“You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” – George Hanson
I originally was going to write about the year 1969 in film, but with the recent passing of Peter Fonda (in August) I turned my thoughts toward Fonda and Easy Rider.
It’s hard to believe that in Quentin Tarantino’s recent ode to 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that neither Peter Fonda nor Dennis Hopper did not get a mention. Both are icons of the period. Though born into Hollywood royalty, Peter Fonda embraced the spirit of the sixties rebellion. He could have easily followed the path other Hollywood offspring and become a typical Hollywood idol in the tradition of Michael Douglas or Nancy Sinatra, instead, Fonda grew his hair long, rebelled, and became a symbol of the growing counterculture.
In 1965, Fonda met The Beatles at a home rented by Brian Epstein and tripped on acid with John Lennon and George Harrison. During the episode Fonda began talking about his near-fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound and telling Harrison he knew what it was like to be dead inspiring the Lennon-McCartney song She Said, She Said.
Fonda’s film career after a few minor straight low-budget films like The Young Lovers and Tammy and the Bachelor along a series of TV show turned more toward his counterculture roots with films like The Wild Angels and The Trip in part thanks to his friendship with Roger Corman. Then came 1969 and Easy Rider. Fonda and Hopper first worked together in Roger Corman’s The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson. Easy Rider is a modern-day western with motorcycles instead of horses. They were outlaws antiheroes, and they went looking for America. They found it at the end of a shotgun used by two rednecks.
Written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, and directed by Hopper, Easy Rider shook the Hollywood establishment where it hurt… in their financial pockets. There was a youth market out there with money to spend and they wanted a piece of the action. The film became a counterculture classic, the rock soundtrack, the first to use a playlist of previously recorded songs (Born to be Wild, The Pusher, and Wasn’t Born to Follow). Other films used rock-and-roll songs going as far back as The Blackboard Jungle (955) with Rock Around the Clock in its opening credits. The Graduate used a rock soundtrack with Simon and Garfunkel songs, but Easy Rider was the first to do a complete soundtrack. Other filmmakers followed using a rock soundtrack like Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets. Today, of course, many filmmakers have followed. Easy Rider grossed over sixty million dollars on a budget of less than $400,000. Hollywood listened and willingly opened its pocketbooks to untried, young directors.
Hollywood didn’t just change in 1969, it was a gradual shift because of a variety of situations: the loosening of the Production Code, a new breed of actors and filmmakers. Films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, and Bonnie & Clyde helped pushed the change. But it was in 1969 that the Hollywood establishment really took notice.
1969 was historical in many ways, both good and bad. The good included man landing on the moon and the Woodstock festival. The bad included the Manson Murders and the ever-escalating war in Vietnam. Old Hollywood just didn’t roll over and play dead, there were still plenty of glossy stale Hollywood films like Hello Dolly, The Bridge at Remagen, and Goodbye Mr. Chips. John Wayne even managed to win an Oscar for True Grit, but it was the more edgy films taking advantage of the new freedom that raised 1969 to a great year: Medium Cool, Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Last Summer, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider.
Music played an important part in the film’s success. Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild sets the style during the opening credits as we see Wyatt and Billy riding in the open spaces. A similar scene with The Byrds Wasn’t Born to Follow playing reflects the free-spirited atmosphere. Many songs on the soundtrack comment or maybe a better word is compliment what we watched on screen. It was groundbreaking.
You can’t talk about Easy Rider without mentioning Jack Nicholson who played the alcoholic ACLU lawyer, George Hanson. It was his breakout role. Nicholson had been around the Hollywood industry in low-budget films making his debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958). For years, Nicholson labored in the low budget world of Roger Corman in films like The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, The Terror, and The St. Valentine’s Massacre. Nicholson also made two now offbeat classic westerns directed by Monte Hellman (The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind). There were others, but it wasn’t until his appearance in Easy Rider that he made his mark and went on to make a series of classic films that will be remembered and admired for years.
This is my contribution to the CMBA 10th Anniversary Blogathon. You can check out more fantastic blogs participating in the celebration by clicking here.