Sunday, December 26, 2010

No. 88: Easy Rider

Easy Rider (1969)

Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Directed by: Dennis Hopper (and produced by Peter Fonda)

Awards: Nominated for 2 Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson

I heard conflicting opinions about Easy Rider before I ever watched the movie - everything from “it’s unwatchable” to “it’s my favorite movie of all time.” My poor brain was confused, so I decided to do some background reading. I read five different reviews (including the original 1969 New York Times review) and it didn’t help - at all. I definitely ended up more confused than before I began.

* “Easily one of the most overrated films of all time, Easy Rider, a definite product of its time, is a pretentious, indulgent and self-satisfied bore.”

* “The movie is a cultural landmark.”

* “It's pretty but lower case cinema.”

* “Easy Rider is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it.”

I gave up on trying to determine its value, and decided to just sit and watch the movie. For future reference, probably the best plan of action.

Anyway, Easy Rider is a motorcycle drama teetering on the brink of camp – but when put in historical context, it’s somewhat redeemed (I’ll explain that later).

Two stylin’ 60’s-era bikers, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), cash in on a drug deal and use their earnings to go on a bro-cycle road trip to New Orleans. Along the way, they meet a herd of hicks, visit a hippie commune, try every drug imaginable and, while in jail, pick up an alcoholic named George (Nicholson). The movie turns dark when George is killed by a group of hippie-hating Texans, and when Wyatt and Billy eventually get to New Orleans, what do they do? Go on an extended acid trip in a graveyard with two hookers. Classy! The two bikers head back home, and are shot and killed by two hillbillies who “think it’d be fun to scare the bejesus out of them.” It’s a depressing ending to...dare I say…not such a great movie?

We can start with the good. The best thing about Easy Rider is Jack Nicholson. In the role that made him famous, he’s fantastic at showing both the funny and the weary side of an alcoholic. Peter Fonda is the better of the two bikers; his acting seems less wooden, and more realistic. Maybe it helped that they used real drugs to film the drug scenes? About that historical context: when the film was released, it shocked America. Older people were feeling out of touch with the counterculture - hippies, drugs, protesting! - and young adults identified with the movie’s themes.

On the bad side: a lot to talk about. Dennis Hopper’s acting? I’m sorry, it’s simply horrendous. The blaring soundtrack didn’t work for me – but to be fair, I had a raging headache, and my slightly sensitive ears didn’t like “Born To Be Wild” screamed over and over again. I also didn’t love the sets and color schemes, but they were of the period, so there it is.

So, if you like:

* American-flag embellished motorcycles

* Jack Nicholson at his sly, early best

* Early hippie motorcycle bro-mance

* Steppenwolf, The Byrds and lots of 60’s music

..then you’ll love Easy Rider.

Next up, Frankenstein (1931) – starring the always-intriguing Boris Karloff. I’ve seen this one before, but I love it, so I’ll be more then happy to watch it again and review it. Stick around and read about it!


  1. Especially fond of "teetering on the brink of camp." I still find it unwatchable, but - good review!

  2. Josie! Another thought-provoking review. I just added Easy Rider to my Netflix queue so I can see it again. (I think I should join you in your Take 100 Project. Every movie you discuss piques my interest for one reason or another.)

    I think Easy Rider is an important movie, and one that is an historical watershed. It both reflected and changed the counter culture and the dominant culture, and it—along with a few other films— radically altered the film industry.

    This movie is an important reflection of the turbulent social changes in the late 60s. It is actually more important symbolically as a watershed moment than it is as a drama. The acting is often epically bad, mostly because the people involved were too self-indulgent to do something with more shape. There was also a lot of testosterone at work: the fighting between Fonda and Hopper, and Hopper and *everyone* was a huge part of the making of the film.

    I do see what you mean about camp. I read what you wrote and then looked up the word camp. Someone named Indra Jahalani defines camp as, "popularity + vulgarity + innocence." I love this because it fits this film so well. Easy Rider was a reflection of the new popular culture, it was extremely vulgar, but it was based on what now seems an almost ridiculous innocence, a naiveté about life and meaning of which the players were unaware, since they thought they were world-weary and sophisticated. That fascinates and moves me, and it makes me think of Bob Dylan's lyric, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

    Jack Nicholson, who I love, is good in this film. He is at the beginning of a powerful film career. His work in Five Easy Pieces, which came out the next year was, to me, really remarkable.

    Thank you, once again, for inspiring me to think about this anew.

  3. Kcelia really gets it right with the bit about relative innocence. On my own blog (currently down, or I would link to it), I recently wrote about the original Tron and Star Wars movies that they are hard defend as good, but they are nevertheless important. This is perhaps also true of Easy Rider. It was not a cinematic masterpiece, but it did things that were new at the time, and thus opened doors to other movies that came after it. For people (including me) who saw it after the movies it influenced, the "newness" can't help but fall a little flat. We have to make an effort to view it through the lens of the time in which it was created.