At the tender age of 19, Dennis Hopper made his film debut in Nicholas Ray’s teen classic, Rebel Without a Cause. The 1955 film introduced the world to James Dean, the renegade with a heart of gold whose demeanor and style helped plant seeds of the American counterculture. But Dean would not live to see his influence; he died one month before the film was released.
Hopper was devastated by the death of his friend. Wracked by grief, the young actor became unmanageable. After a confrontation with director Henry Hathaway on the set of From Hell to Texas in 1958, Hopper made Hollywood’s dreaded blacklist. But the young maverick could not be stopped and soon found other means to channel his creative impulses.
In the 1960s, Hopper began spending time with artists like Andy Warhol, William Claxton, Joseph Albers, and Ed Ruscha. Inspired to get behind the camera, he made a series of photographs of his everyday life, photographing the changing landscape of America as it unfolded before his eyes during the 1960s. Adopting an unconventional approach, Hopper took a wide array of vantage points and quickly became a participant in his work.
It was a sensibility that he would bring to Easy Rider, Hopper’s 1969 return to the silver screen, which he co-wrote with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern. Conceived as a modern take on the Western, Easy Rider tells the story of two bikers named for Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, and allegedly modeled on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, who decide to bike from Los Angeles to New Orleans to celebrate at Mardi Gras after scoring big on a drug deal.
Along the way they visit a hippie commune then land in the clink, where they meet George (Jack Nicholson), an ACLU lawyer, who springs them from jail and joins them on the trip. Things take a dark turn when they arrive in Louisiana, where their freewheeling ways provoke scorn and rage from good ole boys who are gunning for their death. “We blew it,” Fonda’s character says towards the end of the film, a cryptic line alluding not only to the film’s narrative arc but also of the failure of the hippie ethos itself.
Though the dreams of Woodstock crashed and burned at Altamont, Easy Rider sparked a revolution all its own with the creation of New Hollywood, also known as the American New Wave. As Baby Boomers came of age, they sought stories that mirrored their lives. They embraced art house and foreign films, enthralled by the idea of an auteur whose vision and style spoke directly to a new generation of disaffected Americans fed up with the glamour and grandeur of the Hollywood studio system.
Openly embracing the world of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Easy Rider became emblematic of the counterculture. With its jump cuts, jerky handheld cameras, flashbacks, flash forwards, fractured narrative, and improvised acting, Easy Rider was the cinematic equivalent of a psychedelic trip. While the studios were losing money hand over first, Easy Rider was made on a $400,000 budget and grossed $6 million worldwide — evidence that the public hungered for cinéma vérité.
Hopper had come full circle by staying the course and embracing the voice of disaffected youth. He understood that film, like art and life, would benefit from an experimental, freethinking mindset — not only in the stories they told, but how they told them. By reimagining paradigms, Hopper charted a new course, not only for his extraordinary career but also for the industry itself.
In the film, Hopper (Billy) describes to Nicholson (George) a palpable fear America exudes when confronted by the counterculture. George’s response not only foretells what will happen in the film, but prophesizes the very direction the nation would take for decades to come: “They're scared of what you represent to 'em….What you represent to them is freedom…. It's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are.”
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