Two Cents Rides into the Great Beyond with Peter Fonda and EASY RIDER

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

There are many films that can be said to have influenced the culture at large and the medium of film. But there are a select few films that can be said have completely re-shaped the industry itself, upsetting the entire nature of filmmaking to such an extent that nothing is ever quite the same.

Peter Fonda could not have known he was kick-starting such an atom bomb of influence when he spotted a still of himself and Bruce Dern on motorcycles from the film, The Wild Angels, and conceived of a new, modern Western with the biker standing in for the rugged cowboy of old, that his brainwave would rewrite the rules of Hollywood forever. He contacted previous collaborator Dennis Hopper and brought him on board to co-star, co-write, and direct, getting the ball rolling on what would become Easy Rider.

Independently financed and almost entirely plot-less, Easy Rider follows laidback, melancholy Wyatt (Fonda) and high-energy, volatile Billy (Hopper) as the hippie duo conclude a lucrative drug deal and decide to hit the road on their souped-up choppers to enjoy that year’s Mardi Gras celebration before using their windfall to drop off the grid entirely. Along the way, Wyatt and Billy run across and sometimes afoul of a number of other seekers and losers, including a booze-loving, liberal-minded lawyer played by a young Jack Nicholson.

The trip ends in a fiery tragedy, recalling the state of the Hollywood industry at the tail-end of the Sixties. Big budget flops like Cleopatra, the implosion of the previously-lucrative roadshow market, the meteoric rise of television, and the onset of a new generation that had no interest in the kind of classically-styled fare that was glomming up the theaters, had all brought the silver screen to its knees. Easy Rider was not the only revolutionary, youth-oriented film to hit big in 1969, but unlike something like The Graduate, Rider was independently financed (even low-budget maestro Roger Corman passed on putting money up for it, a decision he would go on to call the dumbest mistake in his life) and shot guerilla-style, helping to inspire generations of filmmakers to grab their cameras and start shooting.

Nothing was ever quite the same after Easy Rider. It heavily popularized not only the music of bands like Steppenwolf and The Band, but also motorcycle culture in general. Even with less than 20 minutes of screentime, Nicholson made such an impression on filmgoers that he was catapulted from a dayplayer in Corman B-movies and into superstardom. Easy Rider would become forever enshrined as a touchstone of the Baby Boomers, a living portrait of the moment when it began to become clear that the forces of revolution and free-love were not going to be enough to break free of the American system.

Studios tried to cash in on the Easy Rider phenomenon by giving Fonda and Hopper big budgets to work their hippie magic. It didn’t quite work out that way. Fonda’s big shot, The Hired Hand, which he also directed, was a box office failure though it has since been reappraised. Hopper’s follow-up, The Last Movie, was such a disaster during production and such a bomb on release, that Hopper was largely exiled from American cinema for a decade. Disputes over credit and money from Easy Rider drove the former friends apart, so much so that when Hopper passed away in 2010, Fonda was barred from attending the service.

The fiery finale of Easy Rider now plays all the sadder since both Hopper and Fonda are now gone as well. But for as long as we talk about films and filmmaking, Easy Rider will be a part of that conversation, as will be the two wild men who brought it to life. Two longhairs thundering across the country, forever. — Brendan

Next Week’s Pick:

Films exploring aging or has-been entertainers aren’t new or novel (Two Cents alums Sunset Blvd, Hugo, The Last Movie Star, and my personal favorite The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou being a few prominent examples among many), but there’s something about this particular strain of storytelling that’s not only interesting, but self-aware and analytical on the part of the storytellers, filmmakers, and actors who share these stories, as well as the audiences who love them.

Millennium Actress tells the story of a legendary actress, now reclusive and withdrawn from the public eye, as she relates her own tale, dynamically set against the backdrop of the films that defined her career. It is the creation of Satoshi Kon, the writer-director behind anime classics Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and the prolific Mad House anime studio. — Austin

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)!

The Team

Justin Harlan:

As a general rule, I don’t care a ton for biker films. The idea of them is always enticing. Each time I convince myself that I just haven’t seen the right one yet and I decide to give it another go. I think the only one I’ve watched to this day that I kinda dug was Frankenstein Created Bikers and a large part of my enjoyment of that one comes from the fact that the director has become a friend of mine — objectively, it’s still not really for me.

Thus, I went into this, my first, viewing of the iconic Fonda/Hopper bikers-on-the-open-road film with trepidation. And, while it was a far different film other biker films I’ve seen and a far more enjoyable one, it still wasn’t quite my thing.

On the other hand, there was a whole lot to appreciate. The portrait of America that the film presents is quite an interesting and eye opening one. The cinematography — especially the sprawling landscapes — is fantastic. The soundtrack is pretty damn strong. And, it’s hard not to feel like the actors do a pretty stellar job.

The long and short of it is that I can see why this is considered a great and fantastic film… it’s just not for me. Therefore, my search for the illusive biker film that I truly enjoy remains underway. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

Like Justin, I have to admit that much of Easy Rider is not to my tastes. The defiantly plot-less experience must have been a lightning bolt for folks back in 1969, but stretches like the long sojourn at a free-love colony kept threatening to put me to sleep. When Nicholson pops up, the movie started to click a lot more, not only because of Nicholson’s live-wire energy and innate magnetism, but because his character, a good ol’ boy lawyer who is nonetheless sympathetic to/admiring of the outlaw lifestyle of the Fonda and Hopper characters, creates a tension and dynamic that isn’t present in the other stretches. Nicholson’s character acts as a bridge between the ‘system’ and the free-living, free-loving hippies, and the way Hopper and Fonda respond to him, and his ultimate fate, it’s easily the meatiest material in the movie. No wonder Nicholson’s star shot up and never came back down. I’ve seen him in some of those Corman movies, and while he’s always been a strong actor, here he’s alive and alert and just goddamn magnetic to watch.

Once Nicholson departs the film, a sadness settles over Easy Rider. The film stops being just a document of a moment and more of a commentary on it. The guys spend the whole movie trying to get to Mardi Gras, then apparently miss the whole thing because they’re too busy picking up prostitutes and dropping acid in a cemetery. Fonda’s muttered, improvised final line, “We blew it” may in fact be the single most perfect encapsulation of the disillusionment of the Baby Boomers put to film, with the black-hearted finale the Viking funeral for a lost generation.

So, maybe not my favorite movie we’ve ever done, but a film that earns its legendary status. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

Today Easy Rider plays with an even more somber parting note with the loss of its stars; those who were the young revolutionaries aged and eventually passed on, as life always goes. More generally, in hindsight the world is always changing; the idealists become the establishment, and so forth.

Outsiders, though? Outsiders are a constant. You need not be a hippie nor biker (or any other flavor of minority) to understand, or at least sympathize with, those on the fringes of humanity or alternative culture.

Easy Rider is a surprisingly languid and seemingly aimless for most of its runtime as its protagonists trek across America encountering people of all types, from hospitable to hateful. The contemporary soundtrack sets the tone, injecting vibrant life into tracks like “Born to be Wild” and “The Weight” which never crossed my mind as being anything more profound than the familiar staples of classic rock radio.

It’s not until the film’s midpoint introduction of a third character (Jack Nicholson!), escalating conflict, and chaotic and still shocking finale that the picture starts to come together — that this, this, is why this film spoke to the hearts of a generation. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick: Millennium Actress
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