The critical and commercial success of Easy Rider (1969) scared the hell out of the Hollywood studios at the time of its release. Executives thought that they knew what the public wanted to see: safe comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) or the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. Along came this counter-culture movie that featured contemporary rock ‘n’ roll music, two hippie protagonists and a nihilistic ending. And audiences loved it. All bets were off on what audiences wanted to see and so the studios began hiring young producers and directors who in turn cast their friends and contemporaries in their films. As a result, Easy Rider ushered in the last great decade of American movies in the 1970s.
After selling their stash of cocaine, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) decide to ride their motorcycles from California to Florida (by way of the South) where they plan to live off the money. They travel the back roads of America and encounter all sorts of people: suspicious small-townsfolk, an oppressive sheriff and a rancher and his large family who invite them to a meal. The deeper they go into the South, the more resistance they meet because of how they look.
Easy Rider is a fantastic snapshot of the times. It signaled the end of the not-so idyllic 1960s, where having long hair could deny you a room in a motel because the manager didn’t like the way you looked. The hippie commune that Billy and Wyatt briefly stop at is not all peace and love. Some of them are suspicious of the duo. There is conflict among the members and it becomes obvious that they suffer from many of the same problems that plague the outside world.
Time running out is a constant theme throughout Easy Rider. When Billy and Wyatt start their journey, Wyatt throws away his watch. Later on, he finds a discarded pocket watch just before they leave the commune. Also, as they are leaving, the hitchhiker they pick up warns Wyatt that time is running out. It eerily foreshadows the film’s disturbing finale and gives a feeling of impending doom that hangs over the entire film.
Peter Fonda plays Wyatt as the quiet, more introspective character, while Dennis Hooper’s Billy is a talkative, let-it-all-hang-out type. Wyatt is more trusting of people and Billy is more paranoid and guarded — he is constantly thinking of the money they have stashed in their bikes and is very protective of it. They make a good team with their strengths and weaknesses complimenting each other. However, their dynamic is given a jolt once Jack Nicholson appears as George Hanson, an ACLU lawyer who gets Billy and Wyatt out of jail. Nicholson showcases his trademark easy-going charm in all of the scenes he’s in. His stoned rap (during one of the camp fire scenes) about UFOs and “the Venusians” is funny and oddly poignant. Later on, he talks about how the country has been divided and says, “It’s real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the marketplace.” His speech anticipates the greed-obsessed ‘80s. People forget that Easy Rider really put Nicholson on the map and led to an impressive string of film roles in the ‘70s.
Laszlo Kovacs’ beautiful cinematography really does a stunning job of showcasing the expansive landscape of the U.S.: the imposing mountains in California, the vast canyons of Arizona at sunset with pink and red hues in the sky and the deep green foliage as Billy and Wyatt get closer to New Orleans. Kovacs would go on to shoot such great films as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Shampoo (1975) and Ghostbusters (1984).
Easy Rider’s nihilistic ending would go on to inspire similar-minded road movies in the ‘70s, like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Easy Rider’s legacy is impressive. It paved the way for the Movie Brats (Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, et al) in the ‘70s, which was the golden age of American filmmaking where the director was king.