is just as difficult to locate as it is to assign.
Fonda and Hopper were not the only former AIP-Corman actors to be granted the privilege of directing in the New Hollywood. In the wake of Easy Rider, Henry Jaglom (A Safe Place), Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop) and James Frawley (The Christian Licorice Store) each had films released in 1971 and all failed to deliver the anticipated audience. Producer Harold Schneider (brother of BBS’s Bert) says of this short-lived investment that, “it allowed actors to direct and it stopped them from directing, because this is a business of follow the leader”. (4) 1971 also was the year in which two other newly popular actors were given the opportunity to direct, and their respective careers behind the camera makes for an interesting case study.
Jack Nicholson had, like Hopper and Fonda, spent the 1960s drifting between the Hollywood mainstream and the AIP-Corman community. Although he had moved up and down the casting credits throughout the decade, it took until the age of thirty-two for him to land his breakout role in Easy Rider, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Another nomination ensued the following year for Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). Yet Nicholson had long harboured ambitions to write and direct, for, on top of having authored screenplays for several low budget films, he had also provided the scripts for Corman’s The Trip (1967) and Rafelson’s Head. His association with BBS had been symbiotic in its success and, in 1971 he directed Drive, He Said, a drama of campus disillusionment for which he adapted the screenplay, but did not star. Although nurtured by BBS and reasonably well received by critics the film failed to find an audience. Yet Columbia would not have felt overly dismayed, for its small investment would reap dividends in keeping the actor on amicable terms with the studio for future starring roles. And, as an actor, Nicholson’s career did soar. Critically praised and a proven box-office performer, he won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1975 for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman); a role for which he received a million dollars in salary. With the urge to direct again he took much of 1976 off from acting in an attempt to set up the production of “Moontrap”, a ‘mystical western’. (5) Yet his refusal to star in the project resulted in no studio willing to touch it. After a wasted year he would direct and star in a much more conventional comedy-western, Goin‘ South, which flopped at the box office. The momentum lost, his box-office reign as a film star took a decade to recover. Nicholson will direct once more – Chinatown’s (Roman Polanski, 1975) long-in-gestation sequel, The Two Jakes (1990), a troubled production that also quickly vanished from screens. Although now into his seventies, Nicholson remains a bankable star but at this stage he appears to have no future plans to step behind the camera again.
After an undistinguished beginning playing bit-parts under contract at Universal, Clint Eastwood eventually achieved modest popularity in the long running television series Rawhide (1959-64). It took a sojourn to Italy for a trio of westerns for Sergio Leone for the actor to gain international stardom which he then parlayed into a series of successful genre entries in Hollywood during the late 1960s. Keen to direct, he was willing to sacrifice his acting salary to star and helm the thriller Play Misty for Me (1971) at Universal. With a low budget, generally positive reviews and his bankability as an actor, the film was profitable for the studio. Eastwood’s adherence to a classical style, contentedness to work within identifiable genres and willingness to star within his own directing projects allowed him to work behind the camera another five times during the 1970s with only 1973’s Breezy (a generation gap romance) being his sole, non-starring indulgence.
There are a number of key points to this contrast. For although Nicholson and Eastwood both enjoyed popularity with audiences, the former was less inclined to perform in identifiably generic productions and, to read his filmography, appeared to choose his films based upon the idiosyncrasies of their particular directors (Rafelson, Jaglom, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Polanski, Michelangelo Antonioni, Elia Kazan, Ken Russell, Arthur Penn and Stanley Kubrick). If Eastwood was not directing his own films he was content to work for the genre, rather than strictly with directors with any auteurist affectations, often providing work for anonymous journeymen such as Brian G. Hutton and Ted Post.
In Hollywood’s mad scramble to bottle the essence of Easy Rider’s popularity, the distillation process revealed a combination of elements that appeared keys to its success. A perusal of studio product over the immediate years following Easy Rider exhibits the re-configuration of such elements as the road movie, enigmatic, taciturn protagonists, the fetishisation of their modes of transport, references to counter-cultural concerns, a modern rock-music score, distrust of law-enforcement and a downbeat ending, all seasoned with a generous application of an existentialist-infused disillusionment.
By the time these films were in production, The Rolling Stones’ Altamont Speedway debacle had occurred, the Vietnam war had lingered to the point of numbness for much of the population and, for some of the later entries in the cycle, the acrid stench of Watergate was plunging the belief in the transparency of government to new depths. Easy Rider’s pessimism at least addressed the notion that the moment had been lost; the cinematic variations did not even bother. It was all over before their opening credits rolled leaving the inevitable to be replayed in the dejected American 1970s. Yet these films do engage in an intriguing dialogue with Easy Rider using its template to expand upon its concerns or, in at least one case, offer an alternate response to it. Eschewing the recurring cultural commentary of Easy Rider, Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop’s young protagonists, although referred to as ‘hippies’ at one point within the film, are hermetically sealed from society. Their life is their vehicle and the racing they compete in is an irrelevant attachment to the act of living for the moment.
In Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian: 1971), Kowalski (Barry Newman) bets that he can drive a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours. As he speeds across the country with police in pursuit he revisits his own memories of the 1960s, including his time as a decorated war hero and later as a cop who blew the whistle on departmental corruption. En route he encounters a pair of hippies who applaud his actions. But only a few short years after 1967s so-called ‘Summer of Love’, these characters are depicted as lost anachronisms, eking out an existence in the desert along with various other misfits (revivalists, prospectors) unable to meaningfully function in society. The reasons for his drive long waived, but compelled to continue, Kowalski prefers his life concluding as an exploding fireball rather than dealing with an institutionally corrupt state. Yet Kowalski was not the last man of integrity in the US. There was one more to come in the form of John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) in Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guerico, 1973). This time our hero is a motorcycle cop and one who still believes in the ability of the system to do good. Functioning as a reply to Easy Rider’s political hedging and finger-pointing, the policeman is now victim; after an act of charitable kindness he is blasted away by drug-smuggling hippies in a van. The counter-culturists were no better than the rednecks that took out Captain American and Billy. Everybody was tainted, everything stank.
So what were Easy Rider’s politics, anyway? For some with hazy memories the film is an affirmation of the hippie ideology – a straight-forward pantomime in which the cops and the rednecks represent not just middle-America, but everything that is rotten with the country at the time. Well, no. Fonda and Hopper may have the requisite long hair and speak the patois of the generation, but it is a culture their characters reject. Captain America (the idealist dreamer) may express wide-eyed belief in the future of the commune dwellers they encounter (“They’re gonna make it”), it is apparent that in terms of both practicalities and sexual/domestic dynamics the commune is doomed. For although an admiration is evident for the youth culture, Easy Rider is, if anything, a libertarian tract, albeit one with a soft-left leaning: “You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.” Fonda tells a rancher who has invited them for lunch. Far from radical, its politics harken back to the Constitution as penned by the founding fathers and its various amendments with the preservation of individual freedoms against the various forces conspiring to control the populace being its primary concern. “This used to be one helluva good country” laments George Hanlon (Jack Nicholson) during the campfire sequence, “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it”. Substitute the word ‘country‘ for ‘industry‘ and many Hollywood executives would have echoed the sentiment. There is no lack of irony in it taking a curiously backward-looking counter-culture film to shake up a backward thinking industry.
After the disaster of The Last Movie there was little chance of Dennis Hopper being allowed to direct in that town again for quite sometime and when audiences shunned his appearance as the leading man in James Frawley’s satirical western Kid Blue (1973), Hollywood had no further use for him. It would seem that one can thumb their nose at the industry and it will be tolerated as long as you are generating profit for that industry. When the revenue dries up you are banished, especially if your behaviour is erratic (and often violent) and you suffer problems with substance abuse. Which was the case with Hopper and, for much of the 1970s he was to watch Hollywood’s ongoing reaction to Easy Rider from exile as he flitted from Europe to Australia taking work when he could find it.
Peter Fonda, as an actor, did survive the poor reception to The Hired Hand but it took a return to genre to do so. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (John Hough, 1974) saw Fonda as a bandit trying to outrun the police to the state line, but only moments from the border a collision with a freight train turns the getaway car into a fireball. A smash hit on the drive-in circuit, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was a key film in the post-Easy Rider road movie genre, for although it retained the explosive fatalism of the others within the movement, it did away with their taciturn, enigmatic protagonists. In Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry Fonda led a trio of fun loving bandits who rob a grocery store in order to fund their racing circuit dreams. Their thrills lie in mocking the police and pushing the accelerator as hard as possible. (“Driving fast, riding easy” read the taglines). By 1974 there was no need to offer a pretence of the last-honest-man trope that had run a course through the post-Easy Rider landscape. The disillusion was siphoned off to political thrillers of the period, leaving car chases, hot vehicles and anti-authoritarianism as key elements and adding country & western soundtracks and a small-business, individualist streak, in line with their appeal to the southern and midwest markets where these films were proving highly successful in drive-ins. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was produced by 20th Century Fox and the studio released two further Fonda features that continued to mine this exploitation vein. Race With the Devil (Jack Starrett, 1975) featured Fonda and Warren Oates as middle-class Texan suburbanites who, with their wives, take to the road in an oversized campervan for a Colorado vacation. Their world, so self-contained within their vehicle, is threatened when they witness an occult killing. Before long they are under siege by the devil worshippers, who blend in seamlessly with the south’s small town populations. Fonda’s character in Race With the Devil reflects that of his audience: mildly radical in the 1960s, now professionals with families and responsibilities. Indeed one could say his character is the matured Captain America with his Harley Davidson replaced by an RV. Yet the south is still full of danger and still from the most outwardly respectable townsfolk. An odd amalgam of the post Easy Rider road movie and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) spawned satanist-horror flick, the southern gothic of Race With the Devil represents the shift of the Easy Rider ethos: for where once the protagonists were scruffy, long-haired misfits, now it is company men and their family units that are the ‘other’ in the rural patriot strongholds. Race With the Devil was not the only film to mine this vein of paranoia, following in the wake of Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). It is worth noting that when Lee Frost, Race With the Devil’s original director, was fired early in the production he was replaced by Jack Starrett, a former AIP actor turned director who, with little artistic pretence, was able to sustain a successful career in exploitation filmmaking throughout the 1970s. In terms of films produced, he was the most successful of the AIP actor-directors.
Violation of the sanctity of family home (albeit a mobile one) was a pressing subtext in Race With the Devil and the following year it was the key plot conflict of Fighting Mad (Jonathan Demme, 1976) with Fonda returning to his family’s Arkansas ranch after a long absence and finding them threatened by land developers trying to evict them by any illegal means possible. Fonda, with his thin build, is an unlikely aggressor, but his character resorts to violence when provoked by the land grabbers and the corrupt politicians and police they have bribed. Both of these films take the trouble to remind us that their star was once Captain America, shoehorning motorcycle sequences into the narratives.
Having helped pioneer the southern road movie and ease it into its mid-70s exploitation/ drive-in groove, Fonda was cast aside as A-listers Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood moved into the territory, claiming it as their own and introducing a slapstick-laden levity in the process. In what became known as the ‘good-ol-boy’ genre of feudin’, fightin’, drinkin’, lovin’ and truck drivin’ features, the trend took a turn decidedly to the right as Southern folk and their reactionary ideals were embraced rather than feared, and police/ politicians now depicted as buffoons rather than fascists. Fonda did appear in one feature that was reduced to this level – High Ballin’ (Peter Carter, 1978) – in which he shared equal billing with Jerry Reed, a supporting player to Reynolds in the phenomenally successful Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977). For High Ballin’ Fonda was back at the beginning, working for AIP as Eastwood and Reynolds – two actors who had received regular directing assignments – took the genre into the blockbuster mainstream.
By 1981 Fonda was reduced to a cameo as ‘Chief Biker’ in The Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981), a Burt Reynolds cross country road-race spectacle in which a cavalcade of pop-cultural relics (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bert Convy, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Jamie Farr) parlayed their shtick in a Vegas-lounge act version of a demolition derby. So was that it? A little over a decade after its release the ideological legacy of Easy Rider was Captain America brawling with a game-show host in a Burt Reynolds good-ol-boy flick?
The industrial influence of Easy Rider had long since dissipated too, with few of the AIP actor directors finding gainful employment and a number of the young, personal filmmakers of the ‘New Hollywood‘ era having either burnt their Hollywood bridges (Friedkin, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman) or found favour with the studios by setting their sights on attracting the largest audiences possible with spectacle and thrills (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg). BBS had long since collapsed due to a combination of personal animosities and financial failures; and Dennis Hopper, still banished from the Hollywood community, had been tethered out just once, by Francis Coppola in Apocalypse Now (1978). In a film about the madness of the 1960s, audiences who could still remember the actor could sigh and shake their heads at his deteriorated physical and mental states. That is, if they noticed him at all amongst the other freaks in the sideshow spectacular. The early films of the New Hollywood may have represented molotov cocktails exploding on cinema screens and within studio boardrooms, but the era was extinguished with all the force of a candle flame quietly fading. The post-Watergate period was an age of on screen triumphantism (Rocky, John Avildsen, 1976), romantic comedies (Woody Allen and Neil Simon), studio-era stars’ grisly deaths as spectacle (the oeuvre of Irwin Allen), and the hand-wringing anguish of the middle class (Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert Benton, 1979). Even the one true film star to emerge from the AIP actor-director films, Jack Nicholson, had seen his professional stocks dip at the turn of the new decade. The failures of The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976), The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976) and, under his own direction, Goin‘ South (1978) were not allayed by the painfully long shoot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) which too, failed at the box-office.
The once radicalised counter-culture generation had, by the mid-1980s, lost their youth and with it, the change-the-world aspirations of a now mythological time all eroded through an ensuing decade of deflation and apathy, the void filled with insularity and affluence. Now in their 30s, this educated generation were filling positions in the media and entertainment industry and were also recognised as a lucrative demographic for advertisers. 1960s tunes were advertising jingles and musical acts of the era were selling out stadiums and reappearing in the charts. Having gone through the requisite ‘uncool’ period they were now nostalgia acts, allowing thirty-something baby boomers to relive the summer of love twenty years later. On television prime time ratings winners included The Wonder Years and Thirtysomething, which both looked wistfully back upon the 1960s. At cinemas, Hollywood reflected the national desire to finally reconcile and understand the Vietnam War and a spate of films on the subject crowded screens. Quite possibly it was Albert Brooks who initiated the trend of representing the 1960s as nostalgia in the comedy Lost in America (1985) as a middle-class couple look for a panacea for their personal dissatisfaction and think they have found it in emulating an Easy Rider style road trip in a Winnebago. Their notions of what they will find and the reality of life on the road is the clash that drives the narrative and underscores the distance between counter-culture truth and nostalgia. It was time to welcome Dennis Hopper back into the fold.
After a complete breakdown on the set of the women-in-prison variant Jungle Fever (1984, Theumer) in Mexico in 1983, Hopper underwent detoxification and rehabilitation and, having proven himself to be clean, sober and his erratic behaviour a thing of the past, he let it be known he was ready to resume gainful employment. But to become a settled and responsible member of the Hollywood community was not as simple as returning to work. In order to be accepted and embraced, Hopper had to prove his application to the cause through a process of initiation, whereby he could exorcise the demons of his personal and cinematic past on film. Three of these films were released in 1986. Hoosiers (David Anspaugh), a conventional and sentimental sports-redemption story in which Hopper took a supporting role as a near-derelict alcoholic who cleans himself up to be present at his son’s big game. A veritable press release in celluloid, Hollywood and the media, always enamoured with a comeback story, were even more taken with so public an admittance of personal and professional debasement. Granted a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance, perhaps not quite enough work had been done to win the statuette.
Blue Velvet (David Lynch) presented an opportunity to show the old Hopper on screen – a debased, pill-popping, psychotic aggressor and abuser of women. Much of the media of the time related to Hopper’s insistence that he was the character of Frank Booth and had the ability to channel his horrifying persona. Yet it was made clear that the channelling was just that, the demons were locked away and never to be released, except in a controlled state for the sake of the art of others. For River’s Edge (Tim Hunter), Hopper was willing to denounce his Easy Rider persona and fame. Another supporting role, this time as a pathetic, drug-addled, aging ex-biker with a Harley Davidson lying in pieces on the floor of his rundown hovel; he spends his days hanging with a group of miscreant, directionless teens, their life a wasteland of lost hope and no future. It could well be not only an apology for Easy Rider and its effects upon the youth of the period, but also an admission of his part in the downfall of the New Hollywood.
These performances provided Hopper with a showreel of bleak trauma exposed on film. In 1990 audiences were able to finally see Hopper looking back with nostalgia and, comfortable within, sending himself up in the process as he finally cast off his past with a buddy-road comedy. Flashback (Frank Amurri, 1990) stars the actor as an Abbie Hoffman-ish 60s radical still on the run for his role in a harmless but embarrassing pranking of Spiro Agnew during the 1968 presidential campaign. Once famous as an ‘activist clown’ he is now forgotten. Flashback relays the romanticised version of the 1960s and in particular the commune, which on reflection is far more idyllic than the shambles that Hopper presented a generation earlier. Played mostly for laughs, Flashback provides the actor with numerous opportunities to spoof his media image and his legacy; he even name drops Easy Rider, just to make it clear the legacy being self-referenced. Ah, but what of the legacy? For as a convenient ‘out’ at the end of Flashback, Hopper’s character is set free after he admits that he was not the culprit responsible for the 1968 prank. For over 20 years he had been living a lie having taken credit for the legacy of others. His penance served, his rehabilitation undertaken and his past repudiated, Hopper was now welcomed back to the Hollywood establishment. He was even given the opportunity to direct again. Colors (1988) – a crime drama set within the Los Angeles gang milieu – was so generically anonymous and proficient that Eastwood might have directed it. Further forays behind the camera have not been so warmly received and his most ambitious, Catchfire (1990), was so heavily altered by its bankrupt distributor that Hopper removed his name from the credits. However, as an actor he has carved out a prolific niche as a stock psychopath or loon allowing him to enjoy his hobby of art collecting and commentating. No longer a threat to the industry or social stability, Hopper is an establishment figure.
Fonda was less of a threat to the Hollywood establishment than the combustible Hopper. A passive force who remained a cordial figure in the workplace, Fonda’s rebellious persona was one that was readily marketable throughout the 1970s and who, by the end of that decade, was already an anachronistic relic. Yet as Hopper was enjoying his second act Fonda’s career had withered into irrelevance. He was not required to resolve his Easy Rider history in the manner forced upon Hopper, instead it was the spectre of his father, Henry Fonda, that needed reconciliation. A popular framing reference during the 1960s had involved positioning Peter against Henry: youth vs. middle age; establishment vs. counterculture; reactionary vs. revolutionary; old Hollywood vs. New Hollywood. In 1997, Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nunez) provided Peter with the opportunity to base a performance on his father: remote, restrained and emotionally disconnected from his family. Even physically resembling Henry, the son could examine the psyche of the father and, with a sense of wish-fulfilment, reconnect him with his family. His father forgiven and their relationship reconciled, in the one performance Peter Fonda rehabilitated his father’s legacy and excised the temporal distance between his Captain America past and the present. An old man for a new generation, his presence in a new film could be refracted through the rose-hued tint of nostalgia.
The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999) allows Fonda to commentate on the period he cannot break away from. As a record producer whose easy charm disguises a cowardly and ruthless materialism, he conceptualises the nostalgia for the 1960s:
“Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the sixties. No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all there was.”
The past. It was another country. The Wild Angels was there and so was The Trip. But the language had changed by the time of Easy Rider. Not even two years is what The Limey claims, but the act of nostalgia murkily merges it all together. Until very recently a bored-looking Fonda was appearing on late night infomercials for the Time-Life corporation selling the ‘Flower Power‘ collection of CDs, telling insomnia-suffering viewers of the how this music represented a generation and just in case anyone was not entirely sure of the validity of the salesman, his Easy Rider chopper is strategically placed behind him alongside peace-sign daubed combi-vans and lava lamps. For $149.95 you can own your own piece of the 1960s, packaged together and endorsed by Peter Fonda. If you are not satisfied you can send it back but you can keep the “Summer of Love” two-disc set as a free gift.
If Easy Rider was enigmatic in 1969 its legacy has lost its meaning today as it is conflated with ever other shorthand granules of detritus of the period. Something to do with changing times in an era that few really understood but like to fondly remember. That it rejected the counterculture is conveniently forgotten through the refraction of nostalgia and the necessity of the legacy that so many wish to share. Late in Easy Rider, as an uncomfortable Captain America waits in a brothel, he reads a plaque on the wall: “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”
In 2010, those responsible for Easy Rider’s financing, production and release are either aging, have long since retired from the industry or have passed away. Certainly they do not hold positions of power within the film industry. Although Hollywood was initially shaken by the popularity of Hopper’s film and were wary of its implications, it managed to adapt and realign and within a few years it was almost as if it had never happened. But Easy Rider’s aura remains alluring. As time passes the reality of the 1960s is so blurred with the nostalgia that the period evokes that one is difficult to discern from the other. To view Hollywood’s attempts at capturing the counterculture, one finds little that rings authentic. On close inspection Easy Rider does not fulfil the criteria either, but there exists a need for a Hollywood representation of that era and a longing (and lucrative) desire for so many to proclaim a legacy and stake their claim for it. If Easy Rider’s legacy did not exist, it seems it was necessary to invent it.
- Denise Mann. Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. p4
- Teresa Grimes. “BBS: Auspicious Beginnings, Open Endings”. Movie (Winter 1986), pp. 54-60
- Peter Biskind. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. p.124
- Pat McGilligan. “Actors Directing”. Focus on Films, No.36, 1980. p.5
- McGilligan, p. 6