With Dennis Hopper's recent passing I felt compelled to visit some of his films that I had never seen. Personally Speed is my Dennis Hopper film, but that might be because the quality of his films diminished in recent years. Easy Rider seemed like a great place to start. Dennis Hopper starred in, co-wrote and directed the 1969 film. His screenwriting partner, fellow iconic actor Peter Fonda, was also his costar and producer of the film. Easy Rider is considered to be a major work in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The film highlights the major challenges affecting American society and the main characters' difficulty to find like-minded people. To further its cultural importance, Easy Rider is infamous for its use of real drugs in scenes involving marijuana. Forty years after its release Easy Rider has become an iconic film for its use of motorcycles as well as its great soundtrack, which featured music by The Band, Steppenwolf and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Outside of all its cultural and historical impact, Easy Rider is also the film that launched Jack Nicholson into the spotlight. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (and Terry Southern) were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. While I may be too young and too far removed from the culture of the late 1960s, I found Dennis Hopper's and Peter Fonda's performances to be inauthentic. I saw the duo more as two actors masquerading as hippies as they travel across the United States by motorcycle. That being sad, I believe that message of the Easy Rider is easily transmitted to the audience and, along with the powerful performance by Jack Nicholson and the great soundtrack, Easy Rider is a film worth seeing.
Easy Rider opens in Mexico with Wyatt (Peter Fonda), nicknamed Captain America, and Billy (Dennis Hopper) making a deal for cocaine. The two smuggle the drugs across the border and return home to Los Angeles. After exchanging the drugs for profit they stash the money in the fuel tank of Wyatt's motorcycle and set out to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Wyatt and Billy share a meal with a rancher and as they continue their trek they pick up a hitch-hiker (Luke Askew). The unnamed man takes them to his commune where the land is harsh and it has become increasingly more difficult to raise crops. The people on the commune seem to practice free love, which is more appealing to one man than the other. Upon leaving the commune they eventually find themselves imprisoned after joining the end of a parade. They are thrown in jail for parading without a permit. In jail they encounter George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), in jail for public drunkenness, a lawyer who helps get Wyatt and Billy out of jail. George joins the men on their journey and he is introduced to marijuana one night by a campfire. When they enter Louisiana they eat at a local diner and their presence attracts attention from the ladies but it threatens the men. They are so threatened that they attack the three men in the middle of the night with baseball bats, and while Wyatt and Billy survive, it is George who is unable to overcome his injuries. Wyatt and Billy end up at a brothel in New Orleans, a place George had wanted to visit, and take two prostitutes to a cemetery where they ingest LSD, given to them by the hitch-hiker as they left the commune. They leave Louisiana unfulfilled and head towards Florida, but their trip does not get any easier and people are still scared and threatened by their appearance.
I was unprepared for the end of Easy Rider and that made me like the film that much more. I love when a film surprises and shocks me. I may not have believed the characters played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, but I understand the importance of the film. Even today people are threatened by people with different values. As I said above, I may not fully understand the culture of the 1960s and 1970s because I was born in 1983, so I may have missed some of the subtler aspects of the film. But in forty years is someone of a different generation going to fully comprehend the historical significance of Toy Story? I will contradict myself and say that I understand the significance of Annie Hall, released in 1977, but does the eight year gap make a difference? Or maybe I just do not understand the hippie drug culture. In terms of my appreciation for Dennis Hopper as an actor, I do not think that Easy Rider is a great point of reference, but it does show that he is a talent for the arts in general.
My rating: 3 stars out of 4.