Easy Rider Fifty Years On


Released in 1969, the same year as the Apollo 11 moon landings, the Manson family murders, the inauguration of Richard Nixon, and the Altamont slayings, Easy Rider (prophetically for Hollywood and the wider world) opens with a cocaine deal. Cocaine had not yet taken over as the drug of choice for Hollywood stars and executives. This was one of many things that would set Easy Rider apart from the late sixties movies released at the same time.

The genesis of this still iconic movie occurred on November 27th 1967. Peter Fonda was in Canada to promote his latest film, the Roger Corman cheapie The Trip (1967) written by then unknown actor Jack Nicholson, and co-starring Dennis Hopper. Fonda, the son of legendary actor Henry Fonda, and brother of the far more successful Jane Fonda, was obliged to attend a motion picture exhibitors conference on that day. Jack Valenti, the key speaker, had just been elected president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Fonda remembers part of Valenti’s speech, as if Valenti was aiming it at him: “My friends,” he said, “It is time we stopped making movies about motorcycles, sex and drugs!”

Disillusioned, Fonda went back to his motel room and lit a joint. He found himself mesmerized by a still he had of one of his previous films, The Wild Angels (1966), and felt like the silhouette of him and his co-star Bruce Dern with their bikes made it seem like the biker movie was a western. Fonda decided to make a Western himself, a western with motorcycles. “A modern Western with two hip guys on bikes instead of old movie stars on horses.”

Fonda was unaware that Corman had based the screenplay for The Wild Angels on celebrity journalist Hunter S Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967) which had become an instant bestseller, a troubling tale of the increase in biker clubs in America. Film critic Steven Bingen wrote:

These clubs were originally made up of disillusioned World War II veterans who had returned from combat and…had subsequently formed their own splinter society…

Fonda called Hopper, saying he would produce, Hopper would direct, and they’d both act and write the screenplay. Hopper, feeling hemmed in by his career as a bit part player in Hollywood B pictures, jumped at the chance. They pitched the as yet unnamed movie around town, finding the ear of famed writer Terry Southern, who had recently featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band and written the Kubrick picture Dr Strangelove. There is great contention as to how much of the screenplay each of the three contributed. Hopper, before his death, was adamant that he wrote every word, and the only thing Southern added was the title, allegedly cribbed from the 1933 Mae West song I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone.

Inspired by the classic road narratives of Don Quixote, Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road, Hopper was also deeply inspired by experimental art, in particular Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was being sold to the hippy generation as “The Ultimate Trip”. Hundreds of the tune in drop out audiences would drop acid and smoke weed during Kubrick’s movie, and Hopper intended on capitalising on the Haight Ashbury crowd. Eventually Fonda and the other main editors on the picture cut Easy Rider down from Hopper’s four hour version, into a workable version that would sell commercially. Fonda and Hopper, despite all their rebel posturing, were two baby boomers brought up on classic Hollywood narrative. Seeing the blockbuster success of what was initially a throw away picture about a youth culture they didn’t get, “Columbia executives stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension, and began nodding their heads in incomprehension.”

Grossing 60 million (400 million in today’s currency) on a budget of $500,000, it was Columbia’s biggest hit of 1969, and the 28th biggest grosser of the 1960s. Nominated for Oscars for Best Supporting Actor,(Jack Nicholson), and Best Original Screenplay, it won nothing, but started a revolutionary movement in Hollywood where the old guard started to see that young filmmakers, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Friedkin, should be listened to and granted more autonomy with their pictures.

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