When Easy Rider was released 50 years ago, in the Summer of ‘69, it became a genuine phenomenon. It impressed a generation of disillusioned American youth who had never seen themselves represented accurately in film before. The film was also a critical hit, with The New York Times publishing a review entitled "A statement on film." Here is a summary of the film from the original article, published July 15, 1969:
“Two not-so-young cyclists, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) who affects soft leather breeches and a Capt. America jacket, and Billy (Dennis Hopper), who looks like a perpetually stoned Buffalo Bill, are heading east from California toward New Orleans. They don't communicate with us, or each other, but after a while, it doesn't seem to matter….
“We accept them in their moving 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.”
Written by Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and director Dennis Hopper, the film buzzes through the mid-20th century counter-cultural landscape, occasionally encountering and clashing with the ordinary, inhibited folk of “Real America.” Along the way, while jailed in a small Southern town, they meet fellow-in-mate George Hanson, a handsome, alcoholic young lawyer who approaches life with a charming sort of nihilism.
Played with goofy aplomb by actor Jack Nicholson, in one of several iconic exchanges, Hanson makes explicit the ways in which the tuned out, non-conforming motorcyclists remind others of their own total, painful obedience to the status quo.
“Don't ever tell anybody that they're not free,” says Hanson famously, “'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are.”
It’s cutting, moral send-ups like these that earned the film its critical acclaim, further fueling the burgeoning careers of its creators and contributors. Nicholson would go onto to receive the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and the Screenplay would be nominated as well.
Dennis Hopper would receive the First Film Award at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and his character Billy remains one of the great, groovy tragic heroes of modern film. (In fact, the very glasses Hopper wears in the movie serve as the inspiration for JMM’s “Taos” glasses.)
The success of the film made big waves in Hollywood. For one thing, Easy Rider confirmed that there was a huge youth market that most studio execs didn’t know how to reach, and it was proof that hits like The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde, released a couple years earlier, weren’t flukes.
It also confirmed that a film didn’t need a big studio budget to be a critical and financial success. Released in the days before box office revenue was meticulously tracked, Peter Fonda told Variety that worldwide the film took in $50-$60 million, a sizable profit for a film that cost around $375k.
Fonda is now set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film with an appearance at Cannes Classics to present a 4K version of the film, restored from its original 35mm negative. Additionally, Fathom Events will be holding a special two days of screenings, July 14 and July 17, in more than 400 theaters, including a new introduction by Fonda. The perfect excuse to re-watch a film that remains just as vibrant and influential as the year it was released.
Sources: Variety; NYT Archive, Forbes.
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