Filmmaker Firsts: Dennis Hopper

#9: Easy Rider (1969) – dir. Dennis Hopper

1969 was an important year for movies. Some really fascinating titles were in theaters: Midnight Cowboy; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Z; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; The Wild Bunch; The Sterile Cuckoo; Last Summer. I must admit I had high hopes for Easy Rider, given that it features a number of actors whom I like. In the end, I was disappointed. Steppenwolf songs can only take you so far when the plot is threadbare and there is hardly any character development. Sure, some people glamorize the idea of biking across the country, but what about the film’s depiction of drugs? Sex? Violence? Capitalism? I guess it’s up to you to pick and choose which parts of the movie you want to take to heart.

Peter Fonda and an excellently mustachioed Dennis Hopper play the two main characters, headed from L.A. to New Orleans on their motorcycles. That’s it; that’s the plot. You’re mistaken if you think there’s much more going on than that. (The original screenplay was written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern.) Hopper tries to inject some symbolism into the proceedings, but it feels heavy-handed. I understand what the various symbols represent, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what they mean. (There’s a lot I could say about the ending, but I don’t want to spoil it. It’s the kind of thing you have to experience for yourself.)

Some of the cinematography by László Kovács is quite striking, like this shot, this somewhat similar shot, the lineup of Fonda, Nicholson and Hopper urinating by the side of the road and this shot of an Enco gas station, an image that reminds me of a different Hopper: the painter Edward Hopper, who created one of my favorite depictions of Americana, Gas (1940). Even more notable is the editing by Donn Cambern, who employs cross-cutting and jump cuts, both of which were probably unusual for American films made up until that point.

Jack Nicholson, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as lawyer George Hanson, brings a much-needed breath of fresh air to the film. That may sound kind of weird, given that Fonda and Hopper as the counterculture guys are supposed to be the cool, exciting types, but Nicholson’s performance is so much more interesting because of his combination of squareness, weirdness (he rants about UFOs and Venusians), the Southern accent and a penchant for alcohol. Nicholson kept me absorbed in the film, whereas if he had not been there, I would have grown tired of Fonda and Hopper much sooner.

If you stick around for the last half hour of the film, you’ll see Karen Black (she of the voluptuous leg) as a New Orleans prostitute who, during the film’s LSD-in-a-cemetery sequence, gets drunk and then freaks out on a bad trip, moaning about being a bad girl or something to that effect. Well, at least that should engage you for a few minutes. As I wrote earlier, Easy Rider benefits from its entertaining cast: Luke Askew, Toni Basil, Warren Finnerty, Luana Anders, Phil Spector and Robert Walker, Jr. also show up. Those individual faces, some more famous than others, have made more of an impression on me than the film’s overrated reputation does.

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